Category Archives: Pastry

When Bees Fly the, Er…Coop

What do I know about colony collapse disorder (CCD)? Not that much, reader Kelly, but then none of the beekeepers I know have a very good handle on it either. Experts are sharply divided over the causes since a single “smoking gun” has yet to be found. The latest thinking is that colony collapse disorder — in which hive populations simply vanish leaving all their honey and unhatched brood behind — is a result of a combination of causes, possibly pesticides, maybe some natural and/or invasive parasites, maybe changes in habitat.

There’s a lot of alarmism about CCD in the press, though I myself am pretty sanguine about it all. The history of bee husbandry is one mass, unexplained die-off after another. It’s important to remember that bees are not domesticated. They’re a non-native species (the Indians called them “the white man’s fly”) that we’ve tried our best to manipulate since we brought them to this Continent some 400 years ago — and well before that. Still they remain wild animals that defy our ultimate control.

CCD may well be a part of their natural life cycle, we honestly don’t know for sure. That’s no reason to be complacent about CCD of course, we need to keep searching for explanations. Still you don’t need to spend a whole lot of time around bees to appreciate what fearsome little survivors they are. They’re like tiny armored vehicles with wings. If it was possible to place a wager on who’d remain on the Earth longer, Apis mellifera or Homo sapiens, my money is on the bees.

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They Call it “Honey Laundering”

Several readers have mentioned the Chinese honey flap from a few years ago, specifically the allegations that Chinese producers ultra-filter their honey to remove any traces of pollen, thus making it easier for them to sneak their ultra-cheap product onto global markets, as there is no longer any micro-evidence of its origin. The process was said to remove anything that’s unique or beneficial in the honey, leaving nothing but the sugars. “Honey that isn’t worthy of the name ‘honey’” was the line you heard a lot in those days, or something close to it. The story was initially spread by an American attorney who owns a website called Food Safety News and who frequently represents plaintiffs in cases against large food interests.

It quickly gained currency at legitimate new outlets around the world. The trouble with the accusation was that most honey sold by large packagers is also almost totally devoid of pollen, not to mention wax bits, dirt, and other non-sugar substances. The process that’s used isn’t “filtering” exactly. Diatomaceous earth — a naturally-occurring porous rock that’s been powdered — is added to the honey, which causes all the non-syrup “bits” to clump together so they can be easily removed.

The process is called “flocculation”, but the real question is: why do it? Part of the answer is obvious: to remove anything that might turn out to be a contaminant. However there’s also another important reason American honey producers take all these little things out: to prevent crystallization. Unlike most other societies on the planet, Americans prefer to take their honey in liquid form. Since any particle — however tiny — is a potential nucleation site for a sugar crystal, removing the little bits keeps the honey in a liquid state for longer. So unless all commercial liquid honey doesn’t deserve the name “honey” — a perfectly reasonable point of view, though I don’t share it — the story was much ado about nothing.

Which is not to say that that there aren’t any problems with Chinese honey. Part of the reason the story spread so quickly was because honey lovers and beekeepers have had a grudge against the Chinese for a couple of decades now. Cheap Chinese honey— some of it of highly questionable quality — began flooding American markets in the 90′s. How cheap was it? So cheap that it could be packaged, shipped and sold on store shelves for less than it cost the average American beekeeper to collect it.

Starting in 2001 the U.S. government started imposing tariffs on Chinese honey to keep the imports from completely crushing the American honey industry. Governments in other countries have done the same, though America is by far the largest single market for honey in the world. Sadly the tariffs haven’t completely stopped cheap Chinese honey from making it onto US markets. So-called “honey laundering” schemes are rampant whereby Chinese honey is sold to, say, a Korean distributor who puts a Korean label on it and re-sells it to an American company. It’s all illegal of course. Indeed American employees of a German company called ALW were convicted and jailed in 2006 for orchestrating just such a scheme.

