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World Bee Day and the gift of honey

Updated: May 25, 2023

A flying bee with a glob of pollen on its leg.
Honey bees are an essential part of the food production system we rely on. Photo: Brad Collis

May 20 has become World Bee Day, a moment to reflect on the critical function that these small invertebrate members of our animal kingdom play in keeping we humans fed.

As most people know, bees are responsible for much of the pollination required by many food crops to complete their flowering cycles and produce seeds and fruits.

This is why bees are critical to the environment, agriculture and human survival and why we cannot take their health, wellbeing, and hard work, for granted.

A by-product of bees’ tireless activity, particularly through spring and summer, is the collection of nectar which is stored inside honeycomb as a food store.

The hexagonal design of the honeycomb cells and constant fanning of the bees' wings causes evaporation which thickens the nectar into a syrup – honey. Honey’s colour, flavour and nutritional composition is based on the flowering plants that provide the nectar.

Pollen, also collected as bees forage among flowers, is not a part of honey production but is still a source of protein and nutrients for bees and bee larvae: their daily ‘bread’.

Not all honeys are equal

Since the early days of the Australian colony (European honeybees were successfully carried from England despite the long sea journey) our expectation of what ‘real’ honey should look and taste like has been based on the nectar produced from Europe’s flowers.

This tends to be light-coloured and runny. In contrast, honey from the deep-rooted flowering trees like eucalypts, banksia, she-oak, wattles and coastal tea tree is dark and viscous. Our inherited European sensibilities have long devalued this, despite the belief by lovers of raw bush honey that it is far superior. They were and are correct.

From 2017 to 2022, research by the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Honeybee Products at the University of Western Australia demonstrated a plethora of unique health and taste properties in honey produced from Australia’s indigenous monoflorals – the large flowering trees unique to our landscape.

The health benefits of raw honey (not to be confused with the supermarket product that is heat treated to increase shelf-life) are generally well known, but it is hoped the discovery and measurement of the biotics inherent to Australian native honey will raise this awareness even further.

Honey bees in the hive. Photo: Brad Collis

As it stands, promotion of the CRC’s findings has already allowed the recommended wholesale price for jarrah honey, for example, to jump from $6.50/kilogram to more than $50/kg. This is a direct consequence of the new recognition of Australian honey’s health value – and limited supply. Jarrah trees and many other eucalypts only flower every other year.

The bioactivity of honey from eucalypts such as jarrah and marri in Western Australia and mana gums, yellow gums and leatherwood in the east, measurably exceeds Manuka, the famed honey from New Zealand.

Manuka is a high-quality product, brilliantly marketed, but is simply the Maori word for tea tree (Leptospermum). This also grows in abundance in south-eastern Australia and Tasmania and so the manuka qualities are common to honey produced in these regions too.

Nonetheless, official Manuka honey now has both a worthy competitor and global partner with which to challenge Europe’s, the Americas’ and Middle East’s notion of what honey should look and taste like. Manuka honey and eucalyptus honey have shared high-value traits, but also differences.

Both are antimicrobial and antibacterial and can be used for medicinal applications such as wound treatment. Many hospitals keep raw honey on hand for when infected wounds fail to respond to conventional antibiotics. And nothing soothes a sore throat (including COVID throat!) like a spoonful of raw bush honey.

Additionally, eucalyptus honey has also been found to have anti-fungal properties and contains up to three times more antioxidants than Manuka.

A jar filled with honey sitting in front of a bee hive
Raw honey collected from a Flow Hive. Photo: Brad Collis

Honey, especially honey straight from the hive, is an extraordinary gift from bees and nature. But for the caring beekeeper, humans are still at the back of the queue.

That means in lean flowering seasons – such as our recent La Nina-influenced springs and summers – a hive may remain unharvested. The bee colony’s needs must come first.

So the message on World Bee Day is simple and sweet: look after these animals because they look after us. Fossil evidence shows they have been tireless guardians of plant evolution and planetary health for 160 million years. That they are still vital to life on Earth is itself a serious message: we can’t live without them.

Does nectar from poisonous plants make some honey toxic?

​A question often asked is whether nectar from plants poisonous to humans makes some honey toxic. A good question, because it allows an explanation of the link between honey and human evolution.

Comparatively safe access to honey as a high-energy food allowed our species’ forebears (Dryopithecus) to evolve from small, weak, tree-living creatures to the muscular, large-brained hominins which wound their way over a few hundred thousand years to today’s planet-dominating homo sapiens.

Consequently, human cellular chemistry retains a positive response to the biochemistry of raw honey. And it is because of this evolutionary link that plants that are toxic to humans are also toxic to bees … in other words bees don’t forage on flowers toxic to them and by extension to us.

**Brad Collis is a Coretext director and beekeeper

World Bee Day is a United Nations initiative first proposed and championed in 2017 by Slovenia, origin of the popular Carniolan breed. In Slovenia beekeeping is called “the poetry of agriculture” in deference to its functional, cultural and, for many people, emotional connection to bees in the landscape.

More information about bees and honey:

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