PITTSBURG, Kan. —
I love honey.
Love, love, love it. Great on biscuits, wonderful on cornbread, excellent drizzled over Greek yogurt.
I am enamored with the idea that it is, as far as I can determine, the oldest natural food source used by humans. We’re talking 13,000 B.C., when it was documented in cave paintings.
I’m picky and get ours in the pure form from McCune farmer Darron Swartz, who sells it at the farmers market.
But this summer, a new housing development built in our neighborhood shed a whole different light on my honey consumption. The development is little — and when I say little, I mean about the size of a human head. It is composed of hundreds of hexagons. See where I’m going with this?
On my walk down our rural lane one morning, neighbor Tom Woolbright invited me to take a peek at this development, which was built in his yard on the limb of a redbud tree. It was the first time I had ever seen a hive built in the wild.
My grandfather was a hobby beekeeper. His beekeeper hat and veil made him look extremely exotic for a country doctor in Erie, Kan. But he kept his bees in a traditional row of wooden white hives, and he never let me close enough to look inside. This tree hive — well, it was something else altogether.
My sons peppered me with questions after I took them to see the “wild hive.”
“How do they get each cell to be an exact hexagon?”
“How do they find the pollen?”
“How much pollen does it take to make honey?”
“How do they turn the pollen into honey?”
The answers and photographs I dug up at the Pittsburg Public Library and online would fill this newspaper. Some of them are complex, some fascinating. Some left me perplexed. But I will share the answer to the last question, because despite my long fondness for honey, I never stopped eating it long enough to consider — really consider — the process. The short version is this:
A female worker bee sucks nectar from flowers, which she stores in her special “honey stomach.” After the bee visits 150 to 1,500 flowers, that stomach weighs almost as much as she does, so she returns to the hive with her load.
There, a hive bee greets her, and they do a mouth-to-mouth transfer. The recipient bee processes the substance in its mouth and its own honey stomach, where it adds enzymes that break down the nectar’s complex sugars into simple sugars. That makes it more digestible and gives it such a long shelf life, hence the discovery of it in Egyptian tombs.
Bees deposit this stuff on a cell wall, where it evaporates with the help of warmth and bees fanning the air with their wings. Voila: honey.
Despite learning of the intimate involvement of insect body parts, my love for honey has not diminished. No, I have a greater respect: This time of year, those bees at Tom’s hive are working themselves to death. At the end of her life of some 35 days, a honey bee’s wings become frayed and she is no longer useful, so the colony rejects her.
If thousands of bees do this out at Swartz’s place each year, I get my jars of honey.
What a weird, wild, interesting world. I’m going to have to think on this some more, perhaps over a plate of biscuits.
Have an idea for a column? Email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit Facebook at Andra Bryan Stefanoni, Staff Writer - The Joplin Globe. Visit the Globe’s newest Facebook page at Joplin Globe: Pittsburg, Kan.
PITTSBURG, Kan. —
I love honey.
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