Honey, a Taste Sweeter Than Wine

Bees bee faceTHE BEE.

Like trains of cars on tracks of plush
I hear the level bee:
A jar across the flowers goes,
Their velvet masonry

Withstands until the sweet assault
Their chivalry consumes,
While he, victorious, tilts away
To vanquish other blooms.

His feet are shod with gauze,
His helmet is of gold;
His breast, a single onyx
With chrysoprase, inlaid.

Photo credit: Su-lin

Photo credit: Su-lin

His labor is a chant,
His idleness a tune;
Oh, for a bee’s experience
Of clovers and of noon!

~~ Emily Dickinson ~~

I used to run through the clover behind my childhood home, grasping a Mason jar, snapping clover flowers off their stems with a twist of the lid, capturing the honey bees grazing among the tiny purplish flowers. Thrilling in the hunt, reveling in the capture. When I let the buzzing souls go, did they find their way home? Did their hive mates let them in? Did they deliver their quota of pollen and nectar? Or did they die in mid-air, their honey supplies running low? Did they sputter and fizzle like a car strangled by the heat of the Mojave?

Photo credit: USDA

Photo credit: USDA

Now I look outside my window, and I watch the honey bees [Apis mellifera] darting and dipping into the purple flowers of the butterfly bush, antennae by wing with myriad butterflies. And in that timeless dance, the bees hover above the blossoms, drunk with the enticing aromas and colors of the flowers. Just as their long-ago ancestors did when they co-evolved with blooms blanketing forests and fields,  modern bees still produce their own food — amber-colored honey.*

And for humans, as early as the Stone Age, the sweetness of honey sparked many things, including art.

A cave painting found in 1924 in Bicorp, not far from Valencia, portrays one of the first European artistic renditions of men seeking to rob a wild honeycomb. (E. Hernandez-Pacheco. “Las pinturas prehistóricas de las cuevas de la araña (Valencia). Mem. Com. Investigaciones paleontológicas, Madrid, No. 34, 1924.) In Zimbabwe, in southern Africa, images of honey-gathering also appear, drawn on rocks. (H. Pager. “Rock paintings in Southern Africa showing bees and honey hunting.” Bee World 54 (2): 61-68, 1973.)

Bees beeswax candles

Beeswax Candle

Later, the Egyptians figured out how to harness the bee’s golden treasure, giving birth to beekeeping. And Hernán Cortés, the treasure-coveting Spaniard who conquered Mexico, wrote that the Aztecs practiced beekeeping; they used honey to pay taxes.

The busy bees in my butterfly bush remind me of my own dazzling treasure. I walk to the pantry and my eyes search the shelves. Ah, yes, there, hidden behind the flour and the vanilla.

As I clutch the jar of honey, with a wedge of  honeycomb packed tightly into the thick — almost unctuous — fluid, I decide to honor the honeybee with an ode, but not one of flowery words and fleeting observations, nor a faulty Keatsian effort.

The following words express what I feel about these tiny insects whose sting kills,** but whose diligent efforts deserve more than an irritated swat:

Imagine a world in which the lights went out until daybreak as soon as the sun went down; a world in which, year in and year out, you could never taste anything sweeter than a piece of fruit, a world in which there was no satisfactory way of getting drunk. Imagine huddling in the dark on a cold winter’s night with neither sweets nor alcohol for comfort. If you got wounded in this world, your wound might well fester, untreated. If you got a sore throat, there would be no syrup to soothe it.  It would not be unlivable, this life, but it would not contain much of the sweetness that helps us to swallow the bitter pill of existence.

This is what life would have been like for our distant ancestors had it not been for the presence of honey bees, those marvellous insects the Apis mellifera, which supplied them, if they could afford it, with artificial light from wax, with intoxication from mead, and, above all, with energy from golden, dripping honey, a medicine as well as a food … (Bee Wilson, The Hive: The Story of the Honeybee and Us, 2004)

Bees, more crucial than we realize for the life of all of us, not just flowers.

Let us begin with a series of images, the ones in question from the ancients. That’s how a larger perspective eventually emerges:

Humans and Bees at Bicorp

Humans and Bees at Bicorp

Beese in Egyptian Hieroglyphs

Bees in Egyptian Hieroglyphs

More Bees in Egyptian Hieroglyphs

More Bees in Egyptian Hieroglyphs

Sumerian Bee Goddess

Sumerian Bee Goddess

Omphalos Stone

Omphalos Stone, Greece

A recipe? Simple.

1 jar of honey, with honeycomb
2 large napkins

Open jar. Grab honeycomb firmly between your thumb and index finger. Slurp. Apply napkins where necessary.

To be continued.

* And sometimes darker.

**Honey bees die when they sting, and their stings can kill sensitive people and animals. In Haiti, a friend kept bees and one day they swarmed around a donkey and stung it to death. Of course, my friend bought the donkey’s owner a new animal.

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

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