Could a Bear Survive on ONLY Honey?
The diet of Winnie the Pooh isn’t much of a secret: he likes honey, and lots of it.
And you know what? It’s been serving him well. Pooh lives such a delightful existence that nobody really has the right to complain. Still, if you’re reading along to some classic A. A. Milne, it’s possible that some genuine, true-to-life science might help answer a common question about Pooh’s peculiar lifestyle: “Do bears really eat honey?”
On that count, yes they most certainly do. But that fact could quickly lead into a much stickier line of questioning:
“Could a bear eat just honey?”
First things first, we need to clarify some details. Pooh isn’t just any random bear, he’s inspired by an actual black bear from the 1920s. That’ll be our reference point for determining which bear behaviors are actually sustainable. Black bear diets themselves aren’t wholly consistent; they vary by age, sex, and most notably by time of year. During hibernation (naturally) the bear’s daily food intake is nonexistent, while the body still burns about 4,000 calories per day, In the months leading up to winter, their daily diet can top a whopping 20,000 calories. Wild.
For simplicity, and to give Pooh the benefit of the doubt, let’s place him at the lower end of an average Spring day: 5,000 calories. Pooh’s a relatively sedentary fellow anyway, I can’t imagine his body is under much stress.
Onto the bees. As referenced above: yes bears do eat honey, but it’s not just honey that’s offering nutrition. My appreciation goes out to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game:
Q: Do bears eat honey?
A: Yes. Bears do love honey and are attracted to beehives. But unlike in Winnie the Pooh, the bears eat more than just honey. They will also consume the bees and larvae inside the beehive, which are a good source of protein. Both brown and black bears will raid beehives.
“Unlike in Winnie the Pooh,” eh? Well that’s not entirely clear; while Pooh does horde his own private Fort Knox of honey, I wasn’t quite sure whether that’s his only bee-born treasure.
Honey itself is basically just a sugar storage system for bees to convert nectar into simpler sugar chains and preserve the energetic food for more challenging seasons. The rest of a hive — honeycomb, larvae, or the bees themselves — would be a better source of protein and a much more well-rounded meal. But Pooh doesn’t work like that.
HE SPITS OUT THE BEES! Such a silly bear. Plus, I suppose his attitude is stated fairly clearly in the text: “The only reason for being a bee is to make honey. And the only reason for making honey is so I can eat it.”
So Pooh eats only the honey, which is less than ideal but we can still work with it. Honey itself offers 64 calories per tablespoon, and with a little metric conversion, we can calculate that in order to meet the black bear’s 5,000 C/day diet, Pooh would only need to intake 1.16 Liters of honey per day. Actually, that’s pretty reasonable, considering he scoops handfuls into his mouth like a freaking animal.
Now, at this point I want to clarify that the purpose of this blog is not to prove or disprove the natural law of children’s fiction. That’d be weird. Instead, I like to look for ways to learn about biology through media, even something as benign as Pooh Bear. So far so good.
That being said, there’s a bigger question at hand. If Pooh needs 1.16 Liters of honey per day…Is there even enough honey in the “Hundred Acre Wood” to keep him going?
At first I thought the answer here hinged on the amount of beehives that could fit into an enclosed hundred-acre area (the answer is… a lot, actually) but it turns out the logic is much more complex. Honey production per area actually isn’t dependent on just the number of hives, but the amount of pollen and — more critically — the type of flowering plants found within flying distance. It doesn’t matter whether there are dozens or hundreds of hives if there isn’t the right type of vegetation.
We calculated that Pooh would require 1.16 L of honey per day, which is equivalent to just under 425 L for the entire year. With a density of 1.42 g/mL, that comes to about 600kg of golden goo. Heavy bear.
Now using a handy dandy reference, we can begin. Over a hundred-acre plot of land (which converts to about 40 hectares), there’s a wide variety of honey yield across different plant species. At the maximum is Norway spruce, which would allow bees to produce 16,000 kg of honey per season. On the other end of the spectrum, though, with plants like plum or apple or buckwheat which have a lower pollen output, bees in a Hundred Acre Wood only produce… drumroll please… 1,200 kg.
Even with the worst type of vegetation possible, local bees could produce at least double the honey that Winnie the Pooh would need to last all year.
There’s a whole slew of other variables that I considered researching. Honey production varies on temperature, and on weather, and on bee productivity, but no matter which way I slice it, Pooh’s diet seems to be well-within all reasonable estimates. A bear can definitively sustain itself (hypothetically) on the honey produced in a hundred acre plot. Except for one thing…
There was one modicum of research that really stood out to me: the average black bear territory ranges between 2.5 and 10 square miles, which at one point in time seemed relevant to my honey inquiry but wound up falling to the cutting room floor. Still, if we run a bit of conversion, we come to a territory of between 1,600 and 6,400 acres.
The Woods is too damn small! If Pooh only has one hundred acres to roam free, he’s limited to less than 5% of his natural territory range. Plus, he’s got a tiger (I think) and a few kangaroos to compete with. Even if his honey-only diet checks out, Pooh is still trapped on a tiny plot of land barely large enough to keep him sane.
Forget diet, Pooh Bear, you need a bigger home.
In the end, we’ve come to one shocking conclusion: that Winnie the Pooh is probably going insane. No wonder he eats only sugar and doesn’t wear pants. I love the classic stories of Pooh and his friends just as much as the next person, but can I really endorse such a degree of animal cruelty?
Yes, for now. It’s fiction after all. But if you ever encounter a rich, zealous zoologist who dreams of recreating his favorite childhood Woods, pass along this article and please, for the sake of black bears everywhere, insist that he allots the appropriate 1,600 to 6,400 acres of space.
And get that bear some damn protein.