The History of Honey – “Oh, Bother!”
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“It's very, very funny,
'Cos I know I had some honey;
'Cos it had a label on,
Saying HUNNY.
A goloptious full-up pot too,
And I don't know where it's got to,
No, I don't know where it's gone-
Well, it's funny.”

- Winnie the Pooh, A.A. Milne

Even as a child, I knew that my old friend Winnie the Pooh had his priorities in order … an order of one, that is... hunny. What I didn’t know as a child was that honey just happened to be the oldest sweetener known to man. Who knows, maybe man discovered his now almost insatiable sweet tooth by watching Pooh’s pre-historic ancestors.

Pre-historic cave drawings in Europe seem to indicate that men were stealing honey from bees in the wild since before 8000 B.C. Archeologists have noted indications of regular honey consumption as far back as 4000 B.C. in India and Egypt, and records of the first man-made hives come from around 2500 B.C. Yes our love affair with “sweet” goes way back, and honey seems to have been at least until recently, at the top of our list.

Pooh didn’t have a brain, a fact he readily admitted. But, he didn’t need one to know how good honey was, nor how to find it. Was it a bear’s instinct, or just a matter of nature, since honey was the only really sweet thing a bear could get? Honey was considered special throughout the ancient world. Most cultures considered it a gift from the gods, since nectar seemed to fall from the heavens. Of course honey was palate-pleasing back then, but the ancients also knew that it was nutritious and that it had healing properties - it was administered to prevent and cure disease and heal wounds. This, of course, was to be expected from a “gift of the gods.” Yes, important lessons were learned through centuries of use and observation - without the benefit of modern scientific analysis.

At some point during the very early Middle Ages, Arab traders, marauders, or conquerors – take your pick – introduced cane sugar to Western Europe, and the use of honey as the West’s primary sweetener began to slowly decline. The Arabs were true honey fanatics, but they knew there was money to be made in a sweetener that was far easier and cheaper to produce. They eventually planted sugar cane in Sicily, increasing the availability and lowering the price. The discovery of the Caribbean Islands and the importation of African slaves eventual led to a significant drop in the cost of sugar, and a tremendous increase in the supply. Since no one really knew exactly what made honey so special, cane sugar was a no-brainer, just substituting a cheap sweetener for an expensive one. Or was it?

Even though cane sugar is a relatively cheap sweetener these days, we seem to be still attached to the comfort of honey. In 2001, an estimated 1.26 million tons of honey were produced – that's a whopping 2.5 billion pounds. Honey is produced on all continents except Antarctica. As of 2002, there were an estimate 8.8 million hives kept by more than four-hundred thousand beekeepers in Europe, and about 30% of the total European production of honey was exported in that year, mainly in bulk packaging to be repacked for retail or to be used by food processors. So, despite the advent of cheap sugar, honey production is still important; a satisfying hobby to some and big business to others. Maybe there's just a little bit of Pooh in all of us...

Next article: The  ABC's of Bees and How Honey is "Made"

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