LEAVE IT TO THE BEES: Weedeater column by Nance Klehm (Arthur, 2013)

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.)

Continue reading