Friday, April 23, 2010

Sweetness & Light: The Mysterious History of the Honeybee

As an organic gardener, I am concerned with the health of the soil and the beneficial insects who pollinate crops and keep pests in check. "Colony Collapse Disorder", the mysterious die-off of honeybee hive populations, has been in the news for the past few years. Who are these insects and how did they come to be so important? Hattie Ellis’ Sweetness & Light: The Mysterious History of the Honeybee promises to answer that question but does so only imperfectly.

She starts out well enough, tracing first the evolutionary history of the honeybee, and then its relationship to humans. I was surprised to learn that in those same caves with the prehistoric paintings of bison and horses, are prehistoric paintings of honeybees and the collection of wild honey. She goes on to describe the most recent speculations as to how honeybees moved from the wild to become part of the domestic landscape, the use of honey in ancient cuisines and then traces the historical arc of beekeeping from ancient times to modern day, including the introduction of the honeybee to North America by European colonists.

My problem with this wealth of information is Ms. Ellis’ Eurocentric focus. She might better have subtitled her book "The Mysterious History of the Honeybee in Europe, North America and New Zealand", New Zealand having once been a British colony (Ms. Ellis is British). Other than a brief mention of Brazil in connection with killer bees and the Himalayas to illustrate her point that honeybees can withstand cold environments, she offers us no information on honeybees or beekeeping in Africa, Asia or South America.

I find it difficult to believe that Europeans were the only peoples to keep honeybees. Didn’t the Chinese invent just about everything? Why not beekeeping? And if wild honey is collected in the Himalayas by Nepalese, doesn’t it stand to reason that the more sophisticated civilizations on the Indian sub-continent would also have had a relationship of some kind with honey and honeybees?

Sweetness & Light is an excellent, but limited, history of honey and honeybees. It left me hungry for more information on these fascinating creatures and their relationships with their environment and humans.

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