By Ben Becker, Newsletter Writer
There is nothing quite like the warm days of June when spring hauls forth with the mellow inviting weather that has so long been anticipated just before giving way to the mugginess of summer. It is as if a light switch was flipped on for the outdoors, and life springs forth under a cheerful sun. The tulips start to emerge to display their multitudes of color. Dandelions dot the landscape to the delight of winemakers and the chagrin of lawn enthusiasts. Even trees blossom forth from their inconspicuous green, erupting into a fantasy of white petals. Enchanting not only to painters and haiku writers, this season seductively signals to another creature that it is time to emerge from winter’s lethargy.
While known more for its diligence, and to many an unfairly attributed bad temper, the humble honeybee is not often given sufficient credit for either its artistry or intrigue. Sadder still, the honeybee and its fellow pollinators are given too little recognition for the essential role they play in our modern world. Yet, as the honeybee waggles forth from the hive to perform her mysterious dance, she is also taking part in the ancient tradition of supporting human beings—sustaining us medicinally, agriculturally, and economically.
As an amateur beekeeper myself, it is impossible not to be endlessly fascinated by the tiny species known as apis mellifera. The proverbial industriousness of the queen bee and her brood is a vast understatement. A single colony of honeybees can produce up to 80 pounds of honey in a single season. Doing so is no small feat, as each pound of honey requires the bees to visit two million flowers to collect the necessary pollen, a task which involves flying a total of 55,000 miles. What’s more, their gargantuan efforts are juxtaposed with their amiable nature. Unlike their notoriously irritable cousins the yellow jackets, hornets and wasps, the honeybee is a remarkably gentle creature, so docile that they will affably land on you and look on with innocent curiosity while you pilfer the products of their hard work. Some bolder beekeepers will even go so far as to sport a beard of bees, utilizing a special pheromone to attract these buzzing bodies to cover their exposed face without fear of harm. Even more fascinating to the human observer is that honey bees appear to have a sophisticated and functional culture and social order—one which has existed without unrest or upheaval for millions of years before the first political system of the homo sapien emerged on the scene.
While the idea of a queen may offend our more democratic sensibilities, the life of this hive mother is one of considerable responsibility. Although her attendants are always on hand to sustain her with that rare royal jelly, this majestic monarch finds herself forever engaged in laying thousands of eggs necessary to maintain her colony’s population. The lifespan of a queen is only a couple of years, which, though it may seem minuscule, actually makes her a virtual ancient compared to that of her offspring who will live a full and productive life in only a matter of a few weeks. In this short lifecycle, the uncanny worker bee will take on a multitude of roles, mastering a new job title and career change every few days as she grows from a hive attendant tasked with caring for her younger sisters and the crafting of honeycomb until she reaches the age of maturity and begins the challenging work outside the hive, be it guarding against predators or performing the ultimate task of gathering pollen. Before her short life is through, our heroine will have flapped her four wings many billions of times, literally tearing them to shreds from overwork.
In the hierarchy of bee society, only the male bees are spared from the drudgery of toil and birth. All of these masculine drones are free to leisurely while the days away. Their only responsibility is to engage in a sexual dance with their queen, contributing the genetic material needed to propagate a new generation of brood. It is this same dance that spells their doom however, as the drones do not survive this romantic encounter. Their lethargic brothers will receive their just desserts as well, as each winter the vengeful females will exile these unnecessary fellows from the hive, leaving them to a harsh but certain death from cold and starvation.
In addition to this sophisticated social structure, honeybees have an intricate system of communication as well. Known as the “bee waggle,” the mysterious dance of the bees is actually a code which these ladies use to tell one another about where to collect pollen. Certain moves and patterns in this dance indicate the direction and distance their collecting comrades should travel to find the best pollen stores.
It is this pollination that makes honeybees so essential not only to the support of global ecosystems, but to the maintenance of agriculture as well. Honeybees are not the sole species to take on this monumental task so necessary to the procreation of fruit and flower. Just as bees rely on the beauty of the flower for their livelihood, so too does the majestic butterfly, which will travel thousands of miles across various regions and climates each year, busily pollinating as it goes. Other apis species are equally responsible for pollination as their honey-making cousins, and are often mistaken at first glance. Many of us can easily identify that plump and furry creature the bumblebee, but not everyone can distinguish the talented carpenter bee or the hard-working mason bee, two species which share the honeybee’s love for pollinating and docile nature. Unfortunately, these gentle but essential species are often unfairly lumped in with the more aggressive bald-faced hornet, the fierce yellow jacket, or ironically named social wasp. These creatures are less fuzzy, and certainly less friendly than the honeybee, although they are industrious in their own way, often turning natural materials into intricate hive structures. The aggressive nature and painful stings we fear can lead us to unjustly categorize these insects as pests rather than propopagaters. Yet without them, our world and our means of growing food would be very different indeed.
