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Assal -- Honey

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by Phil Iddison

Two varieties of bee are responsible for honey production in the UAE.  The bee which has become very popular for new apiary farms is Apis mellifera, the common honey bee.  It is widely distributed round the world as the main bee farmed for honey production by apiarists. Its culture is familiar to many people and has been controlled by man for such a long time that it could be considered to be domesticated.  Neolithic rock paintings in Spain show a man collecting wild honey.  The oldest written reference dates to 5,500 BC in Egypt and by 2,600 BC apiculture was well established. Stylised images of honey bees, bee hives and honeycomb are familiar due to their frequent use in children's books and advertising.  The back of a breakfast cereal packet was emblazoned with forty eight bees and the useful information that one pound of honey represents 50,000 bee kilometres of flying!

The second bee is Apis florea, the Asiatic honey bee.  This bee is much smaller than the honey bee and normally lives an unrestrained life.  It constructs its brood and honey store combs on small branches in trees.  They are like flat discs, generally irregular in shape and consist of just two layers of comb cells.  They are rarely more than 25 centimetres diameter.  The honey store section is at the top, wrapped around the supporting branch.  The lower section of the comb is the brood comb.  In this section the eggs are laid and larvae develop.  At the very bottom there may be queen cells which will produce new queen bees. Immediately above the queen cells a section of the comb has drone cells which develop ready for the flight of the new queens to start new colonies.  Traditional management consisted of harvesting the honeycomb by gripping the brood comb section between two sticks so that it was held firmly and cutting it free.  This section would be placed in a shady spot and the bees would restore the comb to full functionality by adding extra cells and building up their honey stores.

Honey is ASSAL in Arabic.  Local honey is very expensive because it is considered an aphrodisiac. It is usually sold in recycled Vimto bottles for 170-450 Dirhams (£30-80) per bottle. It is invariably runny and of variable viscosity, probably a function of the relatively high ambient temperature and the local taste for a pouring honey. Honey and fresh butter were favourite accompaniment to breakfast breads.

Purchase in the local suqs is problematic bearing in mind the possibility of adulteration! However, occasionally during the winter vendors have honeycombs of the small bee for sale, it is called KURS ASSAL.  Sometimes they are whole combs which means the colony was destroyed, but there is also evidence that traditional harvesting techniques have been used with just the section wrapped round the supporting branch for sale.

At a promotion in Continent in Dubai a local commercial honey producer, Emirates Honey, had a range of local honey on sale in ¼ kg. jars. Four different types were available and samples were purchased and tasted.  The first three were made from nectar collected from the SIDR tree, Ziziphus spina-christi.

SIDAR P40 at 19.9 Dh/kg was a dark straw colour, had a slight haze and medium viscosity.  It had a medium aroma and flowery flavour.

SIDAR P45 at 49.9 Dh/kg was a dark straw colour with a slight haze and medium viscosity.  It had a flowery aroma and flavour.

SIDAR BARRY at 87.5 Dh/kg was medium straw colour and medium viscosity.  It had a moderately flowery aroma and flavour.  It was claimed by the vendor to be produced by the Asiatic honey bee and hence the higher price.

SAMAR at 87.5 Dh/kg was a medium red-brown colour with a slight haze and medium viscosity again.  It had considerable depth of flowery aroma and taste.  Also claimed to be produced by the Asiatic small bee.  The bees had harvested the nectar of SAMR, Acacia tortilis.

Local honeycomb is occasionally available from the Al Ain suq and costs 30-40 Dh for a plastic bowl weighing 0.8 to 1.0 kg. This is produced by the large honey bee. Bees produce the wax for construction of the comb as scales exuded between the ventral segments of the abdomen.

Honey is 35-40% fructose, 30-35% dextrose and 17-20% water.  The balance is made up of pollen, wax, acids, proteins, enzymes, vitamins, mineral and pigments.  Colour and flavour largely depend on the nectar source with predominantly sing source honeys often having strong colour and flavour, particularly from plants such as acacias, lime and eucalyptus.

Bibliography

Davidson, Alan, The Oxford Companion to Food, OUP, Oxford, 1999

Dutton, RW et alia (editors), Honeybees in Oman, Diwan of H M for Protocol, Muscat, 1982

Osborne, Patrick E (editor), Desert Ecology of Abu Dhabi, Pisces Publications, Newbury, 1996


Patron: H.E. Sheikh Nahayan bin Mubarak Al Nahayan