HOME: JUNE 12, 2009: FOOD
A Taste of Honey
From out of the mouths of bees ...
BY WAYNE ALAN BRENNER
Photo by John Anderson
This is how it happens:
A little furry winged marauder of an insect goes buzzing from her home, rapes a flower, sucks out the nectar, gets pollen all up in her leg hairs, flies back to the communal hive, and commences throwing up into her mouth. She performs this regurgitation several times, working the fluid back and forth between mouth and innards until, finally, the xanthic stream is ready to be disgorged into a six-sided wax cell for some lucky little larva to feast upon. Or, perhaps, lucky you.
Honey. Bit o' honey, taste of honey, milk and honey, the golden treasure that flows, most familiarly these days, from little jars of bear-shaped plastic and into your tea, onto your toast, over a stack of steaming hotcakes like circular paradise turning your morning into a better reason to stay awake.
Honey production has been going on for a long, long time. Bees, or beelike proto insects, have been around since the Silurian period – approximately 450 million years ago. While our favorite stinging bugs were busily complicating plant life on this ball of mud, the first Darwin-fish had yet to poke its head from the primordial ooze, and humans, always late to the party, wouldn't start forming their credit-card debt and historic neighborhood associations for millennia.
There's a cave painting in Spain that shows early humans gathering honey – about 10,000 years ago. The ancient Greeks loved the stuff, and so did the Romans; the ancient Egyptians, when they weren't using honey to embalm their honored dead, ate it by the bowlful. After being ecumenically pimped by the Christian church for centuries throughout Europe and beyond, after being celebrated by Chaucer and Shakespeare and untold numbers of starry-eyed scribblers, honey made its way, in the hives and holds of conquerors, to the New World. (Longfellow's "Song of Hiawatha" captured this invasion in verse, name-checking the honeybee specifically.) The indigenous people knew something wicked their way came when bees invariably preceded the approaching palefaced human swarm: Hello, honey, someone's home.
Photo by John Anderson
Those bees from the Old World were some variety of what scientists and beekeepers know as Apis mellifera. They're arthropods, insects of the class Hymenoptera, a remarkably social creature whose society is not only matriarchal but almost exclusively female. The honey that they make is, after bee-gut enzymes have finished their cunning molecular prestidigitation, a mixture of fructose (in the neighborhood of 40%) and glucose (around 30%) and other carbohydrates, with minor traces of vitamins and minerals, plus the faint whiff and flavor of whatever flowers the nectar was gathered from.
From Colonies to Collapse
The art of beekeeping, long a mainstay of monks and monarchs, was brought from a relatively difficult and haphazard activity to its modern level of practicality by American apiarist Lorenzo Langstroth's invention, patented in 1852, of hives that incorporate moveable honeycomb frames. It turns out that bees, like other societies, need a certain amount of space in which to happily do their thing; observant and clever Langstroth referred to this as "bee space" and reckoned the necessary dimensions for maximum joy and much honey. Around this same time, several thousand people in economically dismal and bureaucratically repressive Germany were needing a different space in which to happily do their thing, and so they moved to the New World – many of them to Texas. Among these immigrants was a beekeeper named Wilhelm Bruckish, who came to ground in New Braunfels and did much to spread apiculture throughout our section of the Lone Star State way back then. And, later, still others exercised their honey-happy skills and enthusiasm to lead us past William Butler Yeats' bee-loud glade to where we are today.
And today, according to reports from the National Honey Board, there's greater demand for domestic honey than in previous years. There are numerous brands of blended varieties of the sweet goo; there are fancy monoflorals, in which the bees take their nectar from clover exclusively or from orange blossoms or yaupon holly and so on; there's organic honey and honey that's been whipped into a more spreadable sort of froth. Unfortunately, there's also a two-year drought to make the industry less certain of flourishing. And there's something called Colony Collapse Disorder.
That's an especially scary thing, that last, as bees are the chief pollinators of plants – which we need to survive, of course, whether we're eating those plants or the animals that eat them first. No pollination, no plants; no plants, ultimately starvation. And entire colonies of bees are going kaput (at an alarming rate) for reasons unknown and mysterious, if you believe the media hype. Well, not so mysterious, really, as they are vague.
"It's a condition – it's more than one specific thing," says Austin's Carol Malcolm, leader of the Capitol Area Honey Bee Stewards until they disbanded in 2004. "It could be a virus or a bacteria or whatever. It's seen in situations where bees are stressed – meaning, bees that are transported for pollination. Or huge, corporate bee operations. Because you can watch a single hive, and the minute there's something wrong with the queen, you can get a new queen in. Or, in most parts of the country, the time when the queen starts laying eggs in the spring and the time when the flowers start blooming, that may be out of sync. So the queen will start laying, and the bees will eat any provisioned honey, and you've got to be careful and make sure that they have sufficient food. And if they don't, you have to feed them. In big operations, they just aren't able to, you know, coddle a particular hive that may need extra food or whatever. So I think that what we're seeing with Colony Collapse Disorder could be a lot of things. It could be a pathogen; it could be some environmental influences as well."