Honeybees alone are responsible for pollinating 85% of all flowering plants. Even if a world without daisies or daffodils doesn’t phase you, consider that 30% of all the food Americans consume was pollinated by a honeybee, including 90% of the pollen transfers necessary to grow fruit and other orchard crops.
In order to perform this important agronomic function, beekeepers will transport their hives throughout the country each year so that farmers can benefit from their pollinating expertise. Without this extra support, many agricultural products, such as almonds, would be impossible to grow.
In addition to keeping our food economy healthy, this process also impacts humanity’s favorite bee product: honey. The flavor and color of honey is determined by the type of flower from which a honey bee has collected the pollen. When bees have finished pollinating a buckwheat field, they will produce a dark, rich honey as compared to the orange tint and subtle fruity flavor collected from orange blossoms. When sampling different varieties of honey, we can appreciate that this treat is really a product of a specific time and place, uniquely formed by the field and season from whence the contributing flowers bloomed.
Honey is by far the tastiest of outputs that bees will produce, but it often overshadows the other useful materials which a colony can create. One important building material in a bee’s tool box is wax, which is necessary to create the hexagonal shaped comb structure in which they store honey and house their developing larvae. Humans have long utilized beeswax for our own needs. Beeswax candles give off a pleasant odor, and often come carved in creative shapes not to mention that lovely golden color. Willy Street Co-op’s Wellness aisles are stocked with these pleasing lights, as well as other beeswax-based wellness products such as lip balm and other salves. You can even pick up raw beeswax from Willy Street Co-op in order to create your own homemade crafts, which make for excellent gifts.
The utility of beeswax is practically endless, whether it is used for skin creams, lotions or even sunscreen, but it is not the only bee product that we can use to take care of ourselves.
Resourceful beekeepers will sometimes gather propolis from their beehives. This super sticky goo (sometimes called “bee glue”) is employed by bees as a building material but humans may use it as an antiseptic solution. By refining the propolis into a tincture or ointment, it becomes similar to iodine, and can be applied to cuts and bruises.
Another health supplement that can be derived from the apiary is bee pollen itself. Many consider bee pollen a superfood, as it is packed with protein and nutrients, and may help boost your immune system and resistance to allergens. If you are planning to experiment with this bee food however, do so cautiously. Foods which contain pollen such as bee pollen or honey can be dangerous to children under the age of one, or to those with bee allergies.
Of course honey itself is quite versatile and makes for an incredible health product when it isn’t being put to use as a staple or sweetener. Probably the most obvious use of honey is as nice additive to tea or poured over bakery confections. Sweeter than cane sugar, each spoonful containers 20 calories and five grams of fructose, making it a delicious way to consume carbohydrates. As a natural substance with a high sugar content, honey is both ideal as a sweetener for food but also for making our favorite potables such as beer even more potent. By fermenting honey, humans have long enjoyed the floral flavor of mead as an alternative to wine. For even more kick, fermented honey can be distilled into liquors such as the award-winning Domeloz label of honey spirits, which can be found in our beer and wine section.
Honey by the jar
Just as this finely crafted Wisconsin spirit is a point of pride for our state, Willy Street Co-op is excited to carry locally produced honey by the jar. Our Grocery departments have long-carried local brands such as Some Honey and Gentle Breeze. Buying local honey not only promotes our local economy and regional food infrastructure, but it also provides benefits to the consumer that honey from a bigger honey maker doesn’t. This is because the pollen contained in honey may help to build up resistance to allergens, but this resistance is only effective if the pollen consumed has come from nearby plants.
Just as the pollen of homegrown flowers gives local honey the potential power to boost our immune system and ward off allergies, some exotic flowers actually grant honey enhanced medical properties. A great deal of research has gone into how honey, particularly manuka honey, can be used as a way to fight infection and combat illness. Traditionally, honey has been used as a salve to treat wounds and infections. Honey acts as an effective microbial because it acts as a barrier to moisture, making it impossible for bacteria and fungus to access the water they need to survive. It also contains hydrogen peroxide, which acts as an antiseptic. Honey is also is high in antioxidants, which can prevent free radicals in the environment from damaging cells.
