Too often the public views honey as no more than a sweetener, on a par with maple and agave syrup. There is little awareness of the value of local, raw honey, or the prevalence of impurities in imported honey. It is easy
to think we beekeepers are alone in our concerns, and perhaps there is a lesson to be learned from another product that invariably is taken for granted.
Vanilla is an orchid native to Mexico, which today is only a minor producer, having
been overtaken by Madagascar and Indonesia in the 1960s. The combination of high humidity, shade, and moderate temperatures at the forest shore line is perfect for growing vanilla on these latter two islands. It grows as a clinging vine, reaching lengths
of up to 300ft; the pale white orchids bloom for just one day each year and the flower is fertile for only 8 to 12 hours after it blooms. The initial challenge was that outside of Mexico, no fruit, in the form of vanilla beans, was produced. Horticulturists
eventually discovered that the pollen on a vanilla orchid flower is inaccessible to most insects, including honey bees; only the small Melipona bee, which is peculiar to Mexico, was able to reach the pollen and hence to fertilize the flowers.
According to Nancy Kacungira , on the BBC web-site, an enslaved boy named Edmond Albius, on the island of Réunion which is a northerly neighbor of Madagascar, invented a painstaking way of pollinating by hand. Using a sharp, thin
stick, he lifted the fragile membrane between the male and female parts of the flower and then pushed one into the other, thus facilitating pollination. This was, and still is, the necessary process for every single flower on every vine to produce the
fruit - pods filled with thousands of the tiny black seeds we eventually see, for example, in high-quality vanilla ice cream.
Dates and vanilla are the only major crops today that are almost entirely hand pollinated.
vanilla farmers have to check their plants every morning - to miss the fertilization window for a flower, or to damage the plant, is to lose out on precious pods. It takes approximately 250 blossoms pollinated by hand to produce 1 pound of cured
beans, which are worth about $200, a hefty sum in a country where the average annual per capita income is $1,500.
It takes nine months for the vanilla pods to mature, after which they are harvested. The still-green beans start to ferment
quickly, so buyers must be found fast. Small farmers typically sell green pods to middlemen who gather large amounts to sell to local exporters. An industry flush with cash attracts unscrupulous new entrants, many of whom pay advances even before the
farmers have planted any vines, who in turn end up having to steal from others to fulfill the orders. To deter theft, the farmers are stamping their names, or sometimes serial numbers, on to individual pods while they’re still on the vine. Even
when the pods are dried, the markings are legible.
The robberies are often violent, with dozens of murders in Madagascar linked to vanilla and little protection or investigation from the police Some growers have taken the law into their
own hands - in one village, a machete-wielding crowd descended on five suspected gangsters, hacking and stabbing them to death.
There is an environmental impact too as vanilla prices soar. Increasingly more of the forest coastline this being burnt
so that vanilla can be planted. Inside the forest, home to endangered lemurs, trees are cut down that will take hundreds of years to re-grow.
Plants, insects and animals that relied on a delicate balance start to disappear, and lemurs will no
longer have a vital food source A fragile ecosystem is being badly damaged to cater for global demand.
Analogies to the honey bee industry, the violence aside, are evident - Chinese pear growers pollinating by hand; proposals to use mechanical
drone pollinators; the length of time needed to produce a crop; the relatively low price for the product related to the work involved; middle men who import and mix different strains; increasing hive thefts to the point that some beekeepers
are inserting computer chips in their hives; and the degradation of a pollinator-friendly environmental system. Whereas the price of honey is relatively stagnant, the 80 000 vanilla growers are making more money than before but their small plots produce
limited amounts of beans. It is the middlemen and the exporters who are raking in the big money.
But here is the kicker. If you’re eating something vanilla-flavoured or smelling something vanilla-scented, it’s probably artificial.
As they work their way upward through the chain, vanilla pods become increasingly expensive (earlier this year the price of vanilla per pound was higher than silver,) the quality is not any better, and vanilla options were removed from many European menus
for ice cream, creme brulées, cup cakes and candles. This at a time when more customers are wanting to eat authentic food and shying away from chemicals and lab-produced substitutes. Scientists have been making synthetic vanillin - the compound
that gives vanilla its aroma - since the 19th century, extracting it from coal, tar, rice bran, wood pulp and even cow dung. Today, the vast majority of synthetic vanillin comes from petrochemicals and can be twenty times cheaper than the real thing.
