Winter Honey

Finished products: over two gallons of honey, and about two pounds of wax. Winter honey is a mix of whatever the bees had stored. Last year’s was fruity, this year’s amber and spicy.

Spring honey is so pale it’s almost white. It comes from tree flowers: maple, locust, catalpa.

Fall honey, from goldenrod, is pungent and dark. My neighbor says it smells like old shoe.

But winter honey, the kind I’m pouring into jars now, is the kind you only harvest because your bees are dead.

According to my non-beekeeping husband, the sum total of all bee books is “your bees will die.” But they’ll do it in the most complicated way possible. When x awful thing happens (and it will), try this strange remedy (actual examples: shaking the entire hive contents out onto a bedsheet, dusting the bees down with powdered sugar once a week for a month, hanging empty boxes scented with lemongrass oil in trees near the apiary, stacking one colony on top of another with a few sheets of newspaper in between). Do all these things, master the skills, keep careful records. And then, your bees will die.

It’s true. In the past three years, I’ve had eleven colonies. Only two have survived a winter. I buy new bees every spring the way I buy new seeds. They’re happy and busy throughout the summer. And almost always, in the winter thaw, I find them dead and frozen in their cluster. All around them, their life’s work, the darkly glowing heart of the hive.

For six days now, my kitchen has been sticky with the dying of my hives, as I scramble to clean up the mess and take what’s left before the mice do. Seven frames of honey thrown away because of mold, thirteen stored in the chest freezer to feed the bees arriving next spring, and fourteen for the humans to eat. I’m trying the crushed comb method of extraction, which involves no extractor but far too many buckets, reams of cheesecloth, a long slow filtration process, and an explosive, slow-moving mess all over the kitchen.

The thing about honey, says Sam to cheer me up, is that you have plenty of time. He’s right. Pots of honey thousands of years old have been found in the pyramids, still unspoiled. (See the fascinating article here.)

What keeps me on my feet after a long day of teaching, after cooking and dishes and shutting the chickens in for the night, to filter honey and melt wax? The same thing that makes me open a blank file and begin to write when my eyes are itching for sleep. That makes me order new bees every spring. Sheer cussedness in the face of all that erodes, that molds, that dies. Not for the winter honey, but because if I sit down now I’ll fall asleep, and that in itself is reason enough to keep moving forward.

This is what happens after the end of everything. You get up, you keep going, and you salvage what’s left.

Best smells in the world: Sheets dried on a line in winter. Scalp of a contented baby. And warm beeswax with the honey just filtered out. I’ll make candles another day, when I’m not so tired.

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