“Who wants that honey?”- Cherub Rock, The Smashing Pumpkins
A documentary released in 2017, The Last Honey Hunter, features a village elder in Napal, Mauli Dhan, who free-solos down a bamboo ladder on the side of a steep, rocky cliff to harvest a 6 foot wide honeybee hive without the aid of modern bee-keeper suit or protection.
The hives harvested are made from Himalayan Honeybees, the largest honey bee in the world. During the documentary it is clearly evident that Mauli Dhan is making a great sacrifice, risking his life in more ways than one to claim the prize for his village.
Known as “Mad Honey,” the special honey from Himalayan Honeybees is known to have psychotropic affects due to the bees consumption of Rhododendron flowers during a particular time of year. Locals administer the expensive honey in small doses for medicinal purposes, as well as to avoid the uncomfortable side effects of over-consumption which include temporary paralysis.
Honey has captured the attention of civilization for millennia. Excavations in Egypt found honey preserved in tombs dating back 3,000 years. In the bible, it is used as a symbol of natures bounty:
“And the angel of the lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush… And I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey.” – Exodus Chapter 3.
Chemically, honey is about 76% sugar (fructose, glucose and sucrose), 18% water and 6% other (minerals, proteins, acids, oils and aromatics). Today, processed sugars are abundant from sugar cane extraction, but in the past, sources of concentrated sugars were rare and considered extremely valuable commodities. When sugar cane was first discovered 4th – 6th century BC by the Greeks and Persians it was called “reeds that produced honey without bees,” confirming civilizations long tradition with honey.
In science fiction, alien species are frequently described as insect-like with hive-like civilizations (e.g. Starship Troopers, Ender’s Game, Three Body Problem). The choice is likely deliberate due to the subconscious and primal images insects create. Bees impress upon my mind images of industriousness, and expansionism. They infest shaded and protected areas and become extremely defensive against intruders.
Another important facet of bees is that they have reproductive specialization. All bees, except the drones and queen, are non-reproductive. Androgyny is also a common theme frequently utilized in science fiction (e.g. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ancillary Justice). If resources are pulled away from individual sexual pursuits and focused on utilitarian endeavors it strengthens the whole. The dystopian novel, The Giver, depicted a society that developed reproductive specialization for the same reason: it enabled a majority of the population to focus on labor.
The themes mentioned above are a projection by the authors as we externalize a subconscious fear about the evolution of future civilization as it attempts to maintain balance between conflicts of productivity, survival and meaning.
Bee-keepers are a microcosm of how the victory is ultimately won: through intelligent utilization of knowledge we harness what is good in nature for our benefit with minimal sacrifice. Bee-keepers use smoke to put bees safely to sleep as the wealth and surplus reaches its apex to harvest for the community. By harboring a safe location for the bees to thrive, it also prevents them from expanding into areas that become detrimental or destructive. This small balance of worlds: both human and insect, is a timeless lesson.
“You sold my dead bird to a blind kid?!” – Harry Dunn