This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode The Buzz on Honey, first released on November 15, 2016. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
BECKY MASTERMAN: That’s a lot of bees. You ever seen that many bees?
CYNTHIA GRABER: Never.
NICOLA TWILLEY: Never. That’s a lot of bees. Like, I can’t even, I mean I can’t even guesstimate. Like, is that 250, is that…?
GRABER: A thousand?
MASTERMAN: Yeah, on a full frame of bees you are going to have about a thousand, fifteen hundred to two thousand actually. So that’s probably a lower—on the lower end. it’s probably approaching a thousand.
GRABER: Nicky has a lot of skills—but counting things unfortunately isn’t one of them.
TWILLEY: Numbers are not my friend, it’s true. It’s a real thing and I expect sympathy not scorn, OK?
GRABER: All the sympathy. You can leave the counting to me. But there really were a shit ton of bees. I mean, who ever—if you’re not a beekeeper—who’s seen 1000 bees in one place? It was a little intimidating.
TWILLEY: But we braved all the bees because we wanted to see what they were making.
TWILLEY: That’s what this episode of Gastropod is all about—and yes, you are listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Nicola Twilley.
GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber. And this episode on honey was suggested by listener and donor Alan Chao. He’s not only a Gastropod supporter, he’s also a hobby beekeeper. Alan says that when people learn he keeps bees, he gets a flood of questions, and they end up chatting about bees for an hour or two.
TWILLEY: Do not be afraid, this episode is under an hour, we promise. But honey—and the bees that make it—they are fascinating. So let’s get stuck into the sweet stuff.
GRABER: So we are starting this episode back in Minnesota—you may remember we were out there for our immersion in Native American cuisine last episode. And while we were in Minneapolis, we also received a crash course in bee-keeping and honey.
MASTERMAN: My name is Becky Masterman and I run the Bee Squad for the University of Minnesota Bee Lab. And we are looking at about ten colonies, and they range from probably a low of hopefully 40,000 bees to maybe up to 50 or 60,000 honeybees.
TWILLEY: Cynthia, Becky, half a million bees, and I were all hanging out at the corner of a very busy intersection—you’ll hear trucks and cars going past as we talk. We were right at the corner of the University of Minnesota Campus. And the Bee Squad?
MASTERMAN: So the Bee Squad—there’s no A-squad. The Bee Squad is an outreach and education organization that was started by my boss Marla Spivak.
GRABER: Marla Spivak is one of the top scientists studying bee colonies in the country. She received a MacArthur Genius Grant for her work and used the award to set up the Bee Squad. On the squad they do outreach and education to both beekeepers and the public in general. So we asked Marla what’s so special about bees.
SPIVAK: Bees matter because they’re the most important pollinators of our fruits and vegetables and flowers. Do you want me to go on?
TWILLEY: Yes please.
SPIVAK: It’s interesting because plants can’t move to have sex, and instead they bring—many flowers bring insects in to do it for them. Pollen—this may be more than you want to know—but pollen is basically plant sperm. And the bees are collecting it because it’s high in protein and lipids, and bees use it as food for their young. Sounds a little crazy, but nature does some wild things. And so bees fly around collecting pollen for food to feed that to their young, and in the process they end up pollinating the plant.
TWILLEY: OK, that’s pollen. What’s honey?
SPIVAK: So flowers produce two things. They produce nectar which is just sugars, and they produce pollen. And bees collect both of these things and use them differently. So the pollen is what they feed to their young and the nectar, if they’re honeybees, they convert it into what we call honey. Honey is basically just condensed nectar.
TWILLEY: What happens is, the forager bees come back to the hives with a full tank of nectar and they pass it on to their younger colleagues, who spit it carefully into some wax cells they made earlier.
GRABER: Yep, honey is part bee spit.
TWILLEY: The enzymes in the bee spit actually help break down the sugars in the nectar and concentrate them.
GRABER: And then the bees call out for some muscle assistance. Other bee colleagues join in and flap their wings really hard and evaporate off a lot of the water.
MASTERMAN: And that low moisture makes it honey.
TWILLEY: Tada! But a quick point of order here: we are talking about honey bees, because they make honey. But honey bees are only one species out of more than twenty thousand bee species that buzz around pollinating our crops and flowers.
GRABER: There are a couple of other species that make a little bit of honey, but nothing in the quantity of the one bee species that we’ve basically domesticated. They’re the super honey producers. They produce a huge amount of excess honey that they don’t need, and that’s what we steal.
