When you think of a natural product, honey may be one of the first things that come to mind.
While honey is still made by bees, humans have taken a greater interest in applying technology to understand what’s going on and how to reverse the decline of the bee population.
Humans' familiarity with bees predate history
Humans have been enjoying honey’s sweetness, as well as some of its useful effects bees have on products for thousands of years. It’s attested to by art, by mentions in classics, and the Bible, but its use among humans even predates history.
As indicated by the title, “Widespread Exploitation Of The Honeybee By Early Neolithic Farmer,” an article published January 2015 in Nature, points to evidence of human use of bees and their products even earlier than previously thought. Prior dating only extended to around 2400 BCE, “as evidenced by the widespread presence of ancient Egyptian bee iconography dating to the Old Kingdom.”
In fact, pottery shards discovered in 2014 prove humans were familiar with honeybees throughout many parts of Europe, North Africa, and the Near East, as far back as nearly 9,000 years ago, a time that predates history. The proof is in the traces of beeswax that remain identifiable even after so many thousands of years.
Clearly, even when humans were at the very earliest stages of civilization, they recognized the value of honeybees in offering welcome sweetness and possible medicinal effects, as well as useful applications for the natural wax, which could have been used for fuel or for coating vessels.
Honey itself has been found among ancient Egyptian artifacts, and the reason it is able to endure so long is probably one of the reasons why it was so prized as a food among ancient people. Not only does honey offer an enticingly sweet taste, but has an incredibly long shelf life with no special preparation.
The chemistry behind honey’s stability also accounts for its medicinal properties, which was another reason it was of such great value to humans for thousands of years.
Amina Harris, executive director of the Honey and Pollination Center at the Robert Mondavi Institute at University of California, offered an explanation in “The Science Behind Honey’s Eternal Shelf Life.”
“Honey in its natural form is very low moisture. Very few bacteria or microorganisms can survive in an environment like that, they just die. They’re smothered by it, essentially,” Harris said.
If they are not smothered by the viscosity, the acid would probably do the trick. Honey’s pH hovers around 4, somewhere “between 3 and 4.5,” Harris said, a level of acidity that would “kill off almost anything that wants to grow there.”
And if the acid alone wouldn’t work, there’s the hydrogen peroxide, something many of us have in our medicine cabinets to wash off scrapes and ward off infections. In the process of making honey, the chemical process induced by the bees’ own enzymes produce gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide.
While the bees may not be aware of the chemical components of the honey they produce, they do show awareness of construction and mathematics according to this video:
Innovation in beekeeping amounts to allowing space
Despite its extremely long history, modern beekeeping actually only came of age in the Victorian period, thanks to a new design for a beehive. Lorenzo Langstroth, who was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame (NIHF) in 2007, earned his claim to fame with the award of US Patent No. 9,300 in 1862, which offered a new, far more efficient design for the beehive.
The inventor’s account of his “movable comb hive” he patented appears in his book that is now accessible at The Project Gutenberg EBook of Langstroth on the Hive and the Honey-Bee. In the book he explains how it works:
Each comb in this hive is attached to a separate, movable frame, and in less than five minutes they may all be taken out, without cutting or injuring them, or at all enraging the bees. Weak stocks may be quickly strengthened by helping them to honey and maturing brood from stronger ones; queenless colonies may be rescued from certain ruin by supplying them with the means of obtaining another queen; and the ravages of the moth effectually prevented, as at any time the hive may be readily examined and all the worms, &c., removed from the combs.
He goes on to describe how it enables the faster formation of new colonies and the safe transfer from other hives: “That the combs can always be removed from this hive with ease and safety, and that the new system, by giving the perfect control over all the combs, effects a complete revolution in practical bee-keeping, the subscriber prefers to prove rather than assert.”
Low tech engineering that is still effective
The revolution is due to one key difference between Langsroth’s hive construction and those that came before him, allowing space. As he describes elsewhere in his book, his construction entails “doubled materials, enclosing a ‘dead air’ space all around.”
While there were several innovations in hives that followed, they generally followed the general design that Langstroth patented. For that reason, should you decide to take up beekeeping and wish to invest in a hive, you can find a fair number of different designs all called “Langstroth hives” for sale.
High tech solutions for beekeeping
Even if the hives still look like the same basic wooden structures that have been used for the past 150 years, today’s beekeepers now have technological solutions to apply even on a small scale. One of them is a smart hive monitoring assistant called BuzzBox.
As the video description explains, the device draws on the power of AI:
We use artificial intelligence to inspect your hive's health and report updates to your mobile app every 30 minutes. Detect swarming, missing queen, healthy, sick, or collapsed hives in real-time. Monitor temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, and local weather conditions. It even contains anti-theft systems that alert you when your hive is disturbed.
