Sweetness and Light: The Mysterious History of the Honeybee

Sweetness and Light: The Mysterious History of the Honeybee

by Hattie Ellis

And that throughout history, honey has been highly valued by the ancient Egyptians (the first known beekeepers), the Greeks, and European monarchs, as well as Winnie the Pooh?

Uncovering the secrets of the honeybee one by one, Ellis shows how this small insect, with a collective significance so much greater than its individual size, can carry us through past and present to tell us more about ourselves than any other living creature.

  • Language: English
  • Category: History
  • Rating: 3.67
  • Pages: 256
  • Publish Date: April 25th 2006 by Broadway Books
  • Isbn10: 1400054060
  • Isbn13: 9781400054060

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Sweetness and Light is not quite as good, but still a very enjoyable read.

It felt disconnected, despite the chapters having themes, and at times the writing was weirdly redundant. For instance, she'll introduce a scientist in one section, and a few paragraphs later mention him again, but instead of writing as if the reader is already familiar with this person she'll say something like "the scientist and founder of We Freaking Love Bees Mr. Bert Humbug". She goes into too much detail early in the book about things that aren't super important and then the end of the book is basically "beekeeping is fashionable again kind of sometimes and bees are maybe in trouble but are also screwing over other pollinators?

Chapter five looked at bees in medieval Europe, including the methods (and feudal legalities) of gathering wild honey, the advent of the skep, the domed straw hive that became a major symbol of traditional beekeeping, often placed in bee boles (a sheltered recess in a house or garden wall), the anguish caused by many because of the fact for centuries to come in order to harvest honey one had to kill the hive, the world of mead production and consumption, and the often greater role bees played not in producing honey but in producing beeswax for candles. Chapter six looked at the foundations of modern science as it was applied to the world of honeybees, including the use of observation hives, microscopes, the first detailed anatomical studies of bees, and the first attempts to solve the problem of collecting honey without killing bees (primitive versions of the wooden box "supers" used by beekeepers today). Chapter seven examined the spread of bees by Europeans to the North America, Australia, and New Zealand, new methods developed by the colonists to track down wild honey supplies, and even the important symbolism of the honeybee to the Mormons.

Ellis begins slowly but quickly warms up to her subject: the history of the honeybee. 35 pages in, Ellis finally begins her history. From Egyptian embalming practices (corpses soaked in honey) to Greek mead, to the history of candles, the practice of "telling the bees," to the bee's impact on our contemporary culture, Ellis seems to cover everything.

Hattie Ellis "Sweetness & Light: The Mysterious History of the Honeybee" promises to answer that question but does so only imperfectly. She goes on to describe the most recent speculations as to how honeybees moved from the wild to become part of the domestic landscape, the use of honey in ancient cuisines and then traces the historical arc of beekeeping from ancient times to modern day, including the introduction of the honeybee to North America by European colonists. She might better have subtitled her book The Mysterious History of the Honeybee in Europe, North America and New Zealand, New Zealand having once been a British colony (Ms. Ellis is British).

The most frustrating part of this book for me is the chapter called "Rediscovery," which is a chapter on the medicinal/nutritional value of honey/bee products, that is literally only supported with anecdotes. Not once in this chapter does Ellis cite a study on how pollen, royal jelly, or honey has been proven to do anything, but she certainly quotes a lot of people believing it. This book relies on a naive reader that reads "chemicals" and thinks BAD, reads "bees/nature" and thinks GOOD, and doesn't care to think critically and ask for proof on the details.