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Weekly Edition 072: Saturday 13th July 2002

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Island Ecology
by José P Ribas

Bees - Part Seven

After six weeks writing about the fascinating world of the bees, I have the feeling that it’s about time, after this week, to think of something new.

Not because everything about this amazing, amusing and profitable insect has been said or is even known yet.

In fact, all the experts agree that it’s only recently that we have really started to discover and understand part of their most intimate secrets and the enormous amount of unexpected possibilities that bees do in their everyday lives and can still teach us.

But there are other questions and actual political-ecological problems on our Islands, and unfortunately all over the World, that also require our attention and time.

Our strongest determination - if not to work them out - is at least to be able to show them as we see them, without political or economical disguises, so we all can see them with our own eyes and therefore make up our own opinions and conclusions about what sort of future we look for and what is the real meaning when we talk about “Quality of Life”.   

I would very much prefer to continue with the bees. There is still so much to say about them, even though they can sting you to death with their poisonous sting if you don’t treat them right and fair.

They don’t seem to be offended about what I write on them (unlike the politicians). In fact, they keep offering the best of their production and seem to be friendlier every day. And I much prefer to make friends than enemies, though they say there is no important task done without having important opponents and some dangerous and twisted enemies, far more poisonous then any other creature in the world.

So, we carry on with bees and their products for this week.

It was the honey that made the bees, so soon in pre-history, so popular and wanted by the humans. Honey was the first and only reason for many generations and was why man was prepared to support the painful sting of the bee; the compensation was worthwhile.

Bees that lick the nectar, pollen, sugar and other substances from flowers and other parts of the plants, as everyone knows, produce honey. They keep it in a craw or honey bag that bees possess just for this purpose, in which all these substances get mixed with its “saliva” and other body fluids before they spit it back inside the cells in the panel’s hive, already transformed into honey.

Honey is a compound basically of “dextrose” and “laevulose” (70%), water (20%), sugar, from sugar cane, gums, resins, colorants, small amounts of minerals, aromatic essences and pollen. The aroma, taste and colour come mainly from the type of flowers that the bees visit most in its production.

The spring honey is normally the best and most wanted; the “virgin honey”, stocked in thin pure white new cells, only used for this purpose.

Then comes the honey collected in the summer. Autumn produces the lowest quality, at least in this part of the world. It is also interesting to notice that honey can also be poisonous, like the “Trebisonda honey” (Jenofonte, “Anabasis”) produced by the poisonous flower “Azalea Pontiac”.

This rich and healthy aliment, if eaten in the right doses, was for many centuries, even millenniums, one of the very few substances that humans had to sweeten any food or drink. Therefore it was basically used by the higher classes or by the peasants that produced their own, but even them used to sell or change it for any other most needed materials, because of its price.    

With the arrival of sugar, made in industrial ways from the sugar cane, around the XIV-XV centuries, honey lost most of its importance and uses, as well as its price. Then the Apiculture industry dropped drastically and even disappeared in some countries, but - little by little - it came back as a rich, healthy and delicate aliment.

Recent scientific studies have proved that eating daily a certain amount of honey helps to prevent and cure several illnesses, including chronic heart disease.    

Wax was the second product from the bees to be used by man. It is produced by some glands that bees possess in their abdomen, as it is known, which bees used for the construction of the hive’s panels. Chemically, it is considered an “Esteres”. It contains alcohol, greasy acids, free acids and hydrocarbons. The bee-wax is mild at 62-65ºC and floats on water. This used to be the most common way to obtain it, putting the wax with water and heating it up to this temperature. Initially it was used to make candles, as cosmetics, mixed up with colorants and aromas, and to waterproof leather and cloth.

At present, the “virgin-bee-wax” is used in many industrial processes, including electronics and pharmacy.

Pollens have been, together with the “Propolis”, the last products from bees to be used and commercialised by man. Both have proved to be a very interesting and complete aliment, even medicine for some, as an elixir for the modern dietetics.

They contain “Amino-acids” and “Oligo-elements” as well as some vitamins.

Everybody knows what pollen is. Bees stock it in cells in the panels in important quantities, as part of their own food, and the “propolis” is a mixture of resins and gums that bees produce from the new buds of some trees and plants which bees use as “cement” to fix the panels within the hives and to repair any cracks or hole in it. Its price and importance in the market is bigger everyday.                

But the most expensive (more expensive then gold) and real “Star-product” of the bee is nowadays the “Royal-jelly”, a substance produced by young bees (only in the first three weeks of their life) like sweat or milk, in glands that they posses in their heads. This is a very complete and still mysterious aliment; some biologists compare it with the “pigeon-milk”, the exclusive aliment that pigeons produce in their craw to feed new-born pigeons, with a similar chemical composition.

Bees use it to feed the new larvae for the first two or three days, and it is also the only food that the bee-queen will eat all her life.

The fact that the queens can live up to five years, only eating this stuff, compares to the seven to eight weeks - six months at the most - if they live resting inside the hive in the winter that normal bees can live. It’s what makes this substance so mysterious and appreciated by man. 

As we have said at the beginning of this article, there is still a lot to say about bees; almost anything they do will be enough to write books and books about it, and still we are learning new things about them.

We haven’t spoken yet about their natural enemies, most common illnesses, the fabulous way that they dance to communicate among themselves, the new tools and techniques to extract the honey or the use of new sciences in pollination and other branches, like in medicine, where the poison of its sting is being used to tread several illnesses, especially rheumatism, arthritis problems, allergies and other poisonous intoxication.

For instance, the USA army (Americans, always so romantic) have started to use bees as haunts to detect explosives in very small quantities. Bees are far better then dogs for this job, and they can reach the places dogs can’t, so no doubt we will soon see bees in marine-style uniform. The problem is that bees don’t do night-share and they don’t work on stormy days either).

We haven’t either spoken about the actual situation of the Apiculture in our Islands; however this is a subject that I expect to write about as soon as I have the up date information. Until then.... Beeeeezzzzzeeeeee (Good Bye).

José P Ribas

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