For many decades, I’ve been convinced that our diets have a huge impact on our health and state of well being, but a few recent observations and discoveries had me trying to track down who was the first to coin the pithy title phrase of this post.
It turns out there are a number of contenders, in the following chronological order:
Firstly Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, in 1826, in his seven-volume book The Physiology of Taste. That’s quite a thought – writing a seven volume book on the physiology of taste way back then before modern science really got going. However this book which has been in print ever since, and could be yours tomorrow with a quick click, is perhaps more gourmand cuisine than real physiology.
German philosopher Ludwig Andreas Feurerbach, in 1863, repeated the idea in his essay Spiritualism and Materialism, writing: “A man is what he eats.”
However in spite of these earlier uses, the most famous and probably the one responsible for its continued use today is that of American radio presenter, come osteopath nutritionist, Victor Lindlahr. In the 1920’s he wrote: ‘Ninety per cent of the diseases known to man are caused by cheap foodstuffs. You are what you eat.’ Now that’s a strap line to make you sit up and think, in times completely taken over with thoughts surrounding a single tiny infectious agent’s impact on human health around the world.
In 1942 he published a book of this title: “You Are What You Eat”, which went on to sell half a million copies, and was perhaps the first to promote a catabolic and low carbohydrate diet. Something that has been reprised by many others since. Possibly the most recent tweak of the concept being the work by ZOE in the UK, who have also pioneered COVID symptom recording across the UK, and promoted their own app developed to track the spread of the disease. As an occasional IBS sufferer who was disappointed years ago by the conventional non holistic approach of medical services to my symptoms, I’m intrigued to see how this ZOE concept develops, but more than a little sceptical that it’s just another money making wheeze.
My thoughts on food – origin and preparation – have always been a little less intense than Lindlahr’s, if still wide ranging. I feel trying to tune in to one’s body’s state of well being and rewinding to recent novel dietary changes if something goes awry, is often a simple strategy which yields results.
Apart from our own species, and those we’ve chosen to domesticate and manage over millenia, we’re probably the only animals that don’t source their food directly from the wider natural world. Increasingly a huge proportion of many people’s diets is processed, prepared and packaged. Intense heat treatment in one form or another, and chemical additions are common at many stages before our food ever enters our bodies, and many of us in “developed” (?) societies now ingest a huge variety of foodstuffs from all over the world, in combinations never possible just a hundred years ago. All of this makes interpreting the impact of what we as (potentially) omnivores choose to take in to keep our bodies functioning even more difficult. Our basic physiology just hasn’t really had long enough to evolve and adapt to such radical changes I sometimes feel. Certainly most of us rarely assess, or indeed have the skills innate or otherwise, to judge our intake from a nutritional or health perspective.
Around the time I was mulling over how to feature this in a post came the latest delivery from The Courtyard Dairy. I’d chanced upon this award winning cheese monger early on in lockdown and been struck by the detail of their story, and their support for small scale artisan cheesemakers in the UK, who by selling mainly into the hospitality trade, had been devastated by a collapse in demand for their specialist cheeses when restaurants closed during the spring lockdown in the UK.
We’ve never eaten much cheese, and the hand crafted cheeses offered by this cheese monger are unsurprisingly pricier than a vacuum packed supermarket slab, but I liked the concept of supporting real family farms, and management systems more in tune with our own holistic approach to land and stock management.
I can say that each cheese supplied has been a taste revelation, and of the highest quality, but what has also fascinated me is the detail and research which goes into the crafting of such farmhouse cheese. Preferring sheep and goat’s cheeses led us to eventually receiving a sample of Martin Gott’s Cumbrian produced St. James’ ewe’s cheese. By chance this arrived in the week that Martin was featured on BBC Radio Four’s On Your Farm programme.
Titled In Search of the Perfect Cheese, if you’re interested in food or particularly unpasteurised cheese, I’d suggest listening to this to try to understand why artisan cheese makers love what they do. Aside from the complexity of microbiology that is considered in the production process. You’d learn for instance about Martin’s visit to a seventy year old American’s Sister’s woodland lab where she spent years studying the microbiology involved in her convent’s cheese production, as well as the cheese mites which are an integral part of the fauna of a rind washed cheese!
