The Histories: Honey

The god Re wept and the tears / from his eyes fell on the ground / and turned into a bee. / The bee made (his honeycomb) / and busied himself / with the flowers of every plant; / and so wax was made / and also honey / out of the tears of Re.

Salt 825 papyrus, c. the British Museum. Trans. by F. F. Leek

When I was about six, I discovered honey. I thought it was candy. I had no reason to think it wasn’t candy, since candy packaging in the golden age of the nineties was way more out there than a plastic bottle shaped like a bear.

Being six, I planned everything carefully. I didn’t watch TV often in those days, but I knew children were supposed to watch cartoons on Sunday morning with heaps of sugary cereal and/or their parent’s secret chocolate stash.

So one Sunday I got up especially early, got the honeybear and a large spoon (I had enough foresight not to imbibe my honey the Winnie the Pooh way) and sat down to watch cartoons.

The cartoons were mediocre. The honey was delicious. Until, sadly, an hour later, when honey was suddenly the worst thing that had ever happened to me. My parents discovered the bear of honey tucked into the couch where I’d left it in order to crawl back into bed, defeated by my own greedy appetite. I’d eaten at least half of it, and it was not a small bear.

It’s been 18 years since I’ve had honey. And that’s actually pretty sad, because it means that six year old me was more adventurous and disastrous and invested in the better, sweeter moments of life than twenty-four year old me.

Honey, sweet, rich honey, is by far one of the best things in life. And it’s been in our lives for far longer than we think. While the plastic honeybear on the supermarket shelves was only a marketing gimmick from the Dutch Gold Honey Company in 1957, the collective memory surrounding bears, honey, and humans is far older. The most iconic of all honeybears, Winnie the Pooh, was published in 1926. Baloo, the honey-eater from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, first appeared in 1894. And the connection goes much farther.

Bears do like honey. It’s not all they eat, unlike poor, hapless Winnie the Pooh, and they tend to eat more protein with their honey – the dead bees and stuff that we avoid. They like it so much that they’ve been known to take out electric fences for a sweet snack, let alone suffer a few bee stings. There’s a theory that humans discovered honey by watching animals brave the bees for a taste of their stash. My money’s on the animal being a bear.

honeyhunting
Honey Hunting at Bicorp, Valencia, Spain. Via Cryptoforestry

The earliest evidence of a connection between humans and honey are rock paintings made by ancient humans, and there are images in Europe, Africa, and Asia. One painting from Spain is 7,000-8,000 years old, and it depicts an ancient human hanging off a cliff, either by a rope or a rope-like ladder, in order to steal honey from a hive.

This is called honey-hunting. It’s the predecessor to beekeeping, because no one is going to climb down a cliff face to steal from wild bees if they can set up a hive themselves somewhere safe, somewhere not on a cliff face. And this particular painting isn’t showing the first time humans have done this, because again, no one is going to climb down a cliff face to steal from bees without knowing exactly what they’re getting out of it.

It’s still impressive, though. And it shows how important honey, and wax, would have been, if someone was willing to risk doing this to get to them. Honey is an excellent sweetener, and in a world where sugarcane was only found in South and Southeast Asia, and was hard to process to boot, honey was the more popular, and more widespread, choice. Honey is also used in medicine (more on that later) and wax has its own myriad uses.

The Ancient Egyptians can claim the first concrete evidence of beekeeping, from carvings in the solar temple of an Old Kingdom pharaoh named Newoserre Any, (c.2474-2444 BCE). The Egyptians used honey and wax prolifically, but they used something else as well: the bees.

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Honey bee hieroglyph, via Keith Schengili-Roberts

According to Egyptian theology, bees were a gift from Re, the god of the sun. In the poem above, honey is the least of the bee’s creations. Second is wax. First and foremost, is that the bee “busied himself with the flowers of every plant.” This means that the Egyptians knew that the honey bee produced honey and wax, and that the honey bee spends a lot of time rooting around in flowers. It arguably also means the Egyptians knew that while the honey bee goes from flower to flower, collecting the nectar that later becomes honey, it’s also propagating those flowers.

