How to Extract Honey

I am writing 100 How-To essays. It is a big project. Here is why I am doing it. This is essay 35 of 100.

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We extracted about five gallons of honey this weekend. Neither the number five nor the word gallons is a typo.

Another word for “extracted,” in this case at least, is “stole” — we didn’t make the honey, and the bees from whom we took it weren’t thrilled to lose it. It wasn’t a victimless crime. A lot of bees went down with the ship. For those of us who hopelessly anthropomorphize anything that makes decisions, insects included, it was a brutal affair — albeit sweet.

Luke has been the main one to keep the bees. I’ll take ownership over the summer stead of the chickens — I’ve gotten into our chickens an amount that surprises even myself. I think we both thought I’d be a good beekeeper, but Luke has been diligent. We took the beekeeping class together — Luke’s Christmas present to me — and I took meticulous notes. I put down my credit card on the wooden boxes and white netted hats. When Jill and Tim brought over the 40,000 or so Russian honeybees, I suited up and watched them unload themselves into the boxes. And then that was about it.

I really want to tell you that I am not viscerally afraid of bees. I want to say that inherent in my being is the understanding that a bee has no interest in stinging me. The truth is that I am definitely afraid that a bee is ONLY interested in stinging me. This is yellow jackets’ faults. Yellow jackets are dicks. Last summer I stood on Kat’s doorstep and rang her buzzer (no pun intended) and a yellow jacket scooched out from behind a brick and GLEEFULLY stabbed me with her painful and merciless venom. These are the facts.

It’s biased of me to associate all stinging insects with my mostly negative interactions with yellow jackets. (There’s also the story of the swimsuit, the cake, and the armpit; or the one about the foot, the character shoe, and the pus; both for another time, maybe.) Yellow jackets can go around stinging anyone they please without a care in the world. Honeybees have to be pretty sure about it, because they only get ONE sting, and it will definitely kill them. They’re not the same. And still, my trust is limited.

Not so for Luke — who is unbothered by insect bites in general, and whose capacity for discomfort is comically high. Sometimes he went out there in shorts and sandals and played around with the screens, clearly bothering the bees but believing unconditionally in their inherent goodness and subsequent disinclination towards stinging. He had over a bunch of good-looking friends at various intervals of the summer and had them photograph hive progress with him, counting swarm cells and inserting queen separators.

There are a lot of really cool facts about bees that I learned in the last year. You probably already know that they communicate by dancing (OG manic pixie dream girls over here, even more accurate because all worker bees are female); can wash their eyes with their feet; comprehend the concept of zero; and function with masterful groupthink. Someday, once the world has ended, humans will try to mimic bees. We will spend every day ass-deep in flowers and then spin the flower dust into wet sugar. We will allow the survival of about five males whose sole purpose will be to impregnate the largest and hungriest woman — after which, the males will instantly die. We will wonder why we ever bothered with meaningless previous human frivolities, like skyscrapers or brunch.

But for now, we are women, and they are bees, and we co-habitate — although the bees have been suffering in recent years. So it struck Luke and me as a noble endeavor to take care of a few hives; we would be nurturing these integral pollinators, helping the flowers and the trees, and bonus: There would be honey.

To tell you the truth, I guess I didn’t fully believe that there would be honey. I mean, sure, I knew that bees made honey, but taking the honey from the bees, honestly, seemed impossible. THERE ARE TENS OF THOUSANDS OF THEM AND THEY HAVE STINGERS.

Bees make honey to sustain themselves through the winter, so you can’t take all of it or they’ll starve to death in the first week of November. But they really do make a LOT of honey; way more than they could possibly need. Bees are true survivalists.

To extract it, you have to take the screens out of the hives, brush all the bees off (or smoke the bees away — which is exactly what it sounds like; you light a tiny fire and it freaks the bees out and they leave), and put all of those screens, saturated with honeycomb, into plastic bins. Then you take something sharp and you pick off all the wax that’s keep the honey from dripping, and you collect the wax to make, according to Jill, “a single candle.” Candles require a lot of wax, is the point there. Then you place the screens, now sticky and oozy, into a big metal barrel with a spinning mechanism inside. The spinning mechanism spins really fast, and the honey falls to the bottom. Then you strain the honey through a paint strainer, and then you can finally jar it and eat it.

This is, indeed, an ordeal.

I think we thought it would take something like two hours to get our jar of honey, but it was easily five or six, and the jar of honey was not a jar, but a bucket, and a second bucket, and another bucket after that.

The man we bought our house from planted an impenetrable strain of mint in the cracks between the bricks in front of the chicken coop. It grows so thick and huge that people who visit us and go outside looking for mint (it happens: people like DIY juleps) conclude that we must have none, because the mint does not look like a regular herb shrub. It curls into these foamy purple flowers in July, and stays that way until the first frost of the year. Our honey tastes like mint. This is amazing to me.

There are so many places you could take an essay about bees and honey extraction. Tim warned us that we should move quickly, because if one rogue bee got a sense of what we were doing, she would fly back to the hive and “tell everyone about it,” and soon we would have hundreds of bees on our hands, trying to get their lips back on the honey we were stealing. This sounded absurd. But sure enough, three hours in there were bees everywhere, and the operation got significantly more challenging.

This was, however, the part of the day where I began to trust that the bees were not going to sting me. There I was, adulterating their life’s work, and all they wanted to do was crawl on my elbows where a chunk of honey had (somehow) accumulated. Stinging animals is just not what they’re built to do. It struck me as sad that I defaulted so quickly to an assumption of violence.

I could write about hive mind; I could write about feminism; I could write about flowers; I could write about construction and design. And yet. I find myself wanting to spend an hour making biscuits and eating them on the front porch, because the honey extraction means the summer is ending in earnest, and soon the front porch will be covered in ice, and the winter will be a crueler villain to the colonies of bees than even a group of six pink-fingered mammals peeling away a season of hard work.