For a more detailed discussion between Martin, his partner Nicola who milks the sheep, and Andy Swinscoe the pioneering cheese monger who set up the Courtyard Dairy, click on the following You Tube link, as an example of what you can learn about every cheese that Andy and his wife Kathy stocks and sells. As someone fascinated by scientific detail, and food, I found this revelatory.
Finally for anyone thinking of establishing any new business, Andy’s detailed blog posts on how he came to set up and equip his Courtyard Dairy are a brilliant insight into his painstaking research and attention to detail which have clearly paid off over time given the success and recognition he’s achieved. If you fancy a treat sometime, give his cheeses a try, I’m sure you’ll be impressed with both the cheeses and service.
As a comparison with our own species’ current food sources and choices, and their impact on our physical and mental well being, I’ve spent a lot of time this year thinking about honeybee nutrition, nectar and pollen sources and collection, and even its impact on honey quality, which of course many of us also find is a wonderful and hugely variable, from a taste perspective, natural foodstuff.
Way back in 2011 I began to spend a lot of time looking at which flowers in our garden seemed to attract which insects, and came up with producing a webpage The Real Botany of Desire – Insect Friendly Flowers.
This highlighted the fact that only a small proportion of our flowering plants ever seem to attract particular insects in any numbers, and very few attract a wide spectrum of different types of insect. More recently work by the National Botanic Garden of Wales (NBGW) on pollen grains in honey samples have confirmed this – probably less than 10% of the 7,000 plus flowering plants at the NBGW ever turn up as pollen traces in their bee’s honey.
Much to my amazement my IFF page very soon began to feature in the top few google searches using the “insect friendly flowers” (IFF) term, and with no real updating over the years continues to do so. The consequence of all this observation, and of noting plants in nurseries and other gardens which seem favoured by different insects, has been gradually planting the garden and meadows with more and more of the plants which seem to have big insect pulling power. In particular focusing on any that extend the season, early or late, so providing our native insects with much needed food options when the landscape around us in spring and autumn has precious few alternatives.
Even in rural areas like ours, it’s surprising how the landscape is largely flower free for a big part of the year.
However back then in 2011/12, we only had occasional honeybee visits to the flowers in the garden. This year, after all the swarms taking up residence in my home made hives, and all but the last one in, out of 6, still having good levels of foraging activity in late September, I’m a lot more aware of what and how honeybees collect food, and really need to rework some of my IFF pages for next year.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’m incredibly indebted to and inspired by Thomas Seeley’s work on honeybees, and how he and his team have unlocked aspects of normal bee behaviour over recent years and elucidated just how complex and efficient many of their processes are. Often using painstaking and laborious experiments such as individually painting and numbering 4,000 worker bees, putting them into a glass fronted observation hive and then driving them to an area with no other bees or food options, so that he can assess how the bees find and select the best food options available.
One thing that has always intrigued me is how apparent levels of bee activity vary from day to day, and during the day. It’s not just as simple as being down to the warmth, wind and sunshine – at least not with our apparently very hardy bees!
It’s been shown that one of the advantages of having a social and reproductive system that involves the queen bee making multiple matings with many different male drone bees on her brief mating flight, is that it tends to produce a greater diversity and vigour in forager working bees.
The foraging bees that fly out to find and collect nectar and pollen are always the oldest bees in the hive – many readers will know that there is a strict progression of duties for worker bees from when they emerge from their pupae. Very simply, the youngest bees, up to around 10 to 12 days old tend to have various menial cleaning and nursing duties around the hive; the middle aged bees 12 to 18 to 20 days then shift tasks to, for example, becoming food receiving and storage bees; and the oldest bees, from about 20 days old, leave the hive to forage and collect food, and water, continuing until they’re worn out and die around 5 to 6 weeks of age (during the summer).
These older foraging bees are the only ones in the hive which ever seem to sleep – either at night or when weather conditions prevent them from flying. They’ve probably earned it, as we’ll see later. In most of our hives, a few bees will already be leaving the hive shortly after dawn if it’s not too wet or cold. Certainly a few intrepid ones will fly out early even in cold, drizzly or very windy conditions. If they return after a successful trip, they don’t automatically go in and perform their waggle dance to inform other bees of the success of their mission and where the food is.