That’s a global economy for you I suppose, for better or worse. In theory it should be possible to trace Chinese honey in American products by identifying residual pollens that remain in even the most well-flocculated or filtered honey. However the sort of microbotanical expertise required to perform the feat is such that there are maybe two or three experts on the planet who could actually do it. Which means the Chinese honey drama will persist.

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Ever heard Van Morrison sing the lyric “she’s as sweet as tupelo honey”? Well it turns out that the reason tupelo honey is so sweet is because tupelo nectar is mostly fructose, which, as longtime readers of know, has no more calories than sucrose, but tastes about 20% sweeter on the tongue. That means that tupelo honey is technically a high fructose bee syrup…clearly a plot by unscrupulous southern bees to addict our children to junky, nutritionally vacant foods. Will this sort of shameless profiteering ever stop?

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Is honey and invert sugar?

…asks reader Ed. The answer is that while some people commonly refer to honey as an invert sugar, it’s more accurate to say that honey contains invert sugar. Though it looks like a homogenous liquid, honey is really a hodgepodge of all sorts of stuff: sugars (some invert, some not), proteins, bits of wax, pollens of all sorts, the list goes on. That only makes sense. Bees forage so widely, they harvest nectar from all sorts of sources, and that introduces quite a bit of random…stuff…into honey.

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In Praise of City Honey

I’ll say unreservedly that the honey that Mrs. Pastry and I harvested from our Chicago rooftop hives was the best I’d ever tasted. Not because it was fresh, not because it was ours, but because it had a character unlike any honey I’d eaten before. No, that’s not because it was made from sugars collected from street corner trash cans or city dumpsters (though that’s been known to happen), it’s because it was made from an extremely wide variety of flower nectars. Allow me to explain.

Bees can be very single-minded creatures. When they find a nectar source they’ll exploit it until it’s gone. Foragers go out searching for something good to eat, and when they find it come back to the hive and tell other foragers about their discovery. More bees go out, flying in a perfectly straight “bee line” to the nectar supply. If that supply is a large clover field or a flowering tupelo forest, the hive will end up making a honey comprised mostly of that particular nectar. These are so-called “single pollen” honeys, and while they are nothing like “single pollen” they’re close enough for jazz. Or the FDA.

The trouble with honeys that are drawn primarily from a single nectar source is that they can be a little, oh…one-dimensional. But put a hive of bees in a large city and their nectar-foraging habits are thwarted. There aren’t any big flower fields or apple orchards to exploit. Yet what a city lacks in volume it makes up for in sheer variety. City streets, gardens and even window boxes are loaded with ornamental plants brought in from all over the world. Bees gather some nectar from here, some from there, and it all goes in to the same big honey pot. Harvested and spread on toast, the result is delicious.

Our honey was the palest of pale yellows, an indication that much of the nectar came from the linden trees that the City of Chicago planted after Dutch elm disease ravaged its streets in the 70′s. But beyond that it’s anyone’s guess what went into it. We finished the last of it a couple of years ago with great ceremony, for we shall not see its like again.

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Kindly place the money in the bag.

The nuns at my Catholic grade school were always fond of saying that there’s no such thing as a circumstance in which good grammar isn’t appreciated. This new story is the perfect illustration of the point. Evidently there’s a bank robber in Colorado who grasps that just because you happen to be pointing a gun at someone and demanding all their money, it doesn’t mean you were brought up in a barn. There’s always a place for the little niceties like good punctuation and proper verb use. It may be armed robbery, but it can also be civilized, yes?

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Honey Madness

Reader Erica wonders why, if bees have evolved such an effective defense against microscpoic honey thieves, they couldn’t have evolved a more effective defense against larger ones like beekeepers. You know, Erica, I’m not entirely convinced that they aren’t working on that very thing right now. Since antiquity, honeys harvested from parts of northern Turkey have been notorious for their toxic effects. The reason, because they’re produced from the nectar either of of two species of rhododendron, R. luteum and R. ponticum which is known to contain compounds known as grayanotoxins.

