My interest in honey was piqued recently when friends presented me with some of the honey from their hive. It was still in the comb and the light, clear, floral taste was different to any other honey I had ever tasted.
It made me want to find out more about honey and I started reading a book called Honey and Dust by Piers Moore Ede. Ede goes to Italy to heal after being seriously injured in a hit-and-run accident. He stays on an organic farm with a beekeeper called Gunther who introduces him to the magic of beekeeping. Gunther says “You know man was eating honey thirty thousand years before he was cooking his food. …. and think about all those countries in the world, all the different plants that grow there, and the taste of some of that honey … I would like to taste them all.”
Ede, depressed since his accident and battling to find his feet in the world again, takes hold of this idea. It materializes into journeys to various countries like Lebanon, Syria and Nepal on a quest to seek out the best honeys in the world. He gives us a tantalizing vision of the lengths to which humans would go for the love of honey and its sweet taste on the tongue.
Ede’s book won the D.H. Lawrence prize for non-fiction in 2007. Some of the facts that follow were gleaned from Ede’s book and others come from my own research.
From ancient times
- Humans have hunted after honey since ancient times. Bees would choose rocky heights to protect their hives and humans would have to take risks to reach them. Cave drawings in Spain from the Mesolithic era (6000 BC) show people collecting honey with bees flying overhead. These are the earliest images of honey gathering. (Eva Crane. The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting)
- There is historical evidence for beekeeping and honey use throughout the ancient world. Honey was not only used as a food but also captured people’s imagination, playing a role in myths and religious rites. It was also used extensively in the preparation of medicinal remedies, creams and beverages.
- There is evidence showing that the Ancient Egyptians kept bees in clay hives. They had a steady supply of honey from their hives but they valued wild honey more. Royal archers would protect honey hunters as they searched for bee colonies.
- The Ancient Greeks used honey not only as a food but also to ensure good health and treat health problems. All Greek athletes were given honey as part of their training. Pythagoras and Hippocrates both advocated honey as an important ingredient for prolonging life. Democritus also held this view and he lived to the ripe old age of 109.
- In Ancient Rome, honey had a prominent place on daily menus, and was an ingredient in many drinks and foods. Romans would offer respected guests honey, fresh from the hives. Roman legions plastered honey on their wounds because it protected wounds from infection.
- In the dark period of the Middle Ages, the demand for both honey and wax increased and beekeeping developed into a profession.
- In the 11th century in Germany, the peasants would make payments of honey to their feudal lords. The lords used the honey to sweeten their beer. German women used to favor a remedy called Salvemet which was made from crushed bees and honey. They ate it on St. Catherine’s day and believed it regulated the menstrual flow, helping them to conceive a child.
- Ayurveda, the ancient Indian system of healing, includes honey in many prescriptions, believing in its healing power.
- A famous Indian surgeon, Susrata, as far back as 1400 BC, recognized eight different varieties of honey, including honey from a wasp.
More than just a food
- Honey was thought of by the ancients as a source of energy but they also saw it as a celestial food. It was a symbol of love, wisdom and purity. References to honey are found Egyptian creation mythology and also played an important place in Greek mythology. The Bible, Koran and the Talmud all contain references to honey. The Israelites, for example, were promised a land ‘flowing with milk and honey’. The Koran refers to honey as ‘healing for humankind’.
- In some tribes beekeeping is regarded as a spiritual practice and only shamans can remove honey from a hive.
- In Western Napal, the local dharmi determines when it is most auspicious for hives to be made. Equally if a menstruating woman touches the hives, he will perform a puja, by sprinkling the hive with cow urine and reciting mantras, so that the bees will not fly away.
- In Malaysia, Sufi ‘magicians’ protect women in childbirth by surrounding the birthplace with thorns, nets, rays’ tails and bees’ nests to keep evil spirits away.
- In India, fathers of newborn children feed their babies with honey and at weddings the bride may have her earlobes and lids of her eyes smeared with honey to ensure a happy future.
- For Siberian and South American Indians, the bee represents the soul which flies away from the body.
- In Hinduism, a substance called panchamrit, used in many religious ceremonies, is known as ‘the nectar of immortality’.