TWILLEY: But why are they making honey in the first place?
MASTERMAN: So bees use the honey as their source of carbohydrates, and they—it’s really their energy. So in the winter, for example, honey is very important because they will feed on honey and then they will—they decouple their wing muscles. They take their wing muscles apart from the mechanism that would move their wings and they shiver, and that shivering generates heat.
TWILLEY: The honey is like the bees’ energy goo, so that they can spend all winter shivering their little bodies fast enough to keep the internal temperature of the hive at a balmy 70 degrees, even when it’s fricking freezing in Minnesota.
TWILLEY: This is like the ultimate bomber jacket.
GRABER: Becky was about to open up some boxes so we could watch honey being made in real time.
TWILLEY: OK, let me do your head too, hold on.
GRABER: Here we go, yeah. I’m getting all suited up here.
GRABER: But before that, obviously we had to suit up.
TWILLEY: OK. Looking good, Cynthia.
GRABER: As do you.
GRABER: You’ve probably seen photos of beekeepers in these all-white garments. They kind of look like space suits.
MASTERMAN: We wear certain colors so that to not cause any alarm basically to the bees. So bees have a few predators. Bears are one of them. And so we think that like dark fuzzy clothing is an issue.
TWILLEY: Better an astronaut than a bear as far as bees are concerned.
GRABER: So a big guy with a beard—dark beard is not really welcome here.
TWILLEY: In a fuzzy fleece.
MASTERMAN: I’ve had boots attacked. Like, early spring, late winter, with like a fur ring around the edge of the boots. I’ve had the bees really not like those.
GRABER: Becky cracked open one of the boxes.
MASTERMAN: Let’s go over here.
MASTERMAN: So, again, I just put some smoke in the entrance.
TWILLEY: Becky had a nifty little portable smoker burning some aspen wood chips. The smoke basically drowns out the bees’ own chemical communications, so they can’t set off the panic button.
MASTERMAN: Crack the top, break the propolis seal. You can see a couple of cool things here. This is actually propolis right here.
GRABER: Propolis is actually resin from trees. The bees collect it and bring it back to the hive.
MASTERMAN: And they use that resin to to glue all the parts together. But then it also serves a bigger purpose as an antimicrobial protection.
GRABER: And the whole hive—it was an absolutely amazing thing to see in person. I was so entranced by the thousands of bees in the boxes, all swarming on the frames filled with wax honeycomb. I wanted to get closer in to get some great sound of bees buzzing. So I stuck the mic right in.
MASTERMAN: That’s black and fuzzy, so we’ll see if they like it.
TWILLEY: Fortunately, the bees did not think Cynthia’s mic was a bear paw. You will be glad to hear that no one was stung in the making of this episode.
GRABER: As Becky pulled out different frames we saw different color bees—Becky told us that the queen mates with different males, and her offspring are slightly different colors.
TWILLEY: And we saw a rainbow of different pollen colors—everything from flaming orange to kind of grey.
MASTERMAN: Some of these colonies are my favorite just because it’s nice and diverse in color. Oh and look at her, she’s pulling her way out right now.
MASTERMAN: Sometimes you want to help but it’s always best to just let them do it on their own.
GRABER: That was a bee being born!
MASTERMAN: There she is!
GRABER: Ahh, you made it!
MASTERMAN: Isn’t she adorable? So she’s going to start cleaning, grooming herself.
TWILLEY: Little baby bees have to eat their own way out of the wax cells, and they come out looking a wee bit bedraggled. They’re not fluffy, like you imagine a bee.
MASTERMAN: If you guys want to try the honey?
MASTERMAN: So, you can do that and I will show you. The one thing you have to do obviously is you’re going to have to go and unzip. So I can actually bring this over there or you can do this close to here, it’s up to you. OK, so all you need to do is you just approach it slowly. And just put your finger in and take a new spot and then just make sure you go under the veil.
TWILLEY: OK. So I can just take a—I should take a capped spot yeah.
GRABER: Oh my gosh, It just comes right out.
TWILLEY: I got a little wax… there we go.
GRABER: It’s really…
MASTERMAN: And now the bees are going to be like hey, look at this.
GRABER: That’s so sweet.
MASTERMAN: And so now they’re going to start to fix what we did.
GRABER: You going to take picture of our little finger spots?
