Thursday, December 02, 2010

Red Bs? No: red bees.

Like any good Bostonian, when I hear “red B”, that image that comes to mind is that most potent and universal of Boston signifiers: the Red Sox logo. But in NYC, where the red B is anathema, they’re talking red bees. At least in the Brooklyn part of NYC, where lives the maraschino cherry factory where some honey bees have been raiding the maraschino chRed Berry bottle – and turning themselves and their honeycombs a nice bright red, or perhaps a shade of cerise, in the process. (Source: NY Times.)

Although they would prefer their bees to act naturally, and sup from wildflowers, or weeds, or whatever trees grow in Brooklyn, or on Governors Island, where there’s a farm, the Brooklyn beekeepers are not mad as hornets about this. They’re just perplexed.  As beekeeper Cerise Mayo – and is that a great name, or what?  - said:

“Why would they go to the cherry factory,” she said, “when there’s a lot for them to forage right there on the farm?”

Well, Cerise, how ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm, after they’ve tasted cherry juice?

When I was growing up, one of the most fabulous treats I could think of was to sneak a couple of cherries out of the maraschino cherry jar that was always in the fridge.  Using fingers, which could be licked afterward. Yum! Or by spearing them with an olive spear-er.

My parents weren’t sitting around slugging down Manhattans, by any means, and life was not in general one big bowl of maraschino cherries, either. But when they had their friends over on a Saturday night – the men (most of whom didn’t wear suits to work) in suits, and the women in nice dresses – my parents did serve Old Fashioneds, which call for a cherry.

And my mother used them in “spread” and desserts.

Appetizers weren’t widely served in the world I grew up in, but when they were called for, what would sit better on a Ritz cracker than a concoction of creamed cheese, crushed pineapple, and maraschino cherries?

My idea of heaven, age eight.

Crackers and cheese didn’t exist then, by the way.

In fact, cheese really didn’t exist all that much on its own. (Crackers, however, did.)

Cheese meant American, Velveeta, or creamed used for the pineapple-cherry dip.  My mother also stocked “chivecheese”, creamed cheese with chives in it, that I didn’t realize was cheese – hmmmm: maybe it isn’t – until I was an adult. It was a tasty spread used on crackers, but was not as special-occasion as the pineapple-cherry delight.

The most common dessert use (other than throwing one on top of the Hershey’s syrup used to drown a bowl of ice cream) was to top off two-toned pudding (chocolate on the bottom, vanilla on the top).  Sometimes, my mother chopped up cherries and added them to frosting, usually for Washington’s birthday, when she’d make a cherry-tree themed cake.

My absolute fave cherry use was in this wickedly sweet cake that we would beg for. (At least some of us. My father had a tremendous sweet tooth, which not all of his children inherited. My mother, who made a different scratch dessert for the family almost every day could take or leave the sweet stuff.) The cake part of the cake under discussion here was in and of itself thin and dry. It was the topping that made this treat special, and us aficionados delirious: thin white frosting topped with chopped walnuts, canned pineapple, and maraschino cherries. Yowza! Just thinking of this cake is enough to induce diabetic shock, and the feeling that a squadron of demon elves are attacking my teeth with ice picks. Ah, what I wouldn’t give for a piece of it now. 

So, no, I don’t blame those poor critters one bit for lusting after maraschino cherry juice.

Could the tastiest nectar, even close by the hives, compete with the charms of a liquid so abundant, so vibrant and so cloyingly sweet? Perhaps the conundrum raises another disturbing question: If the bees cannot resist those three qualities, what hope do the rest of us have?

Maybe when we’re chasing down a bag of Pepperidge Farm cookies with a half-liter of high-fructose colored water, we’re just acting naturally.

The cherry factory under suspicion is the Dell’s Maraschino Cherries Company – web site available in Chinese, Español, English, Italian, and Russian, by the way; I get the Chinese: think gummy sweet-and-sour, but I’m not quite sure what the Español or Italiano markets are doing with maraschino cherries, let alone the Russians (although maraschino cherries are red-star red). Dell has been bottling maraschino cherries in Brooklyn for over 60 years.

Dell hasn’t admitted that they’re the problem, but there is a smoking gun of sorts: the red bees contain Red Dye No. 40, which is used in maraschino production.

Meanwhile, the honey produced by the red bees of Brooklyn has a metallic taste and is – surprise, surprise - “overly sweet.”

Beekeepers “fear that the bees’ feasting on the stuff could have unforeseeable health effects on the hives.”

But there was an upside to the downside, as David Selig, another Brooklyn beekeeper noted:

“When the sun is a bit down, they glow red in the evenings,” he said. “They were slightly fluorescent. And it was beautiful.”

A (maraschino) cherry on top, as it were.


At least this bee-story is not as dire as the one I posted on a few years about the bees dying off.

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