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I have often heard/read/watched in fantasy about dwarves drinking mead and lots of it. I recently learned that mead is made from honey which requires bees and flowers which require sunlight. I doubt that they could import enough to satisfy the thirst of an entire city (or nation) and even if they could it would be financially irresponsible. So I was wondering if they could produce honey underground.

The obvious solution is that they just make the honey above-ground but lets say that going above-ground is socially unacceptable (like in Dragon Age). Lets further split it into a few separate scenarios:

  1. The dwarves have magic light orbs which are basically the same as sunlight. So could bees function completely underground with light and flowers.
  2. No magic. So could bees function underground with some torches and maybe skylights (Not sure that could work. Maybe leave a door open and hope the bees come back?).
  3. No light (e.g. Dwarf Fortress). Could bees work underground in total darkness (Same as above but dwarves have super-night-vision and have no need of light).
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    $\begingroup$ Why do you doubt that they could import enough? For example, the UK is one of the heaviest consumers of wine in the world, but produces very little wine itself. It’s perfectly possible to import enough. $\endgroup$ – Mike Scott Jan 5 '18 at 19:54
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    $\begingroup$ Catherine Pitt, The Wine Trade in Bristol in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries, 2006. England imported a lot of wine during the Middle Ages, mostly from France. Large scale beer manufacturing didn't really take off until the 18th century. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jan 5 '18 at 20:24
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    $\begingroup$ Dwarves don't make honey, they mine for treacle from ancient fossilised sugar cane $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Jan 5 '18 at 20:27
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    $\begingroup$ You shouldn't accept an answer so early. This question hit the Hot Network Questions bar, and if it doesn't have an accepted answer I'd bet it will get a lot more attention. You never know, there might be an even better answer out there! $\endgroup$ – kingledion Jan 5 '18 at 22:06
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    $\begingroup$ @NikolayArabadzhi It's entirely up to you, but it's a good idea to wait a minimum of 24 hours so that people from every time zone are encouraged to weigh in. $\endgroup$ – sphennings Jan 5 '18 at 22:52

12 Answers 12

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The dwarves can keep the bees in the caverns, but provide them with suitable exits.

You have your beekeepers on the upper levels of the cities. You'll need ventilation somehow to allow for your city to breathe, so these vents can be plenty useful for the bees to exit and re-enter. The beekeepers don't need to ever leave the caverns (Except, perhaps, to get the bees in the first place), but the bees can go out and back in with ease.

Bees usually forage for two to three miles, but they can also forage significantly further away. Presuming that while the Dwarves typically don't go outside, they also don't care for someone living on their doorstep, this means that there are plenty of wild plants for bees to use for their honey needs.

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    $\begingroup$ @Andon Well if the bees are willing to go that far it would mean less pathi- I mean walking for my dwarfs which would increase efficiency overall. Now that I think about it further underground would mean less forage room for the bees meaning less honey, efficiency, and mead. $\endgroup$ – Nikolay Arabadzhi Jan 5 '18 at 20:56
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    $\begingroup$ @NikolayArabadzhi there are several known honey bee species that are perfectly happy to nest underground. $\endgroup$ – John Jan 5 '18 at 22:44
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    $\begingroup$ Blind Albino cave bees. The help pollinate fungi and molds. This is what gives Dwarven mead that unique "tang". $\endgroup$ – nijineko Jan 6 '18 at 13:55
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    $\begingroup$ @Andon It could, but then you could drill a narrow shorter hole to the surface for your bees. $\endgroup$ – pipe Jan 7 '18 at 5:59
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    $\begingroup$ @EveryBitHelps, you flipped some bits there. The old queen is the one that leaves the hive. The new queen remains behind. Source: I am a beekeeper. $\endgroup$ – Rat In A Hat Jan 8 '18 at 17:01
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Use honeydew, either as intermediary or final product

Aphids feed on plant matter. When they are eating plant sap, they excrete honeydew, a sugary liquid. You could reasonably make an alcoholic beverage from honeydew, although milking aphids sounds like a chore.