TWILLEY: Yeah, I feel bad though, but…
MASTERMAN: They’ll be fine. Remember, this is their surplus honey. So we didn’t go into their—kind of into the refrigerator. We went into the garage to get the extra honey. So this is this is nothing they were depending upon.
GRABER: I have that feeling of like you know the humans who like you came across this honey and like tasted it and were like, oh my God, what is that thing? The thing that these bees are making, it’s so amazing!
MASTERMAN: It is.
TWILLEY: That is exactly what our ancestors were probably thinking. And I’m talking about our ancient, ancient ancestors, like chimps.
GENE KRITSKY: We know that chimpanzees will make sticks, modify sticks into tools that they can use to tear to wild bee nests. And they’ll even carry these tools around from nest to nest. And so it’s quite probable that our ancestors possibly the Australopithecines were doing the same.
GRABER: Gene Kritsky is a biology professor at Mount St. Joseph University in Ohio and he’s the author of Tears of Re: Beekeeping in Ancient Egypt.
KRITSKY: As far as modern humans go—I should say modern Homo sapiens—the earliest visual evidence we have of honey hunting goes back to about 6000 BCE, about eight thousand years ago.
TWILLEY: It’s a pre-historic rock painting, in a cave system near Valencia, in Spain.
KRITSKY: And it shows a honey hunter—that is, an individual being sort of suspended over the side of a cliff and dangling by a ladder rope is robbing a wild nest of bees. And the original actually has a hole in the rock wall that the artist used to denote the the wild nest. And then there’s circles around that with the honey hunter grabbing in to steal the the comb and he or she is actually holding a bag to put the comb into.
TWILLEY: We have a picture on our website—it’s such a cool painting. The hunter is truly teetering on his ladder—you really get a sense of the risks of stealing wild honey.
GRABER: Those early honey hunters were probably absolutely nuts about honey. The risks were totally worth it. It’s actually sweeter than anything in nature except date—it’s even sweeter than sugar.
TWILLEY: That’s because of honey’s chemical composition—it’s pretty much half and half fructose and glucose. Those are simple, one molecule sugars, whereas table sugar—that’s sucrose. And sucrose is two molecules joined together, not just one. And the crazy thing is, our bodies can tell the difference: glucose and fructose taste sweeter than sucrose, which is why honey typically tastes sweeter than sugar.
GRABER: Early, early humans just went out and tried to find as much honey as they could. Wild honey hunters still do this in parts of the world today. But nearly all the honey we eat now is not wild. At some point, humans, probably in ancient Egypt, figured out how to start domesticating bees.
KRITSKY: And it probably happened quite by accident. I can envision somebody having a clay pot or amphora of some kind that they just sort of put upside down to keep sand out of it and there’s enough of an opening for bees to find this cavity that was protected and start making comb inside that that pot. It probably was then somebody realizing, if we do this a lot, well we get more bees, is probably the transition. It probably wasn’t a long process to figure this out but it was probably a serendipitous discovery by somebody just storing pots.
TWILLEY: No one knows exactly when beekeeping started for sure, but Gene’s best guess is that it was just before 3000 BC.
KRITSKY: That’s about the time we see the first honeybee hieroglyph. But again there were wild bees in ancient Egypt as well so we don’t know when they made that transition to providing artificial cavities. But it clearly predates 2450 BCE.
GRABER: It predates 2450 because 2450 is when we have the first proof of beekeeping.
TWILLEY: 2450 is when there’s the first image of humans using an artificial cavity to house bees.
KRITSKY: And it’s from the Chamber of the Seasons of a fifth dynasty Pharaoh Nyuserre Ini. “Chamber of the Seasons” was almost like a Harry Potter term to me when I first started reading about it. But it’s a bas relief that shows the whole process of working hives, pouring honey, apparently separating the honey from the wax, and then sealing it. Now the neat thing is that’s the oldest evidence we have of beekeeping. But by this time it is a very sophisticated operation using horizontal beehives stacked on top of each other.
GRABER: Egyptians seem to be the inventors of bee-keeping. And to them, eating honey was a religious experience.
KRITSKY: The Egyptians thought of bees and honey in a very special way. The title of the book The Tears of Re is because the bees believe—the bees!—the Egyptians believed that bees were formed from the tears of the God Re and so therefore honey is indirectly is a gift from the gods.
