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Sweetness and Light

The Mysterious History of the Honeybee

by Hattie Ellis

Crown, March 2005, Hardcover, 256 pages

"We have chosen to fill our hives with honey and wax; thus furnishing mankind with the two noblest of things, which are sweetness and light." —Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)

Sweetness and Light is the fascinating story of bees and honey from the Stone Age to the contemporary cutting edge; from Nepalese honey hunters to urban hives on the rooftops of New York City. Honey is nature in a pot, gathered in by bees from many different environments—Zambian rain forests, Midwestern prairies, Scottish moors, and thyme-covered Sicilian mountainsides, to name a few. But honey is much more than just a food, and bees are more than mere insects. The bee is the most studied creature on the planet next to man, and it and its products have been harnessed by doctors, philosophers, scientists, politicians, artists, writers, and architects throughout the ages as both metaphor and material.

Praise for Sweetness and Light

"In a worthy, synthesized portrait, a British food writer distills reams of published material on the much-studied Apis Mellifera and its productive kin. Though it took awhile for humans to get around to the beekeeping game, stone art reveals that they were avid honeyeaters from the start, writes first-time author Ellis. Touches of sly humor and pleasing renderings of her own days afield enliven her deft gathering of abundant facts. She explains bees' social organization and foraging logistics, describes the trick of following a honeybird to a hive, examines the earliest evidence of beekeeping, and informs us that "a gallon of honey petrol could take a bee seven million miles." Ellis doesn't overdomesticate the miraculous. One of the strangest pieces of information she imparts is evidence that bees may have evolved before flowers. One of the most wonderful is how nectar is created and expressed through the honeybee's art. Honey fuses the flavors of orange and coffee plants, or it reflects the thyme and marjoram hillsides of Greece, or it has a taste of Muscat grape, "a water-white honey said to be one of the clearest in the world." The dark-brown rosemary honey, the salty honey that comes from the pohutukawa tree, the minty honey from the linden trees on Manhattan's Lower East Side-Ellis pays tribute to them all. Equally enchanting is her history of honey-gathering, from its rude origins in the wild forest through woodland beekeeping and wicker hives (once Europe's forest were no more) to the skep, that much-loved symbol of traditional beekeeping. Nor will the author deny the important role of the fermented drink mead in honey's intoxicating magic. Those with a bent for natural history will find Ellis a class act, her style among the fanciful and insightful best. An indispensable addition to a literature already brimming with anecdote and observation. "— Kirkus Reviews

Quotes from Sweetness and Light

"How did some insects become bees? The first clue is their intimate connection with flowering plants, or angiosperms, which arrived on earth during the geological era known as the Cretaceous, between 140 and 60 million years ago. Primitive plants spread their seed by wind, casting their pollen into the world in profligate quantities. Then some plants began to make smaller quantities of pollen than their predecessors and invested more energy, instead, in enticing creatures such as insects to visit. It was a smart move. Insects evolved to feed on the protein-rich pollen, the tiny grains that are the sex-dust of male reproduction. When pollen attaches to an insect's body, it can be transferred to other plants and--bingo!--pollination occurs. When you want to attract lovers, it pays to dress up. Flashy, colorful, sweet-smelling flowers evolved, appealing to animals, and particularly insects. Nectar, the base material of honey, is part of the flower's tactics of attraction, along with petals, pollen, scent, shape, and color. Honey, then, is an elixir of sex.

"That flowers evolved at the same time as many of the insects must be no coincidence. Bees and blooms are so twisted together by the twin necessities of existence, of reproduction and food, that their development must have been interdependent. The chronology of this is not entirely certain, however. The clues of paleontology can literally be writ in stone, yet they are still random clues to life, and petals and insects preserve far less well than dinosaur bones.

"The oldest known bee fossil was found in New Jersey. This single female insect is entombed in the hard, orange glow of amber. She was, poor scrap, trapped by sticky coniferous tree resin. She was also captured for posterity. The resin turned to a light, transparent fossil and the bee was held forever, legs stretched out, almost flailing, as though she is either tumbling through some otherworldly medium, or about to land on a plant that produced the pollen of eighty million years ago. The bee is caught in a fossilized freeze-frame, the durability of the rock starkly framing the delicacy of the fragment of life within. She dates from the late Cretaceous and was already well evolved, evidence pointing toward the fact that bees had been around at least as long as flowers.

" Then, in 1994, a discovery was made that could push back the date of the evolution of bees even further. It raised the idea that they could have been on the planet perhaps even longer than flowers. "

. . .

" At the end of the twentieth century, teams studying ancient ecosystems and climates tracked through [Petrified Forest National Park in eastern Arizona], trying to gather clues about the forest's original existence. Among the most interesting finds, of a group led by Dr. Tim Demko, were approximately one hundred insects' nests. The inch-long flask-shaped cells were clustered together, and the entrance was probably through open knot holes in the wood. The formation of the cells and details of their constructions led the scientists to believe they were built by ancient ancestors of today's bees. Elsewhere on the site, they also later found nests closely resembling those of the modern sweat bees (Halictidae), so called for their attraction to perspiration. Chemical analysis of the Petrified Forest nests showed that the cells contained some of the organic compounds found in beeswax.

"The early date of the forest could be significant. If these were, indeed, bees' nests—and the evidence certainly pointed to this, though some say you would need to find bee bodies to be certain—it would mean bees existed 207 to 220 million years ago, at least 120 million years or so before the oldest previously known bee fossil. Beyond this, the nests are older than the earliest known flower fossils. Could it be that bees existed, in some form, for ages before flowers? "

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