While honey has been long used in folk medicine and in caring for animals from horses to parrots, the recent medical science has begun to single out manuka honey for its particular health restoring properties, which led the FDA to approve its use for wound treatment in 2007.
Just as the flavors and colors of honey are determined by the flowers the hive has pollinated, manuka honey obtains its exotic properties via the pollen of the rare tea tree or manuka bush, which is native to New Zealand and Australia. Manuka has long been used by New Zealand's native Maori people as a medicinal herb, but in recent years manuka honey has become popular and available worldwide. Brands such as Wedderspoon, which can be found both on Grocery and Wellness shelves at Willy Street Co-op, allow people across the globe to enjoy this special honey. While manuka honey continues to become more common to grocery shoppers, it becomes ever more astounding to medical researchers. The pronounced antimicrobial properties of manuka honey gives it an incredible range of medical applications, and it has proven to be effective in treating illnesses from strep throat to gastric and diabetic ulcers. It has even been utilized to treat staph infections, making it particularly valuable as the bacteria which causes them, staphylococcus aureus, continues to become more resistant to conventional antibiotics.
Colony Collapse Disorder
As we continue to understand more about how powerful honey and other materials honeybees give us are to not only to our wellbeing and indeed, our very livelihood, it only becomes all too clear how catastrophic the threats to these creatures and their ecosystems could prove. In recent years, bees have been faced with dangers from all sides. Most notably is the issue of colony collapse disorder, a mysterious occurrence that continues to baffle scientists in which worker bees abandon the queen to die. Fortunately, this particular phenomenon has begun to decline recently, but other dangers continue to plague honeybees.
Varroa mite invasion
One notorious pestilence facing bees and their keepers is the invasion of the tenacious varroa mite, which was introduced to the United States in 1987. These mites are parasitic to their bee hosts, attaching to the backs of bees to drain them of their nutrients while imparting a destructive virus.
Bees are especially sensitive to human-created dangers as well. The use of pesticides, particularly neonicotinoids applied to crop seeds, are deadly to bees, as they can disrupt their short-term memory and powers of navigation. Like all animals, honey bees are sensitive to the loss of habitat and food supplies as a result of human expansion. Monocultural practices in agriculture deny bees a sustainable food source, as they do not have the diverse resources for sustenance that wildflower poly-cultures can provide throughout the year. Without sufficient habitat, bees and other pollinators are increasingly threatened. Probably the worst human created problem for bees is of course climate change. The impact of changing climate on reliable sources of food in addition to longer, wetter, and colder winters only makes it harder for the warm-loving honeybees to survive in areas such as Wisconsin, where only the hardiest of honeybees are likely to make it.
As honeybees are increasingly threatened, we will continue to see an essential resource slipping away. Early warning signs are already present in our agriculture system and economy. Small honey producers are facing a more daunting challenge, and with low harvest years many are having to close their doors. Without reliable honey harvests, local beekeepers become increasingly reliant on importing honey from non-local suppliers in order to sustain their livelihood. Some honey suppliers have even turned to adulterating their product with syrup or other ingredients. Fortunately, the honey industry has taken steps to regulate products labeled “Pure Honey,” but the threat to honey integrity is only a small part of a bigger problem. As goes essential pollinators like the honeybee, so in turn will go our farms and food supply. If we fail to take the steps necessary to continually ensure the health of our bees, we will soon find ourselves hungry for much more than honey.
What you can do to help
With bees acting as a keystone species for our agricultural dependence, the stakes are high. Yet, by taking small steps, we can ensure that honey bees can have a healthy future. Although colony collapse disorder is still a phenomenon not well understood, it has seen a decline in recent years. While combating the effects of climate change will require massive efforts, improving honeybee ecosystems can be a simpler task. This can be done by planting pollinator-friendly plants in your garden, such as milkweed or nectar flowers. Foregoing a pristine lawn can also be a favor to honeybees, as they rely on the food from such “weeds” as dandelions and clover. Reducing or eliminating the use of chemical pesticides will also make your backyard a honeybee haven. Finally, help support honeybees and their friends through your purchases by choosing organically grown foods and products grown by small-scale, environmentally responsible farmers on your next shopping trip. Of course, what could be a better way to do this than to purchase a jar of honey?