However, certain bees will do it for you. They can take this honeydew and use it to make honeydew honey. In fact, Greek pine honey, which I've had before, comes via aphids. I just learned that I ate aphid poop about 30 seconds ago.

Finally, if you don't to have sap-filled plants that aphids can eat, ergot fungus can also make honeydew. So you can have blind bees feeding on fungus making delicious honey.

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    $\begingroup$ Ha! I love the aphids idea especially since dwarfs are pretty similar to ants living mostly underground. I loved the idea of a giant aphid analog that dwarfs herd to get drunk of the honeydew. $\endgroup$ – Nikolay Arabadzhi Jan 5 '18 at 20:24
  • $\begingroup$ Ergot ingestion can also cause hallucinations and death. Maybe a controlled substance in dwarven society. $\endgroup$ – bob0the0mighty Jan 6 '18 at 23:21
  • $\begingroup$ @bob0the0mighty I imagine there is some way to separate the honeydew from the fungus. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Jan 7 '18 at 1:34
  • $\begingroup$ Aphids are more commonly farmed by ants; see for example sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/10/071009212548.htm , though I'm not sure how you'd get from the ants to mead at scale. $\endgroup$ – arp Jan 7 '18 at 11:14
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    $\begingroup$ Would aphid/ant honey from the right sort of ergot fungus be the precursor to hallucinogenic mead? See for example vox.com/2015/10/29/9620542/salem-witch-trials-ergotism (popular) and ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1637017 (scientific), but those are just two of many links that popped up in a web search for "hallucinogenic ergot". Hallucinogenic dwarf mead would provide quite a plot hook, especially if dwarven biochemistry were immune and other species were not... $\endgroup$ – arp Jan 9 '18 at 15:04
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Honey Mines

from The Lost Honey Mines of Texas

honey mines text

These caves are filled with millenia worth of the bee's endeavors, as far back and as far down as you dare to explore. Dwarven honey miners brave the dangers to bring back ancient honey, as concentrated as amber. It is from this that they brew their fabled mead.


I am very pleased that this question was asked because otherwise I would never have discovered the stories of the honey mines. I encourage anyone the least bit interested to follow the link and read the tall tales about the Lost Honey Mines which I greatly enjoyed. Below are 2 excerpts (each about a different mine):

…Carrying the famous smoke gun and a lantern, he was able to explore the cave to a depth of some thousands of feet. He returned with a report of the enormous amounts of honey and wax almost at their finger tips. The exploring company went to San Marcos and obtained sledge hammers and rock chisels and returned to enlarge the opening. But as soon as they commenced to pound on the rock, snakes began to issue from every little hole in the face of the bluff; and while no-one was hurt, the sight was so terrible that the men fled and no amount of hidden treasure could induce them to return…

...During the spring season, when all of the chaparral flowers are in bloom, to one standing on the top of the bluff the bees going and coming from the mouth of the cave resemble a great stream of smoke, and the hum of their wings is so loud that the roar can be heard for miles. According to the story, thirty years ago a surveyor who was hunting some old Spanish bench mark in the vicinity of the cave discovered a second entrance and, making a torch out of his coat, went into the cave protected by the smoke from the burning coat. He passed through room after room filled with long white sheets of the purest guajillo hone and estimated that the cave contained several million pounds of it…

Snake storms! Wearable coat torches! And this does not include the cave with the ghosts. If ever there were a fantasy-ready concept this is it.

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    $\begingroup$ I once read an article about the honey caves in an old beekeeping magazine, from about 1932 I think. I seem to remember they used gas and dynamite to kill the snakes and still ended up with no honey. It was a pretty tall tale but presented as fact; I could never work out how much of it was true. $\endgroup$ – Bob says reinstate Monica Jan 7 '18 at 14:05
  • $\begingroup$ I suspect most of what is quoted here is just "tall tale," but perhaps it originated from a less sensational event that really happened: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bee_Cave,_Texas#History $\endgroup$ – WGroleau Jan 8 '18 at 15:41
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  1. I would like to suggest a fourth possibility in addition to the three in the original question, that the Dwarves are advanced technologically enough to have artificial lighting. Some people may think that Dwarves with artificial lighting are inconsistent with a fantasy setting.

