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|Photos by Karim Sahli|
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The Science Behind Honey’s Eternal Shelf Life
A slew of factors—its acidity, its lack of water and the presence of hydrogen peroxide—work in perfect harmony, allowing the sticky treat to last forever
[By Natasha Geiling via smithsonianmag.com]
Modern archeologists, excavating ancient Egyptian tombs, have often found something unexpected amongst the tombs’ artifacts: pots of honey, thousands of years old, and yet still preserved. Through millennia, the archeologists discover, the food remains unspoiled, an unmistakable testament to the eternal shelf-life of honey.
There are a few other examples of foods that keep–indefinitely–in their raw state: salt, sugar, dried rice are a few. But there’s something about honey; it can remain preserved in a completely edible form, and while you wouldn’t want to chow down on raw rice or straight salt, one could ostensibly dip into a thousand year old jar of honey and enjoy it, without preparation, as if it were a day old. Moreover, honey’s longevity lends it other properties–mainly medicinal–that other resilient foods don’t have. Which raises the question–what exactly makes honey such a special food?
The answer is as complex as honey’s flavor–you don’t get a food source with no expiration date without a whole slew of factors working in perfect harmony.
The first comes from the chemical make-up of honey itself. Honey is, first and foremost, a sugar. Sugars are hygroscopic, a term that means they contain very little water in their natural state but can readily suck in moisture if left unsealed. As Amina Harris, executive director of the Honey and Pollination Center at the Robert Mondavi Institute at Univeristy of California, Davis explains, “Honey in its natural form is very low moisture. Very few bacteria or microorganisms can survive in an environment like that, they just die. They’re smothered by it, essentially.” What Harris points out represents an important feature of honey’s longevity: for honey to spoil, there needs to be something inside of it that can spoil. With such an inhospitable environment, organisms can’t survive long enough within the jar of honey to have the chance to spoil.
Honey is also naturally extremely acidic. “It has a pH that falls between 3 and 4.5, approximately, and that acid will kill off almost anything that wants to grow there,” Harris explains. So bacteria and spoil-ready organisms must look elsewhere for a home–the life expectancy inside of honey is just too low.
But honey isn’t the only hygroscopic food source out there. Molasses, for example, which comes from the byproduct of cane sugar, is extremely hygroscopic, and is acidic, though less so than honey (molasses has a pH of around 5.5). And yet–although it may take a long time, as the sugar cane product has a longer shelf-life than fresh produce, eventually molasses will spoil.
So why does one sugar solution spoil, while another lasts indefinitely? Enter bees.
“Bees are magical,” Harris jokes. But there is certainly a special alchemy that goes into honey. Nectar, the first material collected by bees to make honey, is naturally very high in water–anywhere from 60-80 percent, by Harris’ estimate. But through the process of making honey, the bees play a large part in removing much of this moisture by flapping their wings to literally dry out the nectar. On top of behavior, the chemical makeup of a bees stomach also plays a large part in honey’s resilience. Bees have an enzyme in their stomachs called glucose oxidase (PDF). When the bees regurgitate the nectar from their mouths into the combs to make honey, this enzyme mixes with the nectar, breaking it down into two by-products: gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide. “Then,” Harris explains, “hydrogen peroxide is the next thing that goes into work against all these other bad things that could possibly grow.”
For this reason, honey has been used for centuries as a medicinal remedy. Because it’s so thick, rejects any kind of growth and contains hydrogen peroxide, it creates the perfect barrier against infection for wounds. The earliest recorded use of honey for medicinal purposes comes from Sumerian clay tablets, which state that honey was used in 30 percent of prescriptions. The ancient Egyptians used medicinal honey regularly, making ointments to treat skin and eye diseases. “Honey was used to cover a wound or a burn or a slash, or something like that, because nothing could grow on it – so it was a natural bandage,” Harris explains.
What’s more, when honey isn’t sealed in a jar, it sucks in moisture. “While it’s drawing water out of the wound, which is how it might get infected, it’s letting off this very minute amount of hydrogen peroxide. The amount of hydrogen peroxide comes off of honey is exactly what we need–it’s so small and so minute that it actually promotes healing.” And honey for healing open gashes is no longer just folk medicine–in the past decade, Derma Sciences, a medical device company, has been marketing and selling MEDIHONEY, bandages covered in honey used in hospitals around the world.
If you buy your honey from the supermarket, that little plastic bottle of golden nectar has been heated, strained and processed so that it contains zero particulates, meaning that there’s nothing in the liquid for molecules to crystallize on, and your supermarket honey will look the same for almost forever. If you buy your honey from a small-scale vendor, however, certain particulates might remain, from pollen to enzymes. With these particulates, the honey might crystallize, but don’t worry–if it’s sealed, it’s not spoiled and won’t be for quite some time.
A jar of honey’s seal, it turns out, is the final factor that’s key to honey’s long shelf life, as exemplified by the storied millennia-old Egyptian specimens. While honey is certainly a super-food, it isn’t supernatural–if you leave it out, unsealed in a humid environment, it will spoil. As Harris explains, ” As long as the lid stays on it and no water is added to it, honey will not go bad. As soon as you add water to it, it may go bad. Or if you open the lid, it may get more water in it and it may go bad.”
So if you’re interested in keeping honey for hundreds of years, do what the bees do and keep it sealed–a hard thing to do with this delicious treat!
[Read original article via smithsonianmag.com]
Did you know a honey bee has hairy eyes? Micro-Science takes you beyond the reach of your own eyes to reveal the tiny details you won’t believe are there.
