The food of the gods

For nearly 10,000 years human beings have lived in a land of milk and honey. Milk and its derivatives are used ubiquitously as food, and the importance of cattle made them one of society’s first forms of money. Old African tribes like the Maasai still measure wealth by number of cattle and notably, the earliest minted “coins” in the ancient Mediterranean included the image of the head of an ox. I could go on about cow culture for pages, but this column is devoted not to milk, but honey.

Life as we know it would be impossible without honey bees. The beginning of bee-keeping parallels the origins of fixed agriculture, agriculture that is responsible for the vast explosion of humanity and continues to feed billions of people and livestock. For ancient people, bees and the honey they produced were sacred mysteries; it is told that Zeus, king of the Olympian gods, was raised on honey.

Bees, as we know, are social insects, forming large colonies organized around the needs and survival of a queen. Thus, the first bee cults were goddess cults, and the mysteries of honey were secrets guarded by bee cult priestesses. Well before grape vines and fermented grape juice were introduced to Mediterranean culture by Crete, alcoholic honey wine (called mead) was widely used as an intoxicant by oracles and in sacred ceremonies. Later pejorative Biblical references about bees betray an effort to supplant such “pagan” cults with that of a monotheistic God.

Today, the food of Zeus is available at every supermarket, and bees continue to play an essential role in agriculture by fertilizing a wide variety of crops. However, honey bee colonies in North America are collapsing, and unless reasons for it are identified and mitigated, agriculture may collapse as well. Recent reports indicate hive losses in California of over 50% year-to-year, and central valley farmers have resorted to importing hives from Iowa to meet their needs. At suspect are genetically engineered seed food crops that incorporate nicotine-based compounds for added pest protection. These compounds end up in every part of each plant, including pollen and nectar, and it is suspected that continuous exposure by bees to these compounds is making them more vulnerable to early and sudden death. However, the precise cause of colony collapse is not known as of yet.

In a quest to create our “green revolution” people have resorted to many techniques, beginning long ago with the plow. By breaking the bonds of topsoil and repeated cycles of planting, nutrients and minerals are lost; our response has been the widespread application of artificial fertilizers and soil amendments to support vast monoculture plantings. As this, too, reached its limits, genetic engineering was introduced to improve yields and resistance to “pests.” Industrialized farming is now accepted as normal and necessary, but it’s actually destroying the basis of its own success, the vitality and health of Mother Earth herself. In nature, there are no “pests.”

Much agricultural effort is focused on crops for feeding cattle, which brings us back around to milk. The original blessings of milk and honey have been exploited by avaricious Kings of Commerce into a food-producer race for profits, accompanied by environmental damage, clogged arteries, morbid obesity, epidemic diabetes and a poisonous assault upon the natural world.

Bee colony collapse is a warning. Long live the Queen!