When it comes to the ancient world, the Egyptians are a powerhouse of agricultural production. And yes, the Nile River’s unusually regular flood patterns and particularly rich soil had a lot to do with it. But let’s not short the people their fair due, because the kind of agricultural variety documented in tomb reliefs and excavations (even pollen from ancient honeycomb) requires more than just situational luck. It requires extensive knowledge of propagation techniques, for one thing, and bees are at the top of that list.

The Egyptian appreciation for honey is indisputable. It was given as a gift by kings, to kings, to gods. It was made into honeycakes and used as a preservative (probably more for people than food). The Egyptians were beer- and wine- drinkers, but they may well have added honey to their beer and wine. They used honey to pay tribute, and taxes, and they used it prolifically in medicine.

The Greeks had a slightly different view of honey: their beekeeping skills developed later, with Attica producing the best. The mentions of honey by Homer seem to refer to bees in a more wild state, but it does place a lot of importance on honey in libations to the dead: Achilles is buried in honey, and he places jars of honey and oil near Patroklos’ funeral pyre. Honey is an important component of all sacrifices to the deities of the underworld.

On a more pleasant note, there’s a story that the Fates visit a child on the third or fifth night after its birth, and that the door is left open for them and tasty treats left out, usually honey, almonds, bread, and water.

Libations take a form of three, usually either honey, oil, milk, wine, or water, or a mixture of some of these. Honey, or the fermented version, mead, is older than wine, so as the people’s diets have changed over time, their sacrifices have reflected that. Sometimes, however, wine is prohibited, and honey preferred, for deities that represent certain things. Helios, being the sun and therefore representing order and adherence to a tight schedule, is sadly not allowed to get drunk on the job.

Bees and honey are important in almost all ancient mythologies. They are mentioned in the Rig Veda, one of the oldest Indian sacred texts, a collection of hymns about the universe and in praise of various deities. Even the Abrahamic religions, although they have no pagan mythologies, value the honeybee.

Evidence of honey and beekeeping have been found in North and South America prior to European colonialism, because the honeybee is about 130 million years old, old enough to have populated the supercontinent Gondwana, which seems to have been given a new name since I took seventh grade science.

Now, I’ve mentioned it a couple of times but I haven’t really gotten into it: honey as medicine. Honey is nearly as ubiquitous, especially in ancient history, as a medicine as it is as food. There are several reasons for this:

  • acidity
  • water content (hygroscopic)
  • hydrogen peroxide
  • sticky!

The acidity: The pH is so low (between 3 and 4.5) that it will kill almost any bacteria or microorganisms that want to live in it.

The water content: The moisture levels of honey are so low, that again, it’s not a good environment for things to grow in. And although honey has a low water content itself, it’s hygroscopic, which means that it sucks in moisture from its environment. Moisture in wounds leads to infection. Moisture sucked out of wounds is a good thing.

Hydrogen Peroxide: When bees make honey, they take nectar, which has a high water content, and they regurgitate it and create airflow to reduce the water content by a significant amount. There’s also a chemical reaction happening, from sucrose to glucose to hydrogen peroxide and gluconic acid via glucose oxidase. That’s a really rough explanation, but I barely passed chemistry so it’ll have to do. The point is, hydrogen peroxide is an antiseptic. An antiseptic prevents the growth of microorganisms on a living body that would lead to decay. There are suggestions that hydrogen peroxide can be too harsh – that it doesn’t distinguish between your friendly skin cells and the infection it’s supposed to combat, but in this case, the amount of hydrogen peroxide in honey is pretty miniscule. It’s just enough to promote healing, but not enough to do damage.

Stickiness: It’s actually not so much that honey is sticky that matters. It’s that it’s so thick. It can encase a wound, preventing infection from getting in, while the other factors, the acidity, the water content, the hydrogen peroxide, can all get to work on the wound itself.