Rather, early on in the day, they’ll be on shake and wake duties. After unloading their nectar to food processing bees as soon as they enter the hive, they’ll move around the hive literally shaking and waking other dozing and inactive forager bees to recruit them to foraging activities. As the day progresses, if sufficient bees are persuaded outside, the bees who have found really good sources of nectar and pollen will indeed then begin waggle dances to promote their sources to other foragers, which they conduct on the frames or comb of the hives close to the entrance – their own dance floor.
In Northern temperate climates, Seeley reckons that in a typical managed colony, the vast majority of the bees’ annual supply of nectar, which is around 100KG is probably collected on just 20 really good days when the nectar is flowing from a particular plant and weather conditions are benign enough to collect it in quantity. As well as mobilising the maximum number of bees to exploit such conditions at very short notice, the bees also have to ramp up the numbers of bee food receivers/storers who quickly offload the regurgitated nectar from foragers returning to the hive, and transfer it into the wax honeycomb cells for storage. So there’s always a real division of labour – foraging bees almost never stash away the nectar themselves, it’s always passed on through regurgitation to other bees.
It turns out that after 70 years of uncertainty as to what the different tremble dance was used for, which many bee studying scientists had seen some bees perform occasionally on honeybee combs, Seeley discovered the answer by chance. He was able to demonstrate that this dance is performed by foragers who’ve just returned to the hive and not been able to quickly locate a receiver bee within a couple of minutes to unload their nectar to. The trembling dance performed deeper in the hive alerts bees that more nectar receivers are needed PDQ, so bees are quickly recruited to help with this task. To supplement this message, an additional trick involves “trembling” bees emitting audible Beeps, whilst simultaneously bashing into the thorax of any forager bees they come across performing a waggle dance, to try to dissuade them from recruiting more collectors, until the storage side of the nectar processing is resolved. They’ll typically have to do this about 20 times to get the waggler to cease!
There are some excellent video clips of these behaviours towards the end of a lecture given by Professor Seeley in 2017 at the British National Honey Show in 2017. Click here to watch the whole lecture, or if you just want to see clips of the different dances, move on to about 40 minutes into the video. Well worth a view to an insight into bee behaviour most of us will never see.
These are just a few examples of how brilliant the just-in-time management of the hive’s food collection and storage issue is. In addition there’s the still poorly understood and innate ability of an individual bee to assess just how nutritious a particular nectar or pollen source is. However it is now known just how they can communicate this critical assessment of nutritional quality to allow the bee colony to switch forage sources within less an hour of finding a new and more productive nectar and pollen source. Much of this helps explain how the presence of honeybees within the garden can wax and wane so dramatically from day to day, or even within the same day. Currently on trend here are visits to this 2 metres plus tall and late flowering Sanguisorba tenuifolia var. alba…
We certainly consistently find more honey (and bumblebees) in our upland garden than in any other garden we ever visit, which I suppose reinforces our message that plant selection is critical if you aim to have a vibrant bee and other insect garden population to enliven your garden scene.
Over the last month the consistently well visited flowers, by honeybees, in the garden have been:
Dahlia merckii – an absolutely star plant for length of flowering season – at least 5 months and still going strong with a bit of mild dead heading, and favoured as both a pollen and nectar source. Way more valuable to the bees than the few larger named cultivars, like Magenta Star, below, which flowers over a much shorter season and with far fewer blooms.
Of these the Sedum is hugely popular when it begins to open its flowers, but really only for about 10 days, and mainly only of interest when the sun shines, so a fleeting bonanza for may insects.
There are still days when almost no honeybees are in the garden, yet large numbers are seen whizzing in and out of the hives, obviously exploiting distant unknown forage options (probably ivy and Hilamlayan Balsam at this time of the year) within the 3 to 4 mile radius that they can reach should they assess the reward is worth the extra effort in flying that far. It’s quite a thought that being essentially “wild” colonies, the 5 most active colonies on site will have collected this summer a minimum of roughly 100 KG (5 X 20 kg) of pollen and 300 KG ( 5 X60 KG) of nectar, based on Seeley’s data for wild American honey bees. This will have required roughly 20 million individual bee foraging trips with the bees covering around 60 million miles of flying in total.
How’s that for some dodgy data! And think of all the pollinated flowers as a result.
With plenty of honey from last year’s harvest still left, I removed just the uppermost (fourth) box, or super, from my modified insulated conventional “National” hive this week to discover that the bees had managed to build out most of the frames with wax comb, and partially fill them. Even if the comb was a bit wonky in places.
