Sunday, August 15, 2010

Just Finished: A Book that Hums

Sweetness & Light: The Mysterious History of the Honeybee by Hattie Ellis

Did you know that honeybees:
1. Hum at middle C.
2. Sweat nectar.
3. Can beat their wings at 200 times per second.
4. Are not native to America.
5. Can see every color but red (and many red flowers have reflect UV which bees can see or have purple in them.)
6. Do a complicated dance to show other worker bees when they've found a new source of nectar. The dance is more frantic depending on the quantity of nectar. They also show their fellow bees obstacles on the path to the nectar source such as trees.

Several people have asked me how I chose to read a book about honeybees. Have you ever had honey? It's an amazing substance that never goes bad, has antibacterial qualities, and tastes and looks different depending on the type of flower nectar used. The creatures behind such stuff have to be fascinating.

Hattie Ellis, a British food writer, agrees. Ellis scanned the history books and spanned the globe researching the past of the honeybee, which has been a part of cultures on every inhabited continent. A few hundred years ago in England, people used to tell their bees all the latest news, whispering into the hive about engagements and other gossip. They appear in the writings of Morman leader Joseph Smith and, for a while, Utah was called Deseret, which is a word they used for bees. Bees have often been considered as exemplifying what it means to be a hard worker. And they frequently make appearances in literature and art.

Once, England and America hummed with the sound of millions of bees kept by ministers, housewives, and dignitaries among others. They were a hot commodity with new species carefully imported from locales such as Africa and Greece and exported to England, France, America, and New Zealand. Amateur and professional scientists mixed the different varieties of bees trying to discover the calmest bees that produced the most honey.

They also carefully watched the hives trying to discover the intimate inner workings of the colonies--was the head bee a king or queen (the answer sometimes depended on who sat on the throne), did all bees lay eggs or just the queen bee, what made bees swarm... Through the careful observation of scientists working across countries and centuries, beekeepers learned how to best care for their bees, how to protect their colonies, and how to get the most flavorful honey. Beekeeping has truly been a cottage industry, developed by those who cherished this fascinating insect and their sweet syrup.

Today, backyard beekeepers are fewer than in the past. Mites have plagued the bees of every country from Australia to America, making it very difficult to maintain a small number of hives. Multiflower, heat processed, nutrient stripped honey has taken the place of homegrown honey on supermarket shelves (its runnier than unprocessed and doesn't have the antibacterial qualities, by the way.) Yet, people continue to care for bees and, in the past several years, honey has become a 'foodie' item with honeys being imported from all over the world. The resurgence of alternative medicine related to the health benefits of different types of honeys has also made honey such as manuka honey from New Zealand–a much sought after and very expensive honey.

City beekeepers in Chicago, New York, and Paris are also trying to emphasize the importance of bees and their pollinating value by keeping them in local parks and on rooftops where they produce local honey that is sold at farmers markets and educates the public on the gentleness of the insect.

See, I told you they were fascinating creatures. I think everyone would get a great dose of appreciation for Creation by delving into this fascinating, entertaining book. I know my interest and appetite have been whetted, not to mention that I just discovered a variety of honeys at my local grocery store, which I never would have noticed sans this book (esp since China honey is the runniest, homogeneous stuff you've ever encountered). If you pick up a copy of Sweetness & Light, I think you, like me, will find yourself all abuzz! (Sorry, I couldn't resist.)

Reading next--Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go despite the fact that I detested When We Were Orphans. The new movie coming out with Carey Mulligan piqued my interest.


eva said...

fascinating! can i borrow the book?
i detested "when we were orphans" as well...

Flynn said...

Definitely. Someone has it out at the moment, but I'll put you next in line! Did you understand 'When We Were Orphans'? I felt like I was in a dark tunnel the whole time I read it.

scs said...

remember the bee crisis? i'm still so worried for them. did the book address this? i met some suburban beekeepers this summer and was mesmerized by their bees!

Flynn said...

It did talk about them. About the mites mostly and how to control them without using pesticides or too many pesticides. Poor bees.