    Remember these lines from "The Song of Durin", The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 2, Chapter 4, "A Journey in the Dark":

    A king he was on carven throne
    In many-pillared halls of stone
    With golden roof and silver floor
    And runes of power upon the door.
    The light of sun and star and moon
    In shining lamps of crystal hewn
    Undimmed by cloud or shade of night
    There shone for ever fair and bright.

    Some may imagine that those lamps were magical, others that they were technological. Thus it is possible that Dwarves had technological artificial lighting to grow plants under the mountains in the greatest fantasy of all.

    In my answer to the question Giving Tolkien Architecture a Reality Check: Dwarvish Kingdoms, I discussed how much underground room the Dwarves would need to grow their own food.

  2. A fifth possibility is that the Dwarves are able to synthesize honey from basic ingredients using magic and/or chemical science.

  3. According to Tolkien, Dwarves often traded their goods to others for most of their food and didn't produce much of their food. Thus they must have had a lot of trade with other species and realms and importing honey and/or mead would not add a lot to their trade. Mike Scott's comment is quite on the mark.

  4. Andon is right about letting bees forage outside. "leave a door open and hope the bees come back" is not a big leap of faith. If the hives are in the dwarf city the worker bees will come back.

  5. And maybe fantasy writers just like to write about Dwarves drinking mead without knowing the ingredients of mead or thinking about how the Dwarves obtain mead.

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    $\begingroup$ Artificial light is not sunlight. Not even close. $\endgroup$ – JohnWDailey Jan 6 '18 at 18:28
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    $\begingroup$ JohnWDailey - I suppose that you think there is some sort of magical difference between artificial light and sunlight, so that no plant will ever grow in artificial light. As a matter of fact there are spacial types of artificial lamps called grow lamps specially designed to mimic sunlight better and be better at growing things than regular artificial lighting. $\endgroup$ – M. A. Golding Jan 7 '18 at 10:02
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    $\begingroup$ And if modern grow lamps are not good enough for intensive farming yet, Aule could have told the Dwarves how to make much better ones for their underground farms. So the early Dwarves could have learned all they needed to know straight from the Vala's mouth. $\endgroup$ – M. A. Golding Jan 7 '18 at 10:08
  • $\begingroup$ Like I said, any canonical mention of races outside of humans cheats the point. $\endgroup$ – JohnWDailey Jan 7 '18 at 14:23
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I say: none of the above. Dwarves obtain mead via trade. This is not unrealistic! Dwarves are domain experts on resource extraction via mining; they can obtain whatever other goods they require by trading surplus gold, silver and gems for anything.

Remember, the fundamental purpose of trading is a trade only happens when both sides think they are better off making the trade. Dwarves have gems that they can't eat, elves have excess wine and a surpassing desire for gems but don't want to get their hands dirty; establishing a marketplace for exchanging gems for wine leaves both sides better off.

Even better: now you have a natural story mechanism for generating conflict. What happens when the elves hold out for better gems? Or the gem supply dries up?

Now examine the current situation in Venezuela, a country that foolishly predicated its entire economy on the ability to get in trade the goods it needs to survive in exchange for oil, a resource extracted from the earth. A fantasy story that is an analogue to the current crisis in Venezuela might be quite interesting.

