To many of us, bees are simply seen as striped honey-making machines, that buzz around our gardens during the summer. However, our airborne accomplices actually play a much more important role in maintaining the planet than we may initially think.
Bees are the pollinators of crops, producers of honey, and pioneers in digital advancement, with some engineers even attempting to emulate their impressive swarm intelligence in today’s technology.
In light of ‘World Bee Day’, MacGregor Black dives deeper into the busy life of the beloved bee, exploring their enormous impact on the world around us.
Let the Truth Bee Told…
With the two most well-known species of honeybee and bumblebee often stealing the limelight, it’s easy to overlook the fact that there are actually over 25,000 different types of bees (which just so happens to be the same number of bee-related puns we’ve worked into this article…)! All of which belong to the insect or Super-Family ‘Apoidea’, which also includes Wasps, from which bees are believed to be descended from… but we don’t hold that against them.
The fact is bees contribute to our eco system in many amazing ways. With one of their most important contributions being, pollination. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, approximately 80% of all flowering plants are pollinated mostly by insects, with birds, bats and bees being ranked as extra important due to their ability to pollinate on such a large scale.
But what makes bees in particular such good mass pollinators? The answer to this question lies in a set of physical features that, in comparison to other animals and insects, gives our fuzzy friends an unexpected edge.
Firstly, they have tiny strands of hair all over their bodies, legs and even eyes, which the plant pollen sticks to and as a result, is shuttled around from flower to flower. These millions of little hairs are extremely important to bees, as they also help with regulating their temperature and detecting vibrations in the atmosphere. Isn’t that the bee’s knees! Secondly, the shape and size of their bodies plays a vital role in pollination, as they’re able to squish inside even the tiniest and most delicate of flowers.
Another factor in the bee’s brilliant ability to mass pollinate is the fact their lives actually depend on it. Honey made from plant pollen and nectar is the main source of protein that bees consume, and they need a strong amount of it in their systems to cope with the rearing of broods and the continued development of their sophisticated colonies.
It’s not just the bee-autiful flowers in our gardens that benefit from bees, many of our favourite fruits and vegetables like, broccoli, asparagus, cucumber, and strawberries, also rely on the pollination of bees, and since cultivated plants like these are an extremely important income to farmers, some are even partnering with beekeepers for support with targeted crop pollination. In fact, about one third of everything we eat globally has been pollinated by bees or other animals, and it’s even been recorded that some bees have been seen to travel a whopping 5-6 miles a day in the process! It’s also interesting to note that, in recent years, with more and more people are opting for a plant-based diet, what we eat being pollinated mainly by bees begins to hold a lot more significance.
These hard-working furry invertebrates have been around for millions of years, not only leading the way in the pollination of flowers, fruit, and vegetables, but also producing the delicious golden delicacy that we all know and love, honey.
“Honey, I’m home!”
As you read this, billions of bees all around the world are busy gathering precious nectar, flying it back to their colonies, and turning it into sweet, sticky honey to see them through the winter. But how does this popular sugary treat make it from their hives to our homes?
Once the flower nectar is gathered, it’s broken down into simple sugars and stored carefully inside the honeycomb. The design and shape of the honeycomb, accompanied by the constant fanning of tiny bees’ wings, causes evaporation inside the hive, resulting in the thick gooey liquid delight that is honey. Luckily for us, bees usually produce more honey than necessary for their hive, meaning beekeepers can harvest and bottle it without impacting the colonies overall food supply. It’s said that on average, a hive will produce a whopping 55 pounds of surplus honey each year!
When ready, beekeepers will harvest the honey by collecting the honeycomb frames, removing the protective wax cap that bees make to seal off the honey, and placing the frames into an extractor. The extractor then rapidly spins the honeycomb, forcing out all the honey in the process. After it’s extracted, the honey is strained to remove any remaining wax or particles.
After straining, it’s then time for the honey to be bottled, labelled, placed on shop shelves, and spread straight across our morning slice of toast. If the honey is pure, not one single additional ingredient is added from bee, to hive, to bottle. It’s also fascinating to note that the taste and look of honey all depends on the type of nectar the bees are collecting. For example, honey made from orange blossom nectar has a zesty kick and can even be lighter in colour, whereas honey from avocado or wildflower nectar can have a darker, more amber colouring to it.
To Bee or Not to Bee?
Beekeeping by nature, surprisingly, doesn’t need a huge investment, large amounts of land or even a complicated technical knowledge. Yet like most other livestock sectors, beekeeping still comes with its fair share of challenges.
One of the largest threats to the beekeeping industry is unfortunately, species decline. When researchers analysed bee records collated by the Global Biodiversity Information Facility from museums, universities, and citizen scientists, they found that there’s been a steep decline in bee species recorded since 1990. In fact, there were approximately 25% fewer species reported between 2006 and 2015 than before the 1990’s. Beekeepers also face a range of other constraints that can contribute to species decline, such as bee pests and predators, the misuse of pesticides and herbicides, bee diseases, colony absconding and a shortage of resources.
