Leave It to the Bees
by Nance Klehm
Illustration by Kira Mardikes
Originally published in Arthur No. 34 (March 2013), art direction by Yasmin Khan
Honey, wax and wisdom is true currency. You can eat, heat, fuel and chew on it, and, hopefully, on this, too:
Two years back, I worked for a fifth-generation beekeeper who keeps bees in the 500,000 acres of wildlands that border Arizona and Mexico. Her 600 hives are located in several handfuls of bee yards scattered across the vast acreage of federal wildlife preserve and private large ranches of the Avra Valley.
In this valley vibrates the peak Babaquiviri, center of the Universe to the Tohono O’odham people. Nearby stands Kitt Peak Observatory. And down below is the favored crossing point of pharmaceutical traffickers and need-driven people, inciting the U.S. border patrol to comb the area with ATV’s, man multiple dusty checkpoints and store buses in the sagebrush for large hauls of captured humans. In the Avra Valley, cattle range, quail nest, coyotes hunt and bees pollinate.
Lady D’s bee yards are carefully situated near rangeland watering holes and on long slopes, offering a diverse spectrum of ecosystems, each supporting its own palette of plants of which the bees forage. She supplements the hives with little else but this well-considered placement—no supplemental sugar feed, no fats or essential oils to deter Varroa mites. Like most commercial beekeepers, she doesn’t strip the bees of their winter food source, aka their honey. D leaves them essentially to do their own thing which, of course, they do very well. Her hives are undeniably stronger than most hives I have ever seen. Her varietal honeys are Sonoran: Cats Claw, Mesquite, Ironwood, Sagebrush… far away from the pale and delicate Clover, Linden or Orange Blossom sold at farmer’s markets and on most grocery store shelves. Her honeys are dark, low moisture and carmelly. They crystallize easily. They are toothy.
D’s own property is piled high with antique, handmade hive equipment—much of it over 50 years old—that needed a good cleaning with a wire brush and spackle knife. Which is what she and I spent hours doing every week while I was there. I would scrub and scrape petrified bee bodies, dusty crusty wax and crystallized honey drips from the ancient wire and wood frames at half her speed. She never neglected to remind me of this. She talked non-stop. I listened and worked. Outside her honey house were 55 gallon drums (660lbs honey) that she would sell whole or pour off into five gallon buckets.
And so, this is where the story stops: Lady D had two barrels set aside of honey from an extraction from many years past. Honey has no shelf life—it’s always good. One day I asked her about why she was keeping these barrels aside from the rest she poured to sell from. She told me to think on it a bit. After a few hours under the cloudless sky, scraping… scrubbing… the answer floated in: ‘TO MAKE FUEL.’ She kept honey around to make into alcohol to run her generator. To have around when the North and South Poles flip.
Now, making alcohol… I assume most of you know how to do this already. But if you don’t, I hope you will consider learning to do so before next month. You don’t do this because of some fear of impending fossil fuel scarcity or some other apocalyptic scenario (no matter how keen that fantasy is or how likely we will see the first of these), but because it is a handy and accessible technology to embody.
Following are the basics to make a simple and direct sort of brew, not beer or wine per se, but an alcohol that when distilled, you could generate some power with (or use to clean wounds, or make your own herbal tinctures with, or…etc.)
FRANK COOK’S DRIED FRUIT ‘WINE’
timeframe: 1 week, give or take a week*
(Frank died suddenly of a rare parasite a few years back at the sweet age of 46. Peace to you, Green Man, you are sorely missed on this earthly plane.)
After dinner one evening in Devon, UK, the late planetary herbologist Frank Cook asked me to help raid the pantry at the small college I was teaching at. He wanted only the stale dried fruit. We emptied jars and boxes of all the dried fruit—figs, raisins, apricots, cherries, etc.—that had lost so much moisture that hydration was the only possible salvation and put it all in a large mixing bowl. We added yeast, dissolved in distilled water, until all the fruit was well submerged. Frank whisked it up good and threw a bath towel on top and carried it back to his room where he stuck it under his bed and allowed it to get bubbly for a few days. We added a load of sugar, more water and stirred it well, then used a dish, weighted down by a rock, to serve as a lid. After a week or so, we strained off the liquid and served it up in the library late into the night.
SPIT POTATO BEER
timeframe: 2 weeks or so*
This is inspired by the chicha I imbibed while working in Peru and is guided by the writings of Sandy Katz, the fermentation guru.
Three friends and I sat on my roof one fall morning chewing red-skinned, red-meated potatoes until they’d formed into mushy wads, then spat them into a collective bowl. (Note: We ended up slurping a lot of the potato juice by doing this. It was a very filling process and we didn’t need lunch afterwards.)
We let this gooeyness sit so the starch-to-sugar conversion could happen. By chewing we were adding our saliva’s enzyme, amalyse, to the process. In our bodies, amalyse allows us to digest or break down our food. In alcohol production, amalyse allows us to convert the starches (in this case, of the potato) into sugars so the yeasts can feed on them and then burp CO2 and alcohol.
After a day, I slid the mixture into a pot and cooked off all our collective cooties. Next I introduced sugar, distilled water and yeast to the mixture, capped it off with an air lock and let the yeast eat and burp, bringing it to a roil. Result: a beautiful purple-red liquid, low on alcohol (and therefore, not something worthy of distillation.) It was reminiscent of what I tasted in Peru, but certainly didn’t send me nostalgic. Maybe it was our North American salivas. Needless to say, I will need to try this again during the next potato harvest.
time frame: 1 month or less*
My housemate Ben came home one night with a 50lb bag of potatoes he found in the middle of the street. We made a huge Moroccan potato salad to share at a potluck that week and then made the rest into vodka. This is how we did it:
We cooked about 20lbs of the potatoes until gelatinous (about an hour), poured the cloudy water into the compost, added more water to the potatoes and powdered enzyme (commercial brew store amalyse—a cheap product probably cultured off of a cheap starch, aka GMO corn), and let cool to 80 degrees to allow the enzyme to convert starch into sugar overnight.
We strained the mash into a fermentation vessel with an airlock, introduced the yeast and snuggled it up to a radiator (we keep the house cool and it is winter in the Midwest, so…) in the basement where it finished burping just over three weeks later.
And to circle back to the honey and end on a simple note…
WILD MEAD a la Pliny the Elder (23 -79 A.D.)
timeframe: 1-6 months*
‘One part honey to three parts rain.’ That’s what he wrote back in his 37-volume Naturalis Historia covering all of what was understood at that time in Roman pantheism as Animal, Plant and Mineral. What Pliny doesn’t mention to do besides diluting honey with rain in this proportion, is to do this in an open vessel, so as to let in the microscopic airborne wild yeasties. And the vessel should be covered loosely so as to not let the larger beasties—flies, dust particles and whatnot—into the mixture. He also assumes that the oxygen supply to the honey water is cut off so you can trap the alcohol that the yeasties burp. The oxygen supply cut-off also keep the winner-takes-all vinegar-making bacteria from moving in. NOTE: Mead is a two-tiered fermentation. The first is active, but the second is very still. Do not be fooled by a quiet fermentation chamber. It can still be going through its second fermentation. A good mead is dry, not sweet and will dance through your entire mouth like an accelerated waltz.
And now, distillation of any of the above or other alcohol… to move it from human drink to machine fuel… You’ll need toolage for this, which, if studied and handy, you can build yourself. Otherwise, invest in a still. You will not regret it.
What better time than now to embody skills? I for one, have a distaste for emergency homework. Don’t you?
* The rate of fermentation depends on the amount of available sugar and ambient temperature which affects the speed of yeast burping alcohol.