Ryan Wagner: Hi, welcome to Solved by Science, NBN’s Science and Tech podcast where we answer all of the questions that keep you up at night. I'm your host for today, Ryan. I am the opinion editor at North by Northwestern, and I am really excited to be talking about bees. I've only been stung once, and I enjoy honey enough where this should be fun.
Sophia Lo: And I'm Sophia. I was on the podcast last time, and I'm here because I also like bees, and I want to hear all of Ryan's fun facts about them.
Ryan: Alrighty, so we're going to just jump right into it, and what really inspired me to look into bees was one, it's spring, and two, I was staying up late at night working on a midterm, and instead of studying I had this thought: Who was the crazy individual – or group – that just decided, “You know what? I'm going to run up to the nearest beehive, which is full of thousands of thousands of deadly stinging bees, and I'm just going to crack it open and take the honey out and eat it.” That was something that unfortunately science has not had the conclusive answer to. In other cases, such as with really any other plant, we figure out that I guess a lot of nomadic people didn't really make it because they tried something they shouldn't have, and that was really over the course of thousands and thousands of years. Basically lots of trial and error to figure out which plants are edible and which plants are not, and it is likely that the same thing happened with bees and honey. And so I'm sure a lot of people got stung to get to where we are now, but it all worked out.
Sophia: So what I'm hearing is that this is something that's unsolved. So if you need a research project, this could be a question. I'll apply for the summer research grant next year! Who was the first person to eat honey out of a beehive? Let's find out.
Ryan: Yeah, no, we'll go around the United States. Go around the world really, just with a stick. Whack some beehives and survive.
Sophia: Do you know how many types of bees there are?
Ryan: There are about 20,000 species of bees.
Sophia: That’s insane.
Ryan: And not all of them produce honey. Actually, a very small minority do. It is less than 10. And so when you think about it, we are pretty lucky to have chosen the right beehive. To have been like, “Oh instead of the thousands of other bees, we're going to smack it this particular beehive and get honey out of it.” Of course, there are other ways that we could have figured it out, like bears. Another animal that might have guided the early humans to honey might have been aptly named the honey guide. What it would do is it would guide humans to the beehive, and the humans would smoke it out and then open it, and after the hive had been exposed, it would go for the beeswax. And so at some point, the honey guides have been shown in some species to guide humans to the beehives for that purpose. So both humans and birds working together to get honey and other products from the beehive so that is another way that early humans were able to acquire honey and do it in a way where it wasn't us working for everything. Other animals were joining us, too.
Sophia: So, birds: helpful. I don't know that. That's really cool. I do have a fun bee fact. There's this type of bee, so as you mentioned thousands of bees. And I'm pretty sure this is one of the ones that don't make honey. But there's this Australian bee. It's the Australian stingless bee. The scientific name, I'm probably going to screw this up, Tetragonula carbonaria. So they build beehives in spirals, and they're called brood combs, and they can have, like, 10 to 20 layers, and scientists also have no idea why we do this or they do this. So feel like bees are just a mystery.
Ryan: Yeah, it's funny that you mention the way they build a different type of bee hive, because in other species, especially spiders, if you give them different drugs, they will make different webs out of that. That is a crazy tangent. But I remember growing up, I was a very big fan of spiders. Now, I hate spiders. I don't know how I'm going to survive next year in an apartment, because my roommate also hates spiders. But back in the day, I learned that if you gave spiders, I don't know what scientists got funded for this, but if you gave spiders different drugs, they will spin different webs based on the drug that they were given. So I guess to bring it back to bees themselves, in addition to being absolutely delicious, honey is really helpful across a variety of products that we use everyday and even in medicinal stuff. So there is research going on right now about antibiotics that could be made from the components of honey, because as many of you may know, if you make honey the right way with not enough water in it, it is actually able to be stored and edible for thousands of years. And so people have gone into ancient ruins, especially in Egypt, and lo and behold, the pharaoh or the rich individual was buried with honey. And that honey is still edible.
Sophia: Do you think people do eat that honey?
Ryan: I think people do. There's also a risk though, because there is such a thing as mad honey disease. Nowadays, it's done in the Black Sea part of Turkey where people will take honey that has been made from a certain plant that causes you to have hallucinations and really just become – they call it honey intoxication. That is such a weird concept, and they do it for medicinal purposes. They also do it for different cultural events. So whereas we, you know may drink beer or two at a party...
Sophia: Just have some honey!
Ryan: Just have some honey, and happy trails.
