“Where the bee sucks, there suck I”

A Greek myth tells of Phyllis, daughter of the king of Thrace, who fell in love with Demophon, son of Theseus, on his return from the siege of Troy. Demophon promised to marry her after visiting his homeland, but he was delayed. Believing he would not come, Phyllis hung herself and the gods transformed her into an almond-tree as a symbol of hope. When Demophon returned and embraced the tree, it burst into flower.

Almond-blossomThe almond tree is native to the Mediterranean region and in ancient times was spread by settlers along the coasts of northern Africa and southern Europe. Only in recent centuries was it transported to other parts of the world. The kernels of wild almonds produce deadly cyanide and eating a few dozen at one sitting can be fatal. How people discovered the sweet type of almond, among the many bitter types in the wild, remains a mystery. It is even unclear which wild ancestor of the almond created the domesticated species.

Sweet almonds have been used as folk remedy for cancers, tumours, ulcers, corns, and calluses, and were even thought to prevent intoxication from drinking too much alcohol. Bitter almonds are successfully processed to make almond extract, essential oil and almond-flavoured liqueurs. Almond oil is highly valued for use in cosmetics and creams and is used to treat various forms of dermatitis.

In California today almond trees that produce a crop valued at nearly $4 billion (more than twice the State’s income from wine grapes) are facing disaster. According to a report in Time (19 August 2013), the honey bees that pollinate the trees are dying on a scale rarely seen before, threatening agricultural production throughout the USA. “Almonds, totally dependent on honeybees, are a bellwether of the larger problem.”

In the article “The Plight of the Honeybee”, Bryan Walsh analyses a situation that is also troubling bee-keepers in Europe, who blame a new class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. The European Commission has recently put a two-year restriction on the use of certain neonicotinoids while it tries to figure out what to do.

According to research by the University of Strathclyde, last winter in Scotland more than a third of managed honey bee colonies were destroyed, twice the amount lost during the previous year. The losses appear to have been aggravated by extreme weather conditions, but the use of pesticides also played a role in the destruction. In 2013 the Scottish government announced a £200,000 fund to help bee farmers restock and rebuild colonies.

The study notes that, “Honey bees worldwide are having to contend with habitat loss and reduction in variety of forage sources due to pressures of intensifying land use, increasing spread of new and old pests – caused by globalisation of trade in bees and bee products – as well as possible adverse effects of agricultural pesticides.”

Van-GoghPeople have been keeping honey bees for thousands of years and growing almond trees for hundreds. The classical scholar and poet A. E. Housman (1859-1936) wrote his poem “Loveliest of Trees” about the cherry tree. In a different climate, it could have been the almond. The global ecosystem will be irreparably damaged if honeybees are decimated beyond recovery. There will be no more honey for tea, and no more almond trees to bewitch the senses.

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