The Great Honey Debate

Honey and comb

Honey and comb

The ruckus started with my post May 31 on the use of honey to heal wounds. I assumed that since the Lower Pecos region of south Texas has abundant wild bees and flowers to feed them today that would have also been the case in the Archaic period, about 4000 years ago, plus or minus, and that therefore the ancient people of the area would have used honey in various ways.

Then Steve casually dropped a bomb–after I published the blog of course–saying he had always heard that there were no honey bees (Apis mellifera) in the Americas until the first Europeans arrived. Apparently  bees escaped from hives the colonists brought to become the honey bees most of us know today.

Well, that threw me into a tizzy. Not only would I have to correct my blog, which is no big deal, but more BeesandFlowersCommunicate050313drastically, since I had given honey a prominent role in several key chapters of the novel I am writing about the ancient people of the Lower Pecos, I would have to change that. And I am so close to having a completed first draft! Only one more chapter to go!

I’ve already spent more than a year on this novel, researching and writing an admittedly crude draft, about 80,000 words so far. I am really looking forward to revising during this next year, bringing the characters more to life and making the whole thing flow. Don’t tell me a key premise is wrong!  Although better to find out now than two or three years from now when the book is published, right?

Maya bee log

Maya bee log

Well it turns out there are thousands of kinds of bees, not just the European Apis mellifera. For example, the Maya raised bees and developed an extensive honey culture thousands of years ago in Yucatan, and still practice beekeeping today. The bees they preferred were stingless Meliponini bees, which include over 500 species and generally occur in the tropics.

These stingless bees are quite calm and are often tended by children among the Maya. They live in log hives and produce a thinner, more liquid honey than that of the Apis mellifera. The Maya even had a god of honey, Ah

Ah Mucen Cab, Maya bee god

Ah Mucen Cab, Maya bee god

Mucen Cab, which is depicted over a door way at the ancient site of Tulum.

The thing that puts my mind at rest, however, is a distribution map published this year (2013) by the Natural History Museum of London that shows Meliponini bees in south Texas!   So, as a novelist, I feel safe now that I can put a little beekeeping in the Lower Pecos Archaic. Especially since archeologists and other researchers have rarely had the time or money to identify any bee remains in their samples. Looking for insects was not really their goal in the past. Hopefully, that situation can be corrected soon and we can find out what type of bees made the honey  ancient people of the Lower Pecos used on their cuts and scrapes.

As Eva Crane said in her definitive book “The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting,” (1991),”it seems likely that many species [of bees] are now less widely distributed than when human populations were much smaller,” like in the Archaic period.

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*Stingless Bee Distribution Map  http://www.nhm.ac.uk/research-curation/research/projects/bombus/pic_apini.html

Wounds and Bleeding: Medicine Kit of the Lower Pecos, Part III

Archaic peoples had many ways to stop bleeding and heal wounds

Archaic peoples had to stop bleeding and heal wounds, just as we do today

Stopping unwanted bleeding and healing wounds without infection were serious issues for Archaic peoples of the Lower Pecos and others around the world. Fortunately, an efficacious ointment was often at hand, not only along the Rio Grande but almost world-wide. That precious ointment was honey.

Egyptian Healer

Egyptian Healer

Honey was an important ingredient in the Three Gestures of Healing used in ancient Egypt. The protocol went like this: First, wash the wound. Second, apply a plaster of honey, animal fat, and plant fiber. And last, bandage the wound.  Sounds reasonable even today. In fact using honey to treat wounds was also used by the Greeks and , and even up to World War II.

When penicillin and other antibiotics came in after WWII, honey was often forgotten.

But new research has recently shown the antibacterial properties of honey itself.  Professor Peter Molan at the University of Waikato lin New Zealand says “in honeys, there is–to

Honey and comb

Honey and comb

different levels–hydrogen peroxide produced from an enzyme that bees add to the nectar.”

The particular type of New Zealand honey he studies has been found to work in a very broad spectrum. “It works on bacteria, fungi, protozoa.  We haven’t found anything it doesn’t work on among infectious organisms,” concludes Professor Molan.

So it seems likely that at least some kinds of honey, particularly those from wild organic flowers, could be quite effective for preventing infection in open wounds.

Black brush, a bee favorite, in bloom in a canyon

Black brush, a bee favorite, in bloom in a canyon

Fortunately the Lower Pecos has both wild organic flowers and bees, in abundance.  Flowers bloom across the Lower Pecos region after every rain, even a tiny amount. They grow hanging from stone canyon walls or sprouting from stone pavements on the floor. They attract many wild bees that build nests in rock crannies, even ceilings of rock shelters with painted walls.

Wild honeycomb in a rock shelter in the Lower Pecos

Wild honeycomb in a rock shelter in the Lower Pecos

Ancient people had intimate knowledge of their landscapes and would have undoubtedly made use of all their resources, including robbing bees for their honey. Honey was likely kept at hand by the ancient people who lived in the region to apply to cuts and wounds to promote healing and prevent infection. Poultices of various kinds were likely made and bound to the wound with strips of hide or cordage.

I am unclear about the existence of bees 4000 years ago in North America, however. The beautiful booklet “Bee Basics” by Drs. Beatriz Moisset and Stephen Buchmann of the USDA Forest Service (http://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5306468.pdf) seems to make a distinction between honey bees and other types of bees considered native to this continent. In fact they state that honey bees did not appear here until some escaped from European imports. Hmm. Bee people, can you help me out?

The plot thickens with the discovery of honey bee fossils in Nevada from  millions of years ago in 2009 (see          http://ucanr.org/blogs/blogcore/postdetail.cfm?postnum=1544). Just makes me wonder about how much we don’t know about even the simplest things.

For the Archaic people of the Lower Pecos, however, other issues concerning blood were likely treated with wild plants. Blue Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) is native to Texas and grows near streams or marshes. Yes, there are such places even in the desert of the Lower Pecos. An infusion of the plant can be used to promote menstruation, and large doses can induce miscarriage. Overdoses can cause giddiness, confusion and twitching.  In cases like this, the patient should seek immediate medical attention.

There are over 350 varieties of skullcap

There are over 350 varieties of skullcap

Letha Hadaday, adjunct faculty for the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens and Beth Israel Medical Center in New York, is an expert in the use of Chinese medicinal herbs (www.asianheathsecrets.com). According to her, skullcap may also help prevent strokes by increasing bloodflow to the brain, and has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. While little Western research validates these statements, they are well accepted in Chinese medicine.

Another plant that can induce labor or alter menstrual cycles is stinging nettle

Stinging Nettle Rash

Stinging Nettle Rash

(Urtica dioica). Yes, the one I remember so well from childhood for the painful red welts on my arm.  If you get into them, the rash can itch horribly for at least a week, so watch which weeds you are pulling, especially in flood plains or shady spots near creeks. Stinging nettle affects blood flow, and can contribute to miscarriage as well as stop hemorrhaging during childbirth.