The Bee Crisis and Pesticides

As meadmakers, we obviously use a lot of honey and the health of our bees is of immediate importance, beyond the impact that bees have on the entire ecosystem. As such, I am regularly asked about the crisis involving bees that has been getting some well-deserved publicity as of late. I saw this article in the Associated Press today, and wanted to reproduce it here for posterity:

Latest buzz on bee decline: Maybe it’s pesticides

AP Science Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) — A common class of pesticide is causing problems for honeybees and bumblebees, important species already in trouble, two studies suggest.

But the findings don’t explain all the reasons behind a long-running bee decline, and other experts found one of the studies less than convincing.

The new research suggests the chemicals used in the pesticide – designed to attack the central nervous system of insects – reduces the weight and number of queens in bumblebee hives. These pesticides also cause honeybees to become disoriented and fail to return to their hives, the researchers concluded.

The two studies were published online Thursday in the journal Science.

Just last week activists filed a petition with more than a million signatures asking the government to ban the class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it is re-evaluating the chemicals and is seeking scientific help.

For more than a decade, pollinators of all types have been in decline, mostly because of habitat loss and perhaps some pesticide use. In the past five years, a new mysterious honeybee problem, colony collapse disorder, has further attacked hives. But over the last couple of years, that problem has been observed a bit less, said Jeff Pettis, lead bee researcher at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s lab in Beltsville, Md.

Other studies have also found problems with the pesticide class singled out in the new research. These “strengthen the case for more thorough re-assessing,” said University of Illinois entomology professor May Berenbaum, who wasn’t involved in the new studies. “But this is not a slam-dunk indictment that could compel a ban. It’s complicated.”

In the honeybee study, French scientists glued tiny radio transmitters to the bees managed for orchard pollination. The bees were tracked when they came and left the hive. Those that were dosed with neonicotinoids were two to three times more likely not to return.

“Where’d they go? We have no clue about that actually,” said study author Mickael Henry, a bee ecologist for the French national agriculture institute. His study said the pesticide likely contributes to colony collapse.

In the bumblebee study, British researchers dosed bees with the pesticide and moved their hives out into the field. After six weeks, they found the pesticide-treated hives were 10 percent lighter than those that weren’t treated. And more important, the hives that had pesticides lost about 85 percent of their queens.

“Queen production is in some sense the be all and end all,” study author David Goulson of the University of Stirling in Scotland said.

Bayer Crop Sciences, which is the leading producer of neonicotinoids, says it is used on 90 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. and is safe. Bayer eco-toxicologist David Fischer said the honeybee study used unrealistically high doses of the chemicals, amounts that would not be used on crops bees normally pollinate.

Berenbaum, Pettis and a third outside scientist said the bumblebee study was more convincing than the honeybee research because it used lower doses and didn’t make as many assumptions.

Bayer’s Fischer said perhaps bumblebees are more sensitive to the pesticide and that issue is worthy of more study. But he said his company is one of the biggest canola growers in Canada and it uses the pesticide. The honeybees that pollinate Bayer’s fields are “some of the healthiest bees in Canada,” he said.

But environmental activists and some beekeepers are convinced the pesticide is a problem.

“The simple fact is, we know enough to take decisive action on this class of pesticides which covers well over 143 million acres of U.S. countryside,” said Heather Pilatic, co-director of the Pesticide Action Network North America.

The EPA, in a prepared statement said the decline in bee health, is due to “complex interactions” that involve inadequate food sources, diseases caused by parasites and viruses, habitat loss and bee management practices, as well as pesticides.

Bees are needed to pollinate fruit, vegetables and nuts. Without them experts say our diets would be very bland. Honeybees, which aren’t native to America, are managed by professional beekeepers, carted from farm to orchard and raised to produce honey. Bumblebees, native to this country, are wild pollinators.

Without bees, Berenbaum said, “we’d be a scurvy-ridden society.”

This article is copyright 2012 by Associated Press. It is cross-posted here for informational purposes only under the spirit of Fair Use.

On Sulfites

As I learn more about fermentation on a commercial level, the issue of sulfites has come up for me. I’ve never added sulfites to my mead; it’s an extra ingredient that I never really needed. I wasn’t even sure what it did, though I know it was surrounded by a sort of enigmatic haze that it’s bad for humans; I vaguely remembered warning labels from wine about sulfites.

