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Nature Notes: The Sweeter Side of Bees

Written by Leah Renee Eller, Assistant Professor of Chemistry

“The only reason for being a bee that I know of is making honey…and the only reason for making honey is so I can eat it.”   − Winnie the Pooh

As I was strolling through the Maryland Renaissance Festival for Oktoberfest, I encountered many colorful people and interesting wares. Riding elephants and throwing axes have their appeals, but by far my favorite booth belonged to the Bee Folks. In this tent were sold incredibly delicious organic honeys of many flavors. I partook in my first honey tasting and left with several jars of orange blossom honey, which has been my favorite since childhood, and killer bee honey. Not being able to carry off all of the flavors, which included almond, meadowfoam, heather, fireweed, cotton, raspberry, thistle, Tupelo and many others, I satisfied myself with my traditional favorite and my newest favorite flavor, while comforting myself in the knowledge that the company takes orders online. The vast array of deliciousness I left behind at the Ren Fair started me a thinkin’, as my grandmother would have put it. As a child raised in the country to a blue collar family, honey meant summertime and chasing bees with my sisters to   find their hives, fields of flowers and, of course, biscuits. Nothing says lovin’ like honey biscuits with your eggs and bacon to a country family. Amidst all this nostalgia, the chemist in me had some thoughts, too.

Honey is a funny material. It is thick and gooey and to a greater or lesser extent golden in color. To the average person, that may not mean a lot. To an organic chemist, that combination of descriptors indicates impure, impure, impure. Many, if not most, organic compounds appear as white, crystalline solids if they are pure. The further the deviation from a white, crystalline solid, generally, the further away the substance is from purity. A yellow goo is pretty far away from a crystalline solid. It struck me as odd that one generally hears about “pure honey” when, in fact, honey is not pure at all. Other than glucose and fructose, which are the two components that when combined give you table sugar, I didn’t really know what else was in honey. Clearly a lot if the material is a goo, and a yellow goo at  that. Being the true, geeky chemist that I am, I did some background research.

So what is in that delicious yellow goo? Well, there are the aforementioned glucose and fructose and bits of remaining pollen. There are also a variety of organic acids, including gluconic acid, formed by the bee from the oxidation of glucose; formic acid (yes, the same stuff that is in ant saliva); citric acid; and acetic acid (better known as vinegar), to name a few. There are several enzymes used by the bees to convert the pollen into honey, so honey is a ready source of amino acids. There are also traces of a number of vitamins and minerals and antioxidants. Really, if you can forget the fact that the stuff is essentially bee barf, nutritionally, honey has a lot going for it. And let us not forget the delicate interplay of flavors, the sweet with hints of tartness or mint or what have you that results in the sticky goodness, which is the primary reason any of us buy and eat honey.

As a laboratory scientist, and specifically an organic chemist, my job is making molecules. And here these little bees are. They buzz around an area, stopping to smell the flowers, maybe annoying a person or two. These tiny little bees are able to perform such impressive feats of chemistry that one cannot help but be humbled. With the range of glassware, chemicals, mechanical equipment and student power at my disposal, I would still be hard-pressed to make from scratch some of the compounds made by bees.

beeThe bees and the honey at the Renaissance Fair only served to remind me of something that I already knew and try to impart to my students: Mama Nature does it best. She has had billions of years of practice in order to devise systems that work efficiently and sustainably, and Her systems work very well. On my best day, I cannot run a reaction that gives me as good results with as few byproducts as the reactions that take place on a daily basis in the natural world. Looking around nature at the everyday miracles of science that go on without our help or encouragement or even our knowledge much of the time, one cannot help but be in awe. A good thing, lest we get too big for our britches. A little awe at the mysteries of nature keeps us humble and reminds us as scientists what our job is and what it is not. Outdoing Mother Nature should not be the goal of science. Science exists as a means of understanding nature and the universe in which we fi nd ourselves. Part of understanding is appreciation.

So it is all right that I marvel at the little bees who make the honey that takes me back to simpler times in life. I do not begrudge them their chemistry skills. Carry on, little bees. My honey pot is running low.

(For more information on Bee Folks, go to www.beefolks.com.)