Substance of the Year 2009





In November 2007, Farming Minister Lord Rooker predicted that the English honeybee might be extinct within a decade if more is not done to protect it. In July 2008, the Honey Association warned that stocks of English honey would run dry by Christmas, after which no more would be available until summer 2009. Shortly thereafter, the British Beekeepers’ Association (BBKA) reported that c.30% of the UK’s 240,000 honeybee hives had not survived the winter – a loss BBKA president Tim Lovett called ‘deeply worrying’.


The causes of this decline in the bee population (and therefore the honey supply) are unclear. The BBKA has urged the government to increase funding into bee diseases such as the Varroa mite, which entered Britain in 1992 and has ravaged the wild bee population. Honey stocks in other countries have also suffered recently. The vast Argentinian honeybee population has been damaged both by droughts and the conversion of land to the growth of soya beans for biofuel. And, the mysterious ‘colony collapse disorder’ has been blamed for the death of c.36% of American honeybees.


One of the earliest depictions of honey harvesting comes from 15,000-year-old cave paintings found near Valencia, Spain, in which a stick figure climbs a ladder to collect the sweet treat. The ancient Egyptians revered honey as the food of kings – Tutankhamun was found buried with a pot of honey said still to be edible. Many have surmised that the ambrosia offered to the gods of Ancient Greece was honey, and there are numerous biblical references to honey, most famously the ‘land of milk and honey’ for which the Israelites searched.


Honey is predominately made up of carbohydrates – fructose (c.38%) and glucose (c.31%), as well as small quantities of sucrose, maltose, isomaltose, maltulose, turanose, and kojibiose, and traces of various enzymes, vitamins, and minerals. Since fructose tastes slightly sweeter than sucrose, honey tastes, on average, 1·5× sweeter than sugar. Honey also contains traces of hydrogen peroxide, which research suggests might give it some medicinal benefits. Scientists at Aintree Hospital, Liverpool, and the University of Wales have suggested that manuka honey can help prevent MRSA when applied to wounds.


Consumers of honey are not the only ones affected by the honeybee crisis. According to DEFRA, honeybees contribute £165m a year to the British economy by pollinating fruits and vegetables. And a global shortage of honeybees could be devastating. As Albert Einstein apparently prognosticated: ‘If the bee disappears off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left.’