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.
"Honey is fascinating; everything about it - its chemistry, its history, its unbelievable activity. It's just an amazing substance," said UI 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," published by UI Press.
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.
A final chapter in Berenbaum's book addresses colony collapse disorder, which has led to serious declines in honey bee populations around the world.
"Honey bees are beset by a staggering diversity of problems," she writes.
Proceeds from the sale of "Honey, I'm Homemade" will go to support the Pollinatarium at the UI. It is the first free-standing museum in the U.S. devoted to pollinators and the plants and habitats on which they rely.