It was the end of summer, the evening before the first day of school, and I was just getting ready to put henna in my hair when the phone rang. It was our farmer-neighbor, John.
“You folks home this evening?” he asked in the gruff and peremptory way that I have learned is not rudeness, just his style.
“Yes,” I said hesitantly, thinking of my henna project and all the other tasks waiting to be done.
“Well,” he said. “Do you like honey?”
Did we like honey? Who doesn’t like honey? “Yes, we love it,” I replied, wondering what he was up to, this rumpled-looking man in his faded overalls and squashed straw hat, who, though in his late seventies, is out in the fields every morning before I am even awake.
“We emptied the hives last week, and I’ve got a jar for you if you’d like it. I can bring it right over.”
“Of course, of course,” I said, already beginning to strip out of the stained pink cover-up I wear for messy tasks and putting my clothes back on.
John used to own the drumlin hill our property is on – one of a quartet of four-acre lots – and he still farms 80 acres around it. The most private lot, with only one neighbor up the hill, our land abuts his fields on two sides, with an acre or so of prairie sloping down from oak savanna, a buffer between us and the road. When we first moved here, we’d hear John’s cows, which he got rid of some years ago because they were no longer profitable, moving about in the hayfield to the back of our house. He lets us run our collies in his fields, and we take his tractor path down to the wilder land around Island Lake and the Department of Natural Resources land beyond that. As a result, we’ve gotten to know him. He and my husband, Tom, often stand talking in that age old, arms across the chest stance of men, who, while conversing about daily concerns like the weather, brush up against larger mysteries of life as easily as our collies run through the tall grass, their fur damp and hay-scented afterwards.
Although we’ve lived on this hill for more than ten years and John has always been friendly, his warmth has been edged with the reserve I have come to associate with the Midwest. Neither as direct and outspoken as people in the Northeast, where I grew up, nor as open and spontaneous as those on the West Coast, where I spent my twenties and thirties, people in the Midwest seem to take a long time to get to know you, as if measuring you up. It’s only this summer that John’s taken to giving us feedbags stuffed with more sweet corn than we can possibly eat, or that his wife called to offer tomatoes to our already overflowing bins. I knew John’s offer of honey was an important moment, one that meant he liked us.
A few minutes later, John roared up in a battered blue pickup with his Australian shepherd, a constant and taciturn (at least compared to our collies) companion, sitting beside him. John handed me a quart-sized Kerr canning jar of pale golden honey. Though bees will travel up to two miles gathering nectar, he said he thought most of it came from flowers on this hill.
“I reckon it’s mostly clover and dandelion. It’s got none of that goldenrod,” he said, gesturing to the graceful plumes of goldenrod now in luxuriant bloom all over. “That’s cooking honey. If it seems like you’ve seen more bees this summer, they’re probably mine. They’re all over this hill.”
John and my husband entered into a complicated conversation about the extraction and refraction of honey, about which Tom later confessed he’d only understood around a third, as is often the case with John, who frequently presupposes a familiarity with things beyond us.
I held the jar of honey, which I lifted up to the light, turning it, admiring its color. Pale gold, it seemed to almost glow. Wild food, made from the essence of flowers, it was summer distilled into a jar. No wonder honey summons such indescribable delight. I tipped the jar upside down like a summer snow globe, watching paler golden bubbles float up like pearls. I was glad that I’d left the mint I’d considered rototilling from the side of the house when I saw how its flowers attracted bees. Though I’d almost abandoned my perennials in this summer of killer mosquitoes, I was relieved that many of the flowers that bees love had been hardy enough to survive my inattention: mop-top purple heads of bergamot-scented monarda or bee balm, the beautiful blue-violet spires of agastache or anise hyssop, and the wild yellow digitalis or foxglove, where, from my study window, I’d observed bees actually crawling inside the tubular flowers. To think that I had contributed, even in some small way, to the jar of liquid gold was thrilling.
I had noticed John’s hives, tucked inside a south-facing former pig sty like neatly stacked laboratory drawers, when I drove past his farm and had wondered if they were active. But I hadn’t considered the logistics, that the bees from those hives were gathering nectar and pollen in my garden. What I was holding in my hands was the essence of this particular place and no other – the sweet embodiment of the taste of here. Even the honey from Blue Moon Farm, our CSA, a mere four to five mile bike ride away to the north, would not taste the same. We recently enlarged our garden, reveling in a culinary intimacy I had not experienced since I was a child on my parents’ farm in eastern Pennsylvania, where my mother put up army-sized amounts of food each summer. But the honey felt qualitatively different, gleaned from a magical, humming world even so satiric an observer as Jonathan Swift once described as “sweetness and light.” It’s one thing to eat a frittata made with eggs from down the road, stuffed full of potatoes, onions, peppers and tomatoes just picked in your own garden. It’s quite another to dip your teaspoon into the small golden pond of an open jar of honey, the taste of vanished hours alive again, bright days dissolving on your tongue.
