On September 16, join us after the AgriCULTURE Fest at the Greeley Farmers’ Market for an evening celebrating the creativity & craftsmanship of Weld County’s culinary arts. Courses to be prepared by local, professional chefs using locally procured ingredients from Weld County Farms and served family style.  Bees are also local producers of food and as a bonus, they are great dancers.

The next time you savor honey in your food or drink, consider this:  the average honeybee lives for only 6-8 weeks during a summer season and during her brief lifespan produces on average just 1/12 to one-half of a teaspoon of honey.  To put that in perspective, it takes in the neighborhood of 10,000 bees visiting close to 2 million flowers and flying 55,000 miles to produce just one pound of honey.

Beyond the sheer scale of honey production, the importance of the honeybee to our food supply and our health is indisputable.  And, our little bee buddies, and by association, all of us, are at a critical junction today relative to the world food production.

A little history.   KĀRE, a New Zealand Beekeeping Association, notes that bees have been producing honey for at least 150 million years.   A cave painting found in Spain and estimated to be 15,000 years old depicts a human figure taking honey from a hive.  Sealed honey vats were discovered in King Tut’s tomb and offer further homage to the value of honey as an object to take into the next world.

Making honey.  Honey is created when bees, moving among blooming plants, mix the plant nectar (a sweet substance secreted by flowers) they pick up on their bodies with their own bee enzymes.  The bees deposit the collected nectar into their hive’s honeycomb and then fan it with their wings.  The evaporated nectar becomes honey!   Beeswax, which forms the honeycomb structure, is another valuable byproduct of the bees “honey factory”.   In terms of volume, for every 60 pounds of honey produced one pound of beeswax is made.

Honey Bottles

Making money.  Pollination is big business.  From an economic perspective, the estimated value of foods produced with the help of pollinators is between $235 billion to $577 billion in the U.S. annually. Learn more about a local company, Rice’s Honey.

Busy as a bee.  The worker honeybees only live for about 6-8 weeks in summer and they NEVER sleep. In that short lifetime, they fly the equivalent of 1.5 times the earth’s circumference.  Between flying between flowers and fanning the nectar, their wings get quite the workout – so much so that worn-out wings is the most common reason for their death.

Health and Wellness.  An apple a day is a well-known dietary benefit, but honey contains vitamins and antioxidants, is fat free, cholesterol free, sodium free and contains a powerful antioxidant called “pinocembrin” which is only found in honey and in ‘propolis’ (a mix of beeswax and other secretions used to adhere hives together).  Honey also attracts and absorbs moisture, which makes it a remarkable salve for minor burns and prevents scarring. As recently as World War I, a mix of honey and cod liver oils was used to dress battlefield wounds.  In recent times, improved athletic performance and brain functioning have also been tied to consumption of honey in lieu of processed sugars

Of the food we eat, one in three mouthfuls has been produced directly or indirectly thanks to the pollination from honeybees and includes such crops as cucumbers, almonds, carrot seed, melons, apricots, cherries, pears, apples, prunes, plums, seed alfalfa, cantaloupe, seed onions, avocados, kiwi, blueberries, cranberries, to name a few.

While there are 20,000 species of bees, honeybees make up 80% of those pollinators and are the only species that produce enough surplus honey to nourish themselves and a surplus for consumption by other critters and humans.  Honeybees are the only insects that produce a substance that humans eat.

Amazingly, honey is the ONLY food that does not spoil.  Ever.  Remember the honey in King Tut’s tomb?  The sealed vats found there were STILL edible, even after being buried for over 2,000 years.   THAT is vintage honey!  The reason honey won’t spoil is that its sugar content is too high and because it is naturally anti-microbial, anti-fungal and antibacterial.  And, this is why it carries important medicinal and healing powers.


Bees & Honey at the Intersection of Art & Agriculture:

Dance!   Bees do a “happy dance” back at the hive when they make a particularly significant discovery.  The bee’s “waggle dance” informs its hive-mates to the exact location of the find relative to the location of the hive and the angle of the sun.   When the dance goes on for hours, the bee’s direction and wiggles per dance cycle will change with the rotation of the sun throughout the day to continue to give precise directions

More Dance!  Ever hear someone say something was the “Bee’s Knees?”  A nonsense term popularized in the early 1920s, it was included in “Flapper Chatter” to describe something as “excellent – of the highest quality”.  There was some speculation that the term might also have a tenuous connection to one Miss Bee Jackson, a New York flapper with “very active knees” credited with the introduction of the Charleston on Broadway in 1924.  The term, however, was also associated with U.S. author Zane Grey in a 1909 story “The Shortstop” which has a city slicker “learning” about make-believe farm products, including “bee’s knees”.   It happens that bees DO have knees and carry their payloads of pollen in sacks on their knees so it could also be a reference to this concentrated source of “excellence”.   By the way, “eel’s ankles” did NOT catch on as a flapper term.

Drink!  Mead is a honey-based drink known to be the oldest fermented beverage in the world.   And, back to bee body parts, the “Bee’s Knees” cocktail of gin, honey and lemon is a classic dating back to Prohibition. The honey/citrus ingredients helped mask the less than appealing smell of the bathtub gin.

Song!  Honey has been used for years by opera singers to boost their energy and soothe their throats before performances.  The honeybee’s wings stroke 11,400 times per minute creating their distinctive buzz, celebrated in the classic “Flight of the Bumblebee” interlude by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

Beauty!   Honey and beeswax form the basis of many skin creams, lipsticks, and hand lotions.  Ancient Egyptians perfumed beeswax and wore it in the form of a headdress to improve their personal ‘aroma’.

Culinary Creations!  Due to the high level of fructose, honey is 25% sweeter than table sugar and has different flavors and colors, depending on the location and kinds of flowers the bees visit, as well as climatic conditions of the area.

Bees, and we, in trouble:  The value of bees to our world is profound.  So, when native bee populations began to decline in the U.S., a team of scientists from four U.S. universities created distribution maps to chart geographic areas at risk. That work identified 139 counties in key agricultural areas that have the most serious mismatches between the need for crop pollinators and bee populations.  In Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team of scientists point out that wild bee numbers have dropped 23% in the five-year period from 2008 to 2013 in the contiguous continental U.S.  Climate change, habitat loss, and pesticide use are contributing forces to this decline.

Mapping bee declines will allow the focus of conservation efforts to correct the decline.  Will it be enough?

According to the Science Journal, Chem, 40% of the worlds’ smallest pollinators, bees, and butterflies, are even at risk of extinction.  The decline of honeybee populations had been viewed akin to the “canary in the coal mine” in terms of biodiversity reliance.

Japanese scientists have recently been successful in the development of a miniature drone, which successfully pollinated a large lily flower.   The drone, however, still requires human navigation and is far from capable of doing the work of the honeybee.   Even if drones could be developed in a manner that would help support pollination, drones cannot produce honey.   Is a world without bees and their honey imaginable or sustainable? To bee, or not to bee?

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