We've been best mates with bees and their bounty for centuries. We stuff ourselves silly with their honey, collect their wax to make candles, use propolis for medical practicalities and take royal jelly as a nutritional supplement. But there's more, it seems, that our cute, selfless flying friends could provide.
Last month I ate an unctuous chocolate mousse. It was everything you'd expect—rich, dark and with a smooth balance of bitter and sweet. There was also a profound kick of something I'd not tasted before—umami-like, almost nutty. The mousse was 20 percent bee.
Afterwards, to better understand this new flavour, I was given a frozen bee larvae, which I popped in my mouth and let melt on my tongue. It wasn't bad. The man feeding bees to me was Charles Michel, a Colombian-French chef who also spends a large portion of his time at Oxford University researching food. He believes we should all be eating bees.
This may appear an alarming proposition, given the fact that bees are under threat. But Michel's planned method of prompting the production of surplus males and rearing them in artificial hives—essentially bee farms—champions the common thought that flying insects need to be better nurtured and conserved.
Ultimately, he thinks doing this would pave the way for us to enjoy a new and healthy protein source and believes using actual bees in gastronomy is not far away. As a result of such a transition, we may, he thinks, unlock a whole new resource—another small step in tackling the much prophesised food crisis.
MUNCHIES: Hi Charles. So, you quite like bees then? Charles Michel: I love bees. They're so important to nature, to us. My father and I keep bees—it's a beautiful skill and something I think more people should take up. They can teach us so much. If there are bees in an area it means the eco-system is working, so I think about ways to make more bees. It's not just about honey—I believe bees can change the way we live. They have such a positive impact on the environment.
We definitely need more bees. But what's their place in the culinary world past honey? I think bees can be a game-changing ingredient and product. If we overcome the disgust of eating the actual body, they can provide something amazing. What I want to do is sustainable and I think we need it. Bees have quite a similar composition to chicken.
Pardon? Their flesh has a protein count of between 18-40 percent, which is a lot. Bee flesh is lean, high in nutrients and can be used in other things. Last week I went to The Fat Duck. We (Heston Blumenthal and co) trialled my bee ice cream.
And? He and his team liked it. It's a bit different.
OK. What have I just eaten here, exactly? This is Ecuadorian chocolate mousse, with red berries from the backyard and lemon thyme flowers. I've given it to three people to try and it seems to go down well.
It's delicious. It feels nourishing. Thanks. The flavour of bees is subtle, but really adds something—it's got a bite to it, there's a taste at the back of your throat. It works in lots of things. To make the chocolate mousse 'bee mousse' it has to be made of at least 20 percent bees, so that's how much I use.
There's a definite bee-y feel to it. How do we farm bees, then? We're working on a way of cultivating and harvesting them. I think we can take a percentage of their eggs away to rear our own bees for consumption and we're working on a technique to do that. Female bees are the ones that do things—males are there to mate and don't do anything else.
Typical. So what we're trying to do is grow the population of males and take some out. We're also looking at 3D printing hives—creating artificial habitats—but this is in its very early stages and there's a lot to think about.
Would you be harming bees? Are there ethical concerns here? No, we wouldn't upset the bees. If there were extra males it wouldn't have an impact on the hives or the mini eco-systems within them. We want to protect and conserve them and this would be a sustainable way of doing it.
As well as protein, what else could bees bring to the table? Well, if we do manage to introduce them into mainstream eating trends, there'd be a lot of benefits. They're high in vitamins A and D and lots of antioxidants. Overall, they're a very versatile food source.
Bees are very small, though. How do we grow enough for them to become a substantial resource? They're small, yes, so we'd need a lot of them. That's why there's a lot to think about in terms of production. It could be that, to begin with, they're used as a luxury product. Perhaps, realistically, they'll always be a high-end dish. But there are possibilities—we can adapt and find ways to harvest more and more.
You can definitely see bees becoming the next craze or "superfood". You can, but I think they can be more than that—perhaps a component in tackling hunger around the world. With the right environments bees can flourish, and we can reap the rewards. Mainly, though, I think bees could be added to things to boost nutrient and protein content. On their own they might be a relatively expensive treat, but they could also play a part in products, as an ingredient.
They might also encourage the eating of other insects? Definitely. I think it'd be easier for people to eat bees because we already love them. I read about how the United Nations want people to eat insects as to tackle hunger, but people just want to eat steak and chicken. If bees are suddenly a popular, fashionable thing to eat, though, things could change.
How can people support this idea? We need to be open-minded and willing to challenge things. We also need more bee keepers and to make it a 'living', a profitable way of life. At the moment it's predominantly a hobby. I said it before, but there's so much we can learn from bees—it's not just about food. Bees dance to communicate. They share and look after each other. Bees help our flowers grow, and by doing so give us so much in the process. I believe that bees are the reproductive vector of the natural world.
So, what you're saying is that bees keep us alive? Yes.