Bees collect nectar and other sweet substances like honey dew from flowers and trees and transport them to their hive. The honey that results from this process is a unique natural product that is healthy and basically ‘lasts forever’. Prior to the invention of industrially produced sugar it was one of the very few ‘sweeteners’ available to humans (only dates have a similar level of sweetness).
Honey is a ‘mirror’ of the region in which the bees forage. Every honey has its unique taste, depending on the plants from which the bees have foraged, the location where the plants grew, the altitude, the soils: All play a role – and also which bee species has collected it.
Honey from a tropical region is bound to have a different taste than honey from an Alpine meadow – and honey from a Swiss mountain valley will be different from honey from the Himalayas because of the difference in floras.
In Europe there is only one honey bee species – Apis mellifera, which, according to the most resent research actually also originally came to Europe from Asia. This is not that surprising, considering that there are (apart from Apis mellifera) ca. further 12 honeybee species that belong to the Apis genus, – and all have their origins in Asia and even today can only be found there.
Originally all honey bees were cave dwellers, where they were save from most predators, but they where they also were in competition with others seeking shelter there. Some bees therefore left the caves and developed ways to defend themselves in the open. The largest honey bee, A. laboriosa, has a sting that is appropriate for its size. It is only to be found in the high ranges of the Himalayas – and became famous through films showing its huge, half moon shaped combs hanging underneath inaccessible rocky overhangs, and the courageous local honey hunters abseiling and, with almost no protective clothing, collecting the honey.
Slightly smaller, but still as big as a European hornet, A. dorsata is also known as the ‘Rock Bee’. It is relatively common all across South and Southeast Asia. This species, too, builds comb of up to 1.5 meter across, underneath cliffs, in tall trees, or (as tall trees become sparse) in urban areas underneath water towers or high rise buildings. In order to protect their comb these bees organise themselves to form three layers of ‘chain mail’ around the comb, and they are extremely aggressive when it comes to defending their brood and stores. In Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Jungle Book’ they are described as the ‘most dangerous animal in the jungle’. Diversity Honeys Ltd. continues its attempt to import honey from A. dorsata bees, which so far proved to be impossible because European honey regulations do not take into account that many plants in (sub)tropical regions photosynthesize and produce different (C4) sugars: What would be an indication for honey adulteration in a European honey occurs naturally in honeys from (sub)tropical regions.
For a long time A. cerana was not recognized as a distinct species, but instead ‘classified’ as a ‘small A. mellifera’: British colonial reports on beekeeping in India can therefore be confusing, because they do not take into account that they were dealing with a distinct species (at the time, Apis mellifera of course had not been imported to India). The fact that A. cerana nowadays is kept in wooden boxes (hives), and that their honey therefore is no longer simply collected from so called ‘feral’ colonies living ‘wild’ in tree and other cavities, is in part possibly the legacy of British missionaries, who came up with some hive designs. But records show that local people kept A. cerana in clay pots long before the British arrived in India. Clay pots are still used by some beekeepers in in Coorg in Southwest India.
Nowadays A. cerana is a particular favourite of small farmers. They keep hives to better pollinate their crops and raise the productivity of mango trees, their fields with chilli and mustard. The honey produced by the bees is – literally – a ‘sweet extra’.
(Increasingly common, particularly on certified organic farms, is the use of stingless bees whenever the main aim is to improve pollination): Their colonies are easy to transport, and due to their limited flight range they are less prone to stray into fields contaminated with pesticides).
Apis florea also followed an evolutionary path out of the caves – but in contrast to the aggressiveness of A. dorsata, the strategy of these ‘dwarf bees’ was to become small and inconspicuous. An individual bee is hard to spot, their single comb colonies have the approximate size of half a tennis racket: On top of and around a branch are the honey stores (which also serves as the ‘dance floor’ for the waggle dance spreading information about good nectar sources. Underneath the honey store hangs the brood area. Therefore Honey ‘hunters’ usually take the honey and simply tie the brood part back to the branch where the colony was found, so that the bees can rebuild their home. If, however, the brood area was destroyed, too, or there is another major threat to the colony, the bees will just leave and move to another suitable location nearby. If possible, they’ll scavenge the wax from their former home for the new one.
There are some 12 honey bee species belonging to the Apis genus. The three described above (i.e. A. dorsata, A. cerana, and A. florea) provide honey in quantities that permit (limited) trade. There are at least another eight Apis species, which are only found in very specific locations (mostly in Borneo, the centre of genetic diversity for the Apis family). Their numbers are small, in some instances they are threatened by extinction. They should be left alone – they have no role in honey production.
The opposite is of course true for Apis mellifera, which has become the only commercially ‘relevant’ honey bee worldwide. Emigrants to Northern America took Apis mellifera colonies with them across the Atlantic, the only bee available in their old homes. Before this human migration, there were no Apis bees on the American continents – First Nations in what is now the USA and Canada called them the ‘white man’s fly’. Similarly Apis mellifera were taken to Australia, New Zealand, and Southern America. There, efforts to improve the honey productivity through breeding resulted in very productive but very aggressive ‘killer bees’. This variant of A. mellifera has now has spread all the way to the Southern USA.
Apart from Europe, Apis mellifera is naturally ‘at home’ only in Africa – where it finds ideal living conditions wherever (huge) tracts of forests remain.
Because it produces more honey than any of the other bees, Apis mellifera by now unfortunately has been exported into practically all countries in Asia, too. And because it dwells in a cavity (i.e. a hive), beekeepers can ‘keep’ and transport them fairly easily. However, just like those black and white Holstein cows, which have been bred to produce record volumes of milk, the high productivity comes at a price to the animals and their environment. The imported bees displace local bee species and other pollinators, as they collect nectar indiscriminately from almost all available sources. At the same time they suffer from heat stress, and as a result are more susceptible to diseases and pests (against which they have no defence mechanisms). In turn they spread their diseases to their Asian sisters.
Diversity Honeys therefore has taken the decision to focus on the trade with honey that is not produced by Apis mellifera: With this policy, we want to demonstrate that when it comes to honey and honey bees, too, diversity is the only guarantee for the survival of our environment.
The name of our company says it all: DIVERSITY. We have searched far and wide for honey suppliers in regions which are of special relevance for the environment, or which stand out because of a unique combination of habitat and bee species. Even after six years of searching we are only at the beginning of this quest: E.g. despite numerous efforts have until now failed to find a supplier of a mangrove honey – but we are not ready to give up yet.
Unfortunately, even remote regions no longer are safe from environmental pollution: A special honey from Vietnam was contaminated with antibiotics. The bees had collected water from a nearby intensive chicken breeding unit, …
which is one reason why right now we only have two honeys from India for sale.
We source a unique honey from the western desert region of Khuch in India. It is produced by the dwarf honey bee Apis florea, which builds single, open comb the size of half a tennis racket in thorny thickets. Anyone untrained will have difficulties spotting these colonies – the tribal inhabitants of the regions have learned to spot and follow the tiny bees from flower to comb.
Our second honey from India comes from the foothills of the Himalayas: This region provides rich and varied forage for Apis cerana, including mountain forests and crops grown on small fields by hill farmers high up in the mountains. The A. cerana hives are kept in the villages, quite often in the walls of small cattle sheds (which provide warmth to help the bee colonies survive the cold winters.
We did have one honey from the ‘Red River region’ in Vietnam but unfortunately we could not use this because the drums were damaged in transit. We are in discussions with our supplier partner about a 2nd attempt.