TWILLEY: The Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic for the Pharaoh—it literally includes a bee. People were paid in honey in Ancient Egypt. Marriage vows included husbands pledging to provide their wives with sufficient honey. And there was an entire civil service devoted to bees.
GRABER: The Egyptians also discovered the fact that smoke would calm down the hive. They didn’t know then what we know now—that it disrupts the bees’ panic chemical communication—but they knew it worked.
KRITSKY: In the 18th Dynasty tomb of Rekhmire, it’s the oldest evidence we have of smoking bees and they’re using an incense burner. If they believe that the honey was produced by bees which are the form for the tears of Re, giving an incense offering to the bees would be a way of showing respect and praise of the bees, but because it was smoke it quieted the bees. That was the first instance we have of using smoke to quiet bees. So that’s how this religion influenced the way we kept and then how they kept bees kept reinforcing the religion. I found that rather fascinating.
TWILLEY: Religious feelings aside, the Ancient Egyptians also ate some of their glorious honey. Well, at least the rich did. The poor probably had to make do with dates.
KRITSKY: If we go back to the 18th dynasty, prior to that time, we do find evidence of honey cakes. And these were honey mixed with flour, fashioned into triangles, and then coated with sesames and then baked. So that was a very popular food item. And by the time we get into during the time of Cleopatra you would find a whole range of honey being used to—not only for other pastries but also possibly used in with meats, for preservation of meats or even with cooking with meats.
TWILLEY: The Ancient Egyptians might have been first but they weren’t alone.
ELLIS: And then every culture—because there’s honey all round the world and every culture has evolved recipes that celebrate honey.
GRABER: Hattie Ellis wrote a cookbook called Spoonfuls of Honey.
ELLIS: Honey was our earliest form of sugar round the world, predating the sort of widespread use of sugar. And so just that tiny bit of sweetness makes such a difference to dishes.
GRABER: I just want to stress here: at this point, in most of the world, honey is THE sweetener. If you want to eat something sweet, something you might put a teaspoon or a cup of sugar in today, they had to use honey. So that’s why all these ancient and medieval recipes all have honey as the sweetener.
ELLIS: There’s a lot of Roman, ancient Roman recipes rely on honey as a seasoning. There was a Roman honey baked ham. Actually, it was very interesting because in Rome still they have these amazing honey recipes. So you see it this sort of tradition of using honey as has continued right the way through, and that is getting a gammon.
TWILLEY: Quick translation for American listeners, who may not have encountered this quite British way of eating pork—gammon is a hind leg of pork, brined or salted into a joint of ham.
ELLIS: And sort of spreading it with honey and then putting a paste of flour and water before baking it. It’s absolutely wonderful. And the original Roman recipe has got dried figs and bay leaves in the cooking stock as well. So that’s a kind of ancient taste that is still—that’s what I love about food is that it has very long roots often, which you can still enjoy.
TWILLEY: But it turns out honey wasn’t just useful for satisfying our sweet tooth.
ELLIS: Mead was our sort of earliest form of booze really, predating wine. And it was one of our sort of earliest ways of getting high or merry.
GRABER: Mead is just diluted, fermented honey.
ELLIS: Supposing you are an ancient Egyptian say and you leave your honeycomb out in a bowl and it rains. And the sugars in the honey will ferment and you taste it and you think mmm, this is nice. So that’s mead.
GRABER: You know, Nicky, I’ve tasted mead but it’s a little sweet for me.
TWILLEY: Yeah, I’ve never had it, but that’s what I would expect. I hate sweet booze.
GRABER: Me too. Hattie said there are some small producers who make a drier type of mead, which she quite likes. I haven’t had any of those yet.
TWILLEY: Next Gastropod happy hour sorted then. So just to go back a minute, the reason you have to dilute honey to ferment it into mead is interesting. Honey has so little water that it won’t ferment on its own—it will actually kill the yeast by sucking out all the water in the yeast cells.
GRABER: And this is why honey has been used not just as food for thousands of years—it actually has always had really potent uses in medicine, too. Because of that very water-sucking property, it kills microbes.
KRITSKY: It’s found in almost half of the prescriptions that we find in ancient Egypt. It was used as a—in some cases as a binder. I think mostly it was used as a way of sweetening the concoction, because some of these use a whole range of things from crocodile dung on. And I would imagine they would have quite a disgusting taste. But honey also can be used as a salve. You can use it on cuts, you can use it on burns, and its antibacterial properties keep infection from occurring. And it allows a good flow of oxygen so healing is promoted. And that’s clearly got—its value for essentially as the ointment of use back in ancient Egypt all the way to more complex pharmaceuticals is quite impressive.