Beekeepers are familiar with undeclared synthetic substances in honey, especially that which is imported. As a sweetener, adulterated honey is lamentable although not critical, but if honey is to be advocated as a health food, product integrity
is critical. Raw honey can be promoted for weight management, as a natural energy source, as an antioxidant powerhouse, to promote restorative sleep, as a wound and ulcer healer, a diabetic aid, a natural cough syrup and as a possible counter to pollen
allergies. Most important of all, and the ultimate selling point, is that honey is the most potent brain food of all and is an integral part of the critical evolutionary steps that helped define our species.
Too often the public views honey
as no more than a sweetener, on a par with maple and agave syrup. There is little awareness of the value of local, raw honey, or the prevalence of impurities in imported honey. It is easy to think we beekeepers are alone in our concerns,
and perhaps there is a lesson to be learned from another product that invariably is taken for granted.
In a TED talk titled Hunter-gatherers, Human Diet, and Our Capacity for Cooperation, Alyssa Crittenden, a nutritional anthropologist
at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, outlines the findings from her fourteen year long study of the pre-agricutural, nomadic Hazda people in Tanzania. For example, she recounts how men interact with the honeyguide bird as it leads them to a
feral honey bee nest and sits on a nearby branch as the honey hunters scramble up a baobab tree, using burning embers to retrieve comb honey. Most striking to her was the excitement of the children as they anticipated, and then shared, the rich food
source as it was brought back to camp. She realized that “Every foraging population for which were have data targets honey. Every ape species eats honey. It’s nutritionally rich. It’s highly preferred.”
Honey is the highest ranked food for the Hazda, and makes up more than 15 percent of their daily calories. If we accept that today 2250 calories indicate a healthy, balanced daily diet, then based on the Hazda example, 335 should come from honey, which
is equivalent to a little over 5 tablespoons, or 110 grams, per diem.
In his remarkable new book, Buzz : The Nature and Necessity of Bees, Thor Hanson explains in some detail how for centuries it was assumed that the natural counterpart of
the honeyguide was the honey badger, that the two worked in tandem, until it was realized that the latter is nocturnal and the hours of their respective foraging barely overlap. Hanson describes the now accepted theory that the honeyguide and early hominids
co-evolved some three million years ago, and that honey, collected and shared as the Hazda still do, played a critical evolutionary role in helping to define our species.
“The brain is an obligate glucose consumer,” Alyssa
explained to Thor. Because the brain burns energy for both neurotransmission as well as cell function, it can consume up to 20 percent of our daily energy requirements even as it weights only 2 percent of our body weight. It demands all that power in the form
of glucose, and no natural food contains more glucose in a pure, digestible form, than honey - one third is pure glucose, with the balance being fructose. It is the most energy-rich food in nature, Alyssa stresses, and there may be a connection between
the typical sweet tooth of children and a craving for honey to feed their active, hungry growing bones and brains.
If one lines up the skulls of hominids over the last three million years, from Lucy (Australopithecus africanus) to modern humans
(Homo sapiens sapiens) one is struck by the rapidly expanding brain case (an increase of 250 percent in all,) the retraction of the lower jaw and a reduction in the size of the teeth. Most theories for brain expansion credit increased meat consumption
through hunting, the use of tools to gather and prepare new food sources, and the control of fire. Alyssa argues that early humans could not have afforded the metabolic expanse of larger brains without an accompanying boost in calories, and that honey
needs to be added to the hypothesis. After all, hunting would have increased exposure to feral bee nests, the new tools would have facilitated the collection of the honey therein, and the control of fire would have provided the smoke necessary to calm the
bees. Add to that the larvae and pollen in bees nests, which would have provided additional proteins and well as further micronutrients.
The challenge, of course, is material evidence, and the expectation is that studies of prehistoric dental
plaque will turn up traces of honey from each of the key points in our evolutionary history.
So yes, today we have a more extensive choice of food, not least sweeteners, but honey should not be relegated to evolutionary history.
It is a potent brain food as relevant today as it was three million years ago, and we need to promote it as such.