So it turns out there is a real reason honey was such a common medicine, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the go-to if you cut your arm off. Please go to the hospital, if that’s the case. If you’ve just nicked yourself while cutting tomatoes, then honey might not be a bad idea. On the other hand, hopefully your knife is not breeding infection anyway, and I can see having honey all over your finger being a pain … it’s really up to you.

That brings us finally to the edible uses of honey. I gathered some friends and family to perform an experiment. We did a blind taste-test of six different honeys, from different regions, different countries. My friend David made some delicious homemade bread, we each had a small glass of water, and we tried the honeys with bread and without. We weren’t blindfolded. The honeys were in identical glass cups and labeled with numbers.

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Number 1: Galilee Starthistle Blossom from Ein Harod Apiary in Israel. 3/5 votes in favor. This honey’s flavor is subtle. Super subtle. It tastes almost “clean” as though if you stripped all the flavors of honey down, and just concentrated on what makes honey honey, you’d get this. It’s not in your face. It’s not aggressive. It’s soft and lovely.

  • Aroma:
    • Person #1: Honey. Very pure color and texture.
    • #2: ? can’t smell it.
    • #3: Funk, unpleasant.
    • #4: Honey.
    • #5: Spring.
  • Color:
    • #1: Golden – glossy. Very shiny.
    • #2: Amber.
    • #3: Light golden, light yellow.
    • #4: Gold.
    • #5: light pale yellow. Air bubbles.
  • Texture:
    • #1: elastic honey. Medium – nice. Easy strings down.
    • #2: Treacle-like.
    • #3: super sticky, big globs, holds shape.
    • #4: Smooth, silky.
    • #5: Spongey.
  • Mouth feel:
    • #1: Smooth – what honey should be.
    • #2: Smooth
    • #3: Thick, smooth.
    • #4: smooth
    • #5:
  • Tasting notes:
    • #1: Light, pure.
    • #2: Honey cough drop. Sweet and gentle. Slightly fruity.
    • #3: w/bread: little flavor. w/o bread, floral sweetness
    • #4: sweet, slightly spiced.
    • #5: fresh, fruity.

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Number 2: Orange Blossom from Stockin’s Apiaries, Strasburg, PA. 2/5 votes in favor. Candy. That’s what this honey tastes like. This is the honey that made me go from “okay, I can eat this again,” to “wow, I want this all the time.” There’s a lot of crystallization here, which might be a characteristic of orange blossom honeys, since the other one on this list is the thickest of them all. If the Fates wanted a tasty snack while they were evaluating my child’s future, I’d give them this.

  • Aroma:
    • #1: Deeper/earthy.
    • #2: Like slightly stinky cheese or feet.
    • #3: Floral/wild.
    • #4: Cheese, funky.
    • #5: Orange.
  • Color:
    • #1: Stone. Rocks.
    • #2: cloudy cream yellow.
    • #3: applesauce, light yellow.
    • #4: Lemon curd.
    • #5: pale yellow, thick crystallization with small amount of liquid honey
  • Texture:
    • #1: Thick, sugary – caramelized. No strings.
    • #2:
    • #3: Thick, almost a solid, doesn’t mix well.
    • #4: hard, crystallized.
    • #5: thick
  • Mouth feel:
    • #1: Crunchie bar. Have to bite.
    • #2: gritty. Abrasive.
    • #3: grainy. Dissolves. Nerds candy rope.
    • #4: gritty, sandy.
    • #5: sugar
  • Tasting notes:
    • #1: Late aftertaste. Sweeter as it dissolves.
    • #2:
    • #3: with bread: Jasmine? Flowery sweet. Without bread: pleasant, grainy, dissolve, flowery.
    • #4: licorice.
    • #5: orange. Thick. Sweet sugar candy. Delicious.

