The Remarkable History and Healing Power of Honey

©. K Martinko -- The curious stingless honey bees of the Yucatan, Mexico

How did honey go from being the world's most important food to an undervalued afterthought? Gastropod explores why this happened.

Honey is one of those ordinary pantry staples that we take for granted, and yet it used to be one of the world’s most important foods. This makes it an excellent topic for exploration on Gastropod, a collection of podcasts hosted by Nicola Twilley and Cynthia Graber, that explore food from an historical and scientific perspective.

Gastropod’s 45-minute podcast, called “The Buzz on Honey,” is a fascinating journey into an ingredient that once featured prominently in the lives of our ancestors, but has now become as ordinary as butter and jam—a most unfortunate loss.

Although there is evidence of wild honey-seeking by humans as far back as 6,000 B.C.E., the earliest records of domesticated beekeeping date to 2450 B.C.E., on an ancient Egyptians bas-relief. Described by entomologist Gene Kritsky, author of Tears of Re: Beekeeping in Ancient Egypt, this image is the first to depict honey bees being kept in an artificial cavity.

Honey was so valuable in Egypt at the time that it was used as currency. Marriage vows included a husband’s promise to provide his new wife with honey. There was even a civil service devoted to honey. The Egyptians knew how to use smoke to calm bees, although they wouldn’t have understood the science behind inhibiting the bees’ chemical communication and preventing them from panicking.

Later, the ancient Romans used honey, and honey still features in many modern Italian recipes from that region, according to Hattie Ellis, author of cookbook Spoonfuls of Honey. The 1100s, however, were the peak of honey consumption, with Europeans eating an estimated 4.5 pounds of honey per person each year. It was the only source of sweetness at the time. (While dates are sweeter, they require a hot, dry climate to grow.) Consumption dropped to less than a half-pound per person per year at the turn of the 20th century, having lost its supremacy to sugar.

Monasteries were the main beekeepers in the Middle Ages, as Europe’s immense, dark cathedrals required beeswax for illumination. Beeswax, unlike tallow made from animal fat, burns bright and clean, leaving almost no ash. It wasn’t until 1900 that the Pope allowed churches to burn non-beeswax candles, which meant that monks had a big responsibility to produce sufficient beeswax. A related benefit, of course, was the mead (fermented honey) that they were able to drink on the side!

beeswax candles

storebrukkebruse -- Beeswax tapers/CC BY 2.0

Honey is a natural antibacterial substance, used since Egyptian times to heal cuts and burns. Because it contains so little water, it can kill yeast and other bacteria by sucking water right out of the cells. Certain kinds of honey even react with human bodily fluids to produce hydrogen peroxide, a natural antiseptic. It’s not hard to see why the Egyptians considered honey to have magical powers.

Bees themselves are incredible little creatures. They collect both nectar (sugars) and pollen (essentially plant sperm, rich in lipids and protein). The pollen is used to feed their young and the nectar is inserted into wax cells where the water evaporates, the sugars are broken down, and the bees are left with a rich source of carbohydrates—basically, energy goo—with which they can survive the long winters.

Climate change, pesticides, and mites, however, are wreaking havoc with bee populations. Every year in the United States, colonies lose 30 to 40 percent of their population on average. The losses appear to have stabilized in recent year, but bees are far from safe.

The podcast calls on consumers to appreciate honey, to realize its incredibly rich history and uniqueness, and to do whatever we can to preserve bee populations, both honey bees and the other 20,000 bee species that exist. The best thing one can do? Plant flowers and do not spray them.

Take a listen here, and your morning toast with honey will never be the same.