One of my earliest memories of bees also features my older sister. A thirsty gang of black and yellow, huddled around a sweet puddle of coco-cola, surprised by a foot – noticeably large for a girl of such a young age – and then the childish wailing that only ten instantaneous bee-stings can produce.
I don’t really have an early memory of honey. Something that’s always just been around…taken for granted. But I love it. LOVE. A natural, versatile, little treasure. Great for baking; cooking; preserving; goes on yogurt; in tea; soap and candles; a medicinal ointment in its own right.
Once considered a gift from the Gods, now effortlessly squeezed from a plastic bottle and replaced at the grocery store at any time.
I actually diverted from my usual a while ago and bought a glass jar of organic honey. (Well, as organic as honey can be – given that not all bees can be driven to organic flowers only.) What a surprise to find the difference in sweetness and flavour, compared to the non-organic plastic squeezy bottles I usually buy. I’m not sure about the exact science to produce a sweeter honey – I assume the squeezy bottles are more watered down? But it got me thinking. About honey – and its crucial counterpart – bees.
Did you know that a bee can fly up to 500 miles before it dies, visiting around 100 flowers in a single foraging trip, whilst only producing 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey in its entire lifetime. Not a lot of honey for such a lot of effort. (Regretfully, 12 bees dedicated their whole lives, just to provide me with the honey in my chai tea this morning.)
It takes approximately 556 bees, to visit 2 million flowers, to produce only half a kilo of honey. (That’s the size of the organic jar in my pantry – purchased around a month ago and nearly in need of replenishment.)
The average colony can reach a population of 60 000 bees in season, together producing 13 − 26 kilos of honey a year, half of which the bees would need to keep to sustain themselves through winter. (60 000 bees, working incessantly for a year, to support themselves and my honey-habit alone.)
Exploited by humans since the beginning of time, prehistoric peoples recorded their experiences of tracking honey as early as 10 000 BC. That’s a long time ago! And not an easy task, taking on a wild hive of bees back then. And then further harnessing the wonder of bees, the earliest evidence of actual beekeeping is recorded in Egypt, 2400 BC. A high calorie source of energy with so many uses…why not have your own hive?
An impressive 64 calories per teaspoon if you’re wondering.
Demand for honey dropped in the 16th century when sugar as a commodity increased. Sugar is obviously still used more widely today. But with the population (and consumerism) on the rise, demand and the need for efficient honey production would have increased. And as a result, beekeeping practices, along with production, became – well, dodgy.
Hives are still often stripped of all their honey and the bees are fed sugar to sustain themselves – until they can replenish the stocks. Sweeteners and corn syrup are sometimes used to dilute the honey, so to increase profit margins (thankfully this has become more regulated). These shenanigans not only reduce the quality of the honey we eat, but also take away our appreciation and value of bees and their hard work.
To add insult, with the use of pesticides, loss of habitat and infestation of Varroa mites (a parasitic mite which attacks the bee), natural hive colonies are being killed off and in some species, becoming extinct. And I haven’t even touched on the subject of bees and pollination. It’s not hard to appreciate how much we depend on them for pollination.
Albert Einstein once famously stated that if the bee disappeared from earth, man would have no more than four years to live.
And now, ironically and thanks to the meddling of man, bees have come to depend on us for their existence. Beekeeping, conservation and mite treatments – all keeping the hives alive. In relation, very few hives occur naturally any more.
So, you ask, where does this leave me and my Winnie-the-Pooh love of honey. Where does this leave you? Well I wondered the same thing.
Like so many environmental issues we face – it’s hard to feel that we could make a difference to the world population of bees. But – we have to keep reminding ourself that even the smallest difference makes the difference. I sure wouldn’t want to see the natural bee population die out, not for love or honey.
Here are a few things to think about:
– Buy local honey and support the beekeepers (the honey is also going to be purer and yummier!)
– Go Organic (however and whenever possible)
– Plant flowers and plants which are rich in nectar and pollen
– Raise awareness – tell your friends!
– Keep bees (I am adding this to my “one day when we live on the farm” list)
– Adopt a beehive (I found these great websites, but there are plenty more around the world: adoptabeehive.com.au; www.bbka.org.uk/shop/adopt-a-beehive-and-enjoy-armchair-beekeeping)
– Appreciate every drop of honey from now until forever
I think the last point is important…
As is the first point. The best place to find honey is close to its source. Local Beekeepers have the ability to harvest a honey that has come from one specific flower, allowing you to capture the flavours of the area. Ask the supplier – but it should say on the label if this is the case.
So, these are the differences I hope to make anyway. I am thinking that adopting a beehive might make a good Christmas prezzie!
Until next time,
(References: Facts and figures all taken from a lovely little book by Stephanie Rosenbaum – Honey: from flower to table. All images are my own.)