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Honey – sort of but not technically bee vomit – is nature’s wonder food, for the bees themselves who make it to eat, and for us humans. The best kind of honey is packed with antioxidants and its health benefits have been well documented. It also literally never goes off (if it’s stored properly). Honey, thousands of years old, has been discovered in Egyptian tombs. And that jar at the back of the cupboard that’s crystallised? Nothing wrong with it. In fact, it’s an indication of a good pure honey – which can crystallise even in its comb.
Working on this story I learned a fair bit about bees and honey. Bees are vital to the survival of the planet. They are dying off due to pesticides, drought, habitat destruction, nutrition deficit, air pollution, global warming and more, and yes, we should be extremely worried.
There are more than 20,000 species worldwide, but only seven or eight (the internet is undecided) with 43 subspecies that make honey. The rest spend their lives pollinating the plants which keep us alive, and maintain ecosystems. The honey side of things is a delicious bonus.
Honey bees collect nectar from flowers which they deliver to the hive to spit up and their colleagues set to work on making the honey. This is why you might think it’s bee vomit but “in fact, nectar is stored in an organ called the ‘honey stomach’ which is part of the bee’s oesophagus”, says the website Honey Bee Suite. “But the honey stomach – also known as the honey sac, crop, or ingluvies – is a specialised organ designed to expand and store nectar until it can be ferried back to the hive.
“Once the forager bee returns home she regurgitates the contents of the honey stomach and, through the process of trophallaxis, transfers it to a house bee. The house bee will begin to process the nectar into honey.”
So no, not vomit, or any other waste matter. I also discovered that bees fart (and so do snakes), and this piece took way longer than it should have to finish.
Sana Khan knows a lot about bees and honey. Her father Bilal would travel all over the world and every time, he would bring back honey. This began before her youngest sisters – now 13 and 11 years old – were born so pretty much as long as she can remember. Khan senior, who has a transport business, decided to start making honey on the side, as a passion project. The name Beelal is a play on his own name, but obviously with the “bee” part references the insects.
It wasn’t only a love for honey that prompted him to do it; honey is an important part of the Muslim religion, said (Sana) Khan.
The Holy Qur’an denotes it as a cure for mankind, stating in chapter 16 (Surah al-Nahl, the Chapter of the Bee), verses 69-70: “And thy Lord has inspired the bee, saying, ‘Make thou houses in the hills and in the trees and in the trellises which they build. Then eat of every kind of fruit, and follow the ways of thy Lord that have been made easy for thee.’ There comes forth from their bellies a drink of varying hues. Therein is cure for men. Surely, in that is a Sign for a people who reflect.”
And that’s true, said Khan. “Honey has many antibacterial immune boosting qualities. There are a whole lot of good things in honey.”
Beelal has 150 hives on farms on the West Coast, each housing 40,000 to 60,000 bees, which harvest nectar from the fynbos of the region. The Cape honey bees are indigenous and have evolved with the flora. Sana would tag along when Dad visited the farmers who keep the hives, and instruct them how to do that in a certain way. “I eventually helped out so much, I ended up doing most of the work. During lockdown we had a lot of free time, as transport business took a hit, so I would email stockists, ensure orders went out on time, and do the labelling. My sister Noor helps quite a bit with the social media aspect, writing emails and so on, and my father is still involved.
“We have a farm with hives and in collaboration with other farmers, and he helps handle negotiations and so on, so I’m not taken advantage of,” said Khan. “My other two sisters are 13 and 11 so they’re still very young. They like coming to the market and spending all my money,” she laughed.
Beelal has a range of honeys under its label, but the star of the show is the organic raw honey which won platinum at the 2021 London Honey Awards. What makes it so special – and unique – is that it is made from fynbos nectar from the Cape Floral Kingdom, one of six in the world, and the smallest. Be that as it may, it is highly concentrated, not only in the Western and part of the Eastern Cape but is the only floral kingdom to be contained in one country, with some 9,000 species of which more than 6,200 are not found anywhere else.
Raw honey is the most natural state it can be, explained Khan, as natural as if it is still in the hive, and nothing has been done to it. The combs are stacked in an extractor which, as it spins, breaks the waxy comb and releases the honey.
“Honey bees create three times as much honey as they require because in winter they don’t make honey, so one third of the honey is for themselves to eat. We can take two thirds but what many other beekeepers do is take all of it and then there’s nothing for the bees to survive, so they feed their bees – or put around the hive – sugary syrups. The bees will get it and it will still be pure honey because the bee is extracting it and taking it out the gut, but it wouldn’t be as good as something from nectar.”
According to the Department of Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries, its regulations apply to “grading, packaging and marking of honey and mixtures of bee products intended for sale in the Republic of South Africa. South African regulatory requirements on honey and mixtures of bee products are designed to protect consumers, while ensuring fair competition for the industry, including both local and imported products”. It allows for two grades: choice and industrial, and deals more with the containers and labels than the contents.
“Another thing is, the temperature in the hive is 37℃; bees control it by flapping their wings and maintain the temperature so when the honey comes out the hive the environment is not 37℃ so eventually it should crystallise if it’s good honey,” said Khan. “There’s a big misconception about crystallised honey. We literally had someone return a jar because it had, and they claimed it was fake.
“Many honey sellers are forced to heat up their honey and take it to 50 or 70℃ so everything good inside the honey is eventually killed off – the enzymes, nutrients, all of that – so it stays in liquid form. That’s what many people want.”
Look for something that isn’t blended (which it should state on the label), advised Khan, “because the chance of adulteration is much higher in blended honeys. We in South Africa don’t have any policies with honey. Anyone can sell anything that’s labelled honey, there are no regulations like with other foods, and no one has to have tests or prove anything.”
Beelal tests every batch of its honey anyway and the measured values (report from April 2021) versus the required specifications for the various parameters (such as density, sucrose, moisture content) are all exceptionally impressive.
The winning honey is dark amber in colour, which is a sign that it is higher in antioxidants than a light honey. Recalling her childhood, and all the honey her father brought home, Khan said once you’ve had a lot of different honeys, you can tell by the colour and taste which are the better ones. “Eventually you develop a preference. There’s nothing deep about it,” she smiled (I think, behind her mask).
There are so many things you can do with honey, inside and outside the body. Khan’s sister uses it with turmeric as a face mask, and Khan senior swears by a spoonful every night. “If you eat it every night you will see a big difference in your health in four weeks. I promise you. Diabetes, blood pressure, arthritis, cholesterol,” he said. “I infuse it with cinnamon sticks for six weeks, rolling it and allowing the flavour to come into the honey. Both are high in antioxidants.”
Raising more awareness about bees as they are a big part of the ecosystem is among Sana Khan’s future goals. “And honey of course – growing the business to a larger scale and to have more regulations and making testing a requirement to prove what you are putting on the shelves is the real deal and not fake syrups,” she said. DM/TGIFood
"Everything is flux" ~ Heraclitus
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