TWILLEY: It’s hard to imagine how amazing honey must have seemed at the time. For most of the world, it’s the only source of sweetness. It’s the first way we got drunk. And it turns out to heal wounds as well. I mean, it sounds like the wonder product. But, believe it or not, honey is not the only wonder product that comes from a hive.
KRITSKY: Beeswax was quite special for the Egyptians, they thought it was magical. When you burned beeswax it burns in a very bright light but, significantly for the Egyptians, it didn’t leave any ash. So they used beeswax amulets and carvings as part of their magic to ward off evil, to protect, and so on.
TWILLEY: And beeswax had plenty of more prosaic uses, too.
KRITSKY: We know that they used beeswax in their wigs. We find evidence that the curls were maintained by using beeswax.
GRABER: Just like honey must have seemed magical to the ancient Egyptians, beeswax did as well. There’s the amulets, and the candles, and their wigs. Plus, on top of all that, it was waterproof, and so they used it to seal up their boats.
TWILLEY: Here’s another thing that’s hard to imagine: we’re talking about a time before artificial light, right? And if you wanted candle-light, you had two choices, pretty much. Tallow, which is meat fat, which was smoky and smelly, or beeswax.
GRABER: Which was lovely. And so because of that, the church was super into beekeeping in medieval Europe. They needed the beeswax for all their candles to illuminate all those glorious cathedrals.
ELLIS: The strong tradition of keeping keeping bees was a monastic one, because they were using the wax to make candles because the beeswax candles have the purest light and smell absolutely wonderful. And that’s how you—and the flame symbolized the soul and so on.But I think it’s probably also that the monks wanted the mead as well.
TWILLEY: Oh surely not. But seriously, mead and sweetening aside, the fact is, in medieval Europe, a pound of beeswax was worth worth 8 times a pound of honey. The Pope only gave permission for Catholic churches to use candles made of anything other than beeswax in 1900!
GRABER: If we haven’t made it clear enough yet, honey and everything else associated with it was super important for thousands of years.
ELLIS: Well, it’s what makes the world go round really, doesn’t it? Honey not money.
TWILLEY: And then everything changed. So how did honey get relegated from the tears of a god to a humble toast topping? Before we get into that, we want to tell you about a couple of our sponsors this episode.
TWILLEY: OK. We’ve established that honey was a really big deal to our ancestors. Obviously it’s impossible to know exactly how much honey they ate. Bee Wilson, who you might remember from our first episode about cutlery as well as one earlier this year on learning to eat—she has also written an amazing book about honeybees called The Hive. And she estimates that at the peak of honey consumption, in the 1100s, people in England ate something like four and a half pounds of honey a year.
GRABER: But by the end of the 20th century, just recently, people only were eating about a half a pound a year. That’s maybe a half a jar. So what changed?
TWILLEY: Well, for one thing, Henry VIII wanted a son. Long story short, the closure of the monasteries with the Reformation—that really put a dent in honey production. Remember, the monks were the main beekeepers.
GRABER: And then there’s the colonization of the new world and slavery—and suddenly sugar, made from sugar cane, gets a lot cheaper. And sugar actually has a leg up on honey, because you can cook with it more easily. It doesn’t burn as easily as honey does, and it sets hard while honey stays squishy. Basically, it can be used to make all sorts of desserts and confections that are really tough to create with honey.
TWILLEY: But the death knell of honey, according to Bee, is the rise of tea and coffee. Once Europe got addicted to these invigorating beverages, honey consumption really fell. Because the simple sweetness of sugar doesn’t compete with the delicate aromas of tea and coffee, whereas the more complex flavors of honey can.
GRABER: But honey’s popular again today. Hattie Ellis says one reason for that is the rise of the good food movement. And farm-to-table eating.
ELLIS: If you’re interested in where food comes from, it’s one of the ultimate foods because it’s so particular to a time and place that it’s endlessly fascinating, because a good honey comes from within three miles of the hive. It’s the ultimate local food, really, I think.
TWILLEY: Back in Minnesota, Becky Masterman of the Bee Squad sees how different bee neighborhoods affect flavor first hand.