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Number 3: Wildflower from Stockin’s Apiaries in Strasburg, PA. 4/1 votes in favor. I actually really liked this honey. It’s not as sweet as some, it’s darker, and it does have a richer flavor, almost like browned butter, or apple butter, even. This is the flavor of a meadow after a thunderstorm, when the water in the air turns the light yellow-green and the flowers are just beginning to come out again. Have you ever seen that? It’s beautiful.

  • Aroma:
    • #1: Heavy. Where does this flower come from?
    • #2: Less stinky cheese
    • #3: Tart, sour?
    • #4: dark, rich
    • #5: not much
  • Color:
    • #1: brown.
    • #2:
    • #3: opaque, grainy, deep yellow.
    • #4: lite amber
    • #5: very pale
  • Texture:
    • #1: Flows stringy. Sticky. Textured medium.
    • #2: cake-batter like
    • #3: globby, thick, grainy. Very sticky, with air bubbles.
    • #4: silky, glossy
    • #5: ribbons well
  • Mouth feel:
    • #1: Intense, floral
    • #2: mildly gritty
    • #3: grainy, sticky, slightly tart
    • #4: mostly smooth, bit of grit, maybe bubbles?
    • #5: soft, dissolves well on tongue
  • Tasting notes:
    • #1: Almost too floral. Not so sweet!
    • #2: very sweet.
    • #3: With bread: sweet, grainy, slightly tart. Without bread, tart, like lemon, sweet.
    • #4: Rich, caramelized, sweet
    • #5: Sweet and rich, flowery, tasty!

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Honey number 4: Golden honey from Sandts Honey Co., (packed) in Easton, PA. 0/5 votes in favor. Don’t be fooled by the votes. It’s not that this honey is bad. It really isn’t. It’s that this honey tastes like honeybear honey. When most of us think of honey, especially those of us who don’t like honey, this is what we think of. This is the honey flavor that gave six year old me heart eyes, until it got the better of me. Just don’t let it get the better of you.

  • Aroma:
    • #1: floral but light: perfume.
    • #2:
    • #3: burnt sugar, not super strong.
    • #4: moderate. “normal” honey
    • #5: Not much smell.
  • Color:
    • #1: light gold, yellow
    • #2: marmalade
    • #3: amber, classic honey.
    • #4: amber, clear
    • #5: soft, w/ bubbles. Holds shape. Browner yellow.
  • Texture:
    • #1: Thin strings, runs fast
    • #2: smooth
    • #3: classic honey, mid syrupy, small air bubbles.
    • #4: smooth, runny
    • #5:
  • Mouth feel:
    • #1: no depth, just perfume. Not honey.
    • #2:
    • #3: sticky, smooth, coats tongue.
    • #4: smooth, silky
    • #5: overpowering rich sweetness. Gross.
  • Tasting notes:
    • #1: Not a favorite.
    • #2: tart (1st impression) honey (2nd impression)
    • #3: with bread: overpowered by bread. Without bread: sweet, classic honey flavor.
    • #4: caramelized.
    • #5: not my favorite. Heavy.

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Honey 5: Orange Blossom honey from Newkirk Honey, Scranton, PA. 3/5 votes in favor. This honey is more like a thick marmalade than what we would usually consider a honey. It’s completely crystalised, with an entire orange slice encased in the jar. It needs a sturdy toast for spreading, but the powerful flavor will probably appeal to eaters of blue cheese and drinkers of sherry.

