Honeybee

PC: Instagram @beeandbloom

One of my favorite books, since I started having favorite books, is The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. She did something fantastic, something that all of my favorite authors seem to do: she taught me something I didn’t know. 

In Secret Life, I learned about the fragile coexistence bees must maintain in order to make honey, and how it’s very similar to how a writer must be in a certain broody mood, a composer must have the most perfectly vivid dream, a sculptor must see exactly the right flash of inspiration in nature, in order to be able to create. A bee’s mood requires the same kind of dynamic. Be they hot/cold/agitiated/afraid or whatever, their mental health will determine how much honey they ultimately produce and how good it will be.

Purple Honey

PC: Peregrin Farms, North Carolina

I was also shocked to learn during my many passes through Secret Life that the kind of flower the bees drink from can determine the color and flavor of the honey they will later produce, and honey can actually come in a vibrant purple color if the bees eat from (and beekeepers debate this all the time) elderberry plants, blueberry plants, or possibly even the flowers of the kudzu plant. There is speculation that purple honey is purple because drought might cause the honeybee to eat from those plants even though it doesn’t really like them, which would explain why there isn’t more of it. I don’t know what causes it for certain, nobody does really, but I would fall over dead of happiness if I ever saw purple honey, especially since word on the street is that it tastes like grape soda. It’s on my Bucket List.

Read more about it here: Purple Honey

I didn’t really like honey when I was growing up. It wasn’t sweet enough for me, having been raised on coca colas and sugar-coated Frosted Flakes with pure white sugar sprinkled not top. When I hit my thirties though, I started heeding the wake-up call about processed sugar. My expanding global perspectives started to match the expanding size of my…everything. At first, I began to think maybe I could tolerate honey in my coffee, then soon I was spreading it on my toast. Conveniently, my in-laws were from a tiny little town called Port St. Joe, Florida, which was a short driving distance from an assortment of tiny roadside stores that sold raw honey for practically nothing. A honey run made for a perfect Sunday afternoon drive. Soon, in addition to having my coffee and toast slathered in it, I started making honey butter biscuits at home for my family, way before Whataburger made this its Number One breakfast item. Now, I find myself replenishing my honey stock pretty regularly because I use it for practically everything.

Beekeeping’s in my blood.

PC: Instagram @5125honey

I think I might be one of the lucky few still around who have an endearing history with real raw honey. In turn, it makes me sad to realize that future generations may not be able to get their hands on the kinds of honey I have grown up on, the honey that’s been made by real live honeybees for literally thousands of years. My grandmother on my father’s side was a beekeeper and my in-laws (the ones from Port St. Joe) were also beekeepers. I guess maybe that’s where part of my uncanny and peculiar appreciation for honey comes from. It’s an intriguing part of my family history.

Another favorite book of mine that comes to mind regarding bees is Fried Green Tomatoes by Fannie Flagg. In that story, there was a central figure she called the Beekeeper, and she could approach a bee hive the size of a pillow without a screened hood or gloves on. She had the touch. She was a Bee Whisperer. She went out into enormous open fields, flower meadows perhaps, and looked for the giant hives hanging in the places where they’re supposed to be found: between the branches of mammoth live oak trees or fallen tree stumps, perhaps inside barns and up top in the barn lofts, or underneath tractors. Sometimes, they’re even found inside of the walls of a house, a house like the one I lived in a few years back.

PC: Instagram @ninasbees

A few years ago, my son’s bedroom room in our old Prohibition-era home buzzed and hummed strangely one day, but I didn’t pay it much attention. Then, that hum picked up and rattled our walls constantly for the rest of that summer. We started noticing bees swarming outside his bedroom window and then grew somewhat alarmed when they started coming inside through the pipes underneath the bathroom sink. Once inside, they couldn’t seem to find their way back out, or maybe (as I suspected) they couldn’t find water, so they committed mass suicide in the thousands all over his bedroom. They even pooped yellow pollen in drips all over his walls before they cashed it in, sprinkling the icky goo  all across the tops of all the furniture and on the floor.

This was a little unnerving for me to experience, so in a panic I tried to seal the pipe hole underneath the sink, spraying sealant and doing all the things one does to keep invaders out. Psh! More and more mass bee suicides came every single day. Once a hive has taken root, the only way to get the bees to go away is to have them humanely relocated.

