I was comfortably seated in the cool ambience of an Audi Q3 Quattro. The Q3 moved and behaved like a king on the road; in the 650-odd km run to my home, I was constantly aware that no other vehicle overtook it. The cruise control served like a charm on long stretches, and the sporty S-Tronic gear in conjunction with a turbocharger allowed instant acceleration and release of power that is akin to an airplane as the pilot pushes the throttle forward. The driver did not lose nerve even at speeds of 180 km/h, a magnitude close to the initial speed of an airplane on the runway for the take-off. Both the anti-lock braking system and driver control were comforting. He was just more than my driver; he was the owner of the Q3.
The highways were relatively barren as the coronavirus had spread its wings everywhere. We were setting off from Bangalore and heading towards Kerala. To me, these past months were a complete shutdown, the mind trapped within a claustrophobic chasm. The virus had struck in our midst leaving many bruised, separated and distressed; the plans have changed and the future uncertain. People continue to suffer and die. Enterprise and activities have remained shut down during the last 8 months.
The majority of the populace contained and being on guard, they were embarrassed to show up. Inter-district, inter-state and inter-country rivalries have become discernible. The pandemic has resulted in people believing that they are living in silos and have to fend for themselves. The dependencies have reduced and self-sufficiency has become the key. But it is a false sense of how things are as we cannot survive in isolation; we are not equipped to do so. We are in it together. The vast openness stretching on both sides of the tarmac painted a stark contrast to the cramped colonies we inhabit in the city. The silence on the road felt strange as we are used to the constant throbbing of life and activity in our apartment buildings akin to a beehive.
It is curious to note that honey bees are the only insects that produce food consumed by humans. They have a short lifespan of 6–8 weeks, within which they travel nearly 1.5 times the circumference of the earth and each bee works very hard to collect half a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime. The honey bee has been a topic of perpetual interest and controversy. Not since I liked its produce, but I was mindful of the fact that all of us, wilfully or unknowingly, happen to enjoy the fruits and labours of others at numerous instances in our lives.
Have you ever wondered why these bees choose hexagons to store their honey? Always hexagons! This is a puzzle. More than 2000 years ago, in 36 B.C., a Roman soldier-cum-scholar-cum-writer, Marcus Terentius Varro, made a guess of an answer, which was subsequently called The Honeybee Conjecture. There must be a reason for this bee behaviour; maybe a honeycomb built of hexagons can hold more honey, maybe hexagons require less building wax !?
The hidden logic required more time to unravel. There was an elegant and logical answer; a mystery and lesson from nature. Mathematically, there are only three geometrical figures with equal sides that can fit together on a flat surface without leaving gaps (because they are made with least effort and needs little patchwork): equilateral triangles, squares, and hexagons, as proposed by physicist-writer Alan Lightman.
Now, which one is the best of the three? The Honeybee Conjecture presumed that a structure built from hexagons is probably a wee bit more compact than a structure built from squares or triangles. A hexagonal honeycomb would have the smallest total perimeter. It was merely a guess at that time. The more compact your structure, the less wax you need to construct the honeycomb. Wax is expensive. A bee must consume about eight ounces of honey to produce a single ounce of wax. The honeycomb is absolutely perfect in economising labour and wax!
Two thousand thirty-five years later, a mathematician at The University of Michigan, Thomas C. Hales (1999) proved mathematically that a hexagonal structure is indeed more compact. As Charles Darwin himself once wrote, the honeycomb is a masterpiece of engineering. The bees would have known it was true all along. It was biomimetic architecture at its best.
Just how worthy are these tiny insects? They must fly nearly 90000 kilometres to collect half a kilogram of honey. They treasure honey for sustenance during the wintry and cold days. To humans, it is a superfood due to its composite and multi-nutrient constituents 🍯. It comprises mostly (82%) carbs derived from fructose and glucose besides vitamins, antioxidants, enzymes, and minerals – the list is endless – potassium, chlorine, sulphur, calcium, sodium, phosphorus, magnesium, silica, iron, manganese, copper, B6, thiamine, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, and niacin. It is thick, acidic, and devoid of moisture, and serves as a perfect natural anti-bacterial-disinfectant for wounds (for the same reason, honey is very difficult to spoil). By releasing small amounts of hydrogen peroxide, honey inhibits the growth of microorganisms which promotes healing. The darker the honey (a consequence of light exposure), the greater is its antioxidant properties.
While honey is 25% sweeter than refined sugar, many diabetics say that it has beneficial effects in inhibiting spiking sugar levels. The Greeks and Romans believed that honey is a symbol of love, beauty, and fertility. For its lack of moisture, honey does not expire. Until consumed! Crystallized honey isn’t bad, it just contains particulates, enzymes of pollen that were not strained and processed fully. Just warm it and the honey is the same as before. All you need to do for maintaining the shelf life is to keep it sealed in its jar.
What many of us do not know is that bees have two stomachs. The second one – called crop (honey stomach) – is designed to mix the nectar collected from plants with enzymes that transform the chemical composition and pH, converting it to a form suitable for long-term storage. When the worker bee returns to the beehive, it transfers the processed nectar to house bees who in turn, empty the honey into the combs for long-term storage. They further dehydrate the honey by flapping their wings continuously. The job is completed by secreting a wax (beeswax) which seals the numerous combs for long term use. They do enjoy the warm weather and the safe environment (beehive) provided by humans that protects them from predators and which they guard with potent and venomous strikes. It is said that stinging is the ultimate final act of defence of a honeybee because soon after, it will die but not before depositing its venom – one that presents a magnanimous and precious gift in the case of humans (apart from bears and ants) that is a cure for arthritis and high blood pressure. They sustain the lifecycle much to the enjoyment of the humans who rob their precious food. One could consider that approximately one-third of the food we humans consume originates from honey bee pollination.
As we were sprinting along on the tarmac, the mind was hurtling thoughts at even higher speeds. We brag about what we earned and pray for good things to happen in our lives, all of which appear mere selfish motives, my fellow passenger observed. The ensuing argument and logic made some sense. Aren’t we giving the Almighty little choice when we seek multiple favours and blessings? Is praying the final petition and resource? Would walk-the-talk be a better option? I had to agree to the line. However, the life process continues to evolve unrelenting and universal. Getting on with our lives was the main purpose. And, pray we do not leave anyone hurt in our wake friend or foe.
As we prepared for this trip, we were united in purpose – to visit dear ones after a long pause. It would be an uneasy tête-à-tête in real terms. The virus was in our midst, unknown and ready to strike. A potentially circumspect situation for both of us.
….to be continued
The author Saji can be reached at email@example.com
Till next post, take care !!