MASTERMAN: So I know where all the best honey locations are in the Twin Cities and beyond because of all of the colonies that we do manage for businesses and for single family homes. So we definitely see differences.
GRABER: So where are some of the best honey spots, is it secret?
TWILLEY: Hot honey spots in the Twin Cities, come on.
MASTERMAN: Exactly. I would tell you if I had permission, but it’s highly secret information.
GRABER: One jar of honey has the nectar from as many as two million flowers. And just as a rose smells different than say, lavender, honey from different fields and flowers tastes different, too.
TWILLEY: And here’s the clever thing. If bees find a really nice big patch of flowers, they keep going back to them, and they tell all their friends to join them. So beekeepers know that if they can put their hives near, say a big patch of heather or an orange grove in blossom, then they can harvest honey that is made from pretty much just one type of flower.
GRABER: Bees work fast—like, you know, busy bees. They can fill up the boxes that beekeepers use in just a week. And you’d be surprised how sweet trees can be—one lime tree has enough nectar for 40 pounds of honey.
TWILLEY: All of these honeys—they’re not 100% from heather nectar or lime tree nectar, but there’s enough heather or lime in there to make them taste really distinctive. So we asked Becky what her favorite type of honey is.
MASTERMAN: OK. I’m not a huge fan of honey, believe it or not.
GRABER: This is like our kombucha story! What’s going on here?
GRABER: In case you missed that episode, our kombucha researcher doesn’t really like kombucha, either. It seems to be a theme.
MASTERMAN: So, OK, so I really like those bees. I started working with bees in graduate school decades ago. And I—I really didn’t. I never ate honey then, ever. When I came back to work for the squad I started actually tasting more of the nectars and the honeys in the colony, just because my role had changed from setting up research experiments to really being one with the bee and seeing what they’re bringing in. And so if I had to pick, it would be basswood because it’s lighter and not as strong. Yeah. I eat it. I do eat it because it’s actually very nutritional but I put it on my toast with peanut butter. I’m not a huge fan. Do we need to cut that out?
TWILLEY: Fortunately, Cynthia and I do actually like honey.
GRABER: And probably some of you do too.
TWILLEY: Either way, it’s kind of fun to try the different varieties—they really do taste different. So we asked Hattie for her top tips on honey tasting.
ELLIS: The best way to try honey is to start with the lighter ones. So lavender and orange blossom, and then to move through to the darker and sort of funkier ones.
GRABER: These darker, funkier ones are my favorites. Buckwheat in the U.S., chestnut honey from France. They’re really strong, almost savory honeys.
ELLIS: The best thing is to smell them and to look at them,because the colors are so amazingly different. They have very different textures too, honeys, because different kinds of nectar solidify at different rates and in different ways. And then take the top off and inhale it and you really get the aroma. And then taste it and leave it in your mouth for a little bit and let the aromas sort of go up your nose and then swallow it.
TWILLEY: Some of Hattie’s favorites come from New Zealand
ELLIS: This is a real tongue twister but rewarewa. That’s probably mispronounced. But pohutukawa and tawari. They’re sort of butterscotchy flavors. And then I’ll go all the way through heather honey which has this wonderful sort of champagne-like little bubbles in it. It’s like got a sort of jelly-like texture.
GRABER: So that’s how Hattie puts together a honey tasting. But if you want to put honey in your food?
ELLIS: Some of the things that I love about using honey in food are that it absorbs moisture. So your cakes will keep well. Bakers like put in a little honey into their bakes because it keeps the bake moist.
TWILLEY: Hattie will often reduce the sugar by a quarter in a recipe, and replace it with a little honey—not the same amount, because honey tastes sweeter than sugar. And you have to remember to lower the oven temperature a little too so the honey doesn’t burn.
GRABER: The other thing to know about honey is that some of the aromas that make each variety so distinct, those are lost at really high heats.
ELLIS: If you can, just add it at the end and don’t heat it up too much. But so for example when I roast a leg of lamb I will brush it over with honey at the end to give it a lovely glaze and put in a little bit of honey in the gravy. So there’s a kind of fine line between burnished and burnt with honey, which I spent quite a lot of time testing the recipes to reach that point. Then I think with things like sauces, there are amazing things you can do. So even just a little honey in a vinaigrette—πeople know about that. But a tiny bit of honey stirred into some homemade mayonnaise is really delicious.
