The Honey Trail: In Pursuit of Liquid Gold and Vanishing Bees

The Honey Trail: In Pursuit of Liquid Gold and Vanishing Bees

by Grace Pundyk


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250065551
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 08/03/2010
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Grace Pundyk's work has appeared in travel publications, magazines, and newspapers. She lives on the island of Tasmania.

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The Honey Trail

In Pursuit of Liquid Gold and Vanishing Bees

By Grace Pundyk

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2008 Grace Pundyk
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-5138-8


The Honey Cartographers

A Brief History of Bees, Hives, Honey, and Civilization

The incontrovertible facts in the natural history of the Bee are, in themselves, too remarkable to justify any attempt to draw upon the imagination for additional wonder.

— SIR WILLIAM JARDINE, The Natural History of the Bee (1840)

"Yalla! Yalla! Yalla! Yalla!" Does this dumb ass not understand Arabic? "Yalla!"

I've tried everything — digging my heels into his side, patting him consolingly on his neck, fiddling with his ears, telling him how lovely he is — but nothing is going to make this donkey budge.

Next to me, the towering Colossi of Memnon shimmer in the morning heat. The sky is a clear, bright blue, and this side of the Nile, on the West Bank of Luxor, toward the end of Ramadan and six weeks after the November 1997 massacre of fifty-eight tourists at Queen Hatshepsut's temple, is deserted.

I want to take in the tragic beauty of this place as it stands here so quiet and lonely, I really do, but we've only been traveling for an hour and the rocky escarpment we are supposed to be climbing still towers far away in the distance. Whose dumb idea was it to travel by donkey anyway? I look around and sigh. My guide, Abdullah, has gone on ahead and I am all alone in this empty ancient touristscape. "Yalla, Daoud, please!" I whisper. But Daoud, who understands Arabic perfectly well and definitely knows that yalla means "go," has disappeared somewhere up his own donkey's ...

Just then, Abdullah and his donkey, Ali, appear, biblically, on the horizon. "I was talking to you and you weren't there!" the smiling, turbaned Egyptian beams, "And so I came back. ..."

"Abdullah, he won't listen to a word I am saying!" I know Abdullah is trying not to laugh. I can see the smirk on his lips as I bounce up and down on Daoud's saddle, pressing my knees into his idiot side, and growling "Yalla! Yalla! Yalla!" through gritted teeth.

"You are right, Grace, he is very stupid. Please don't bother yourself. I will take his rope and tie it to Ali. Ali is a good donkey. He has traveled these mountains many times. He will lead all of us to the Tombs of the Nobles."

It's as if Abdullah's words contain some silent threat that only Daoud understands. For just as he moves toward him with the rope, my fat donkey shoots off up the road, with me holding on for dear life. We are headed for the escarpment, my legs are flapping up and down at the donkey's sides, my body bouncing uncontrollably. "Shwai!" I call out shakily. "Wait!" But there's no stopping Daoud. If it's the Tombs of the Nobles I want, it's the Tombs of the Nobles I'm going to get. "Shwai-aiai-ai, Da-a-ou-ou-oud!"

"You will find the bees soon!" calls Abdullah. "Daoud knows where they are!" He hoots with laughter and slaps Ali's rump. Ali, showing his true beast-of-burden colors, brays and ambles slowly up the hill.

* * *

It's only in looking back that I realize how appropriate that journey by donkey was. I had come in search of Rekhmire's tomb, and to view one of the oldest beekeeping scenes ever recorded. It was all part of my newfound curiosity about honey and bees: While I was in Egypt I thought it would be interesting to go and see how the ancients did it. That's all. I had no idea that this was the beginning of a convoluted journey that would see me following the bittersweet global honey industry.

But now I understand. It's like that sometimes. You start out thinking you're headed in one direction and then halfway down the road you realize the destination has changed. Maybe you were headed that way all along but just didn't notice the signposts, or maybe the longer you stayed on the road, the more paths you found to take. Whatever the reasons, by the time you sit up and take notice, there's no stopping because you already know too much, and so all you can do is trust that the road is leading you in the right direction.

