The origins of honey and where we are now

Looking back

The history of honey is more mysterious than you might think. There are several theories attributed to the golden liquid online but according to most sources, archaeological discoveries have found bee fossils that date back over 150,000 years. Cave paintings around the world including in Africa (and here, in South Africa) and Spain have also led researchers to believe that the first form of beekeeping was introduced many centuries ago – up to 7,000 BCE. Given that fruit was the sweetest food around all those years ago, it is almost no surprise that once honey was tasted for the first time, the flying insects managed to establish their place in history. So much so that bees have featured in hieroglyphics as a symbol of royalty – in fact, honey cakes were regularly served as sacrifices to the gods. Honey has also been linked to the ancient Greeks who already discovered some of its healing powers.

A painting of bees leaving a crack in the wall of in Botha’s Shelter, Didima (Ndedema) Valley (near Cathedral Peak), Drakensberg Mountains of KwaZulu-Natal either on an orientation flight or an absconding swarm.

It was only with the rise of Christianity and monks relying on beeswax to make church candles that the production of beeswax reached a near-industrialised state with honey being a delicious by-product. Fast forward a couple of decades and honey had grown to be such a valuable commodity that it was traded as a currency in Europe in the 11th century. However, with the advent of sugar during the Renaissance (between the 14th and 17th century), honey’s monetary value diminished. 

Unlike other agricultural products, honey is not grown or reared but depends solely on the beekeeper. Years ago, before mankind had discovered how to domesticate bees, we studied their patterns and would hunt down the hives – which would then be guarded fiercely. It was only years later, around 2,400 BCE, when we found a way to bring the hives to us. This led to a new age of beekeeping. In the 19th century, a man by the name of Lorenzo Langstroth invented the structure of the beehive as we know it today.

Where we are now 

Since its discovery, bees and their honey have played a massive role in our daily lives. Even though there are other pollinating insects, bees pollinate more than 90% of the leading global crop types, and in South Africa, over 50 crops are dependent on bee pollination. Honey is also believed to contain many vital nutrients, antioxidants – it is even said to help lower cholesterol.

Due to an increase in demand for bee products, honey production and trading has become a global industry. A lack of stringent regulations has also resulted in several unethical practices – mostly from the larger producers. Today, honey is known to be the 3rd most faked product in the world – Netflix discusses this in-depth in an episode of the series, Rotten. This fact is alarming when you think about the number of honey products on the shelf, and how much of it is found in our food. Try our ‘PPP test’ to spot fake honey on the shelf.

Bee colony health is often used as a benchmark for the general health of the environment. Since 2006, beekeepers have reported higher-than-normal colony losses, which is called  colony collapse disorder. There are various contributors to this which include the use of pesticides, as well as climate change. Since this discovery, the conservation of the worker bee has been such a big focus globally. There are ways to support and stabilise the honey industry which includes purchasing from local suppliers and/or beekeepers, as well as creating a bee-friendly garden. Fortunately, domestic beekeeping has been growing over the last few decades and you have probably noticed a proliferation of artisanal honey brands in South Africa. We believe that a local community of beekeepers and researchers is the key to preserving and conserving honeybees – we source all of our honey from small and medium sized local beekeepers which is consistent with our philosophy to support and encourage the art of beekeeping.

Although the bee industry is currently facing challenges, we are confident that with the continuous support from consumers and strict enforcement of regulations by regulators, retailers and industry bodies, we can reduce the number of artificial and adulterated products available on shelf and ensure that products are declared for what they are so that the consumer can make an informed choice. Here at Peel’s we are proud to be known as one of the few South African honey brands that do not compromise on quality and recognises the importance of local beekeepers as part of our success.

Note: Read more about the history of honey in the JAN, The Journal, Volume 6 – it is a highly recommended read. There is also an informative guide on honey which we at Peels developed together with the JAN team and, of course, The Journal contains some delicious recipes using our products. You can purchase the journal here.

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