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Two books explore the history and delights of honey, bees and beehives

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L. Brian Stauffer

The honey bee is a symbol of productivity, cooperation and plenty. Two books published this year explore the honey bee's contribution to human history and culture.

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12/10/2010 | Diana Yates, Life Sciences Editor | 217-333-5802; diya@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, lll. — Honey is the original sweetener, manufactured by honey bees long before humans discovered and appropriated it. Early cave paintings depict honey gatherers, as do ancient Egyptian reliefs. From Mesopotamia to the American Midwest, honey has been important to nearly every human culture and cuisine.

Berenbaum book cover
University of Illinois entomology professor and department head May Berenbaum has edited a book of honey-based recipes from around the world, with chapters devoted to the natural and cultural history of honey. | View slideshow of honey recipes.

“Honey is fascinating; everything about it – its chemistry, its history, its unbelievable activity. It’s just an amazing substance,” said University of Illinois entomology professor and department head May Berenbaum, the editor of a new cookbook, “Honey, I’m Homemade: Sweet Treats From the Beehive Across the Centuries and Around the World.”

In addition to being a sweetener, honey is a term of endearment, an antibiotic balm, an offering to the gods and a symbol of plenty. References to honey appear in every major religious tradition. Mead (honey wine) is the earliest known alcoholic beverage. Honey has even been used as an aid in embalming the dead.

Honey bees themselves are also venerated for their cooperative work ethic, said Gene Kritsky, an entomologist at the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati, an expert on the history of beekeeping and the author of “The Quest for the Perfect Hive: A History of Innovation in Bee Culture.” (Kritsky is an alumnus of the University of Illinois.)

The skep, an upside-down basket used as a beehive for hundreds of years, also became a religious and economic symbol, Kritsky said.

Taylors and Lloyds, the founding partners of Lloyds Bank, used a bee skep as a symbol of productivity. The Mormon church appropriated it to signify a coordinated society working together for the good of the whole, “and there are legends that the papal mitre is symbolic of the skep,” Kritsky said.

Kritsky book cover

Illinois alumnus Gene Kritsky, an entomologist at the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati and an expert on the history of beekeeping, offers a detailed history of the human exploitation of honey bees and the innovations that have improved the science of beekeeping.

Kritsky’s book traces the history of human exploitation of honey bees, starting with the honey hunters’ earliest forays into wild areas to look for swarms they could rob. Gradually humans learned that they could relocate bee swarms into logs, pipes or clay vessels placed closer to home.

“The earliest beekeepers were the ancient Egyptians,” Kritsky said. “They had horizontal hives they made out of clay tubes. From there beekeeping moved up into the Mediterranean area where the Greeks and the Romans also used clay tubes or clay vessels laid on their sides.”

“By A.D. 200 we had our first skeps,” he said. “We had straw skeps by about A.D. 500.”

The straw skep became the norm for more than a millennium, until humans discovered that a simple wooden box also would work, as long as it had an opening that the bees could use as an entrance. Some of the earliest box hives were octagonal, to mimic the shape of a hollow tree, but square wooden hive boxes soon prevailed. The moveable frame hive now in use was developed in 1851. (See also, “Symposium Marks Milestones in Honey Bee Management, Research.")

Although it is a book of recipes, the introductory chapter of “Honey, I’m Homemade” also includes a brief natural history of honey, its chemical and health-enhancing properties and a description of how honey bees collect and process nectar into honey. The effort is astoundingly labor-intensive, Berenbaum writes.

“Whatever their species, individual flowers generally produce only tiny quantities of nectar, so up to 100,000 loads of nectar are required to produce a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of honey,” she writes. “One load of nectar, however, can require visiting at least a thousand individual flowers, so the 2.2 pounds of honey are the result of visits to as many as 10 million flowers.”

Berenbaum touches on some intriguing questions related to the human exploitation of the honey bee. For instance, is beekeeping a form of animal cruelty? Are honey bees livestock? Is honey a vegetarian or vegan product?

The recipes themselves are collected from entomologists and honey enthusiasts around the world, from Korean honey flour cakes to Apiscotti, or “Bee-Enabled Biscotti,” to an Armenian rice pudding, Gatnabour, to Baagh-lava, a honey-laden treat enjoyed throughout the Middle East. (Here is a slide show of some of the treats from the book).

In their books, presentations and research, Berenbaum and Kritsky repeatedly draw attention to current challenges and threats to honey bees and the human cultural traditions and economies that depend on them. Colony collapse disorder (CCD), which has led to serious declines in honey bee populations around the world, is the most dire of these threats.

Kritsky believes that commercial beekeeping may itself be to blame.

“We’re making bees do something that they were never evolved to do,” he said. “These bees are put in small hives, they’re shuttled all over the country, from California to Washington to the Dakotas to the Carolinas to Texas, and bees didn’t evolve to do that.”

A final chapter in Berenbaum’s book also addresses CCD.

“Honey bees are beset by a staggering diversity of problems,” she writes. “The introduction in the 1980s of two parasitic mites (one of which spreads at least five viral diseases to the bees)… the escalating demand for pollination services… the pesticides used to control the mites inside the hive… (and) the agricultural chemicals the bees inevitably encounter as they forage across an increasingly toxic agricultural landscape” are all taking their toll.

Proceeds from the sale of “Honey, I’m Homemade” will go to support the Pollinatarium at the University of Illinois. It is the first free-standing museum in the U.S. devoted to pollinators and the plants and habitats on which they rely.

Editor's note: To contact May Berenbaum, e-mail maybe@illinois.edu. To reach Gene Kritsky, e-mail gene_kritsky@mail.msj.edu.
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