One day I was staring at a pineapple on my kitchen bench, and in my lost-afternoon thoughts, I wondered:
Who was the first guy to eat a pineapple?
I mean, look at it. It’s a horrendous-looking thing, isn’t it?
It’s spikey and looks angry, and even the stems sprouting from the top are sharp and will cut you if you’re not careful.
Which brave soul all those thousands of years ago decided, hey, why don’t we cut this thing open and eat it?!
Of course, I’m sure he was a hero, because he would have then taken it back to his tribe and told them all about this impossibly delicious and juicy and delectable food he had just discovered.
I wonder exactly the same thing about honey.
I mean, what sane man would have looked at a beehive, swarming with noisy bees, approached it a few times already and got stung (and yes, after probably 500 bee stings in my life, I can tell you they do hurt!!) and then decided – “Hey, maybe we should EAT IT?”
But, the reality is, that’s exactly what we’ve been doing for thousands of years.
Honey is not like most other foods in nature.
The thing that separates honey out from most other foods is, it is almost magical in how pure and fresh it is.
Even today, we need to refrigerate vegetables. If we cut a fruit (and even if we don’t), once it’s picked it goes bad in a few days.
But honey can just sit there in a beehive, all shiny and golden, and not go bad!
Beef needed to be dried into jerky. Dairy needed to be fermented into yogurt. But honey? It can just stay as honey – no salting, no preservation, no refrigeration. Just good old sticky sweet delicious honey.
The second unique thing about honey – it’s delicious!! We use it medicinally, and most things we use medicinally, like ginger, spices, herbs, they don’t taste good on their own.
Ever seen someone just chewing in a thumb of ginger? Never!
But honey – it lasts for yonks, it’s delicious, and it heals illness? It’s almost too good to be true.
Is it any wonder we once considered it a food from the gods?
Honey is repeatedly mentioned in most sacred books, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, The Quran, and of course, the Bible.
A clay tablet found in Mesopotamia, dated around 2,000 BC, is thought to have the world’s first “medical prescriptions”, which included healing cuts and wounds with honey (just like we do today!)
In Ancient Egypt, honey was so significant that the bee was used as a sign of the king, and was displayed in the hieroglyphs and temples. Priests used honey in religious rites, and in the Ebers Papyrus, honey is listed as an ingredient in hundreds of medical treatments, including wound treatment after circumcision and surgeries. The papyrus also describes soaking bandages in honey to heal deep wounds and stitches.
Honey was so essential to Ancient Egypt that beekeepers took beehives up and down the Nile River, to give them the full range of flowers. In this sense, the Egyptians invented migratory beekeeping, something that is still a craft trade today.
Honey, propolis and beeswax were also used in the famous Egyptian mummification process.
Then came the Greeks.
Perhaps the most famous Greek in history – Aristotle – is known to have spent much of his time observing the life of bees, and trying to understand how they were able to make this wonderful substance known as honey.
And how can we forget the Greek physician Hippocrates, after which all doctors today swear their Hippocratic Oath. Hippocrates clearly stated that honey healed wounds, ulcers and running sores, and prescribed honey and vinegar as a topical treatment for wounds and pain.
The Roman Empire was perhaps the most prominent honey-loving empire. The Roman physician Celsus used honey as a cure for diarrhea, and Discordes, another famous Greek physician who rose to fame during Rome’s reign, prescribed honey for sores, leg ulcers, throats and tonsil infections, among others.
Beekeeping was one of the most popular trades during the Roman Empire – a mellarius was a special kind of slave that tended to hives – basically a beekeeper. There is still literature available today from the Roman Empire that explained the process of beekeeping.
The Chinese Empire was also a great lover of honey, though due to a lack of good honey-producing bees, the empire acquired most of their honey through trade. Luckily, silk was in big demand, and there was no greater empire at producing quality silk than the Ancient Chinese.
Honey has always been prized as a medicinal food in Chinese cultures, and perhaps that is the reason why – they went to great lengths to acquire it, and it was not easily available to the regular person. The Chinese believed honey boosted the qi, or the life force, and brought health and balance to the body.
In India, honey was one of the most prominent components of Ayurvedic medicine, and still is today. Around 1400 BC, a famous Indian surgeon by the name of Susrata wrote about eight different types of honey, and the different medical benefits each could offer.
The Ashtanga Hridaya, from 700 AD, once again recommended honey for wound healing.
And of course, we cannot forget the Mayans – those wonderful people who constantly believed the world was ending. Honey and beeswax were prized items in Mayan culture, and they had two different honey festivals on their calendar.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that we discovered “beekeeping” as a structured way to control the production of bees and honey.
Of course, beekeeping had existed in some manner in all these previous civilisations, but to do it on such a large, commercial scale was not yet heard of.
It began in the USA, and quickly become popular across the western world.
Honey production increased rapidly, and while it didn’t quite catch up to sugar production, it became a mainstream sweetening item in much of the developed world.
That brings us to today, where we have many advanced techniques on building and optimizing beehives to produce commercial amounts of honey.
And today, we still use honey for all the same wonderful benefits that our ancestors did thousands of years ago.
Isn’t it amazing honey has been such a constant part of our lives for so long!