(Photo: Philippe Wojazer/Reuters)
It could be a perfect evening. After work, I stroll a few paces behind the house to the hives under the oak trees to watch the last returning nectar-laden foragers tumble down on to the landing stage.
They get a short greeting from the guard bee and then head into the dark hive, where their sisters wait to accept their precious load.
On good foraging days, the scent near the beehives is like the smell of candy floss at a spring fair. It’s so good to breathe in the warm, sweet and heavy aroma and to hear the low hum coming from the hive. All is well.
Except all is not well and I worry.
Early humans would soon have found the treasure hoarded in bees’ nests. Honey must have seemed like a gift from the gods, possessing an unearthly sweetness and created by beings whose abilities and artistry they did not understand.
Today, nearly two million years later, we perhaps appreciate this uniqueness more clearly. The ingenuity of early apiarists brought bees out of the wilderness to live closer to people, developing the first simple beekeeping practices.
Natural science and research over the past 300 years or so has significantly deepened our understanding of the bee colony superorganism and laid the foundation for modern apiarist practices, namely honey factories.
Accelerating globalisation in recent times has resulted in people and bees coming even closer together. For bees, this means that without the help of humans there are many areas in the world where they could not survive.
For humans, the lack of pollinators would mean they would face an even greater challenge than that already confronting them in their attempts to provide enough nourishment for an expanding population.
The human race would not necessarily starve without bees. Cereals in particular and many other food plants are wind-pollinated and do not need insects. Vitamin requirements of humans are another matter, because most vitamin C in our diet is obtained from plants pollinated by insects, and 80 per cent of the indigenous fruit trees in Germany, where we live, are dependent on honey bees.
Without bees, there would not be much hope for cherries, apples, plums or pears. Agricultural production dependent on beekeeping exceeds that of poultry and makes bees, after cattle and pigs, the third most economically important domestic animal.
No wonder there is anxiety when stories of high worldwide honeybee mortality circulate in the media. What, exactly, is the state of affairs?
Statistics tell a clear story. The number of bee colonies in Germany has decreased continually over the past few decades. Thirty per cent of all bee colonies have disappeared over 30 years.
The situation seems to be the same in the UK. The British Beekeepers Association announced a significant drop in the average hive’s yield last year, and numbers have been dropping for decades.
But what do these figures really tell us? Is this evidence of bees dying off or is there another reason?
In Germany, at least, the figures do not support the notion that honeybees are dying out or that beekeeping is vanishing. At present, the number of beekeepers in our country is increasing at about 3 to 5 per cent per year, and the number of colonies is also growing.
What the statistics reveal is the consequence not of a bee die-off, but of a change in the structure of beekeeping.
In 1956, beekeeping in Germany was a profitable sideline. Twenty years’ later, beekeeping no longer made a profit and was just extra work. In the 1980s, varroa mites arrived and many apiarists gave up. The number of beekeepers and colonies sank.
But in the mid-1970s, the ecological movement was founded. A shift in perceptions of nature and the environment induced some people to take up beekeeping. German beekeepers also changed their practices, adopting magazine hives – our modern honey factories.
Over the past 40 years, beekeeping in Germany has evolved into a profitable hobby. It enjoys growing popularity, and there is no danger yet that honeybees in Germany will become extinct.
The same is true in other parts of the world. Statistics from the nutritional and agricultural organisations of the United Nations indicate that the number of human-managed beehives has significantly increased worldwide in the past 15 years.
The number of honeybees is increasing in Africa, South America and even in China, despite its problems with pollution. The worldwide demise of Apis mellifera appears unlikely.
Which is excellent news, because there is more to our relationship with bees than honey.
A man sits on a chair in a small wood-panelled room and reads a newspaper. His nose and mouth are covered with a breathing mask. A tube leads from the mask to a small box on a plastic sheet that is also the lid of a beehive.
This is how one of the more unusual products of the honey factory is applied. The product is air from the hive. For lengthy periods, this man will breathe filtered air from the bee colony through a special inhaler. He is undergoing hive air therapy.
This is believed to be beneficial for, among other ailments, lung and upper respiratory tract problems, because air from hives contains volatile antibacterial and anti-fungal substances. Even if the effectiveness of this treatment has not been confirmed, the pleasant olfactory experience and the soothing hum of the beehive is surely therapeutic.
Hive air is a new product, but it shows that honey is not the only substance produced from a honey factory that is of use to humans.
Bee venom (used in the treatment of rheumatic joints), wax and royal jelly (used for cosmetic and medical products) all come from the bees’ own bodies. Propolis (used by bees as an adhesive and wall paint, and by humans in ointments and as an anti-inflammatory), pollen and bee bread (pollen is used by humans as a food supplement; bee bread is what bees make to store excess pollen in the hive) come from raw materials collected and processed by bees.
Over the past decade, naturopaths have brought an entire palette of products from beehives into their practices. Apitherapy, with the catchphrase “health from the hive”, is now an established area of naturopathy.
Honey varies from place to place just as wine does. Rapeseed (canola) honey is always clear and sweet. Forest, or honeydew, honey is always dark, slightly sour and runny. It might get more interesting when buying honey directly from an apiary in, for example, northern Germany, where bees have foraged in buckwheat.
This honey is rare, often packed in small jars and has an acquired taste: it is as dark as beetroot sugar syrup, and has a strong aroma and a taste almost like liquorice.
Bee colonies living and foraging in the same area over many years produce honey that differs each year in consistency, colour and taste. Colonies in the diverse vegetation around residential areas never produce the same honey. Honey from one hive can be light-coloured and sweet; that from another, two kilometres away, dark and spicy.
So it is fair to say that what is true for wine is also true for honey.
This is an edited excerpt from ‘The Honey Factory: Inside the Ingenious World of Bees’