These toxins aren’t poisonous to bees, however in humans they cause weakness, dizziness, flop sweat and vomiting. In some cases they can cause extreme low blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, shock and even death. Greek historian and mercenary Xenophon recorded, in about 400 B.C., the exploits of a Greek army traveling through what is now Turkey. It seems that some of the soldiers found and raided several hives along the way and were afflicted with vomiting and what has since been called “honey madness” or “mad honey disease.”

These sorts of stories make some people paranoid about rhododendron nectar here in the States, though there’s never been a recorded case of mad honey disease in this part of the world. That’s not to say that there aren’t other plants in the US whose nectar is potentially toxic to humans, however incidents of honey intoxication are extremely rare and almost never fatal. All of which means bees need to try a lot harder if they want to put us off their crop.

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What, you kept bees?

Yes, Mrs. Pastry saw the movie Ulee’s Gold a few too many times and before I knew it I was at the University of Illinois taking a weekend bee husbandry course. We don’t keep them anymore (Mrs. Pastry eventually developed an allergy to stings) but it was one of the most interesting hobbies I’ve had. Bees are endlessly diverting as pets. You never know what those little suckers are going to do or why. Sting you, sure. But over time, as you start falling in love with your hives, you come to regard the stinging as nearly pleasurable.

Did you know that bees have politics? They do. Every hive has a queen — and only one — who lays all the eggs. Which means all the workers (females) and drones (males) in the hive are her sons and daughters. If you can find the frame she’s on, which is easy if you paint a little nail polish on her back, you can watch her moving among the little wax cells, inspecting them for cleanliness and depositing a single, tiny white egg in each. All goes well for her until one day the hive decides it’s time for a change. It’s easy to spot the signs of unrest: oblong, peanut-shaped “queen cells” hanging off the bottoms of the frames. Out of these will come pretenders to the throne who’ll fight it out — with her and each other — for dominion. Why does this happen? Sometimes you know, sometimes you don’t. Bees are funny that way.

They may spurn you affections. Being in the middle of a big city Mrs. Pastry and I worried our bees would have a hard time finding good quality water, so we left out a supply we changed twice a week. Not a single bee ever drank from it as far as we could tell. One day I observed a few drinking from a gunky pool inside an old tire in the alley. I tried not to take it personally but I’ll be honest, it hurt.

Of course they may decide to just one day up and leave you. You crack open the hive and it’s all but empty. The honey’s gone and a few stragglers and unhatched brood are all that’s left. Talk about a feeling of rejection. Baby, couldn’t we have talked this?

And then of course there are the times they sting you all to hell. But mass stinging is something that’s mostly easy to avoid. Hives are in a good mood on the same sorts of days we humans are in a good mood: bright sunny, low-humidity, not-too-hot, not-too-cold sorts of mornings or afternoons. If you take care to open your hives under those sorts of conditions all is (usually) well. The danger is that after too many easy days you start thinking your bees will be happy to see you any old time. You crack open the hive at dusk on a cloudy, humid day and all hell breaks loose. And when that happens God help you, no veil or bee suit will keep them out. Just about every beekeeper encounters that sooner or later, and learns to run the four-minute mile in fifty-three seconds.

But that’s bees. They’re entirely and consistent and predictable except on the days that they aren’t. Trying to figure out why they do what they do is the great joy of beekeeping. The days you realize how smart they are, indeed how much smarter than you they are, are the days when your cute little weekend hobby becomes profound — an intimate and humbling encounter with a miniature animal society whose tolerance of you is as joy-inducing as it is provisional.

Hm. Guess it’s obvious I miss it, no? I confess there are days when I catch sight of a fuzzy-backed honey bee on a clover flower in the yard and I get a little choked up. I’m that sort of a sap. But God love those little insects, they did me a world of good. I owe them a debt, for all the honey I took and a lot more.

