For as long as humanity can remember, we have always used honeybees for various purposes. It is probably one of our oldest practices. From their hives we’ve gathered wax, pollen and even venom, but by far their most important product has always been their honey. As with many other things, the Ancient Egyptians were the first to begin keeping bees and farming them. At one point Lower Egypt was filled with beehives and the pharaoh was even titled as the “Bee King”.
However, before that for thousands of years people have been gathering honey from wild bee colonies. They would first soothe the bees with smoke, before cracking open hive using a stick or large rock. The oldest written evidence of this is a cave painting in Valencia, Spain, dating back 8,000 years. Traces of beeswax on ancient pottery date back even further. One sample from Anatolia, present day Turkey, was dated back to the 7,000 B.C., while numerous other samples from the Balkans and North Africa can be dated back at least to 5,000 B.C.
Throughout the years honey has been used for many, diverse purposes. Apart from its delicious taste it is known to have incredible healing properties. Many cultures, as well as some modern medical practices, use it to treat open wounds and speed up their healing. The Babylonians were known to bury their dead in it and according to some legends Alexander the Great was laid in a coffin, filled with it. Hannibal, one of the greatest generals in history, is said to have given his soldiers honey and vinegar during his famous crossing of the Alps with his army. In Northern Europe they used to make an alcoholic beverage called mead, by mixing it with yeast and water and allowing it to ferment. The Egyptians used to store pots of it in their tombs and incredibly, when such samples were discovered by archeologists in the pyramids, the honey inside was still perfectly edible.
There are several factors, that contribute to this incredible shelf life. In its core, honey is essentially a sugar. This means that is extremely hygroscopic – it has very low moisture levels. This kills off many microorganisms, which would otherwise live on it and eventually lead to spoiling. Bees contribute to this by actually drying out the nectar by flapping their wings at it. Another factor is its acidity. Its high pH level makes it an even more inhospitable environment for any bacteria. Finally, there is a special enzyme in bees’ stomachs, called glucose oxidase, which helps break down the nectar to gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide. This is what gives it its healing properties – it creates a barrier, preventing the wound from infections.
The term “honeymoon” actually comes from an old northern European custom, where during the first month of their life together, newlyweds would consume a daily cup of mead, made with fermented honey.