Just like I had to trust that Daoud knew where we were headed, even though he had done nothing to gain that trust. But as we drew nearer to the Tombs of the Nobles it dawned on me that Daoud came from a long line of transporters. And although his ancestors would have held much loftier positions than his own bedraggled role as carrier of tourist, I realized that for Daoud a sense of direction was as genetically predetermined as his big donkey ears.

The donkey has been used as a mode of transport in Egypt probably almost as long as the sun god Ra has been shining his light on the pharaohs and nobles of this land. The asses of Ancient Egypt trudged those desert Theban hills packed with hives and honey destined for the palates of pharaohs, the mixing bowls of embalmers, the unguents of priests. They traveled great distances bearing honey and oils and cloth as gifts to soothe uncertain borders. Laden with prized wild honey, they were led through palace gates protected by archers. They were working animals, yes, but in a world still with promise. Not like Daoud's, where the dusty air was filled with decay and poverty, loss and the cries of the dead both long gone and recently departed.

The Tombs of the Nobles don't attract as much attention as their royal brothers in the Valley of the Kings. It's a pity, because a lot of the artwork on the tomb walls is well preserved and reveals much about day-to-day life in Ancient Egypt — at least as far as the life of a noble went. These men held positions of authority — mayors, governors, inspectors, scribes — and Rekhmire was no exception. His tomb, also known as TT100, is a veritable diary of events in his illustrious career as vizier of taxation, justice, and foreign policy. Rekhmire held one hundred titles and received visitors from as far afield as Punt and Kefti, Kush and Retenu. But for all the prosperity and importance that is revealed in his impressive tomb, it is in those little diagrams of honey, harvests, and bees that I found a much greater story.

On the wall inside the vestibule a single bee is kept at bay by a man holding a smoking lamp. Another man below him takes honeycomb from a hive. The hives, painted a bluish gray to indicate they are made of unbaked clay, are stacked one upon the other. Placed near the hives, red dishes (thus implying they are made of baked clay) are filled with layers of draining honeycomb, while behind the beekeepers, men fill long clay pots with strained honey. Though it isn't the oldest reference to beekeeping, its detail shows that in 1450 B.C. beekeeping and honey were not only fairly advanced and important industries in Ancient Egypt, but that honey and the bees' godlike status had also slipped into the realm of big business. Which, I guess, if you compare it with the entanglement of governments, royalty, and big business today, is not such a huge leap to make.

During the fifth dynasty of the Old Kingdom, almost a thousand years before Rekhmire the Noble was enjoying the fruits of his bees' labor, the Egyptians were painting another beekeeping scene in the sun temple of Neuserre. In those early days, honey and bees were synonymous with gods and royalty; while honey was considered a sacred offering, the bee, combined with the sedge plant, was the powerful symbol that represented king, unity, and the organized civilization that was Ancient Egypt. It was a huge accolade. As symbol of the pharaohs' godlike glory, and with its sacred honey food, the bee was a revered creature that linked the earth with divinity.

It's the kind of exalted role that has dogged the bee since time immemorial. While emperors and queens have long credited bees with the lofty ideals of civilization and power, gods have claimed them as saviors and healers. In the ancient Mediterranean lands of the goddess, bees — those all-female working parties — were called Melissae, Merope, Deborah, Birds of the Muses. They were symbols of Cybele and Demeter, Aphrodite and Artemis, caretakers of temples, icons of eroticism, sensuality, love, and death. Even in science, bees retain their goddess roots. As members of the Hymenoptera, those principal insect pollinators of flowering plants, their classification recalls the hymen, or veil, that covered the inner shrine of the goddess's temple (as it covers the opening to the vagina), but also reminds us of the high priestess Hymen, who presided over marriage rituals and the honeymoon.

But where gods and goddesses, queens and emperors, have come and gone, the bee has been the one constant, a super role model for power and order and magic and truth. How has this tiny little insect made such an impact? How has it been able to weave a path through history that dissolves borders and time, transcends cultures and religion?