On February 12, 2014 a group of Los Angeles backyard beekeepers gathered together to urge the Los Angeles City Council to consider making the practice of beekeeping in Los Angeles residential zones legal. These guerilla beekeepers outlined their reasons for cultivating bees and their hives, describing their commitment to locavore living and urban farming and their personal belief in the health benefits of locally derived honey. On a larger scale, they pointed out, their work prevents colony collapse disorder, a significant problem in which pollinating honeybees desert their hives, leaving at risk important agricultural crops such as almonds, avocados and blueberries. The beekeepers argue that the urban environment’s diverse vegetation and lack of agricultural pesticides discourage such abandonment of hives. Fortunately the city council agreed to review the laws against backyard beekeeping.
Perhaps the city council members should consider that beekeeping is not new to Los Angeles and has, in fact, long been a part of the county’s agricultural history.
Like many of the early beekeepers themselves, bees made their way to California from the Eastern United States by ship — migration to the Western states by land was made nearly impossible by the arid mid-western plains. Typically setting off from New York, the bees and their hives made their way through the hot and humid Isthmus of Panama, landing in San Francisco wharfs, crowded and dazed upon disembarking the steamer, much like their human shipmates. The July 1, 1852 issue of the Daily Alta California reported the first importation of bees to California by Mr. W.A. Buckley and Lady of Newburgh, New York. This eccentric sounding couple arrived in San Francisco on June 28 on the steamship New Orleans, carrying the one last remaining beehive of the three they had in their possession when they left New York. Although the Daily Alta reported the hive to have arrived “with its industrious inmates in healthy working condition,” Lee H. Watkins, in his 1968 article “California’s First Honey Bees,” refutes this notion. Watkins notes that because of the bees’ long term confinement, Buckley’s admittance that he knew very little of caring for bees, and Watkins’ inability to unearth any record of W.A. Buckley or his last remaining hive, make it highly unlikely Buckley’s bees were as the Daily Alta described.
Most histories on beekeeping in California credit Christopher A. Shelton as being the first to import healthy, living hives, in 1853. After arriving by ship in San Francisco, Shelton settled in Santa Clara County with his hives — these colonies being the earliest California ancestors of the honeybee. While one of Shelton’s wayward bees might have made its way southward from Santa Clara County to Los Angeles County, historical records indicate that it is O.W. Childs who first brought a beehive into the Southland on September 4, 1854. Childs purchased his hive in San Francisco for $150, from a ship carrying many hives that had originated in New York. It is unknown where Childs settled in Los Angeles County with his hive, although the Los Angeles County foothills became a popular spot for bee ranches, or apiaries.
According to Thompson and West’s “History of Los Angeles County, California,” by 1860 many county residents were beekeeping, with one particular party in the county harvesting twenty-five colonies, and “several others in the same business, all doing well.” Cary McWilliams, in “Southern California: an Island on the Land,” noted that “bee-ranching became a type of bonanza farming by 1870. On a foothill homestead, the bee rancher would start with a swarm of 100 stands in October, quickly increase the swarm to 400 stands, and ship 40,000 pounds of the finest comb-honey by July.”
Most honey was shipped to San Francisco for sale, where it sold for a good profit. W. McPherson recorded that San Francisco buyers of “Los Angeles Mountain Honey” were told that “it is the purest and most delicate-flavored honey that ever comes to this market, and commands the highest price.” In fact, according to “The Surveyor General’s Report for 1871,” Los Angeles County is recorded as the greatest producer of honey of the five honey-producing Southern California counties, including Kern, San Bernardino, San Diego, and Santa Barbara, bringing in 168,000 pounds of honey at a net worth of $11,760. According to McPherson, “there [was] no easier way to make money than that of ‘Bee-Ranching,’ in Los Angeles County.”
The growing apiary industry created the need for manufacturers of beekeeping supplies. Miller Box Manufacturing Company, located right next to the Los Angeles River at 201-233 North Avenue 18 at Pasadena Avenue, offered their customers hives, honey extractors, swarm catchers, smokers and veils for both lady and gentlemen apiarists.
The popularity of beekeeping continued to grow in Los Angeles County and surrounding counties. At its first meeting in El Monte on August 18, 1873, the nine members of the Bee Keepers Association of Los Angeles gathered to adopt the organization’s constitution and by-laws. By 1880 the organization had, at its peak, 56 members. The organization continues today as the Los Angeles County Beekeepers Association, promoting educational outreach on all things bee related, and supporting bee friendly legislation.
Beekeeping has enjoyed a long history in Los Angeles County. While initially practiced primarily for profit, it has of late grown into an environmental choice, reflecting the beekeepers’ belief in the health benefits of local honey and an advocacy of local farming practices and the proliferation healthy bees and their colonies.
McPherson, W. Homes in Los Angeles city and county. Los Angeles: Mirror Book and Job Printing Establishment, 1873.
McWilliams, Carey. Southern California: an island on the land, 9th edition. Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith, 1980.
Reproduction of Thompson and West’s History of Los Angeles County, California, 1880. Berkeley: Howell-North, 1959.
Watkins, Lee H. California’s first honey bees. American Bee Journal, Vol. 108 (5): 190-191.
[view the original article on KCET.org]
Bee colonies are vital to our food supply, but they have been dying off for nearly a decade. CBS News’ Ben Tracy reports on the rise of urban beekeeping, and the push in Los Angeles for a “pro-bee” ordinance to officially allow beekeeping.
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