Sulfite is a salt, its chemical formula is SO3. It is naturally occurring, but it also is routinely added to commercial ferments. When added to a fermentation, it stabilizes the ferment where it is: the yeast dies, the fermentation process stops, and the sulfites resist oxidization and act as a preservative of the brew. Sounds reasonable, especially in a commercial setting; using sulfites prevents unanticipated fermentation after bottling (the last thing a commercial brewer needs is one of their bottles exploding in a customer’s face), and makes each bottle more consistent over time.

The problem is, some people react to sulfites similarly to having an allergic reaction. These people should avoid consuming excess sulfites, though exposure to some naturally-occurring sulfites is almost inevitable.

I still don’t think I’ll ever use sulfites for my homebrews, there is just no need for it. And philosophically, I don’t like the idea of “killing” my beverages, regardless of the specific questionability of sulfites themselves. For commercial brews, I can understand why it is used.

Plus it’s not so simple than just choosing not to use sulfites: if a commercial brewer decides not to use them and claim “no sulfites” on the label, then they must submit a sample of the brew for testing, to ensure that it truly does not contain sulfites. It’s not as simple as saying “we have added no sulfites” to a particular brew.

I haven’t decided yet if I’ll use sulfites for the Bardic Brews Meads that I will release with UFF. Watch this space.

Coca Kola Mead

I’m really amused by this mead, on several levels. Obviously the name might have a familiar ring to some, but I’m actually referring to the generic ingredients: Coca leaves and Kola nuts. These ingredients were originally used in the more familiar iteration of these particular words.

In past decades, I drank a lot of modern cola industrial soft drinks, most of which were made with corn syrup and contained no coca at all. I’ve often wondered what the original formulations would have tasted like, so I decided to recreate it with a mead.

First, let’s take a closer look at these two ingredients.


In preparing for this mead, I wanted to thoroughly research coca for somewhat obvious reasons. Coca is very controversial because it contains the alkaloid cocaine, which is of course illegal and has become a problem with its use in its commercialized, concentrated form of white powder after having been extracted from the leaves. Regular Coca Leaves, in the United States, are also illegal, categorized as a Schedule II drug. What is not so widely known is that coca leaves can be “decocainized” in the same way that some coffee beans are decaffeinated. These sort of decocainized coca leaves are legal to import into the US, and are not scheduled in the same way regular coca or cocaine is:

Coca leaves (9040) and any salt, compound, derivative or preparation of coca leaves (including cocaine (9041) and ecgonine (9180) and their salts, isomers, derivatives and salts of isomers and derivatives), and any salt, compound, derivative, or preparation thereof which is chemically equivalent or identical with any of these substances, except that the substances shall not include decocainized coca leaves or extraction of coca leaves, which extractions do not contain cocaine or ecgonine.
[Code of Federal Regulations]
[Title 21, Volume 9, Parts 1300 to end]
[Revised as of April 1, 2005]
From the U.S. Government Printing Office via GPO Access
[CITE: 21CFR1308.12] [Page 94-96]

Cocaine, however, is but one of several alkaloids in the coca plant. Coca tea, in South American circles where it has been used for thousands of years, produces effects very similar to coffee, another drink from that region that Americans have grown quite accustomed to. And since it was a common ingredient in old brews including the original colas, I wanted to use it in this mead.


The Kola Tree is an evergreen tree native to west Africa. The tree produces nuts as seeds to reproduce itself. The Kola Nut, in its native land, is valued for its stimulating, aphrodisiac and healing qualities, which to me seems similar to how people use cacao in South America. The trees are related.

Kola contains a significant amount of caffeine, and as such is sometimes used as a remedy for asthma.

The cola can be extracted by boiling or tincturing the Kola nuts. For this mead, I decided to tincture the kola, which will happen after primary fermentation, after I’ve racked it into jugs for clearing it will sit with the Kola nuts to extract their colors, flavors, and other properties.


I began this mead by making a coca tea. The coca I was using was powdered, which maximizes its absorptive surface area. I was concerned about being able to filter it after the tea was done, as the powder is too fine for my screens/sieve, so I used a new kind of DIY teabag designed for a teapot (as opposed to a cup). With this sort of bag, you fill it half full of your tea (coca powder in this case):

Coca Teabag - photo by Morgan Lindenschmidt

Then, once the bag is half full, you use a common iron to seal it shut:

Ironing shut the teabag -- photo by Morgan Lindenschmidt

This left me with two large teabags containing coca leaves:

