Who could it be unannounced at the door in this sultry afternoon of the numbered last days of March, one wondered. Upon opening the door a voice spontaneously asked, “Hum madhumakhhi ke ghosla sey sehed nikal rahe hai aap loge?” (We extract honey from honeycombs. Will you take it?)
A simple question thrown at me meant to know if I needed honey as they; the traditional beekeepers scouted my neighbourhood to extract honey straight from hives in the blossoming mango trees. Nodding with a silent decline, I closed the door, but neither the visual of a small jar of honey nor its extractor with his unkempt, unshaven face and deep wide eyes filled with centuries of indigenous knowledge went off my head.
What if one day not so long in future there would be no more bees, no honey and no beekeepers! A pondering thought of a world falling apart with climate crisis has already been a scare and now my mind signaled more beeps as I had a flash thought of collapsing food production, and a world without a jar of honey. How unsweetened our existence would be, after all there is no dearth of bitterness and destruction that we have brought upon ourselves!
The Buzz In our Lives
Bees exist in all kinds of climates, from the tropical forest of Brazil, to deserts of the Middle East and Africa and even in the Artic Circles. A single bee colony has the ability to pollinate a whopping number of 300 million flowers in a given day!
And approximately 75% of the world’s produce (crop) is reliant on pollinators and one third of world’s supply are dependent on bees. Only in the United States crops worth $15billion are annually powered by the pollination of the honeybees.
Unwantedly the bee diversity has been dwindling ,and it has alarmed everyone from a more curious consumer watching nature documentaries in the comfort of drawing rooms to the biologists, scientists and the bee farmers, least to say the entire animal world thousands of whom are inherently dependent on the bees for their food source of fruits, seeds, nuts.
Beekeepers of North America have lost 40% of their honeybee colonies in just seven months between the fall of 2018 to the spring – summer of 2019 while 10 million hives have disappeared from the face of the earth in last three years!
The reasons of havoc are tangibly more than one; fluctuating temperatures, a result of climate change, loss of habitat aggravated by non-sustainable development and rise of infectious parasite, powerful enough to reduce world bee population. It’s a no-brainer to understand the humongous scale of ecological and economic consequences that this declining bee diversity will bring about.
But in more glorious days of honeybees, things were different.
The Glorious Bumbling Past
‘Bee keeping, as Tickner Edward, one of the foremost authorities on the subject famously remarked, is the oldest craft under the sun and the bee hives the primordial civilization on earth”. Human-honey bee relationship is a prehistoric one dating 6000BC in Mesolithic period and evidences of honey bees appear in cave paintings, in the beeswax used for casting jewelry and weapons of Bronze Age and hieroglyphs of Egypt.
To that Ancient Egypt and its people got into this sweet relationship much before others, even before the days of Pharaohs and pyramids. There are proofs of extensive apiculture and honey was seemingly omnipresent in all aspects of Egyptian lives – the cultural, social, religious, and political.
Interestingly bees represented political authority in Egypt and as Pharaohs were thought to be incarnated deities, venerated too, bees were believed to be, associated to divinity.
They featured in religious texts which later acted as repository of information about systematic history of beekeeping. By 1500BC beekeeping was an industry in Ancient Egypt with know-how of production practices. Egyptians made hives from the clay of the Nile and moved the hives on specially crafted rafts during the seasons of flowers, letting the bees pollinate them. When flowers withered, the bees were released in a new location, a production practice that still prevails.
Production of honey was a huge affair in Egypt and there were designated office bearers. A significant designation was of those in charge of sealing the honey pots - The Sealer Of The Honey. The finer the sealer’s skill, the more sought after he would be for the production, for it was a jar’s perfect sealing that governed the shelf life of honey.
Such was its importance that a perfectly sealed jar of honey could be decisive for a marriage. Evidently marriage contracts had promises of a particular number of yearly supply of jars of honey to the bride to be, while a Egyptian funerary ritual would remain incomplete without the placement of sealed jars of honey within the sarcophagi chambers.
If this was the ancient Egyptian story of embracing honey and its producer, the Romans some centuries later were no less smitten by the honey bees.
Virgil one of the greatest Italian poets of all time, a Napolitano (resident of Naples) erudite and cultured lived a quiet and eclectic rural life amongst his lemon grooves surrounded by bee hives. Consequently, the concept of ‘idyllic’ recurs in his poetic expressions in one of his three most important works ‘Georgics’ where he describes ‘the flowery walks of peace’.
Surprisingly closer home, mention of honey is more recent than the Egyptian or roman records. Arabia Felix mentions of Arab Peninsula’s unmatched wealth its perfumed jungles, gold mines, and its production of honey and wax.
Arabs knew beekeeping. Bee hives were called kawarah were built with stalks, mud or cavities made of wood, while apiaries were addressed as masane’a which means factories.
Bees were held in high regard during Islamic times, as they featured amongst the 128 verses of Surah an Nahl; the 16th chapter of the Holy Quran.
Honey bees are one of the living beings to receive direct instructions from The God (Allah) in verse 68 and 69 posing an example of industriousness for mankind.
The Liquid Gold
Truly industriousness remains is at the core of all human-honey bee engagement. Be it the apiculture or various usage of honey, in culinary and medicinal practices, we have imbibed, the patience and complex methods that a bee uses in creating its beautiful outcome. Eminently the vast range of desserts and food where honey is the key ingredient is also the best marker of man’s bee love.
From the earliest reference of honey extracted in the tomb art of Rekhmire (ca.1479-1425BC) an Egyptian noble, and governor of the prosperous town of Thebes to impressions of a simple cake found in the tomb art of Pharaoh Ramesses II made of honey, dates, nuts and flour to the iconic Egyptian dessert Feteer Meshaltel, a fine folded pastry that likely have influenced French croissant, honey has been integral to food of MENA region particularly the sweet dishes.
As such honey cakes of all forms are made even today in Greece, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, UAE and Turkey, additional to heavenly deserts like Mshabak (Lebanese), Qatayef (Arab), Aish El Saraya(Lebanese) which are part of celebratory food.
From 180 BC when the recipes of Enkhytoi honey cakes, a moulded cake simply made of honey, flour and eggs appeared in the first ever printed Greek cook book Deipnosophistae to magical pastries created by the first Emirati female chef Sahar Param Al Awadhi, honey never deserted us.
It is imperative to know that your Zainab Fingers or Feeter Meshaltel would never taste the same without those translucent layers of honey. And because they must continue to taste the same or the wound that traditionally heals with honey must be no way altered with another remedial, guarding and saving the bees is the oath that you can take this June 5th.
The world desperately needs sweetness and wouldn’t it be a good idea to secure the honeypot and its maker!
Nilosree is an author and filmmaker