Bumble Barf Honey
by Claude Needham Ph.D.
Honey, bumble barf, wasp whoop, bee vomit, apis spew, hornet hoop, Hymenoptera hurl. These and several other not so flowery phrases refer to the regurgitated product from certain insects -- mostly Apis mellifera. If someone walked up to you at a party with an invitation to partake of a sticky partially-digested amber fluid that had been robbed from wax holding vessels filled by vomit (from small flying insects) intended for storage, continued digestion and consumption by themselves and their children, would you say "Yes that sounds marvelous, I'd love to try some"? No. I don't think so. No more than you would say, "Yes, I would love to pry open the calcified covering of a Pelecypoda and pour sweetened tomato puree mixed with spicy tuber root over the raw unprotected flesh of a living boneless bivalve mollusk swimming in a teaspoon of residual sea water and plummet the same still throbbing animal into a pool of acid at the bottom of my stomach." No, only the fevered mind of a horror film writer could imagine such a gruesome torture inflicted upon another.
Apis mellifera -- the common honey bee -- what's its story? How is it that a bunch of be-winged factories can turn random droplets of plant nectar into honey? Do they worship and make supplications to the great and fearsome god Hand that orders their lives with divine indifference? How long does it take a train traveling 50 mph due east leaving Pittsburgh at 6:00 a.m. to meet a boat traveling due west up the Hudson River? Will Donna discover that Brad is not the lover she hoped but rather the uncle of Phil who removed her left ear mistakenly believing it to be a malignant tumor while all the time Joan was secretly dating Donna's first cousin the assistant? Will this author be committed in time to spare us further inane questions? Can we move on to the next paragraph without the threat of mayhem? These and many other questions are answered following this paragraph break.
Nectar is not bad stuff. Water and sugar. Add a little food coloring, carbonization and label . . . you could have a nice soft drink. Problem is it's spread all over the pasture. Even the engineering department at Davis School of Agriculture would be hard pressed to come up with a machine that could gather nectar in a cost efficient manner. Let's face it, these little bee guys work cheap. Free nectar and pollen and they're happy. Heck they can have all the pollen they want as far as I'm concerned. The less of the stuff in the atmosphere the better I like it. Have you ever seen a picture of a pollen grain under an electron microscope? I have -- medieval instruments of confession look more inviting. The Spanish Inquisition, now there's a lively bunch that knew how to inspire conversion. Even as we prepare to enter the 21st century, thousands of Mexican and Spanish Jews are still hiding under the cover of Catholicism.
So a few industrious buzzers collect the nectar -- then what? Were you aware that the water content of nectar varies? Well, it does. Anything from thirty or forty percent to ninety percent or more. Maybe less, maybe more, who's got the time to sample the water content of each and every flower? Besides some of these flowers are open to low humidity drying winds that would suck the water content from a rock. With the random effects of weather and the natural distribution of variability amongst the flora it's no surprise that the water content is not uniform. Heck darn diversity is the seed of evolution. However, as any marketer can advise, consumers prefer to buy products that they can trust to be the same from day to day and purchase to purchase. Bottom line: it just won't work to deliver a product that varies from watery to thick -- depending on time of year, plants involved, and humidity of the pasture. Fortunately, the bees have solved this little problem quite nicely.
The forager bees (little buzzers that fly around sucking up nectar from flowers and such) gather the raw material. These guys forage for nectar, gather and bring it back to the hive. Since they don't have handy-dandy little buckets (like in cartoons) the bees suck the honey down using a convenient organ located just posterior to the mouth affectionately called the sucking pump. From here the nectar is shuttled down the oesophagus into a thin-walled sac (corresponding to the crop of other insects) called the honey stomach -- so called because it is used to carry nectar or honey. Separating the honey stomach and the ventriculus (the real stomach) is a small sphincter like opening called the stomach mouth. The stomach mouth prevents the nectar from passing from the honey stomach into the further reaches of the honey bees' digestive system. It is here in the honey stomach that the nectar is stored during the long flight from flower to hive.
Depending on whether a nectar-find was worthy of pride or required help, the first thing a foraging bee would do upon returning to the hive is dance a little jig -- thus giving the other foragers a clue to the size and location of a nectar-find. After this oratory in farting and tap-dancing is complete the forager bee (still loaded with a stomach full of nectar) would look for a house bee to receive the raw nectar. When a house bee is found, that is not otherwise occupied, the forager bee regurgitates said raw materials. As forging bees are apt to be heard saying, "I have enough to do foraging without having to do all the processing as well. You'd think with sitting around the hive all day she could keep the combs cleaner and do a little processing."
In keeping with all post-industrialized factory management, the foraging bees leave the post-gathering production to house bees. Having completed their unionized roll of gathering, the foraging bees regurgitate the only slightly digested nectar and let the house bees suck it down for further processing. When the forager bee has passed a drop of nectar along, the house bee moves into action working its tiny little jaws to the chitin converting the nectar droplet into honey.
The house bee has two main processing responsibilities. The first is to dehydrate the nectar into a stable product with batch to batch consistency. This is accomplished by vomiting the nectar and chewing it down over and over again. Each cycle of the process takes about twenty seconds. Given that on the average a house bee will work approximately fifteen to twenty minutes on each droplet of nectar, that translates into about fifty chew-swallow-regurgitate cycles -- guaranteed to eventually dry out even the watery-est nectar. When the nectar's water content reaches an agreed upon concentration (set by arbitrated agreement between management and labor) the house bee stops chewing and adds the partially digested nectar to a cell in the honey comb. It is here that the second processing responsibility of the house bee is accomplished.
The sugar profile of raw nectar varies from simple (glucose and fructose) to complex (sucrose). That will never do for feeding young baby bees and besides sucrose is too close to the white crystals of death extracted from sugar cane and beets to be very effective on the retail market. Nope, in the health food market something different (and sweeter) is required -- at least if one wants to compete for that ever elusive (and perhaps mob controlled)1 shelf-space.
To solve this marketing dilemma honey bees inject the enzyme invertase into the nectar. The invertase enzyme converts sucrose into smaller, simplier and sweeter sugars. The process is begun in the stomach to be completed in the wax holding tanks of the honey comb over the course of a few weeks.
Next time before complaining of how much work it is to lay in a supply of canned tomatoes and pickles for the winter, you may wish to recall the job of the house bee and count yourself lucky. Who would want to chew and spit up cucumbers all night long? Come to think of it, that's the very thing that happened to me the last time I had cucumbers in my salad. Perhaps I should put it into a wax-bucket next to the nursery and let it finish digesting there. Strained cucumbers, that's one food product you don't see on the grocery store shelves everyday.
This story and several of my other more noticeable quirks were picked up on sale from a local Paranoids-R-Us discount shop. I do so love a good bargain -- don't you? This week they are having a special an UFO conspiracy theories.
If you are thinking of going into a business, the startup fee to open a Paranoids-R-Us franchise is not that bad. The fly in the ointment is: they require a home phone number on the franchise application. Thus cutting the total number of applicants to near-zero. The few entrepreneurs that do make it through the franchise application process have the good sense to "accidentally" transpose a couple digits in their phone number -- guaranteeing paranoid and resourceful owners.