TWILLEY: Yes, honey is delicious. But that’s not the only reason we eat it. Just like the Ancient Egyptians, a lot of people believe that honey has health benefits, too.
ELLIS: People also eat the pollen for energy. Mohammed Ali used to eat the pollen. To not just dance like a butterfly and sting like a bee, but to eat like one too.
GRABER: Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much science backing that up—or the idea that honey can help combat seasonal allergies. At least not yet. But the ancient Egyptians did have one thing right when they applied honey to cuts and burns.
ELLIS: Scientists in New Zealand actually started to prove how honey was useful in healing wounds and in other ways. And so it’s sort of come back. Because he’s proven it in a laboratory, we’re now allowed to appreciate something which people have been doing in different cultures for for millennia.
TWILLEY: Honey works because it’s killing the microbes by sucking water out of them. But there’s something else going on too. One of the enzymes in the honey reacts in contact with bodily fluids to produce hydrogen peroxide, which is also an antiseptic. So it’s like a two-pronged attack.
GRABER: Some honeys are better at this than others, and scientists are trying to tease this all out. Manuka in New Zealand gets a lots of press for its medicinal properties, but it’s not the only one. In general, the darker honeys seem to be better at killing microbes.
TWILLEY: But while honey might be good for our health, the health of the bees making that honey—that’s not so good.
MASTERMAN: Honeybees have been in trouble for about a decade. What we’ve seen within our own program is that the biggest threat that we can see for honeybees is a mite pest.
GRABER: Becky’s boss Marla Spivak is one of the top international experts on bee health and colony collapse disorder.
SPIVAK: And the mite feeds on the blood of these bees and compromises the immune system and weakens the adult bee. They don’t kill them outright but they weaken them. The worst thing is these mites, as they’re sucking on bees blood, they pick up viral particles from the bee. And then the mite goes to another bee and feed some more and it’s like a dirty syringe, it injects some of these viruses.
GRABER: And it turns out that there’s one kind of strange reason these mites spread so easily.
MASTERMAN: This is a boy bee actually. It’s flying upside down for some reason. So boy bees, their only job is to mate. But they’re kind of funny—they’re just not as graceful as the girls are. And when they come in you can hear them buzzing and they kind of make their arrival. And they also get lost a lot. They often go home to the wrong house.
GRABER: There are way too many jokes.
MASTERMAN: Yeah I know. Yeah.
TWILLEY: It’s not even fair.
GRABER: It’s too easy.
MASTERMAN: No it’s not fair. And the girls actually—the sad thing is they let them go from from place to place and it’s a problem with our mites because they will, that’s one of the ways they spread because the boys go home to the wrong place.
TWILLEY: Yes, the confused, upside-down, show-off boy bees are, in fact, spreading this disastrous disease around. This mite was introduced into the States in the late 80s.
SPIVAK: But it just seems like starting in about 2006, it reached a tipping point. and just too many things affecting them at once just threw them over the edge, and we started to see massive die-offs of colonies. And now it hasn’t kept increasing but 30, 40 percent of all of our nation’s honey bee colonies die every year.
GRABER: This is a huge problem. Colony collapse disorder has both beekeepers and farmers panicking. It seems to have stabilized somewhat, we’re not in danger of losing all our honeybees right now, but the situation is not great.
TWILLEY: Marla has been working on various solutions. She’s been breeding bees that are better at sniffing out infected bees and pushing them out of the hive before they can spread the mite. She’s developed more aggressive hive management techniques too. And Becky says it looks like their work might be starting to pay off.
MASTERMAN: So we’re seeing that if we’re able to manage that mite pest that our bees look really, really healthy. Overall there are still high numbers of beekeepers who are losing their bees. But at the same time we feel like if we can share this information with them, that they’re going to then be able to have better success as far as keeping them alive.
GRABER: But mites aren’t the only problem. You’ve also got all the chemicals used on huge fields of wheat and corn and soybeans.
SPIVAK: Bees as they’re foraging run into a lot of pesticides, most of them are insecticides that they run into, and sometimes they’re in a high concentration and can be toxic enough that that kills the bee outright. But oftentimes we’re learning it can be low dose, low concentration that just kind of affects the bees in sub-lethal ways. So they don’t, they’re not killed but their nervous systems are affected. They can affect their learning, their memory, their flight behavior, things like that. And now we’re learning that sometimes when bees run into these low dose, low concentration insecticides, it exacerbates the effects of their viruses and diseases.