* * *

The journey of the bee and its honey is possibly one of the oldest of all time. From wild hives to man-made, honey has been in sweet demand always. Forever. Nonstop. Forget the Egyptians. Humans have been collecting honey for as long as they've been on the planet. And bees, those pollinators of the plant world, have been around for eons longer, as the latest bee find, estimated to be 100 million years old, proves. Dug up from a mine in northern Myanmar, and preserved in ancient amber, this old bee was buzzing its way among flowers when Cretaceous dinosaurs wandered the earth. It is older than the Himalayas; older than Australia and the Indian Ocean; older, even, than Antarctica. But although it may be the oldest specimen as yet uncovered, is it the Eve of the literally thousands of bee species so far documented?

From the smallest bee, Perdita minima at two millimeters, to the largest, Chalicodoma pluto at a whopping forty millimeters, bees have been pollinating plants and helping them reproduce for almost as long as there have been flowers (whose origin was best explained by Darwin as an "an abominable mystery"). But it is the Apis genus, or the honeybee, that has always been the most efficient at producing and storing honey, and thus the most user-friendly as far as humans are concerned. The seven species of honeybee that inhabit the planet all build nests of hexagonal wax cells and have highly social colonies. The dwarf honeybee, Apis florea, and the giant honeybee, Apis dorsata, build their nests in the warm open air of tropical Southeast Asia. Apis cerana, the eastern honeybee, has evolved so that it can survive in warm or cold climes, which means that its nests can also be contained in hives. This is the bee that built its hives in the Upper Indus basin in 300 B.C.and in China and Vietnam around A.D. 200. But it is Apis mellifera, the European honeybee, happily producing huge quantities of honey within the confines of a hive, that plays the most prominent role in all our lives.

Apis mellifera is native to many parts of Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, though today it is much more of a global citizen. It is believed that it was these honey makers who featured so prominently in Ancient Egypt. And it was also more than likely these bees who appeared in rock paintings in Spain and Africa almost twenty thousand years ago. In Zimbabwe and South Africa, twelve images have been found so far that show ladders, bees in flight, and a hunter holding flames to smoke the bees out of their nest. In a cave in Valencia, Spain, someone painted the image of a man climbing a cliff, taking the honeycomb from a hive, and placing it in his basket. These images, along with the ones from Ancient Egypt, not only reveal the long-standing popularity of bees and honey through time, they also, incredibly, mirror the honey-collecting and beekeeping methods of many cultures today. From unbaked mud hives in the Sudan to straw baskets in Greece, wild hives in Borneo to forest tree honey in the Caucasus, it would seem that in some parts of the world not much has changed on the honey road for thousands of years.

And thank God for that. Because the more I journey in search of sweetness, the more I find myself going down another route of realpolitik, where power, corruption, greed, and fear reign; where no stone is being left unturned in making a bottom-line profit from this sweet nectar's exalted reputation. From banned honey to smuggling rackets, suspected terrorist activities to bee viruses and environmental degradation, today's international honey market is a ruthless and bitchy power struggle where countries vie for world dominance, and honey's ability to dissolve borders is being milked for all its worth. It's a greedy game, but as long as there are cultures and traditions far removed from the grasping, globalized ways of the modern world, then maybe there is still hope.

Admittedly the game isn't new, though it has certainly reached the kind of heights that only the twenty-first century can offer. Even in Rekhmire's day, demand for honey far outran local supply. As nobles, kings, and priests clamored to feed their stomachs, their beasts, their dead, and their gods with this sacred food, it wasn't long before a brisk import industry started up. Beekeeping and honey may have been a major industry in Ancient Egypt, but to satisfy the increasing demand, exotic honeys were brought in from those now forgotten lands of Djahi, Retenu, Canaan, and Yaa. Egypt's upper echelons paid handsomely for the rarest and most exotic honeys even though their neighbors' home-grown hives would have produced a pure and delicious sugar-free honey. But a lot rests on one's position, especially when divinity is at stake. And I imagine that as more and more people jumped on the honey bandwagon, and apiaries became as common as papyrus fields, prized wild honey would have been a status symbol of wealth indeed.