Conversations with John can sometimes go and on, soaring over the fields with a purpose we don’t quite see, like a hawk scouting fields. But he had something he needed to do that evening and left quickly. Tom and I went back to our various projects, and the jar of honey got placed on the round oak table in the sunroom. It was not forgotten exactly, just there, as life swirled on around it. But each time I passed, I looked at it, marveling at how the sun lit it from within, lambent as an amber mica lamp. Now and then I dipped a spoon in for a taste. It was simultaneously delicate and rich, which seems right for a marriage of clover and dandelion. Something about it reminded me of a bottle of mead a nearby raspberry farmer had given to my husband and me when we got married. Standing in a circle of rose petals, we’d taken sips of the mead from small crystal glasses as part of the ceremony. Although Tom later absconded with the bottle, which he’s shown clutching happily in many of the wedding photographs, I loved feeling part of a tradition hundreds of years old. Mead, which is made from honey, was thought to be an aphrodisiac, and the word “honeymoon” may have even come from the passion it was said to elicit. I remember being surprised at how the mead tasted, not cloying at all, but sweet, dry, warming, almost like sherry, a perfect and sensual mingling. I wanted it to last forever, and now Tom has the empty bottle stashed away somewhere with other saved things that serve no purpose but memory.
If we’d had bees of our own, we might have told them about our wedding, as the practice of “telling the bees” is an old one among beekeepers. In her delightful history of the honeybee Sweetness and Light, Hattie Ellis notes that bees were considered part of the family, so much so that all important events, such as marriages or deaths, had to be reported to them or they might fly away. A practice recorded in England and Ireland since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the custom included, according to Ellis, “tapping the hive with a key, whispering the news to the insects, and leaving an appropriate gift – a piece of wedding cake or funeral biscuits dipped in wine – at the hive’s entrance.” The custom is one that survives to this day, as I discovered while travelling in Ireland several years ago. During a stay at a bed and breakfast on the rugged Beara Peninsula in the southwest, my husband and I commented on how delicious the honey was. Our hostess told us it was from her own hives, then explained how the bees knew of all important happenings in the family.
“It’s bad luck not to tell them,” she said. “We don’t want them leaving now, do we?”
A week later, the jar of honey was still on a round oak table in the sunroom. Tom likes to eat breakfast out there, and, knowing how much he likes honey, preferring it to jam on his toast, I warned him off.
“Don’t eat all of that honey,” I said, reminding him that I want some too, though I am more moderate in my consumption. But because the honey was in full view, it became a kind of impromptu late summer centerpiece, the embodiment of plenty, a reminder that, even in this era of environmental degradation and destruction, some things have been sustained, albeit with an increasingly fragile balance. As a tangible symbol of what richness we may soon miss, the jar of honey made me think a lot about what the ancients referred to when they spoke of “the nectar of the gods” and about the beautiful, hardworking, and endangered honey makers. It caused me to remember my first taste of honey, when my mother sprinkled crushed aspirin in a teaspoon full dipped from her blue transfer ware honey pot and stuck it between my fevered lips. This was in the ’50s, before we knew aspirin was dangerous for children, but my mother was on the right track, as my grandmother was when she gave us honey and lemon for sore throats, for honey has been used medicinally for thousands of years.
When I had the flu in college, a Vermont boyfriend dosed me with a potent mix of honey, blackberry brandy, and bourbon. He piled me beneath a red and black striped Hudson’s Bay blanket in his dorm room to drunkenly sweat it out. While the snow blew hard against the window, I read Sylvia Plath’s startling bee poems in the then recently-issued Ariel. In my honey- and alcohol-fugged state, they thrilled me with their finely wrought, stinging language, even as they frightened me with their ferocity and hallucinatory power. It wasn’t until years later that I learned Plath had planned to end the book with “Wintering,” a poem that concludes on a note of hope: “The bees are wintering. They taste the spring.” It was her husband, Ted Hughes, who selected the icier piece, “Words,” where “from the bottom of the pool, fixed stars / Govern a life.”
Some years later, during my granola and homemade yogurt phase in California, I used honey almost exclusively as a sweetener, consuming it with so many gallons of Earl Grey tea that the two flavors became inextricably linked, and I had to give them up for a while, overcome by the intensity of the combination. A recreational runner, I sometimes dosed myself with a spoon of honey, after reading in The Cook’s Companion that the simple sugars from which it is comprised are absorbed easily into the body, providing an almost “instant ‘lift’ with no strain on the digestive system.” On my lunch breaks from the small, independent bookstore where I worked during those years, I sat on a bench in the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Gardens, watching entranced as bees darted in and out of the famous “Bee Tree,” glittering like tiny tigers in the brilliant desert light.
It was in California, too, that I once got out of the car in the middle of the Central Valley, climbed a fence and walked down a green alley alive with flickering white blossoms and the sound of bees, busy pollinating the almond groves around me. Though I had a number of hours of driving ahead, I laid down and listened, thinking of Yeats’ “bee-loud glade.” I could have stayed forever in that dappled light, so still that bees now and again landed on me briefly before taking off again, in search of something sweeter.
