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The Straight Dope

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Is it true honey is really . . . bee vomit? --Lisa, Chicago

Well . . . yeah. This isn't something the Honey Marketing Association is going to make the centerpiece of its next ad campaign, but the fact is that honey is made from nectar the worker bees regurgitate, which of course is a polite word for vomit. Be grateful nobody told the songwriters. It's hard to wax lyrical about a Taste of Bee Barf.

The bees collect the nectar from flowers and store it in their "honey stomachs," separate from their true stomachs. On their way back to the hive they secrete enzymes into it that begin converting the stuff into honey. Once in the hive they yuke up the nectar and either turn it over to other workers for further processing or dump it directly into the honeycomb. The bees then beat their tiny wings to fan air through the hive to evaporate excess water from the honey. Last they cover the honeycomb cell with wax, figuring hey, we worked like dogs, but at least now we'll be able to get a snack whenever we want. Suckers. The humans steal the honey, pack it in bottles, and there you go--direct from the bees' guts to yours.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, gosh, Unca Cecil, what other fun facts do you know about bees? Well, in my opinion, you can never know too much about an insect's sex life. Did you know that in proportion to its body size, the genitalia of a drone bee are among the largest of any animal on earth? Mention this to the girls over bridge and you'll definitely get the conversation off Tupperware.

The size of its equipment is thought to be directly related to the drone's postcoital fate, namely death. My bee book notes, "[The genitals] are contained in the abdomen and presumably getting them out of the abdomen for the purpose of mating places such a strain on [the bee] that it dies in the process." As I understand it, the proximate cause of the drone's demise is that its privates are (urk) ripped off during the act. One more reason for caution, boys, when we are fumbling in the dark.

One last thing. Despite its status as bee stud, the drone is not itself produced as a result of sex. On the contrary, it develops from an unfertilized egg. (Fertilized eggs become either workers or queens.) My bee book drolly comments, "Thus the queen bee is capable of parthenogenesis and drone bees have no father, only a grandfather." You think your family is dysfunctional--be glad you're not a bee.

I have heard that McDonald's milk shakes contain seaweed. Can this be true? --J.M., Arlington Heights

Absolutely. But the real shocker is that every McDonald's hamburger contains chopped-up pieces of--brace yourself--dead cow. So let's not get hung up on a little seaweed.

McDonald's milk shakes, along with a great many other products, contain a seaweed extract called carrageenan, which is used as a thickener and emulsifier (it keeps the butterfat in the shake from separating out). Carrageenan comes from Irish moss, a red, bushy seaweed that grows on coastal rocks near, among other places, Carragheen, Ireland, whence the name. (You can also find it in Maine, the Canadian maritimes, and various European localities.) You either collect the stuff on the beach by hand or use a special long-handled rake. Carrageenan is extracted from the moss with hot water and used in milk-based products, soft drinks (for "body"), gelatin (it's the part that jells), etc. Not all that carcinogenic and what the hell, centuries ago they used it to treat ulcers. So hold your nose and swig away.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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