I’m back in Canada after a week in Europe. It’s cooler here (21C today) than Hungary’s 39C. It’s been much too dry on the western Canadian prairies – that’s probably going to hurt the honey crop and maybe even the millions of acres of wheat, lentils, and canola in our area. It’s already August, so perhaps grains will fill out as they should, but beekeepers who were hoping for a late season nectar flow might be disappointed.
Things like temperatures and inches of rain are clearly factual while the effects of heat and drought on crops are conjecture. Everyone understands that. There is (for most of us) an ability to differentiate fact from fiction or speculation. But lately, we’ve seen a lot of misrepresentations posing as reality. It’s getting tedious. I’m not going to write about politics, alternative facts, or the pervasive misleading news which is numbing and dumbing us. I’ll stick to something I know – truth and exaggeration in beekeeping.
The idea of writing about beekeeping’s little white lies came to me when I was heading home from Hungary. The trigger was a newspaper story I had read in Europe. As I’ve noted in my previous posts about last week’s trip abroad, bees are taken very seriously in central Europe. So, you can expect to see newspaper filler pieces (like the one below) about the goodness of honey. The headline, “A méz időtlen“, means that honey is timeless and within the article (where I’ve circled) we’re told that honey was found in a 3,300 year-old Egyptian tomb and it is “tökéletes állapotban” – in perfect condition. Perfect nonsense.
If you’ve been keeping bees for awhile, you probably heard this before: Archeologists break into an Egyptian tomb, find some honey pots and “the honey is as good as new”. That’s only true if the honey was black, thick as tar, and inedible when it was new. Tar-like and inedible is what the archeologists discovered. After 3,300 years, honey will no longer look or taste like honey. Lab analysis of the samples found in the tomb shows high sugar content and pollen grains from nectar-producing plants, so the gooey stuff was called “honey”. A few years ago, I sent notes to websites where I saw the Egyptian tomb story and asked if they could provide sources. Only the National Honey Board and one blogger wrote back to me saying that they didn’t have the original reference. The NHB has since removed the anecdote. (Some of the mummy tale comes from Howard Carter who opened King Tut’s tomb in 1922. He described an 8-inch-tall ceramic container that he thought had a residue of honey along the bottom. In that case, it turned out to be castor oil.)
[Update, March 2019: The blog Vitamina Bee has a long post on this subject. It’s worth a read.]
Dirty honey. Egyptian pharaohs aren’t the only source of dubious honey claims. I once toured a beekeeper’s shop in Florida which was, well, pretty messy. The fellow who owned it knew that I was uncomfortable when I turned down a chance to taste some awful smelling stuff from a big tank. It looked like honey, but… “Hell, Ron, what’re’ya worried about? Germs can’t live in honey.” Perhaps not. But lots of nasty stuff can fall into an open honey tank. The idea that “germs can’t live in honey” has some truth – honey is an incredibly good antiseptic. But that’s no excuse for a sloppy honey shop. Acids, hydrogen peroxide, and osmosis may kill most germs in honey. We might use this fact to promote the goodness of honey, but claiming miracles is best left to the folks working at Lourdes.
If we exaggerate the wonders of honey, we’re not doing ourselves any favours. If we stretch the truth to excuse a dirty shop, we are hurting everyone. You’ll sell more honey by keeping it wholesome and by singing its advantages over processed sugar than you will by advertising it as a panacea (or as a multi-spectrum cure-all for dementia, cancer, and dry, itchy, red-patch dandruff).
More untruths. Einstein, the poor chap who wasted thirty years of his life fighting quantum physics and trying to discover a Grand Unifying Theory of the Universe is better known today for saying, “If bees disappear, man will survive for only four years.” He never said it. He never said it. In all his millions of written and recorded words, bees simply never came up.
Although Albert Einstein wasn’t known to claim that human extinction would follow the collapse of honey bees, his fake quote has been useful for anyone raising money on the theme of impending extinction of the honey bee – another fallacy. This one’s a whopper. There are now billions more honey bees in the world than there were 50 years ago. The world has never had more honey bees, ever, in its entire history. Honey bees are not going extinct. This doesn’t mean that all is well in the Garden of Beedom. Pollution, climate change, pesticides, and monoculture have made beekeeping harder than ever. And the gentle bumble bee really is endangered in some areas. But honey bees? As long as they have growing economic value as pollinators and honey producers, their numbers will keep expanding.
The truth – does it matter? Exaggeration gets attention. Maybe it’s for a good cause. So what’s wrong with lying? If you honour veracity over fallacy, truthing means something to you. Credibility is valuable. There is no reason to stretch the truth with honey bees. The truth about bees and honey is fascinating enough without fabrications: Honey can be stored (without refrigeration, preservatives, or vacuum-packing) for years. Honey acts as a powerful antiseptic and is a good healthy food. Similarly, although honey bees are not going extinct, we can still vigilantly defend the environment and draw attention to those creatures which really are disappearing. But “cry wolf” without cause, as the little shepherd boy discovered, and people will eventually ignore you. Speak the truth without embellishments, and smart people will pay attention.
Spot on, Ron. It is amazing how the entire public is saturated with the idea that bees are on the endangered species list. I weekly get asked something to the effect: “I heard the bees are all dying… what do you think?” I simply reply, “Like many things we hear today via the media, it is mostly hype.” A few will ask more questions and want to understand more, but most want to live with what they think is true and politely nod and change the subject.
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Thanks. Hype sells. Sympathy for bees and beekeeping has been beneficial to us. But the truth – which can be confirmed and verified – should always prevail. I think that the ecologists who are reporting loss of habitat and endangered status for some other types of bees are right – I’ve read their papers and the research is sound. But for most people, a bee is a bee and most folks can’t be bothered to differentiate commercially managed bees from other species. When I’m asked about honey bee extinction, my answer is similar to yours, but I add that beekeeping has been more difficult lately – beekeepers have to work harder and spend more money to keep hives alive and healthy. But by then, a lot of people stop hearing me.
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Hi Ron, I totally agree with you! The world of bees is already full of wonder and we don’t need to spread false facts.
However, I found the fact about honey in the egyptian tomb in many books and on the national geographic site too (http://www.nationalgeographic.com.au/history/honey-in-the-pyramids.aspx) I thought it was true!
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Thanks for your comments and for the link! National Geo is wrong, of course. 🙂 Did you have a chance to read the comments at the end of the NG story? They are worth a minute.
National Geographic funds some good exploration work, but their on-line fluff pieces tend to be a bit fluffy. No citations; no references. It looks like they found the info somewhere on the ‘net! (But not on my pages!)
Yes I’ve read the comments and even in my books that talk about that “myth” I found no references at all! National geographic recently published an article about bees here in Italy with an image of a hoverfly 😦
That’s a little bit sad.
But thanks again for the info!
Have a nice day!
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Thank you for stating the truth, let’s hope it helps a little amidst all the fact bending out there. I heard a good bee/bird analogy recently – honey bees are the chickens of the bee world. Nobody worries about chickens going extinct.
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I hadn’t heard this analogy before, but it makes some sense, at least on the commercial/business level, doesn’t it?
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An interesting concept with some truth. Would 3000 year old honey kill you? Probably not but it would not taste good either. Some people would envision a golden honey bear.
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So true! The ‘honey’ would probably be well-preserved. But it would be dried out, darkened, and poor-flavoured. Certainly not like Farmers Market honey!
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