I have a very clear memory of an unforgivingly sweltering summer day somewhere in the San Fernando Valley. I was probably 8 or 9 years old, and I was not yet old enough to find a reason to complain about the heat. The world was buzzing with pure heat radiating off of everything you touched (I think this was the day where I tried unsuccessfully to fry an egg on the sidewalk) and the skies were literally buzzing with industrious bees looking for a sweet respite from the scorching temperature. I remember tracking a few bees that were especially interested in some seemingly empty soda cans. The bees would hover above the pop-tops and then drop down like paratroopers into the sticky abyss below. Seconds later they would reappear looking semi-satiated by the nectar from this aluminum flower. That is when I first realized that bees, although regal in many regards, have a fairly undiscriminating palate when it comes to sweets.
Years later, bees are not just wild pollinators exploring urban detritus; they are pets, livestock, and pollinators on a leash occupying corners of the urban landscape. In the last decade, urban beekeeping has taken off as rooftop trend that rivals its previous tenant – raising pigeons (with the fringe benefit of honey, how could you argue with that?). Urban hives are thriving everywhere from Seattle to Brooklyn, and laws are being adjusted to make the practice of beekeeping more welcomed and less covert.
However, a little controversy erupted a few weeks back here in New York over a mystery. Seems that beehives in certain sections of Brooklyn were being tainted by red goo from points unknown. This, as it turns out, was not the harbinger of doom or some portent that colony collapse is in the air. These roving bees were returning from a days foraging work with belies glowing like bright red Christmas bulbs. The culprit – Dell’s Maraschino Cherries Company in Red Hook. Seems the bees had found their way into the factory and spent the days sipping away at the decidedly unnatural maraschino cherry syrup, which is loaded with artificial sweeteners and Red Dye No. 40. These bees, while traditionally satiated by wild flowers and pollen-rich blooms, seemed to hardly be picky about where their next meal was coming from. As Robin Shulman, writing for the Atlantic says, “Honey is seen as something pure and natural, but bees are foragers whose guiding principle is “The sweeter the better”—even if that means making the untraditional choice of gathering artificial sugars from the urban landscape. Seemingly, the bees made the choice to gorge themselves on the cherry syrup, not because there was a lack of flowers or natural nectar givers, but simply because it held more of an appeal.
As we know, humans have grown to almost always prefer (at least by taste, not by ideal) the unnatural or artificial sweetener over its more organic analogue (I am sure some of you would be more than happy to argue with me on this point), but to have bees fall under the spell of such temptations feels a bit disheartening. Shouldn’t bees have more of an innate sense of what is right and pure, as instinct might dictate? And what does this mean for the purity and sanctity of urban honey? Is it folly to assume that a product reliant upon the itinerant wanderings of this group of foragers can maintain its integrity, especially in a landscape rife with junk food temptations?