When I moved to rural Wisconsin after many years in town, I thought I might keep bees. If Sylvia Plath could do it, so could I. I was so enthralled with the idea that I even went to a workshop on sustainable beekeeping. I learned about bee history, surprised to discover that bees are not native to North America but originated in Asia and slowly moved into Europe, where they have been valued for millennia. Beekeeping is thought to have originated with the Egyptians. Bees were worshipped by many cultures, including the Greeks, who called their priestesses “Melissae” or “bees.” Bees were brought to North America by colonists, as they were valuable for both honey and wax. How were they carried, I wonder, on those long ocean voyages, so far away from flowers? But bees were so successful in the colonies that escapees moved west slightly ahead of settlers and were known as “white man’s fly” by the Indians.
Bees exist in an intricate social hierarchy made up of castes. There are the queens, one per hive, whose primary job is to lay eggs and produce a pheromone-like substance, with which they communicate with other bees and keep the hive working. The male drones, comprising about five percent of the hive, exist only for the purposes of reproduction. If drones are still alive at the end of the summer, they are driven off to die. Finally, there are the admirable female worker bees, some ninety to ninety-five percent of the hive’s population, who do all the labor. They clean the hive, secrete wax and royal jelly (the queen’s sole food), protect and cool the hive, care for the queen, and forage, filling their pantaloon-like pollen sacs with the magical dust from which honey is made.
In the workshop, I learned how complicated beekeeping really is, with its moveable frame hives (invented only in the mid-nineteenth century as a way to extract honey without killing the bees, replacing traditional, conical straw “skeps”), which must be constantly monitored and maintained. I took detailed notes about starter “packages” of bees (all of which come from California in two-pound boxes), frames and frame spacers, queen excluders, bottom boards, propolis, smokers, bee brushes, and capping scratchers, until my head was spinning. Overwhelmed with information before we even got to the process of extraction – a sweetly sticky and time-consuming process accomplished frame by honey-packed frame in a metal centrifuge – I was at the same time deeply moved by what goes into caring for these beautiful and industrious insects. I felt awed and humbled by their non-human intelligence and their ability to work together collectively for the good of the hive.
I left the workshop still yearning to have my own bees. But like so many things one daydreams about (raising goats, say, or having my own chickens, like my mother’s bustling flock of Rhode Island Reds), I set the idea aside. It seemed something more easily imagined than enacted, given that I had a demanding job as a professor, a husband, a step-daughter, extended family, numerous pets, a house, and a garden, all making claims on my time and energy. While backyard beekeeping is an increasingly popular hobby, it’s one that comes with a lot of responsibility, each bee a tiny soul deserving of attention and protection. And too, I felt daunted by the threat of the bee mite (though there are ways to combat this infestation organically) and Colony Collapse Disorder, not to mention the tragedy of a hive that fails to winter over. If I get upset over accidentally killing a spider, how would I handle the loss of an entire hive or multiple hives?
On the other hand, if I raised bees, perhaps I’d be contributing in some small way to the preservation of these industrious and necessary creatures that play such a crucial role in our ecosystem, pollinating over a third of our fruits and vegetables. The USDA estimates that “one in three mouthfuls of food we eat directly or indirectly benefits from honeybee pollination, [including] apples, oranges, strawberries, tomatoes, blueberries, and carrots.” Colony die-off also threatens crops like cotton, coffee, soybeans, almonds, and alfalfa. Every beehive truly makes a difference.
Back home, I think of John’s bees skimming in an invisible tracery of flight over and around our hill, their small, furry bodies shuttling faithfully back and forth between the hive and the flowers, doing what they know to do. I feel deeply saddened by what they are up against given herbicides (which John himself uses on his corn and soybeans), habitat loss, parasites, and loss of biodiversity. As a resident on this hill, I need to do my part, however small it might be.
As a possibility for my retirement, I now keep the idea of having my own hives humming in the back of my mind by reading books about beekeeping and bees, maintaining a thick file of articles on the subject, planting flowers that I know bees love, and hoping that these sweet creatures will still be here when I have time to attend to them properly. I’ve joined the Honeybee Conservancy and give gifts of beeswax candles. Some day, I think, imagining myself as an apprentice beekeeper, clad in white garb like a contemporary acolyte in the cult of the ancient bee goddess but with more urgent purpose. Some day. Then I dip a spoon into John’s honey, fortifying myself for the day ahead, swallowing it down the way I take fish oil or vitamin C, but with so much more pleasure, as if it were liquid gold, the flavor of summer alive in my mouth as fall makes its slow arrival.
Endnote: Some of the facts and lore about bees in this essay are from the Honeybee Conservancy web page. Other information is from Shari Shatz and Claire Strader’s helpful class, “Backyard Beekeeping Basics,” offered through the Willy Street Co-op in Madison, Wisconsin. The bees’ plight continues to worsen. According to an article by Michael Waters that appeared in the New York Times on March 29, 2013, “A mysterious malady that has been killing honeybees en masse for several years appears to have expanded drastically in the last year…, wiping out 40 or even 50 percent of the hives need to pollinate the [United States’] fruits and vegetables.” Growing evidence implicates pesticides, particularly those incorporated into plants’ structures.