Last year, BuzzBox introduced the mini version, which offers several advantages over the earlier design, as described in this video:
But monitoring individual hives is not just about the yield for the individual beekeeper; it’s about amassing data about the state of honeybees overall. The bees are important not only as producers of honey but as pollinators that help crops grow.
Technology to help save the bees
According to the latest figures from The Bee Informed Partnership (BIP), honeybee losses in during the winter in the United States were the largest in its reporting history that dates back to the 2006=2007 season:
“During the 2018-2019 winter (1 October 2018 – 1 April 2019), an estimated 37.7% of managed honey bee colonies in the United States were lost (Fig. 1). This loss represents an increase of 7 percentage points compared to last year (30.7%), and an increase of 8.9 percentage points compared to the 13-year average winter colony loss rate of 28.8%.”
Outside the United States, there are even higher percentages for losses. With that in mind Irish Agtech company ApisProtect offers a solution in the form of an IoT-enabled remote bee monitoring technology (which operates rather like the BuzzBox) as a way to manage the current threat to the bee population.
How the ApisProtect monitors bees is demonstrated in the video below.
The video description includes an observation from Dr. Fiona Edwards Murphy, CEO of ApisProtect: “In some countries, up to 40 percent of our honey bees are dying every year. A host of problems, diseases, and pests are devastating hive populations around the globe.”
She anticipated that their solution would help track “the variety of problems their bees are experiencing” and anticipated that the use of the device would double this year so that they “will now be monitoring the health of 20 million honey bees worldwide.”
As Murphy (note the bee brooch) explains in the video below, doing what we can to ensure the bees’ survival is of primary importance for humans.
The bees are essential to the propagation of no less than a third of our fruits and vegetables. They include many staples of a modern diet, which provide the kind of nutrients we are supposed to be sure to get daily, like mangos, avocados, nuts, and berries.
That’s why, she declares, “the prospect of losing bees is terrifying.”
Healthy pollinators are essential to securing our food supply, Murphy insists. Accordingly, her company’s goal is to keep increasing monitoring to help beekeepers be more proactive about protecting their bees’ health and taking steps to remedy dangerous situations as they become aware of them.
Of course, the reduced bee population would also translate into less honey, as well as the varieties of honey that are currently available.
A different type of honey from a different type of bee is also endangered
Though all honey is produced by bees, there are differences among the bees and what they use to produce honey. Those differences result in qualitatively different forms of honey.
In Mexico, there is a distinct type of honeybee called Melipona beecheii that is also endangered. Unlike the bees we are generally familiar with, these lack the ability to sting and take a different approach to hive-building, as they favor nesting in hollowed-out trees.
See them in action in the video below:
"It's runnier. It's more floral. It's very delicious, but [there are] much smaller amounts of it, so you need a lot more bees."
Aphids and bees producing honey together
Another type of honey that is somewhat rare, though it is produced by your standard honeybees, is known by the name of Honeydew or Forest honey. Though it is said to be especially delicious, the way it is produced may just make you hesitant to try it, especially if you favor veganism.
The name "honeydew" here refers not to the melon known by that name but to the substance that is excreted by aphids who have sucked on the sap of trees. So, yes, that would be made out of the waste of spiders, and that will account for somewhat different taste and chemical properties in this variety of honey.
According to the Honey Traveler report, the somewhat unappetizing sounding part of the process was completely unknown until the later part of the last century. It declares that as late that some beekeepers maintained “that honeydew collected by bees was sweated out or exuded from trees and plants” as late as the 1960s despite the fact that the French naturalist, Reaumur realized that aphids were involved back in 1740!
The naturalist from ancient Rome named Pliny offered a much more romantic understanding of the substance that remained popular for hundreds of years afterwards: that “honeydew fell from the stars.”
This notion must be behind Samuel Coleridge’s depiction of the poet touched by divine inspiration in the poem “Kubla Khan,” which ends with this line:
“For he on honey-dew hath fed /And drunk the milk of Paradise.”
That fits then to have honey-dew from a heavenly source rather than everyday honey that really owes its sweetness to the excretion of aphids. Or perhaps, Coleridge, who was addicted to opium had another type of honey, called deli bal, that gives one a high.
Whether you want to try this variety of honey or to avoid it, be aware that in addition to being labeled as honeydew or tree honey, it may also be identified as “Fir Honey,” “Pine Honey,” “Lime Tree Honey,” or “Oak Honey,” depending on which tree provided the sap, though remember that aphids would have been involved, as well.
Save the bees
Still, without the honeybees, the aphid excretions would not be transformed into a variety of honey that many humans do enjoy. And so to maintain the range of honeys, as well as the variety of fruits that we’ve come to enjoy, thanks to the bees work, we have to be sure to keep up the bee population.
We can hope that just as engineering improved beekeeping and the survival rate of bees in the 1800s, the technological innovations of today will help us help the bees and ourselves.