article

09.15.09

The Caviar of Condiments Under Threat

With a drop in the abundance of bee colonies, the scarcity of honey has left consumers in a sticky situation—the price is being driven way up.

Honey was never considered a luxury food. It was something to drizzle on a biscuit or in your tea, and of course in the Jewish culture to dip an apple into on Rosh Hashanah to bring in a sweet new year. But then bees started mysteriously vanishing, and now honey has taken on a kind of mythical status. Honeybee-colony losses nationwide are now about 30 percent a year, and though that’s an improvement over past years, the effects are dramatic.

“While the drop in loss is encouraging, loss of this magnitude is economically unsustainable for commercial beekeeping.”

“While the drop in loss is encouraging, loss of this magnitude is economically unsustainable for commercial beekeeping,” said Jeff Pettis, research leader of the Agricultural Research Service Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland.

Honeybees 101: Bees create honey from the nectar of flowers (their food source), and the act of collecting the nectar is critical to the pollination of plants. Beekeepers create artificial hives for bee swarms to nest in, and encourage overproduction of honey within the hive for harvesting.

Beekeepers earn money by charging farmers to have their hives on their land, as the bees provide the necessary pollination for the crops. In 2009, because of the scarcity of bees, the price of a single hive has climbed to about $180 from $60 in 2004. And in 2006, American beekeepers had to import bees for the first time in almost a century. The cost of pollination for farmers now can exceed the cost of fertilizer, water, or labor, and that cost is naturally being passed on to the consumer. This is one of the major factors contributing to the spikes in food prices.

The other huge issue is that much of the food that we eat that is good for us—oh, and by the way, the same kind of food most livestock eat, too—depends on pollination to exist, which means we depend on bees. Besides honey production, honeybees are bred commercially for their ability to pollinate 90 crops, including many fruits and nuts. Soon, this reduction in bees will start to affect the supply of healthful food, something our increasingly diabetic, high-blood-pressure-riddled, overweight culture can ill afford. The line from A to B to C to D is kind of a straight one that could have far-reaching implications. Fewer bees = more expensive food = less healthful food = bad news for our diets and our health.

Why, why, why? Still no answer, but maybe we’re getting a little closer. The overall thinking is that this whole phenomenon signals a major environmental imbalance. Many blame our increased use of chemical pesticides and herbicides, which honeybees ingest during the pollination process. And to prevent mite destruction, commercial beehives are also regularly fumigated with chemicals. Another theory is that genetic modification may be creating pollen with less nutritional value. And it well may be the sum of all these parts is just too much for the bees. Supporting this notion is the fact that organic bee colonies, free of chemicals and genetically modified crops, are not suffering the same kinds of losses.

Other theories involve the recent increase in electromagnetic waves as a result of growing numbers of cellphones and wireless communication towers, which may affect the bees’ innate ability to navigate. And our old friend global warming may be adding to the situation, since warmer temperatures encourage the growth of various mites, viruses, and fungi that are enemies of the hives.

Understandably, a lot of attention is being devoted to the issue, especially on the part of major food companies that depend on honey, or just plain-old pollination, for their products. Häagen-Dazs ice cream has an entire media campaign focused on awareness of the bee disappearance epidemic. Meanwhile, prices are rising. Think about it: Milk comes from cows, which need to eat food that is pollinated, so prices are up. Eggs come from chickens, which need to eat things that are pollinated, so prices are up. Fruits also need to be pollinated, and fruit prices are also up. And there’s been a hike in the price of sugar. On its Web site, Häagen-Dazs explains that to offset rising costs without drastically raising prices, it is reducing carton sizes from 16 fluid ounces to 14 fluid ounces, and the 32-ounce containers are now 28 ounces.

The federal government plans to spend up to $80 million to fund research in connection with honeybee depopulation syndrome. A study published in late August in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences underscored the consensus that a collection of culprits is probably involved.

Meanwhile, we have to sit tight, and stay tuned. And if you’re Jewish, or invited to a Rosh Hashanah dinner this week, when your dip your apple, take an extra moment to appreciate this gift from the bees.

Lamb Shanks with Figs and Honey
by Nigella Lawson

There is something pleasingly biblical-sounding about “figs and honey.” But since there is no mention of beekeeping in the Bible, it is thought that the honey—as in land of milk and honey—was in fact a syrup made by boiling down dates. This is still used by Sephardic Jews, and indeed, if you can get some from a Middle Eastern store, you could use it here for the honey, replacing, likewise, the dried figs with dried dates.

Honey-Roasted Root Vegetables
by Joey Altman

Reducing the honey to a caramelized glaze and using it as the sole cooking medium results in vegetables with a rich, creamy texture and an earthy flavor with a hint of sweetness.

Broiled Chicken with Honey and Lemon
by Helen Nash

This chicken is ridiculously simple and delicious. Soy, mustard, and honey make an amazing glaze.

Honey and Cardamom Cookies
by Jane Lawson

Cardamom is making its way into more and more dishes, both sweet and savory, and it’s about time this underutilized spice got a little love.

Plus: Check out Hungry Beast for more news on the latest restaurants, hot chefs, and tasty recipes.

Katie Workman is the editor in chief and chief marketing officer of Cookstr.com, a Web site devoted to great, tested recipes from chefs and cookbook authors. Katie is on the board of City Harvest, and actively involved in Share Our Strength. She lives in New York City with her husband her two boys, ages 6 and 9.