Teabags -- photo by Morgan Lindenschmidt

I wanted a strong Coca tea, so I decided to decoct it. On the other hand, I didn’t want it to be too tannin-y, so I opted for a short 15 minute simmer:

Coca decoction -- photo by Morgan Lindenschmidt

After the simmer, I wanted to continue to let it infuse for a few minutes. I also added a sumac drupe for its acids to help the yeast:

Coca Sumac infusion -- photo by Morgan Lindenschmidt

I let the infusion sit for about an hour, then strained the teabags and the sumac drupe out. After it cooled for several hours I poured the tea through a strainer (to get the small bits of sumac out) and added it to the pot with just under a gallon of honey, dissolving until I brought it to 17.5% alcohol potential (I wanted a strong and sweet mead for this batch):

I was left with a relatively neutral color mead, with a slightly golden hue. The mead’s color will not shift much during primary fermentation, but I expect the Kola nuts that I will add after racking to darken it considerably:

This is a somewhat complex batch with many steps, there will be several updates along the way over the next few months.

UPDATE: June 28

I racked the mead tonight, tried a bit of it, and failed to take a hydrometer reading, since I dropped the hydrometer and it shattered on my floor. Ah well. I’ll pick up a new hydrometer soon and get a reading up here.

Coca Leaves and Kola Nuts
Coca Leaves and Kola Nuts, photo by Morgan Lindenschmidt

The mead tastes fantastic. It has a smooth, tangy effervescence to it (it’s not sparkling, but the tangy part of the flavor is not unlike 7up in a strange way).

I racked it into one-gallon jugs, into which I had stuffed 4 handfuls of Kola nuts and Coca leaves, so it will infuse/tincture over the coming weeks.

The mead that I racked into the waiting Kola nuts got darker very quickly, and the kola nuts caused a slight bubbling to form:

I will continue to update people as this mead develops! Very exciting, this could end up being one of the best batches yet.

UPDATE: June 29

I got a new hydrometer, so I took a reading today. It’s 4.5%, so it’s still quite sweet and about 13.5%. I’m not 100% sold on the accuracy of this reading since the “before” reading was taken with a different instrument. I don’t know how consistently calibrated these are. It does sound about right though; this mead is sweet but not cloyingly so.

Also, the bubbling has slowed down but is still happening….

UPDATE: July 27

I just tried the first bit of Coca Kola Mead. Wow! The Kola Nuts definitely add a layer of strong flavor. It’s a deep, rooty flavor, definitely reminiscent of cola, or perhaps even root beer. I need to bottle this soon so it can begin to age a bit. I imagine this will be extraordinary in a few months!

Mead Workshop Preview Video

We shot this video last night at the UFF, as we get ready for the workshop. It’s very exciting, and it’s gonna be a great evening. There are only a few Get Your Gear, Brew Your Mead seats left (where you take home your carboy with fermenting mead inside), as well as some General Admission seats to see the workshop, so register soon before it sells out!

Mead Workshop Details presents:

From Alcohol To Alchemy:
The Lore, Craft, and Nutrition of Mead

Tuesday, November 16, 7-10pm
At the Urban Farm Fermentory
200 Anderson St. – Bay 4
Portland, ME 04101

General Admission, $35
42 spots available ($45 at the door)

– or –

Get Your Gear, Brew Your Mead, $125
only 12 spots available, including:

  • Admission ($35 value)
  • Brewing Kit ($60 value) — you keep all the brewing equipment
  • Ingredient Kit ($40 value) — your first batch will produce 10-12 bottles of mead for you to enjoy
  • Hand-holding: consult with James Lindenschmidt in advance to plan your first batch of mead, and brew onsite with guidance during workshop
  • You keep everything, you will take home the 3 gallon carboy full of what will become mead in a few weeks (about 10-12 bottles).

Workshop includes:

  • Short talk on Mead Lore by James Lindenschmidt of
  • One-Hour lecture on the Nutrition and Alchemy of Mead by Daniel Vitalis
  • Meadmaking Craft workshop with James Lindenschmidt, where you will see several batches of mead being made, and have the opportunity to brew your own first batch of mead

Also Available At The Workshop:

Brewing Equipment Kit
Optional, available at event
$60 includes:

  • 3 gallon glass carboy
  • funnel
  • stopper
  • airlock
  • siphon hose
  • hydrometer

Ingredient Kit
Optional, available at event
$40 includes:

  • 1 gallon of honey
  • 1 packet of brewing yeast

Preregistration will begin soon. Watch this space! In the meantime if you require more information, contact us.