This will provide a small back up reserve of honey for us. Not a bad achievement for a colony only taking up residence in late May this year, in what has been a really poor summer, (there have been many reports of bees starving this year and needing supplementary feeding). They also had to create all the wax combs and fill the other 3 boxes of frames below this one with combs and nectar as well, in barely 4 months. At this stage last year, which was overall a much better summer, 3 out of 4 hives, all linked in some way to swarming events had already failed.
A couple of other articles exploring how bees, and their honey, aren’t immune to environmental issues, and how it can impact on our own food intake have recently caught my eye. Canadian based researchers analysed honey from Parisian hives which were downwind of Notre Dame, and from which honey was collected in the aftermath of the 2019 fire which devastated the cathedral, including the destruction of its enormous lead roof. The striking findings showed lead concentrations about 2.5 times higher than Parisian hives located upwind of the fire, and about 6 times higher than honey samples taken from hives in the Alps region. Click here and here for more. Honey can thus be impacted significantly by pollution events, and it also suggests that if you are a honey fan, it’s worth opting to buy local individual producer honey from rural areas, and not typically pooled international sourced honey since as with artisan cheese, you’ve a better chance of knowing exactly what you might be consuming.
Another article discussed research specifically looking for traces of pesticides in honey samples from different regions of Lebanon with some striking findings. One of the points from this study is just how long some pesticides persist and are still found in the environment and are capable of being picked up and brought back into hives by foraging bees, years after the pesticides had been banned by international consent. (look for the details on hexachlorobenzene). In this regard we are indeed fortunate to live in an area still with low levels of agricultural pesticide use – though more next time.
Having managed a week’s walking in Shropshire, timed by chance with perfect warm sunny weather, we returned home just in time to finish, at last, the final section of hay cutting in our upper meadow. At last I think I’ve cracked how best to work our mechanical Mini-Molon windrower – so as a reminder for me next year…First turn anticlockwise, with the outer circuit thrown onto uncut grass, then next circuit work from the inside out, and go clockwise, and exit at each side for a tight turn, to avoid build ups in the corners.
We’ve never had to wait so long to achieve completion of our haymaking, but finally mid September saw our part of the UK enjoying a stable high pressure system which had eluded us here for most of summer, and so many dry days that this is what the stream looked like around the 20th…
Before we’d left for Shropshire, butterfly numbers in the garden had peaked, without the full complement seen in better summers, but certainly there were many days with masses of Small Tortoiseshells, Red Admirals and Peacocks.
We were very fortunate to escape with a dry day for our planned mini NGS inspired Great British Garden Party for a few members of our local gardening group, whose activities have inevitably been cancelled since the March lockdown. 4 socially distanced couples outside enjoyed tea and cake, a chance to look round the garden and very importantly the chance to have a good natter. Even better having floated the idea to our chair, she was able to persuade 2 other members to host an event, which with her own efforts raised a combined total of £560 for Marie Curie cancer care, who’d been such a great help and comfort to our dear friend Dave Bevan and his family this January.
A very special butterfly moment occurred one morning as Fiona and I walked through the terrace garden, both holding mid morning cups of tea. A Small Tortoiseshell flew towards me, and thinking it would alight on my blue sweat shirt, was really amazed to find it settling on my cheek, just to the right of my lips.
There then followed a surreal moment as I felt it delicately probing with its proboscis. My initial thought was that it might have smelt or tasted milky tea, but the photo shows it just to the side of my lips, and I don’t think I’m that messy a drinker. With the camera left inside the kitchen I quietly but quickly had to attract Fiona’s attention who was ahead of me by gently waving my arm, gesturing at my face and trying to whisper to her to go inside and grab the camera, fearing any significant movement would spook the delicate creature and see it fluttering off.
I really didn’t expect the butterfly to stay there, but it obliged, and I gently turned to face Fiona as she returned, camera in hand, and a few pics were taken. Since I almost never feature myself in these posts, this is a necessarily tweaked image, which suitable disguises my unkempt appearance.
I wonder if other readers have experienced such a butterfly kiss by a native butterfly? It was certainly a first for me, and I guess not something which will ever happen again. So just why did it happen was the next question for me? As with many things in life there are different angles for approaching this.