God Save the Queen!

We left town for a few days on a family vacation before I’d quite figured out how to fix my bee dilemma. When we returned, the scene awaiting us in the bedroom was something out of a horror movie. The floor, the bed, and all the furniture and window sills were absolutely carpeted in dead bees. I didn’t freak out…all the way at least…but I did contact my landlord. Thankfully for us all, she was somewhat of an environmentalist and went right to work to save their lives before I Raid-bombed the place.

My breakfast this morning. compliments of the honeybee.

The sheetrock in the bathroom wall had to be ripped out before we could have a beekeeper come to remove the hives, hives that had been built inside the framing of both the first and second floors of our place. My landlord, being the humane bee-lover that she was, made sure that not only the queen lived, she had her sent off to a resort for bugs of sorts, to a forest down by the river, to be one with nature. The hives we found inside the walls were over five feet tall and were extracted with the delicate precision of a professional, as if we were removing bombs we didn’t want to detonate. We were able to keep jars and jars and jars of delicious honeycombs, and every day in one way or another, I could pull one of those combs out in all of its messy gloriousness and drizzle it over the tops of freshly cooked biscuits or on top of my Cheerios, and it also made the perfect dipping sauce for my bacon.

We had honey coming out of our ears.

Sadly, honeybees are in grave danger of extinction and we are seeing less and less of them not just in America, but all over the world. Albert Einstein believed that if the honeybee ever goes extinct, man is doomed as well because there’s no more pollination. If there’s no pollination, nothing else will grow. Raw natural honey can also be replicated by chemical adulteration now, too, which is never good for us. Food manufacturers and Agro-corporations are ruining the flowering meadows where bees feed and toxic pesticides are killing off whatever doesn’t starve to death. What is being sold in its place is nothing more than flavored corn syrup, reproduced and sold cheaply in any grocery store but trust me, it aint the good stuff! My face wrinkles up just thinking about it.

As far back as I can remember, when we wanted honey we got in the car (in college, it was alongside my future husbands’ ornery grandmother) and we drove to some random house situated off a dusty dirt road in a town like Wewahitchka, Florida. We walked up to the back porch and deposited a few dollars in a shoes box to buy a jar or two of tupelo honey, using the honor system. Tupelo honey gets its name from the tupelo tree. Tupelo honey doesn’t crystallize, which is unique, and it’s highly valued for its extraordinary deliciousness. Where I come from, if someone is particularly adorable, one might say she’s as sweet as tupelo honey.

PC: Instagram @kate_wilss

Anyway, back to the honey run. No one was ever home at these places, there was no one to actually sell it to us. There didn’t need to be. It was a mom-and-pop side job for folks, people like L.L. Lanier and Sons, people in tiny little towns all around where I grew up, something that came off to me as more of a hobby than a vocation. The epicenter of tupelo honey production in the United States is Apalachicola Florida, about twenty miles from Port St. Joe, which is just a short drive from Wewa. Locally-grown honey is always found mostly in ultra-rural, time-warpy parts of the country, so commonplace that even regular people are sometimes tempted to try their hand at it. I recall a conversation with my mother-in-law about this when I was nursing my son through a nasty bug one time. She admitted to keeping bees in her younger days so she and I laughed as we compared the toughest days of a mother’s existence being a toss up between the long strain of the stomach flu we were fighting (my offering) and having four children processing honeycombs in her kitchen all at the same time (hers).

 

Nowadays, it’s harder to get your hands on honey like that, from people like the old man in Wewa, from those quaint, invisible places lost in time. Now, when I open my cupboards I see just one kind of honey, and it’s not the good kind. It’s that sad plastic bear with the yellow cap on top. An imposter. I used to see an enormous jar of Wewa honey, or four or five of them…jars with no labels, bought right off that man’s back porch. I haven’t forgotten the difference, I know what’s real. If you want to treat yourself to something magical, take a long drive and go find some for yourself. I bet it’s right under your nose, somewhere close by. Just look for the wildflowers.

A sweet, sweet memory, literally.

About Dawn Quarles

Dawn Quarles is a high school political science and American history teacher who moonlights as a blogger and writer. She lives on Pensacola Beach, Florida.

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