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  • $\begingroup$ Not just mead, dwarves obtain nearly all their foodstuffs by trade. This doesn't have to be long-distance trade: the dwarves may mine the mountains, but they don't really care who lives on the surface, as long as they don't interfere with the mines. Having profitable trade gives the aboveground humans (who trade with the distant elves) a strong motive not to interfere. See e.g. the incidental mentions of trade in Tolkien, or more detail from Pratchett's "The Fifth Elephant". $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jan 6 '18 at 4:30
  • $\begingroup$ +1. (See also en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Division_of_labour) $\endgroup$ – arboviral Jan 9 '18 at 16:22
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Bees aren't the only creatures that make honey. In Latin America, we have Honey Ants, which also produce a quite edible form of honey. They don't need flowers to do it, either (it's often extracted from prey, but can basically be from any form of ant food). Specialized workers store the honey in their bodies and provide it as nourishment to other ants later on.

They're also present in other parts of North and South America, Australia, and probably a bunch of other places that I just haven't heard about yet. There are also a few species of wasps which produce honey, such as Brachygastra lecheguana (a darker form of paper wasp) and Brachygastra mellifica (the Mexican honey wasp); and while I wouldn't be the first to try and collect that honey, it should be noted that many forms of wasp do build their nests underground.

Speaking scientifically and a bit broader, honey can be defined as a substance produced by any number of creatures, though most famously bees, by distilling down their food source into a sugary syrup for the sake of consumption some distance into the future. Anything that fits that definition could also be made into mead, provided a source of yeast. (As a side note, real honey often does have a small amount of wild yeast in it, even though it's a powerful antibiotic otherwise; so it doesn't sound like an enormous challenge to get yeast.)

So, if your Dwarves lived in an isolated underground society with no realistic surface access, but managed to cultivate some form of subterranean insect that distilled its food into honey (much like beekeeping bees), then mead would be relatively easy to produce. All you would need is a stable underground biome, some industriousness, and some time.

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    $\begingroup$ "[...] Honey Ants, which also produce a quite edible form of honey. [...] (it's often extracted from prey," I'm now imagining the rare special mead vintage produced after letting the honey ants feast on the bodies of a fallen Elvish army. Wow, that's a dark concept. $\endgroup$ – arp Jan 9 '18 at 15:12
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Previous answers have gone the route of placing your bees home or entire habitat underground. This is a perfectly good option, but I thought I'd take it in another direction.

What is Mead?

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, mead is a fermented beverage made of water and honey, malt, and yeast. At its core, mead must contain honey to be called mead. If you are willing to let it slide, it is possible to make a beverage that is mead in all but name without honey.

Mead Alternatives

According to this post on the Homebrewing (alcohol, not tabletop) StackExchange, it is possible to make mead with Agave Nectar. Furthermore, according to this thread on a homebrewing forum, it is possible to make a very mead-like product with maple syrup. With this in mind, I would say that it is reasonable to presume you could make a mead-analog with whatever honey-analog you wish!

You could have tap maple tree roots and collect syrup underground. You could have some sort of termite or other underground insect collect nectar much like bees. If you are willing to deviate from a strictly honey-based mead, then your options become much wider. Wouldn't it be fitting for dwarves to make their mead from some sort of burrowing insect?

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Can the bees go above ground? Lots varieties of bees build their hives rock openings and holes in the ground, it should be pretty easy to create hives with entrances via holes in a rock face or some similar thing. The beekeeper would never need to go above ground, just open the back of the hive to extract the honey, and the rest of the process would work underground.

With magical sunlight orbs, dwarves could farm any crop, including flowering crops, deep underground and keep bees too.

Other plausible possibilities would include some sort of fungus that excretes nectar and a pollen-like protein source like flowers. And heck, dwarven bees could also have infravision too.

A broader question would be how to feed a city of thousands completely underground. If you have grain you can make bread and beer, but grain requires sunlight. And any animal eats vegetable matter or some other animal that eats vegetable matter, with about a 1:10 retention of calories, so to grow 10 lbs of dwarven beef you'd need to feed it 100 lbs of hay (or mushrooms or whatever). Fungus also relies on vegetable matter to grow, so you'd need excess tree roots or humus to grow fungus for a food supply. If you can solve the problem of how to get enough vegetable matter below ground to support the food matrix, then throwing bees in the mix should be easy.