Many cultures around the world apparently have, or had, folklore centred around butterflies. Wales doesn’t seem to have done so, although butterflies do get a mention in the ancient Welsh story of The Mabinogion. The significance of the butterfly in Irish folklore is more recognised as having links to the soul, and butterflies were thought to have the ability to cross into the Otherworld.
The butterfly life cycle was also viewed as symbolic of transformation and creation in aspects of early Christian thinking, drawing on the metamorphosis through larva, pupa and eventually adult emergence and freedom, as reminiscent of spiritual transformation.
As indeed it does in some North American Indian traditions. Click here for more.
Going back earlier in time, the ancient Greek word for butterfly was Psyche, which was also the name of Cupid/Eros’ lover in Roman and Greek mythology. Having little knowledge of classical history or mythology, the synopsis of the tale of Psyche and Cupid (which features as a major part of “Metamorphosis”, a story written by Apuleius in the second century AD), makes for interesting reading, though probably wouldn’t pass muster as being politically correct in today’s world for various reasons.
The myth also inspired many and varied artistic endeavours over many centuries, more than a millenium after the work was penned, and in which butterflies are occasionally featured.
Psyche Receiving Cupid’s First Kiss (1798) – François Gérard
Cupid and Psyche (1639-40) – Anthony van Dyck
The Wedding Banquet of Cupid and Psyche (1517) – Raphael
Psyche’s Wedding (1895) – Edward Burne-Jones
Amore e Psiche (1707–09) – Giuseppe Crespi:
The Aztecs believed that the happy dead, in the form of beautiful butterflies, would visit their relatives to assure them that all was well. These butterflies flew around the house and also bouquets of flowers which were carried by Aztec men of social rank. It was considered ill-mannered to smell a bouquet of flowers from the top, instead being better to sniff them from the side, leaving the top flowers for the souls to visit, where they could enjoy the fragrance reserved especially for them.
The problem is that with my scientist’s hat on, I had other thought processes going on as well. As a result of a long series of coincidences, my face probably smelled different that particular morning!
6 weeks after the family’s camping visit, as often happens, the drain to the septic tank blocked. Baling out and drain rodding either side of supper was required (Yeucchh!). Following on for a few days, I saved the bathwater and dumped bucket fulls down the upstairs loo as an additional flush through of the system, and used some of the still warm water in the morning to shave. Since Tesco’s were out of our customary “Muscle Soak” Radox bubble bath (with sage and sea minerals apparently!), they’d substituted “Stress Relief” Radox instead – how appropriate – (with rosemary and eucalyptus). Was this what attracted the butterfly to my stubbly features?
So… a quirky coincidental close encounter, right up there with the evening when a wren landed on my hand at dusk as I closed the cowshed door on January 5th 2010 (Epiphany)? At the very time of the year that wren hunting would have happened centuries earlier.
Or the chance for a butterfly to taste the odd combination in one place of both rosemary and eucalyptus, albeit it on a rather unusual feeding station?
It’s almost as tricky as trying to work out whether we’re now heading for another even more serious second wave of Covid infections with more lockdowns, collapse of the NHS, soaring deaths and complete annihilation of the British economy, OR whether the latest twist for life in 2020 results from a serious misinterpretation of the data, “casedemics” rather than another clinical disease flare up, and all arising from a PCR test with flawed accuracy interpreted by ordinary people inevitably out of their comfort zones, and reagent and lab companies seeing business opportunities galore.
Just what or whom do you believe?
The data? But which bits of an always incompletely presented and very complex picture?
The scientists – and if so, which ones?
Or the politicians – unlikely, but you never know, and who’d want to be in their shoes anyway?
Oh for the wonderful simplicity of the finely honed, evolved over millions of years, honey bee decision making processes.
Choices made using 4 simple physical prompts.
Shake. Waggle. Tremble. Bash ‘n Beep.
Wouldn’t life be simpler?As a final addendum, I’ve just discovered this evening that a Honey Bee Algorithm (HBA) was developed a few years ago in the U.S.A. by one of Seeley’s research helpers and a visiting computer scientist from Oxford to optimise the use of the vast banks of servers in internet server centres. Inspired and based on Seeley’s research and findings on how honeybee colonies efficiently exploit their variable and constantly changing nectar sources. It’s currently reckoned this HBA has saved such computer server centres around $5 billion dollars per year. Click here and here for more. It’s a funny old world…