  • Aroma:
    • #1: pure sugar.
    • #2: Lightly stinky feet.
    • #3: Citrusy, grainy.
    • #4: lite (tad citrus), cream.
    • #5: rich orange.
  • Color:
    • #1: Beige
    • #2: applesauce.
    • #3: Deep yellow, almost.
    • #4: lite carmel color.
    • #5: heavy, crystallized entirely
  • Texture:
    • #1: Pasty, glob-like. No strings.
    • #2: Thick globs.
    • #3: Thick, applesauce.
    • #4: crystal – hard
    • #5: clumpy
  • Mouth feel:
    • #1: Glue with sand.
    • #2: grit melts in mouth.
    • #3: grainy, paste.
    • #4: gritty
    • #5: sugary, crumbly
  • Tasting notes:
    • #1: Unusual texture, little back of mouth.
    • #2: sugary, fruity, light. This must be what a field of wildflowers in warm sun tastes like.
    • #3: with bread: orange, navel orange, sweet. Without bread: orange, “honey” flavor in back of throat.
    • #4: citrus, orange, lite floral notes.
    • #5: orange soda, overwhelming over time.

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Honey 6: Forest honey from Apicoltura Cazzola, in Italy. 5/5 votes in favor. It turns out (I didn’t know this when I bought the honey) that Forest honey is made not from the nectar bees collect from plants, but from the honeydew they collect from aphids. It’s still honey, but it tends to be darker and has a higher mineral content. At any rate, this honey was unanimously voted the favorite of all the ones we tried. It’s an excellent balance between rich and sweet, with (according to the label) flavors of golden raisins, cinnamon, and brown sugar.

  • Aroma:
    • #1: Intense, strong.
    • #2: dry hay stack or straw.
    • #3: Sour, funky, molasses, deep sweetness, foresty.
    • #4: honey, autumn.
    • #5: faint richness.
  • Color:
    • #1: Dark carmel.
    • #2: caramelized sugar.
    • #3: Deep golden with lighter specks.
    • #4: dark amber.
    • #5: dark amber with white crystals.
  • Texture:
    • #1: Clumps, thick.
    • #2: treacle.
    • #3: Globby, chunky, slightly syrup.
    • #4: hard, molasses.
    • #5: smooth with crispy hints.
  • Mouth feel:
    • #1: Bits of comb.
    • #2:
    • #3: sticky, chunky, slightly wild feeling.
    • #4: gritty, viscuous.
    • #5: robust, rich.
  • Tasting notes:
    • #1: cool.
    • #2: Tart marmalade, orangy.
    • #3: With bread: medicinal, funky. Without bread, medicinal finish, deep sweetness.
    • #4: fresh, floral.
    • #5: lovely crunch, traditional dark honey flavor, earthy, rich.

Sources:

Hilda Ransome’s The sacred bee in ancient times and folklore is an excellent resource for anyone who wants the big picture look at the history of bees and their symbolic importance to the cultures of the world. It was first published in 1937, so some of the information is outdated.

Gene Kritsky’s The Tears of Re: Beekeeping in Ancient Egypt, is a much more in-depth look at Egypt’s relationship with the bee. It’s a fascinating book especially for anyone with an interest in the specifics of ancient beekeeping.

Eva Crane was a world expert on the subject, but if you can get your hands on her Rock Art of the Honey Hunters or The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting, you’ll have done better than I could. Or the Archaeology of Beekeeping.

Tammy Horn’s article in the New York Times, Honey Bees: A History, is a good overview of the history of the bee itself, and her sources are a good gateway into the larger world of honeybee natural history.

The Smithsonian has an article on The Science Behind Honey’s Eternal Shelf Life, but considering it’s the Smithsonian I’m a little disappointed. The rumor that unopened jars of still-good honey have been found in ancient tombs, is, as far as I know, just a rumor. There is a story about the body of a child being preserved in a jar of honey, which was discovered by an unfortunate group of adventurers, who only realized the child was there after they’d eaten enough of the honey to uncover the body. I don’t believe that particular jar was that old, though. Honey definitely has a long shelf life – but whether it’s that long, we still don’t know.

Helen Anderson wrote a blog post for the British Museum on cataloguing African Rock Art with depictions of bees and honeyhunting.

For more information on forest honey, check out this article on Apicoltura Cazzola.

This is a fun article on the habits of bears.

Andrew Newey has taken incredible pictures of Honey Hunters in Nepal.

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