Honey has been a part of human life since ancient times. Cave paintings in Valencia,
in Spain, suggest that humans hunted for honey at least 10,000 years ago. Ancient
Egyptians used honey to embalm the dead, and traces have even been found in the
tomb of Tutankhamun.
Alongside its role as a foodstuff, the practical health benefits of honey have also
long been recognised, although it is only recently that honey's antiseptic and
antibacterial properties have been properly understood. Not by chance, it would
seem, is honey one of the five elixirs of immortality in Hinduism.
© Fotolia, 2012
For all this, honey in the 21st century faces
some serious threats – in spite of a range of
European and national regulations designed to
control its quality.
Increasing environmental pollution, together
with the widespread use of chemicals in
agriculture, is affecting the nectar foraged by
honeybees, putting the honey itself at risk of
pollution. At the same time, the use of chemicals
to treat honeybee diseases puts honey at risk of
contamination by toxic substances.
It was to address these threats that the BEE
SHOP project was set up in 2006, bringing
together nine leading European honeybee
research groups. With nearly € 2 million of
funding provided under the Food Safety and
Quality theme of the EU's 6th Framework
Programme, the project was designed to pool
the expertise of the research groups across
a range of specialist areas including honey
quality, pathology, genetics and honeybee
The overriding aim of the consortium was to
ensure honey quality by reducing the potential
sources of contamination, whether these arose
from bees foraging in nectar contaminated with
insecticide, or from the chemicals used to treat
In the words of BEE Shops' co-ordinator, Professor
Robin Moritz of Martin-Luther-University in Halle,
Germany: "Since there is an increase in honeybee
diseases, novel chemotherapies have been developed.
Typically, most bees are susceptible
to diseases, but there may be strains that are
less susceptible and we are in search of these."
Against this background, one of BEE Shops'
most ambitious intentions was to start the
process of completely eliminating the need
for chemicals to treat and control honeybee
One innovative result of the project's work
was the development of molecular tools for
the selection of disease resistant colonies –
an advance made possible by the completion
of the sequencing of the honeybee genome.
Since individual genes control specific disease
resistance in honeybees, the ability to select
stock, together with methods to control mating,
should now enable this ambition to be realised.
In parallel with this, BEE-SHOP researchers
also identified behavioural and physiological
mechanisms in bees, in order to help control
the way in which they forage for nectar
and so avoid contaminated nectar sources.
Other initiatives included the investigation of
pathogens affecting honeybees – in particular
their virulence and their transmission pathways,
as well as the resistance levels of different
By significantly adding to our understanding
of honeybees' behaviour, disease patterns and
genetic characteristics, the three and a half
year BEE SHOP project undoubtedly made a
major contribution to the goal of preserving
the quality of European honey. This is of direct
benefit not only to all consumers, but also to
Europe's honey producers.
Thanks to BEE SHOP, the future one of the oldest
foodstuffs known to humanity looks secure.
For Europe's honeybees, honey producers and
consumers, life will continue to be sweet.