TWILLEY: So there’s the insecticides we use to manage the landscape, and then there’s the landscape itself.
SPIVAK: There’s just simply not enough flowers out there for good nutrition for bees. So if they have good protein from that pollen and good carbohydrates from the nectar, the bees are able to detoxify pesticides to some extent. And they’re also able to bolster their immune systems if they have good nutrition. So—very similar to humans. But if all of those things are a problem—not enough flowers or contaminated flowers and lots of mites in the colony—they all combine in ways that are just deadly to the whole colony.
GRABER: Marla’s doing other research in her lab too, trying to find out all the ways to help keep bees healthy. But she has one big tip for all of us, how we can help.
SPIVAK: If you like honey, plant more flowers.
TWILLEY: That’s true for honey bees, but it’s also true for all the native bees. Those nineteen thousand nine hundred and ninety nine other bees species we mentioned back at the start—they’re also affected by disease and insecticides and lack of good food, and we need them too. They’re not making our toast topping, sure, but they are providing essential pollination services to lots of native plants.
GRABER: And it’s the native bees that are really threatened by another huge environmental problem.
TWILLEY: No prizes for guessing…
SPIVAK: Climate change is really going to have the most effect on some of our native bees that are solitary. They live alone and spend most of their lifecycle in the ground or in a stem developing. And they come out in the spring or at certain time in the summer, and some of them are specialists that need one particular kind of flower to feed on for their short lifecycle. Quite different than a honey bee. And if they’re out of sync, so climate change may make things bloom earlier or later in the season than normal, and if the bees emerge from the ground and their flowers aren’t there then they may become extinct.
GRABER: That’s not something we can offer a quick fix for, unfortunately.
TWILLEY: But, like Marla, one thing you can do if you love honey is plant flowers. And don’t spray them.
GRABER: And, you know, it’s not just the problem with the honey bees. There’s also kind of a problem with how we think about honey. We’re so used to thinking of honey in the teddy bears.
TWILLEY: Or being eaten by teddy bears.
GRABER: And it’s become so prosaic, almost boring.
TWILLEY: It’s just kind of the same kind of sweet honey flavor. Like it’s just honey, it’s not something special. It’s not like wine or cheese or something that we know to appreciate for all its different flavors and textures.
GRABER: Hattie wrote an entire cookbook on honey because, to her, honey is all that and more.
ELLIS: You know it’s sort of become a bit patronized, if you like, in the same way that bees are, because they’re small and they put these cute yellow and black jackets on. People look down on things which are smaller. But I think because—people now see the importance and the power of bees. And honey is a, you know, powerful food in its taste and what it does. And sugar, we’ve got used to just sort of gulping down sugar, but actually just a spoonful of something special and valued like honey is another way to approach sweetness.
TWILLEY: Hattie wants us to appreciate what honey can bring as part of a complex dish and what it can do if you pair it with a good cheese—but also just on its own, for itself. And that’s Marla’s favorite way to appreciate honey, too.
SPIVACK: Straight out of the bottle. I really like a teaspoon of just honey. You know sometimes I’ll put it in tea. I often bake with it. But if I want to enjoy a honey, I’ll just take a teaspoon and consume it slowly and savor it. It’s just wonderful stuff. You know some people go and eat a sweet treat or a dessert—I’d rather just have a teaspoon of honey
GRABER: And that’s it for this episode! If you enjoy honey and Gastropod – or really, if you just enjoy Gastropod – please consider supporting us on our website or at Patreon.com. We’ve got some extra honey treats for our sustaining supporters. You can also write us a review at iTunes – that helps new listeners find us – and you can follow us on twitter or facebook at Gastropodcast.
TWILLEY: Thanks this episode to Marla Spivak and Becky Masterman of the University of Minnesota, to Gene Kritsky, author of Tears of Re, and to Hattie Ellis, author of Spoonfuls of Honey. We have links to their books and their websites on our own website, gastropod dot com. Some of you have asked about transcripts of our episodes. We try to get them up about a week after it first goes out.
GRABER: And the reason we can get these transcripts up for you is all due to our great volunteer, Ari Lebowitz. Thanks to Ari for all her help.
TWILLEY: We’ll be back in two weeks with the lady who helped me make whale poo ice cream last summer, Sarah Lohman. Get ready to have your tastebuds tingled — we’re going from black pepper to sriracha.
GRABER: Till next time!