However, despite the many challenges that beekeepers have to overcome, the honey industry is currently buzzing. Research from a study conducted by the University of California Agriculture found that in the US alone, the honey industry is responsible for over 22,000 jobs and in 2020, the global honey market was estimated to be valued at just over $8 billion US dollars, which is expected to rise to over $10 billion US dollars by 2026.
Beauty is in the eye of the Bee-holder
Cleopatra, a woman highly renowned for her mesmerising beauty, was known to regularly bathe in milk and honey, helping her maintain her youthful glow. Throughout history, ancient Greek women lathered their faces in honey and olive oil to keep their skin looking as radiant as the infamous Helen of Troy. Queen Elizabeth the 1st, a beauty icon to Elizabethan women, used honey, lemon juice and rosewater as an effective remedy for spots and blemishes. As far back as the days of Tudor England, mythical Greece, and even ancient Egypt, the beauty enhancing qualities of honey have been documented and well utilised by some of history’s most famous faces.
Although we’re far from the days of bathing in milk and honey, today, honey can still be found in most of our much-loved modern-day cosmetics. According to a study conducted by Mintel, a huge 75% of us are likely to use cosmetics containing honey in our every-day lives. From glossy hair conditioners to silky face creams, this natural ingredient has remained a firm fan favourite throughout the decades.
To some, such uses of honey may be surprising, however it’s remained so popular in the cosmetics and healthcare industries because honey and its extracts, like royal jelly, are high in antioxidants and nutrients. Some honey variants, like Manuka honey, have even been proven to contain high levels of antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and antiseptic properties.
To learn more about the mystical range of qualities possessed by Manuka honey, MacGregor Black sat down with Darren Robinson, Commercial Director at Steens Honey, New Zealand’s leading producer of high-grade, raw, unpasteurised Manuka honey.
“What can you tell us about Steens?”
Steens was started by Paul and Sheryl Steens because they wanted to pursue their passion for bringing a better-quality Manuka honey to the market. Both Paul and Sheryl have been beekeeping for over 34 years, so they know a thing or two about honey, and Steens itself currently manages over 10,000 hives across some of the most beautiful parts of New Zealand.
To sum it up, what we do is produce and sell some of the finest raw and unpasteurised Manuka honey, straight from New Zealand.
“What makes Manuka honey so special?”
Manuka honey is truly a unique product and one of the most incredible things that nature provides. It’s made from bees who have fed only from the Manuka bush, which is unique to New Zealand’s rich native forests and is the vital ingredient in taking honey from a natural sweetener, to so much more. The Manuka plant only flowers for six days a year at the height of summer and it takes 12 bees to make a single teaspoon of honey in their lifetime, so it’s all hands-on deck as soon as the plant is ready. We have land teams on standby that notify us when the plant flowers, and we move in as quickly as possible to harvest the pure Manuka honey, sometimes even using a helicopter for efficiency.
We position our hives in some of the most remote parts of New Zealand to make sure the honey isn’t congested with any other type of flower nectar, and to also support the natural economy of the area. When it’s harvesting time, we’ll leave enough honey in the hives, or replace it with a different honey to keep the bees happy and healthy.
“How do you determine that your Manuka Honey is actually Manuka Honey?”
Good quality Manuka honey isn’t just made in New Zealand, it’s also tested there before it leaves the country to confirm its genuine and pure quality Manuka honey. When testing, what we’re looking for is the presence of key signature markers like MGO, Leptosperin and NPA, which are only found in high-quality Manuka honey from New Zealand. All of the Manuka honey made by Steens is UMF Certified, meaning it’s been through the complete advanced testing procedure, and each one of our jars can actually be traced with a code to ensure its authenticity.
“Is it true that Manuka honey has ‘magical’ qualities?”
Well, yes. You could say that!
Manuka honey is probably most renowned for its wound-healing capabilities. Similar to Savlon, it’s been approved in children’s hospitals because of its anti-septic, anti-inflammatory, and antibacterial properties. It also holds special value to me because I use it to combat the symptoms of my diverticulosis. Which is one of the reasons why I’m so passionate about working with Steens. I can truly say our product is out in the world, making a difference.
Well, there you have it!
Beyond its sweet, sticky deliciousness, honey has a whole host of beneficial properties, and as more and more people play closer attention to the ingredients in their products, the demand for this natural resource is only set to rise.
All of which can be accredited to one very small, but mighty friend of ours… the bee.
If you’d like to talk talent with our team of industry experts, or take the next step in your career, get in touch via email@example.com or via +44(0)191 691 1949
If you’re interested in trying some of Steen’s award-winning Manuka Honey, in celebration of World Bee Day, they’re offering a 50% off sale on their website for today only!