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Did you know that honey is nothing but bee barf?

This game of passing the puke is played by the hive bees until the nectar is good enough.

Written by Ranjit Lal |
June 13, 2021 6:30:10 am
Bitter truth: Honey is really nothing but bee barf (Todd Huffman/Wikimedia )

My jar of honey claims it contains “Organic Wild Honey”. Well, on face value, that means we robbed wild bees of their hives and then didn’t do anything to the honey apart from, maybe, filter it, till it became like molten gold or distilled sunlight. As for the “organic” part, well, the process which converts nectar into honey couldn’t possibly be more organic. The more fastidious may want to hold on to their stomachs now because what follows is this: The forager bee zips from bloom to bloom (as many as a 1,000), sucking up nectar from each with her proboscis.

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The nectar is stored in her special “honey stomach”, where, at once, enzymes get to work breaking down the sugars (sucrose) — which is what nectar really is — and adding proteins and other good stuff. When her honey-tummy is full, the bee hastens back to the hive and vomits the pre-digested nectar into the mouth of one of the hive bees, which promptly stores it in her honey-tummy, where the process of digestion continues. She, in turn, pukes the stuff into the mouth of another hive bee and so on. This game of passing the puke is played by the hive bees until the nectar is of good enough quality to be deemed as honey. The sucrose has now been broken down into glucose and fructose and other nutrients and proteins have been added to it.

Once it passes quality control, it is stored in one of the little hexagonal chambers that make up the hive. The chamber is not sealed just yet because the fresh honey is still too watery — comprising 70 to 80 per cent water. So, the bees raise the temperature in the hive by beating their wings — they can keep it at a constant 35 degrees Celsius — until the excess water evaporates and the water quantity drops to around 18 per cent. The sugary solution is now supersaturated and the chamber is sealed with beeswax, and because of this, the honey does not ferment or permit bacterial growth and has an almost infinite shelf life. But the bottom line remains: honey is really nothing but bee barf!

Hives are usually constructed in hard to access locations — because the bees know that many animals, birds — and of course humans — have their greedy piggy eyes on their elixir. Bears love honey (ask Winnie the Pooh), so do ratels (the ferocious honey badger) and the honey-guide bird is said to lead these animals to a beehive by whistling them on! (It gets bits of the leftover combs as its reward.) For most of us, the malevolent hum of thousands of “wedding wings” around a beehive is enough to make us hastily back off and there is something scary about a string of giant dark hives hanging from the roofs of caves, or the parapets and porches of modern buildings.

Even so, we have been raiding hives for at least 8,000 years. Now, of course, beekeeping (apiculture) is a giant multi-billion-dollar business: we inveigle semi-domesticated bees into building their combs into neat man-made hives, offering them all the flowers they could hope to have. Honey collectors in the Sunderbans get severely stung as they harvest the honey from the wild forest bees every year.

To get the honey, we smoke the bees into a state of semi-torpor. Smoke makes them hungry and more importantly blocks their war cry pheromones, making them almost zombies. In attempts to increase honey yield, we cross-bred wild East African bees with the wimpy, semi-domesticated European bees. Swarms of these ferocious hybrid bees escaped from Brazil and have been swarming up the US, causing havoc even in cities. They have incandescent tempers and attack en masse and have killed over 1,000 people.

I’ve always got the feeling that we consider honey as food of the gods (it is revered in several religions), simply because it is golden and sweet and pours in slow motion! We’ve ascribed all sorts of magical medical qualities to it; honey can be good for everything from cancer to piles. There are hundreds of varieties of honey, too. There’s even toxic honey: pure, undiluted honey obtained exclusively from the flowers of rhododendrons, azaleas, mountain laurel and sheep laurel, which contain grayanotoxins and can lead to “mad honey” intoxication, causing dizziness, nausea, vomitting. We, of course, rampantly adulterate honey to make more money, too.

My jar of honey contains 250 gm; about 33 teaspoonfuls. That means for a 1 kg jar some 1,056 bees spent their lifetimes producing it (eight bees produce one teaspoon = 75 gm of honey in their lifetime). For one metric tonne, 1,000 kg, some 1,056 x1,000 = 1.056 million bees had to work. For 1.9 million tonnes (yearly production in 2019), more than 2 billion bees were hard at work.

I think we need to salute the bees!

(Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher)

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