It's perfectly understandable to want what's good for us. And there's no reason why we all shouldn't want, or have, our own little piece of divinity. But more often than not it's our hunger for divinity that is our undoing. And in our ignorant scrambling around to find it there will always be someone ready to sell us their not always holy supply. It's happened to me twice. The first time was in India. I'd forgotten to pack the Himalayan honey I'd been given by a friend in the Uttarakhand town of Kausani and so decided to buy a jar of so-called "Himalayan honey" at New Delhi airport. Even though the address on the label was some industrial state in Delhi, why should I doubt its contents?

Himalayan honey is powerful stuff, filled with the scent of flowers grown at an altitude so high they are almost in heaven. And the honey I'd bought looked dark and thick, as it should be. But when I opened the jar back in my flat in Singapore, I found a black, gritty liquid that looked more as if it was dredged up from Bhopal than descended from the Himalayas. This was definitely not honey, though to this day I'm not sure what it was. It was the first time I threw a jar of honey away. Then several years later, in a dark and dusty grocery store in London's Finsbury Park, I bought some Turkish pine honey.

* * *

You can tell a lot about a place by its honey. Greek thyme honey conjures a mosaic of smashed plates and ouzo. French honey is just about perfect. Italian chestnut honey gesticulates wildly. Try a spoonful of wild honey from Borneo and you are crawling up steep jungle in search of some rare and exotic flower. Himalayan honey is about as high as you can get on the path to God. English honey is anally bland and safe. Polish honey is secretive and musty, like some obliterated village beneath Stalin's concrete. Portuguese honey sighs with unfulfilled longing. And Turkish pine honey's woody scent and resinous flavor can transport you right into those sappy, sun-soaked Anatolian forests.

But what I'd bought in London was bad. Inedible. Not the pine honey I had come to love. It was then I started to worry. What was happening out there in the honey industry? Who was getting away with what was blatantly false advertising? How could I know whether the honey I was eating was good, uncontaminated, or even honey at all?

A lot of trust is needed in our globalized consumer world defined by shopping. Most of us lost touch lifetimes ago with the ideal of self-sufficiency. It suits our busy lifestyles to put our trust in the supermarkets of this world and to believe that the brand, the product, the label is what it says it is. To help us along, governments go to great lengths in passing laws that make manufacturers and producers state clearly, at times ridiculously so, what ingredients they've used in their products. These lawmakers continue to inspect, taste, and test products for impurities and things suspect. They monitor what comes in and what goes out of their countries. And every now and then they recall products deemed to be dangerous, or ban products from even reaching our shores. It's a massive job keeping tabs on it all, especially now with the extent of our global markets and the tendency of some governments to turn a blind eye in the pursuit of free trade. But as with any kind of restrictive law, loopholes exist that make a mockery of the so-called tough, armor-plated laws governing food. Take, for instance, a product labeled "almond cake" that only has 1 percent almonds in it but 10 percent peanuts, or the "all-natural" muesli bar, whose main ingredients are glucose, sucrose, raw cane sugar, and fructose.


Excerpted from The Honey Trail by Grace Pundyk. Copyright © 2008 Grace Pundyk. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Sweet Beginnings,
1. The Honey Cartographers A Brief History of Bees, Hives, Honey, and Civilization,
2. Yemen Hives, Kalashnikovs, and the Koran,
3. Australia Big Red Country, Big Red Tape,
4. New Zealand Manuka Mania,
5. Borneo Of Hives and Souls,
6. Russia The Honey Tricycle,
7. The United Kingdom Honey Kings and Queens,
8. Italy Tasting the Honeyed Divine,
9. Turkey The Sweet Road to Accession,
10. The United States Honey, Where You Been So Long?,
11. China The Honey Dominators,
12. A Twenty-first-century Honey Myth,

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Honey Trail: In Pursuit of Liquid Gold and Vanishing Bees 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
siri51 on LibraryThing 11 months ago
Informative and entertaining ; a travel log and global honey politics.I will never again buy supermarket honey, instead I will support local beekeepers and eat more honey for medicinal purposes.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago