From ‘the food of the gods’ in Greek mythology to being one of the five ingredients used to prepare the Hindu elixir of immortality (Panchamrita), honey has long been held a place of reverence in human history.

In fact, our relationship with this natural confectionary dates back at least 8000 years if ‘The Man of Bicorp’ – a rock painting in Spain’s Spider Caves (Cuevas de la Araña) is anything to go by. Found among an array of other paintings depicting important aspects of daily life for Epipaleolithic humans – such as hunting and ceremonial dancing – this image shows a figure teetering against long- stemmed vines, receptacle in one hand while the other reaches for hidden treasure as tiny winged creatures buzz around.

Of course, it doesn’t take too large a stretch of imagination to understand what’s happening here: honey harvesting in, perhaps, its most ancient form.

A MOST PRACTIC KIND OF MAGIC

More than its ability to enhance meals, it was probably honey’s myriad medical and even cosmetic uses that earned it an honorary spot in sacred texts and history books alike.

Rich in enzymes, amino acids and vitamins, this ‘liquid gold’ is a powerful natural healer. Just delve into the home remedies of any world culture and you’re bound to find honey forming the backbone of most.

Battling a cough? Two teaspoons of honey before bed and you’re sure to have a good night’s rest. Sore throat? Mix a tablespoon of honey with warm water and lemon juice to soothe. Cut your finger? Reach for that jar of honey and lather your wound before slapping on a plaster – yes, this incredible substance heals wounds.

The health benefits of honey are not limited to the annals of old wives’ home remedies, however. The Qur’an has a whole chapter dedicated to the Honey Bee (al-Nahl), in which Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) strongly recommends honey for healing purposes.

In more recent years, a number of clinical studies have confirmed honey’s broad-spectrum antimicrobial (antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, and antimycobacterial) properties and the benefits it brings to – specifically – chronic wound management and combating infections.

While it’s safe to say honey has always been considered a kingly gift from nature, even a blessing from above, we’ve reached an interesting crossroads in history where we can’t help but notice what humanity is doing to the bee population and their crops, and weigh up the pros and cons of our consumption.

With honey bees dying off in large numbers due to climate change and global food security at risk because of this, we also need to take a serious look at more sustainable methods of beekeeping.

BUT… WHAT IS HONEY EXACTLY?

As with any investigation, a good place to start is always the beginning. Although we all know that honey comes from bees, have you ever really thought about the process behind it? Well, it goes a little something like this:

Industrious worker bees head out from their hives in search of nectar – a sugary liquid – that they extract from flowers with their long, tube-shaped tongues. They store the nectar in an extra stomach, also known as the ‘crop’ or ‘honey sack’. In here, the nectar mixes with enzymes that essentially imbue it with the healing properties mentioned above and also make it suitable for long-
term storage.

Upon returning to the hive, the bees will regurgitate the nectar from one bee to another until the nectar is partially digested, after which it will be deposited into a honeycomb. To get rid of all the excess water in the nectar, the bees fan the honeycomb with their wings. Once most has evaporated, the bees will seal the comb with a secretion that eventually hardens into beeswax.

In this state the honey can be stored indefinitely without any chance of spoiling, creating the perfect food source to get the bees through the cold winter months.

BEEKEEPING AND HONEY HARVESTING

Since bees go about their nectar collection work during spring and summer when flowering plants are numerous, beekeepers will typically harvest honey as autumn starts approaching. It’s a fine balance to strike, since harvesting too early means you may interrupt the production process and miss out on more honey, while harvesting too late may result in honey thickening in cold weather making it very hard to extract.

Of course, experienced beekeepers know exactly when to set to work harvesting and also how much honey to leave in the hive for the colony’s winter survival and then some.

MODERN MALPRACTICES

Unfortunately, as demand for honey has grown and agriculture has become more industrialised, many apiaries are being run with an eye on profit instead of the wellbeing of bees and the environment at large. Some of the biggest issues with large, commercial apiaries include:

  1. Taking too much honey. Instead of leaving the colony with enough honey to survive winter while harvesting, they will extract the entire batch, effectively leaving the bees to starve.
  2. Replacing honey with sugar water. In many cases, they will replace this important food source with a cheap sugar substitute devoid of any true nutrition. If it doesn’t end up killing the bees directly, it certainly contributes to an overall decline in the colony’s health and immunity.
  3. Abusing the queen. According to PETA, it’s not unusual for commercial honey producers to cut off the queen bee’s wings
    to prevent her from leaving the colony. In many cases, she would also be artificially inseminated to ensure that a constant stream of bees are being added to the workforce.
  4. Faking it and making it. Apart from this scornful disrespect for the bees in their care, unethical honey producers also have no qualms about tricking their consumers. As one of the top 10 products most susceptible to food fraud, it’s not uncommon for dodgy suppliers to sell mixtures of sugar water, sweeteners or syrup under the guise of being pure honey.

These make it onto supermarket shelves marked as such, but at far lower prices than their ethically-sourced, wholesome and unadulterated counterparts. To pocket-conscious consumers, the choice is a no-brainer, but the effects on the local economy and some honey-producers can be devastating.

MINDFULNESS IS KEY

Considering the above, it’s easy to wonder whether our age-old love of honey is not be at the root of all this evil. Is it not perhaps time we just stopped consuming the liquid gold and let the bees live in peace and freedom?

If you’re vegan, the simple fact of the matter is that honey is an animal product and probably shouldn’t form part of your diet. Right?

Technically, yes. However, it could be considered something of a grey area and ultimately comes down to personal choice and preference.

For example, if you buy honey from a local beekeeper who works ethically, treats his bees with respect, never overharvests and takes great care to ensure that his practices benefit the environment instead of damaging it, surely the pros outweigh the cons?

In the end, it’s really a matter of mindfulness. And this counts for everyone – vegan or not.

If you suddenly find yourself in a moral dilemma, you may be able to take some comfort in the words of Eve Puttergill, founder of The Bee Effect*, an organisation addressing declining honey bee numbers and food security through urban bee farming, seed programs and safe bee havens:

“I think honey is a magnificent gift of nature, affording mankind multiple uses of it, not least is
consumption in our diets as a healthy alternative to sugar,” she says. “Human consumption of honey is not the issue with honey bee population threats.”

Instead, she says the decline is due to a wide range of factors, including: pesticide exposure, disease, pests, urban creep impacting on the quantity of their forage and monoculture agriculture that creates landscapes of forage which lacks diversity.

“These directly impact their immunity and as such resistance to stressors in the first place,” Puttergill explains.

So, as a honey consumer, the best one can do is to ensure that you educate yourself adequately to
be as mindful as possible in buying products that are locally-produced and sustainably-sourced.

Puttergill shares the following five tips to help you along:

  1. Buy honey from your local beekeepers that carries a traceability sticker on the packaging.
    (Eat Naked, Chaloner, Mac’s Honey, Simply Bee or Raw Golden Honey)
  2. Plant a bee-wise garden – think about turning your lawns into clover fields. Apparently honey
    bees love it!
  3. Be bee-centric in your garden planning and plant winter and summer flowering plants to
    ensure they have sufficient sustenance;
  4. Use organic products that are not harmful to the environment and honey bees;
  5. Don’t kill any honey bees. If they decide to grace your space with a visit and you would
    rather they have their own home, call your local beekeeping association and they can direct
    you to a helpful bee-peep to move them away. Every bee counts!

*The Bee Effect was the winner of our Faithful to Nature Eco Award for the Best Grassroots Eco
Initiative/Group in 2018

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