Sophia: Totally another tangent, but you said mad honey, and that reminded me of this idea that my friend Zack Miller had. He called it bad honey. There was like this prompt to invent a candy, so he was like honey, but with Skittles and other gross candy things in it. And that sounds bad, but...
Ryan: So like a Skittle, but it's like a filling of honey?
Sophia: I don't know. I think he imagined a bunch of honey with maybe it was smarties? But I don't know. Like, more things inside the honey. I don't really know how you would eat it. Like soup? I didn’t want to ask.
Ryan: That's fair. Growing up, I had this idea that honey was something I shouldn't have been eating around the house, because it was in the cabinet, and it was amongst all the spices. And I was like, “Oh I really shouldn’t be having this.” So every so often I would kind of sneak into the cabinet, grab some, and pull out a giant ladle of a spoon, and just create perfectly symmetrical, flat surface of honey and then spend the next like 20 to 30 minutes just sucking on it and just hanging out, and that just reminded me of that – crazy stuff with honey.
Sophia: If you want to talk more about bees, drugs, honey, drugs. This is more about bees and drugs. Bees are also affected, like people, by caffeine and cocaine. So caffeine does make bees work better, and scientists at Newcastle University discovered that if there's nectar with caffeine in it, it helps bees remember where the flower is. So, you know drink coffee; helps with memory. I don't know if that applies to humans. But if it does, I should remember a lot more things than I actually do. And also cocaine! Cocaine makes bees over-exaggerate their communication. So when they tell other bees where to get nectar or pollen, they do this kind of dance, and then it just makes them exaggerate that dance. So they just hype up the quality of the food too much, and they trick other bees because they are, I guess, high on cocaine, and they also exhibit symptoms of withdrawal.
Ryan: In addition to that, the honey that bees make, as is probably not a shock. It is super, super sugary, just 95% sugar. But what anthropologists have found is that the odds are that bees and honey are what allowed humans to evolve in the way that we have.
Sophia: Wait, how?
Ryan: Basically for every teaspoon, I believe it's about 200 calories of honey. (Correction: One teaspoon of honey is actually 64 calories.) And so it's really filling. It's mostly sugar, so there's no like fat, fiber, anything else, but if you're able to just consume massive amounts of calories, and you're able to do it in this really quick, efficient way, especially when you have birds helping you. And at this point in history, we didn't have colony collapse disorder, which is where bees have been dying out by, like, the millions just because. For some reason they leave the hive, and they never come back, and so the hive ultimately just kind of collapses in on itself. But at the time, honey guides would be able to make a semi-permanent way of living and add some additional ways for humans in addition to hunting and gathering and eventually kind of like early neolithic stuff where they would be planting, but what they would plan would be really not like today. So corn would be like tiny little edible pieces, and everything else was just the stalk.
Sophia: It's like teosinte. I think that's what it's called. I just remember in AP Bio. We had a big problem thing about early corn and that's all I remember from the class. Sorry, go on.
Ryan: Yeah. No, it's that exact idea. So honey may have been the reason why we were successful.
Sophia: So I should just, if I don't have time to go to the dining hall, just eat some honey and call it a day.
Ryan: It's pretty much it.
Sophia: I heard somewhere that you can live only on honey. Is that true?
Ryan: Probably wouldn't be a nice existence. I am not too sure about that.
Sophia: So we did some quick Googling, and it turns out you can't live on only honey. That's too bad.
Ryan: Yeah. I don't think I would want to live a life of just honey, but just to know it's possible would have been cool. While we were doing our casual search, we also found out that honey bees will go to battle against other species. In particular, the Japanese giant hornet.
Sophia: That's so funny and so badass, and we're going to link this video down in the transcript. So definitely watch, because if you haven't seen bees vs. Japanese giant hornets. Wow, you're missing out.
Ryan: So, bee sting therapy is a thing. And it does actually, at least in a clinical study, work. So that would be terrifying if your doctor comes in with like a jar of bees and is like, “I know what'll cure you!”
Sophia: Release them into the wild!
Ryan: Right? Like, it's real simple. We just have to sting you like 50 times in your pain will go away. I don't know how I feel about that, but if this is the future of medicine...
Sophia: I'm just going to die.
Ryan: Yeah, I guess it's over.
Sophia: On that note. I think that's all the time we have for today, so we're going to wrap up. All of our references are linked down in the transcript, so check that down below. Our intro and outro music is Eve by Dee Yan-Key, which is under a Creative Commons Attribution License. I'm Sophia.
Ryan: I'm Ryan. Thanks for listening. See you next time. This is NBN Audio.