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What Has a Bee Done for Me Lately?

Reasons for keeping bees range from the mercenary to the altruistic. Bees are valued both for their direct products (honey, beeswax and others) and their activity (pollination).

The most obvious and traditional reason to keep bees is that they produce honey. Honey may be the oldest sweetener in the human diet, and has several advantages over table sugar. One, of course, is flavor—honey has a distinct richness in addition to its sweetness, and is typically flavored by the particular flowers from which a hive gathers its pollen. It makes an especially happy finishing touch to whole-grain baked goods, or a consonant counterpoint to the earthy taste of buckwheat pancakes or biscuits. Nutritionally, honey provides the body with glucose—the only form of nutrition that can be used by the brain. Moreover, it does so in a healthier manner than does table sugar. Honey has a relatively low glycemic index (GI)—a measure of how quickly foods convert to glucose in the bloodstream—on a par with that of brown rice and lower than not only the GIs of white bread, white rice and baked potatoes, but as well even those of watermelon and oatmeal.

Over time, humans have come to understand the critical importance of bees to pollination, particularly of food crops. Adequate pollination is necessary for not only the quantity but also the quality of pollen-dependent plantings. Epidemic Colony Collapse Disorder has already had severe impacts on U.S. agriculture. Some predict catastrophic consequences if the die-off cannot be reversed. In this context, one hope for the survival of bees may be the small beekeeper, raising bees in the traditional manner without excessive chemical intervention and without the stresses of long-distance travel and the long production season imposed by their current industrialized use in American agribusiness. Honeybees range widely, and their benefits tend to extend beyond the property of their keeper. The more populations of healthy domestic bees exist, the likelier it is that they can breed beneficially with native bees to preserve their genetic future—or that of the wild bees, even more effective pollinators whose habitat is increasingly disappearing.

Some bee products may promote human health, although the evidence is often anecdotal, questionable, or limited in application because of the variability of the products. Some beekeepers swear by eating local honey to suppress seasonal allergies; scientifically, ingesting the hard-to-get pollens that are collected and transmitted with some effort by bees is unlikely to have much effect on allergies to the common, free-and-easy, windblown pollens of trees and grasses. There is some science behind effects claimed for propolis (bees’ resinous caulking material) and royal jelly (the specialized food of larvae, which when fed in large quantities produces queen bees).

Demonstrated effects include immunomodulation and action against fungi, bacteria, inflammation, and tumor growth, and promotion of wound healing. Royal jelly in particular may promote growth of neural stem cells and glia (non-neuronic support cells) in the brain; some of its effects are topical only, since much of its chemistry is destroyed or neutralized in digestion. The research to date on propolis cannot be considered conclusive because its actual composition varies not only by region but also by season within a single apiary. An additional product touted for its health benefit is bee pollen or beebread, a mix of pollen and honey (and bacteria and fungi) eaten by bees. It should be noted by anyone pursuing the bee-products-for-health route that bee products can be as allergenic as stings—and potentially as deadly—to a person with a bee venom allergy.

Beeswax is a versatile material, tough with a high melting point; it can be softened by the addition of vegetable oil, or mixed with pine pitch or rosin to form an adhesive. It’s used to make low-smoke, low-drip candles, and to give shape and protection to cheeses as they age. It’s widely used in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, where it may be superior to petroleum jelly; some of those uses can be duplicated in the home. It spruces up your table and shines your shoes. It turns up in the cave paintings in Lascaux, as well as in Egyptian mummies and ships. The Romans painted with it as well as protected their homes, and scratched confidential correspondence on portable tablets coated with it. Beeswax is still used as a lubricant for bullets, although its old partner tallow has been replaced by other ingredients; it also is used in the finish of the traditional English longbow. It has specialized uses in a handful of musical instruments. It is still used by individual artists, in dentistry, and on an industrial scale in the “lost wax” method of metal casting. It is perhaps not surprising that beeswax was once considered so universally valuable that it was used as a form of currency. Its byproduct, slumgum, is used both to coat pine cones for use as fire starters and as a fertilizer for certain ornamental plants. And of course generations of children have happily chewed a bit of honey-filled comb.

The beekeeper is never at a loss for gifts; from honey to honeycomb to homemade wax crafts and household products. For that matter, hives can be transported to a neighbor for use as pollinators, for cash or barter. A beekeeper with partners can have his or her own cottage industry.

Bees can be a great educational project for (non-allergic!) kids, with lessons in animal husbandry, botany, arts and crafts—even commerce and marketing. And adults, besides being able to learn and practice these things themselves, often report that bees are simply fascinating, and that working with them and observing them is a great way to relax.

To learn more about these fascinating insects, and to determine whether bees may be in your future, pick up a copy of the BeeKeepers Handbook, the definitive guide to bees.

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