"The big thing recently was varroa mites," says Larry Butler of Austin's Boggy Creek Farm. Butler sells a distinctive yaupon-based honey gathered from bees on his family's land up in Gause, Texas. "Bees can get tracheal mites and varroa mites," he explains. "And the varroa mite has the same incubation period that a bee does, so when the queen lays her eggs, the mites will lay their eggs in the cell at the same time. And when the bee hatches, so does the mite, and the mite starts sucking on the bee. And they come out all deformed or dead, and pretty soon, the hive's wiped out. Some people use some kind of antibiotics, others use some kind of smoke that will kill the mites but not the bees, but there's been a lot of trouble with those mites. But that's not the entire cause of the colony collapse thing. It could certainly be pesticide. I've heard that it's everything from cell phones and cell-phone towers to a new pesticide that's on the market, but I don't really know. But these guys get out there in their airplanes in the morning and start spraying, face it, they're gonna kill a lot of bees, you know? And the bees that don't die until they get back to the hive, well, they're gonna kill what's in the hive. One good thing about being organic, you're not spraying a bunch of pesticides that's gonna be killing your bees."
Larry Butler and yaupon honey from Boggy Creek Farm
Photo by John Anderson
Wait, cell phones? Malcolm doesn't buy that. "That was a study that was done in France, and it was misinterpreted and misquoted," she says. "I don't believe that it's cell-phone towers."
As noted, CCD doesn't often affect smaller, noncommercial beekeepers. "It's more of a problem among large corporate concerns," says Konrad Bouffard of Round Rock Honey (which is no minor operation itself and about which you can read more in this article's sweet sidebar, "A Man, a Plan, and Some Bees"). "At least when they aren't able to devote enough time and effort to caring for their hives."
"It's caused by a lot of different things," affirms Good Flow Honey Co.'s Tom Crofut. "Mites certainly don't help out any. That knocks down the bees so they can't control the viruses that are already there. Just like with human beings: If your immune system tanks, all sorts of bad things can happen to you. And you have thousands of bees crowded together in a small area, so if there's a problem, well, it gets passed around."
Good Flow, whose better-known fresh-juice operation was recently shuttered due to federal regulations, has been in the honey business since 1975. And, regardless of CCD and droughts and somewhat Byzantine U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines, it's doing well. "Way back in the mid-Seventies, I sold my honey to food co-ops – Woody Hills and Wheatsville – and then to the Good Food stores. And then I ran out of honey, so I started buying honey from other beekeepers, because we sell more honey than we can produce; it's awfully popular at the moment. Americans are faddists; it might be wheatgrass this year and omega-3 next year and whatever after that – because we're all looking for the silver bullet, the superfood. And our honey's popular because it's got a small carbon footprint, it's produced locally, it's healthful to the consumer. And it's kind of neat to watch bees working flowers in your garden or whatever. You know – pollinating them. Bees serve a purpose. The whole thing's just generally a nice trip."
Boggy Creek Farm's yaupon honey is another successful part of this generally nice trip. "Some of the honeys that are touted, like clover honey, they're the ones that have all the fame and glory," says Butler. "But once I started selling the yaupon here, people were saying, 'My God, that's good honey!' It's unpasteurized, and other than having a screen under it, to get out the cappings from the frames and dead bees, things like that – once we get that strained out, it goes right into a bucket, and then we repack it to sell. People love it in their coffee, and I know that Olivia and Wink, the restaurants, they do a lot of different things with it. They use it to sweeten some of their stuff, some kind of reduced balsamic vinegar with yaupon honey." He smiles at the thought of it, wrinkles creasing the weathered skin around his eyes. "I've got a barrel coming, a 55-gallon drum, and that's a lot of honey," he says. "It'll probably last me the year, but when we put it out for sale next Saturday, I'll bet we go through two cases of it right there."
So the future's as bright as a bee's behind?
"Man, if we ever lose all our bees, we're in trouble," says Butler. "Bees are a real win-win, multifunctional insect, and we need to keep that viable. We need the pollination. I know that, supposedly, in the government's stimulus package, there was gonna be money for bees. And a lot of the – I won't say Republicans – a lot of conservative people weren't happy with that. I had one guy remark: 'They wanna spend $5 million on bees – on bee research! How's that gonna help the economy?' And I said: 'Well, how 'bout if there isn't any food? What's that gonna do to the economy?'"
Food for thought, there. And, for dessert, perhaps something made with honey? Or drizzled with honey, with that natural sweetener that has served as nourishment and delight for pharaohs and kings and paupers and priests, with liquid gold robbed from, as Sleater-Kinney put it in "One Beat," the perfect hexagon of the honeycomb.