During my workshops, I often hear fascinating discussions around certain foods. Usually as a result of a recent expose, show or book. Unfortunately, as is the norm, the information is often conflicting. This either creates debate or, in most cases, leaves everyone a little confused.
Honey is a recurring subject, and these discussions aren’t even bound to the workshops. For example, we stopped at a popular coffeehouse to stretch our legs and have a little snack during a recent road trip. I ordered rooibos tea, and the waiter brought over a bottle of honey with it. At the same time, they were delivering waffles to the next table with a honey bottle.
Is it real?
My first instinct was to read the label, which happened to have the tiniest writing on it. Needless to say, I was concentrating very hard, and this must have perked everyone’s interest around me. But, as I suspected, it was not pure honey. The front of the bottle said it was irradiated, and the back showed its place of origin was very vague. Product of South Africa and/or China and/or India and/or Zambia. Mmmm, definitely going to give that a pass. As I put the bottle down, I heard the ‘waffle table’ ask, “And? Is it real honey?”. The couple two tables down also wanted to know, so a cross-restaurant discussion about honey began. The debate usually narrows down to these areas:
- if sugar is bad – does that mean honey is bad?
- is honey vegan or not?
- is beekeeping a humane practice?
- what happens if all the bees die?
Yup, just some light-hearted coffeehouse talk, I suppose. But I’m not here to debate the heavy stuff. So instead, I will share some interesting information about honey and let you decide.
Honey is a big topic
Honey is a vast topic, and not even two blogs will do it justice. I have collected what I believe to be the most salient information and divided it into two sections. Part 1 I cover some overall information about honey Part 2 I will focus on the health factors and use in the kitchen I recommend you take this further and do extra research or contact your local apiary community. The more you know, the better – it counts!
A Bit of History
It appears honey has been around for longer than humankind. Just recently, Science Daily published an article about a 100 million-year-old bee found fossilized in amber[i]. Honey is also deeply entrenched in our language. Think – honeymoon, such a honey, be a honey. Or look to the bible for the land of milk and honey. There is little doubt it has been around for a long time. And, as the terrain of humankind evolved, so too did honey. Like most of our food from mother nature, it used to be a wild resource. As man developed, so did the procurement and production all the way to the point where we have industrialized apiaries.
FUN FACT: Antarctica – the only continent that has no bees[ii]
The Nectar To Honey Conversion
Stretching your memory back to school science, you may recall that bees are attracted to the nectar and pollen of plants. So they fly very long distances to find and collect it. First, they collect the nectar in their honey sac (fancy word for second stomach). Then, they haul it back to the hive, where it’s passed (regurgitated and fed) to the house bees. This seems pretty gross, but the enzymes in that second stomach and the passing over phase are part of the magic that will eventually be honey.
Here Be Gold!
The enzymatically rich nectar is then deposited into the honeycomb, where there is an evaporation process. Bees do this by fanning their wings and keeping the hive at 28-35°C. (Remember this part – it’s important). Once over 80% of the water has evaporated, it has become honey.
What We Get
Bees make extra honey for their winter stores or in times of scarcity. It’s this excess honey that beekeepers will harvest. During scarcity or winter, the queen and about 10 000 drones will stay in the hive and evict the rest. Effectively causing them to starve as they no longer have access to honey and various other food sources. Beekeepers are aware of this and implement several strategies to ensure the survival of colonies and honey production. This may include moving the hives to more abundant or warmer areas.
Now all this may seem pretty straightforward, the beekeepers set up a few hives, the bees do their thing, and we all live happily together, right? Not so much. What started as a few doomsayers saying we need to pay closer attention to the world’s bee population has become a legitimate concern.
Bees and Food Security
In May 2019, The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), during its observation of World Bee Day, stressed that:
“Declining bee populations pose threat to global food security and nutrition”[iii].
If that statement doesn’t make you stop and think, I am not sure what will. (I urge you to read the article in full). The FAO’s Director-General went on to say the following:
“Bees are under great threat from the combined effects of climate change, intensive agriculture, pesticides use, biodiversity loss and pollution,”… “The absence of bees and other pollinators would wipe out coffee, apples, almonds, tomatoes and cocoa to name just a few of the crops that rely on pollination. Countries need to shift to more pollinator-friendly and sustainable food policies and systems.”
To get the full picture listen to his talk here:
What Can We Do?
You won’t have to do too many Google searches to realize that about two-thirds of the food crops we rely on are dependent on bee pollination. But while we wait for Big Food, Big Politics and Big Commerce to make their glacial paced changes, we as the everyday person can make a difference. So if you decide you can’t do without out your honey fix or if you want to do your bit to help the bee population, then here are some suggestions on how to help:
- Start with your home If you are able, grow bee-friendly plants. Avoid using pesticides, insecticides or any -cides that may harm the bees. Incorporate areas where they can get water. If your municipality allows for it, install some small bee hotels. This may seem a little scary and you may want to run and hide, but they are actually pretty cool once you get to know them.
- Look at what and where you buy from Support your local apiaries that practice organic and humane beekeeping. Yes, I said humane. If you are going to mess with nature and trick it into producing more for profit, you need to fiddle with genetics, breeding, quality, chemicals and a host of other things. These are very seldom friendly to the species you are manipulating. This is an area you need to be diligent in and find out as much as possible – beekeeping is not for everyone. If you have somebody locally passionate enough to help the bee population – then support them!
- Buy organic food So what does buying an organic apple have to do with bees? Many of the foods we see in our grocery stores are industrially grown. They require chemicals that kill not just bees but many other pollinators. So, you indirectly support one of the key sources of the declining bee population.
Whoa! I know that’s a bit harsh to say, but it is unfortunately true. There aren’t many nice ways to say this, so I may as well say it straight up. Unfortunately, not all of us have access to organically grown foods or can afford them, and we can only work with what we have. What we can do, is go to our providers and start asking or demanding. And, if the opportunity arises, you absolutely choose organic. If that is all you can do – honestly, it is better than nothing!
- Rather say no Honey is everywhere, and it will remain everywhere as long as we drizzle it over our waffles, plonk it in our teas or support its use in our food chain. Personally, I avoid any product that has honey where I cannot establish its source and method. Sometimes, that may mean you pass on the honey baked dessert or have your tea minus the honey, but it goes back to the twig analogy: (if we are all doing it, we can make a difference).
A single twig breaks, but the bundle of twigs is strong – Tecumseh
Like with all things in life, there is the dark and the light side, and you can consider this the dark side. We will look at the light side in the next instalment about honey. The amazing side of honey has kept it in our homes for all of humankind’s time here on earth.