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    $\begingroup$ In my answer to this question worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/100380/… I discussed how much underground room the Dwarves would need to grow their own food. $\endgroup$ – M. A. Golding Jan 5 '18 at 20:33
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    $\begingroup$ If trade is allowed, honey is one of the most pure forms of sugar, so it would make the most alcohol per unit of weight or volume. A bushel of grain, fruit, or juice would yield much less alcohol than a bushel of honey (or sorgum, molasses, or maple syrup, all of which have similar caloric density). $\endgroup$ – user15741 Jan 5 '18 at 20:41
  • $\begingroup$ Dwarven bees, like other kinds, actually have Ultravision. See: naturfotograf.com/index2.html $\endgroup$ – docwebhead Jan 5 '18 at 21:12
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There are chemoautotrophic organisms. These use chemical energy to drive their metabolism, rather than sunlight. In the real-world, these live in deep-sea vents, and oxidise fresh materials from lava vents. With a bit of a stretch of the imagination, they could oxidise the iron-containing walls of a cavern (possibly the roof, to help push the waste rust away).

Again, back in the real world, these are normally simple organisms. However, they could be plants. To attract the insects, they could use scent (long range), and bioluminescence to guide the insect to the nectary. The insects would then gather the nectar, and make honey in the usual way.

For some ideas, search for chemo(auto)troph, litho(auto)troph [rock-eating organism], and black-smoker [sub-sea lava outlets].

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Honey bees described in hieroglyphics

Honey doesn't spoil. It has a high sugar concentration which acts like a preservative. Pots have been found in Egyptian tombs containing honey which are over 3,000 years old and it's still edible.

This means the Dwarves of yore could order loads of honey or mead and have it shipped to their cities and never have to worry about the honey spoiling or if the mead was over 16% alcohol by content, it would be preserved as well. Yeast can similarly be stored as a live culture or a powder. All of this is very well established and understood.

Mead can be as simple or complicated as you wish to make it. No sunlight is needed. All you really need is water, honey, yeast and a sanitary container. A simple airlock will help it vent. Keeping it around 60°F produces the best results. It could be made with the funeral powders of the deceased, it could be made with crushed gems for vitality. It could be made with wine as well.

Good luck with your mead.

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You can feed bees with sugar water. It's often used by beekepers as a cheap supplemental food source to get a hive started. This will produce a less flavorful honey, but bees will store it in a comb. Bees are opportunistic and will feed on whatever sources of sugar they can find. There have even been cases of them producing blue honey because they were stealing syrup from a M&Ms factory.

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    $\begingroup$ If you have sugar you can ferment it to alcohol directly, why bother with bees? Industrialized humans have a bunch of sugar lying around, but we use lots of sunlight to make it from corn and sugar cane. $\endgroup$ – user25818 Jan 5 '18 at 21:56
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    $\begingroup$ @notstoreboughtdirt Because when there isn't a scarcity of resources people and I assume dwarves prefer more variety and higher quality than whatever is the cheapest source of alcohol they can produce. Personally I like both rum and mead. I like having a choice between them even more. $\endgroup$ – sphennings Jan 5 '18 at 22:50
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    $\begingroup$ "You can feed bees with sugar water." - not really. You can only supplement their food with it. It cannot be their main food source. Bees needs amino-acids like all animals. "bees will store it in a comb" - Well, beeswax is clear, odorless and tasteless. At least at first, before it'll get contaminated with pollen, oils from flowers et cetera. Storing tasteless honey in tasteless beeswax will not really change taste of honey. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Jan 8 '18 at 10:16
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    $\begingroup$ While I feed my hives granulated sugar or sugar syrup to get them through a dearth, the resulting product would never be considered honey. $\endgroup$ – Rat In A Hat Jan 8 '18 at 22:25
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Domesticated Honey-Badgers. Dwarven Honey-Badgers.

Or maybe Dwarven Underground Domesticated Honey-Bees...

But I like the Honey Badgers better, just on principle.

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