Man isn’t the only honey-lover
Honey is not only prized by man. Other creatures like bears, honey badgers, mountain gorillas and many more are drawn to its sweet taste. Primates are expert honey thieves. In 1969, a man named Deschodt described an incident near Lake Victoria in Africa. He saw a group of twenty chimpanzees enjoying the fruits of a honey hunt. The chief male was pulling honeycombs from a crevice in the cliff and tossing them down to the others who were jumping up and down and screaming, either from pain at being stung, delight, or a mixture of both.
The body in the jar
Straight from the hive, honey is thin and liquid but over time its molecular structure changes and the honey granulates. Within granulated honey, the particles lie closely together and the fact that the substance is naturally acidic (a special enzyme helps break nectar down into gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide) and low in moisture means that bacteria are unable to multiply. That is why it is so useful as an embalming and preservative agent.
A story is told about grave robbers who looted a tomb near the Pyramids. They came upon a sealed jar, broke it open and began to eat the honey inside. One of the men soon noticed that there was hair mixed in with the honey. They peered into the jar and saw that it contained the body of a child, still in a good state of preservation.
Valley of the Skulls
In the Baruk mountain forests of Lebanon, specialist honey collectors would harvest honey from colonies nesting in fissures of rocks. They were let down from the top of the rocks by a rope, latterly wearing a metal gauze face mask, held in position by the customary head cloth, and with socks protecting their hands. The smoker consisted of glowing charcoal on a flat piece of tin, and the smoke produced was directed by blowing. If the entrance to the nest was too small, the man enlarged it by using a charge of dynamite. When his bucket was filled with honeycombs it was raised to the top by the rope, leaving the honey collector without any safety line and, on several occasions, mass attacks by bees from a harvested nest resulted in his falling to his death on the rocks below. One of the places where the nests were found is named Sannine or ‘valley of the skulls.’
A species under threat
Bees are a species very much under threat, as is the ecosystem in which they play an integral part. The environment depends on the pollination that occurs when honey bees gather nectar. The varroa mite (Varroa jacobsoni) is a tiny arachnid (a cousin of the spider) that attacks adult bees and their developing larvae, or brood. It causes decreased brood, deformed bees, and generally weakens the entire colony. The mite can spread quickly to other bee colonies by traveling with swarms or migrating drones, and by the movement of infested equipment. It is not harmful to humans or livestock.
“If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live”
~ Albert Einstein
It all begins with nectar
The sweet, sticky substance produced by flowers is sucked up by bees and stored in a ‘honey sac’ – essentially a second stomach. Back in the hive, the bees masticate the nectar (releasing enzymes from their salivary glands to change the complex sugars to simple ones) and the nectar becomes honey. It is then expelled into the honeycomb in a semi-liquid condition. For the honey to last, the liquid content needs to be lowered and so the bees flap their wings very fast, creating a warm flow of air against the honeycomb. (Nectar is about 30-90% water and honey contains about 17%). When enough water has evaporated, the worker bees seal up the cells with wax caps.
One jar of honey is the result of about 80,000 trips between flower and hive, the result of about 55,000 miles of flight and the nectar from about 2 million flowers. The average worker bee produces about 1/12th teaspoon of honey in her lifetime.
Think about that one the next time you put a teaspoon of honey in your tea!
The flavor and color of honey
The flavor and color of honey depends on the source of the nectar. Clover produces honey with the lightest color and mildest flavor. Buckwheat honey is the darkest in color and tastes strong and spicy. Eucalyptus honey has a menthol flavor.
Wild Himalayan bees may produce honey so toxic it can have a man vomiting his guts out or even falling unconscious. This is because the nectar comes from rhododendrons that contain poison. Acute cases of poisoning cause cardiovascular problems with very low blood pressure and slow pulse rate.
Today, in a world full of fizzy drinks, ice-cream, cakes and candy bars, sugar is not in short supply. However, eating sugar does not seem such a great idea any more as consequences of its consumption become more and more apparent. People are choosing to use honey instead of sugar, consumption is increasing and so the demand for quality honey grows too. Honey is full of nutrients – protein, fiber, water, sugars and various vitamins and minerals. It contains sodium, iron, phosphorus, potassium, calcium and zinc. The vitamins it contains include Vitamin BC, Vitamin C, niacin, folate and riboflavin.
I can attest too, to the exquisite taste of raw honey, thanks to the gift from my friends. It has become clear to me why humans used to risk their lives to find wild honey.
Below is a link to the lowest priced bulk raw honey (5 gallons) on Amazon.