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Bee Syrup

You can’t talk bee sting cake without talking honey and bees, now can you? Bees are hands down the world’s premier syrup manufacturers. It’s little wonder why, they’ve been refining their technique for about a hundred million years. The process they use is the same one we employ for making syrup out of tree sap or sugar cane: reduction. They start with a thin 80% water-to-sugar solution that they extract from flowers, then slowly reduce it down until it has a moisture content of right around 18%. At that point they deposit the syrup in a cell in the honey comb, cap it off with wax and await the winter (or the beekeeper).

The process by which bees convert nectar to honey is fascinating, and it begins at the moment a honey bee extracts the nectar from a flower. The nectar, which can be made of sucrose, glucose, fructose or any combination, flows into an organ inside the bee called the “honey stomach”. There enzymes go to work on it breaking any sucrose molecules (and other more complex sugars) down into simple glucose and fructose. When the forager bees arrive back at the hive, they pass the nectar to other workers who suck the honey into their own honey stomachs and begin a process of repeated regurgitation. They hold a small droplet of nectar just under their tiny mouth parts, which exposes it to the air, causing some of the moisture to evaporate. They then re-ingest the droplet and do it again. All the while enzymes continue to work on the nectar breaking any remaining long-chain sugars down and converting some of the glucose to gluconic acid (the reason for which I’ll explain in a moment).

After about 20 minutes of this, the worker deposits the nectar — which by this time is down to about 50% water — on the surfaces and the edges of the open honeycomb. There it’s left to evaporate further, a process that’s facilitated by other workers who beat their wings near the front and back entrances to create a steady flow of air through the hive.

Having been a beekeeper (Mrs. Pastry and I used to keep a few hives on top of a building in Chicago) I can say I’ve witnessed this behavior, and it’s awe inspiring. The sound that used to issue from our hives at night rivaled the humming of the HVAC units nearby. When you held your hand out in front of the larger front entrance you could feel the hive’s moist, warm breath as it expelled humidity from the interior.

Once the honey is reduced down to less than 20% moisture, it’s deposited in the comb and capped. The whole process, start to finish, takes about three weeks. The big question is: why do bees do this? Why do they expend so much time and energy creating the 5-1 syrup that the rest of the world knows as honey? The reason is: to prevent their nectar harvest from being plundered by microbes. For indeed syrups much over 20% water will eventually ferment in a warm environment. The concentration of sugar — combined with the gluconic acid I mentioned a few paragraphs ago — is enough to keep honey from spoiling indefinitely.

And when I say indefinitely, I mean it. It’s been reported that an Egyptologist by the name of Theodore Davies found an urn that contained crystallized but still usable honey that was over 3,000 years old. Maybe that’s true, maybe it isn’t, but suffice to say bees can successfully keep their harvest out of the hands of greedy microbes for a long, long time. Now if those poor bees could only do the same with greedy beekeepers…

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What about single-acting baking powder?

I’ve received a couple of questions on the subject this week. Honestly I didn’t know single-acting powder was still out there for anything other than commercial/industrial use. As I mentioned below, double acting baking powders deliver two “actions”, one that happens fast when the batter is being mixed, and another that happens slowly as the batter gets hot. The effect is achieved by combining two different acids with a specific quantity of baking soda (plus a little corn starch to keep the chemicals from reacting in the can). For the fast reaction baking powder manufacturers usually use either cream of tartar or mono calcium phosphate (MCP). For the slow one, typically either sodium acid pyrophosphate (SAPP), sodium aluminum phosphate (SALP) or sodium aluminum sulfate (SAS), or a combination.

As you’ve probably deduced by now, single-acting baking powders deliver only one of those two actions: either the fast one or the slow one. You can tell which by checking the ingredient label. My guess is that anything sold at the retail level would probably be the slow-acting kind, designed to be used in combination with the creaming method. I’m not sure what good a fast-reacting single-action powder would do a home baker to be honest. But then it’s early in the morning and I haven’t had any caffeine yet.

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