Dew distilled from stars and rainbows

For centuries, humans have collected honey and put it to various uses, from a sweetener making alcohol

 
By Bhanusingha Ghosh
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Dew distilled from stars and rainbows

-- IN ANTIQUITY, honey was considered a miracle of nature. agle called it "dew distilled from stars and rainbows". And Oblical idea of the Promised Land was a place where milk I boney flowed in abundance.

Apiculture - beekeeping in common parlance - has a widespread for ages. Honeycombs were kept all over the A& in large cities and villages, on farms and rangelands, in ws and deserts. Honeybees (Apis species) managed to col &c sweet, dark, gold-coloured viscous liquid produced by bus ftom the nectar of flowers. Neolithic people farmed L making beelyeping one of the world's oldest forms of MW husbandry.

1rk practice continues, though in a much more sophisti W manner. The world's honey production in 1992 was J&966 metric tonnes, according to the Food and kahural Organization. North America produced 209,512 om Asia 331,566, Africa 112,189 and Europe 173,694 tonnes.

Honey was the sole sweetener for most societies till about rs ago. These societies didn't have sugar, and honey the sweetener and was often mixed with fruits, nuts, id spices. The exceptions were India, China and North a (which had maple syrup). The byproducts of bee- were also used: wax to make candles and adhesives, xn from the stings of honeybees as medicine. Besides, warriors dumped entire beehives on enemies to break their formations. The ancient Egyptians used it for embalming. Alexander the Great's body was taken back to Greece for burial in a golden coffin filled with honey.

Honey is stored in the beehive in honeycombs, which are double layers of uniform hexagonal cells constructed of beeswax, a secretion of the worker bees, and propolis - a plant resin. These are used in winter as food for the bee larvae and other members of the colony. Honey is an acidic mixture of sucrose, glucose, fructose and water that is often used to treat burns and lacerations because of its antiseptic properties. Its sugar content and high viscosity checks the spread of microorganisms; it is widely used as a preservative; and it is a source of alcohol. Mead, or'metheglin, an alcoholic beverage fermented- from honey diluted with water, was a very popular drink ampng the ancients in Scandinavia, Gaul, Teutonic Europe and Greece.

By the 14th century, however, spiced ale and pyment sweetened wine similar to mulsum) had superseded mead. In England, it lost ground to ales and beers since the earliest days of improved medieval agriculture. And when sugar began to be imported in bulk from the West Indies, there was less incentive to keep bees and honey became scarcer. Today, mead is made as a sweet or dry wine of low alcoholic strength.
The scent of honey Gathering honey was a harrowing experience in ancient times. The oldest recorded method of locating a wild colony is beelining, a practice that is still in vogue. The gatherer marks a bee and watches the direction in which it humbles off. If the bee returns quickly, the hive is nearby and easily located. If not, right till the hive is found, bees are captured and released periodically in the course of walking for a distance in the general direction of the hive. Alternatively, forager bees are lured with honey and tracked back to the hive.

Collecting honey became easier with the advent of beekeeping. The earliest evidence of this comes from ancient Egyptian tomb and temple drawings circa 2400 Bc. The hives designed by the Egyptians were cylinders of unbaked hardened mud, with a capacity of about 8 litres, with a hole at the bottom. The design helps the beekeeper open the back of the cylinder in relative safety. The experiences of beekeepers in luring the bees to these cavities has generated many myths, including one that held that an ox sacrifice was necessary to build a hive successfully. Despite these myths, beekeeping flourished in the Mediterranean.

The Egyptian hiv5s spread all around the Mediterranean and have undergone many modifications. The Greeks modified the Egyptian design by baking the mud. Their hives were larger, with a 25-litre capacity. The oldest specimen of such a hive dates back to circa 1450 BC. By the Roman times, hives were made of hollow logs, cork, woven wicker or fennel cylinders and, sometimes, rectangular ones of board or brick.

But the basic design remained the same - a long low cavity with a small entrance at one end, and a door at the other. Beekeepers in northern Europe, however, did not make artificial hives, simply modifying natural ones. Some beekeepers would hang hollowed logs from branches to attract swarms.

Beeline for money
Commercial beekeeping took a huge leap forward when hives were taken out of the trees and brought to the ground. Two methods of constructing beehives came to be evolved: one used cloorless log or cork hives whose open tops were covered with a plank or flat stone; the other, developed about 2,000 years ago in northern Europe, used inverted woven baskets - a precursor of the skep, which was made from coiled straw. These were fatal for bees as the honey was harvested by plunging the baskets in water or by burning sulphur. Despite this, skeps caught on with design modifications. By AD I 100, skeps were arranged into protective walls called bee holes. Soon bee houses were being built to protect the hives from bears, skunks and hedgehogs, and to protect bees from the bitter winter.

In 1649, Reverend William Mew nailed a set of wooden bars across a cavity, so bees wake comb one layer to a bar. He also installed a ters to control the access of the bees. But thi complex contraption was commercially unvi able.

In 1'790, Swisg naturalist Francois built the leaf hive a set of 12 frames hi together at the back. At the right dist between frames, thel,bees would build one of the comb in each frame. In 1851, Rev L Langstroth of Philadelphia discovered that spacing between 2 combs in a natural situation about I cm. He the devised the movable hive that provided a foundation on which bees could build boncycombs; the frame all for simple removal'apd replacement of the combs.

Modern versions of this hive consist oil base, a hive body, I or more removable sect and a weatherproof cover. The hive body consists of a b chamber fitted with frames, where the queen lays eggs and young are nurtured. Nowadays, honey is removed by extraaor, in which centrifugal force is used to empty the without damaging them. The bees don't have to build cells before resuming honey production.

Beekeeping has become a sophisticated industry the over with centres of study being set up in almost every rn country. A lot of effort is made to keep the bees free of di as they are very prone to infestations like the American brood, caused by the spore forming bacterium Bacillus larva or Noserna, caused by the protozoan Nosema apis.

But despite these efforts, humans have not succeeded an domesticating bees. Honey gathering involves more learrunS to accommodate the needs of bees rather than domesticating them.

---Bhanusingha Ghosh is a research scholar at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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