Culinate

The hard work of honey

And the sweet pay-off

By
January 21, 2013

Every year during the holidays, I wind up giving out jars of honey as gifts.

Honey is a great present. It’s attractive and generally delicious, and people who know I’m a professional beekeeper seem pleased to receive something I played a role in creating.

A couple of years ago, I gave a friend a pint of honey around Christmastime, and her eyes lit up.

Honey doesn’t come easy.

“Did you make this?” she asked.

“Well, yes,” I said.

That, of course, was a great big lie. I didn’t make it. Countless bees lived and died making that honey, logging endless flights to gather faraway droplets of nectar from flowering plants, converting the complex sugars of nectar into a simple sugar — honey — and storing it in beeswax.

Then I came along and stole it.

To be fair, I’m not sure if I specifically was the one who pilfered that particular jar of honey. My family’s 4,000-hive apiary produces more than 100,000 pounds of raw honey every year. (A good hive might make 70 pounds of the stuff in a summer.) My brother Matt may have robbed it, or it could have been my dad, or one of the outfit’s other employees.

Now, none of this is to say we have it easy in taking honey. Harvesting honey — or “pulling” honey, as we call it in the business — is backbreaking work. Imagine hauling 50-pound boxes of honey on a 95-degree August day, wearing thick protective clothing to stave off the bees, which are understandably upset about the whole thing. Eventually, sweat causes clothes to stick to skin, making them entirely ineffective; bees just sting right through the sodden gear.

Then there’s the honey-extracting room, a work environment so dreadful we manage to fill it only with desperate teenagers trying to make a few bucks before school starts.

For an outfit our size, honey extraction is a mechanized process. A machine runs blurring blades across the frames, removing the wax cappings. Then another piece of equipment spins the honey out of the frames, before it’s pumped into tanks to be drained into barrels and buckets.

Running all of this machinery wouldn’t be too bad, except that the extracting room is sweltering. Even for a sprightly high schooler, it’s approachable only in shorts and a T-shirt, an ensemble that offers little protection from the confused and grumpy bees that come in with the honey.

Meanwhile, a person inevitably gets covered in honey, which is then washed off with a hose. The mixture of diluted honey and water soaks through shoes and socks, staining the toes and toenails a burnt, jaundice color. Back when I worked in the extracting room, we used to call it Honey Toe.

One of my first dates in high school was with a golden-haired girl who made me so nervous I could barely talk. We went to the river to go swimming, and she asked what was wrong with my feet.

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“It’s Honey Toe,” I explained.

I never got the girl. Rumor is she married a musician.

A beekeeper’s honey-extracting woes are nothing compared to what bees do to produce the golden natural sugar, though. The National Honey Board says bees collectively fly 55,000 miles to produce one pound of honey (about a pint and a half).

During the warm months of the honey flow, bee foragers literally work themselves to death, wearing out their wings or other ancillary parts until one day they can’t work any longer. There’s no happy retirement home for elderly bees.

Honey bees, in all things, subscribe to one basic philosophical tenet: The hive matters, individuals do not. The same can’t be said of beekeepers, though.

Growing up, I always thought beekeeping was too much hard work. Between the honey harvest and the countless hours of nighttime truck and forklift work hauling bees around for commercial pollination, I just couldn’t stand it.

So I went off to college, then a job, then graduate school, and a tour of duty in the newspaper business.

Those years I spent on a desk in a newsroom, I didn’t give jars of honey as gifts. My parents would give me some when I visited home, but a jar of that was just too precious to spare at an office Christmas party or on a random girl I’d been dating for a couple of months. I remember one night I needed honey for a recipe, and I had to buy some at a grocery store. It was almost too sad to bear.

In a weird way, I suppose honey was what brought me back to the farm. Like a lot of journalists, I came out of school thinking I was going to change the world. Instead, I found the same things that had driven me away from every other company job I’d held: the same unfairly lousy pay, the same older generation holding all the keys to all the doors, the same corporate mentality that grinds good people into the ground. I quit the newspaper biz exhausted, flat broke, and bitter.

I came home to the farm and realized I’d somehow failed to notice one of the best lessons honey bees can teach: If you’re going to work that hard, you’d better have something to show for it.

Bees work sunup to sundown to build honey reserves so the next generation can survive the winter. (We beekeepers steal only the excess, I swear.) Beekeepers like my dad have worked hard to buy land, equipment, and more bees to build something that they can pass on to the next generation.

I’m happier now toiling for the family business. A year ago at Christmas, when I visited California to meet my girlfriend’s family for the first time, I arrived bearing a box of honey jars. I loved watching the collection of parents and siblings smile when they got their ribbon-wrapped honey.

Moments like that bring it all home for me. It’s as if I gave them a part of what I do, and what bees do.

I’m a beekeeper, and I work very hard. And I have the honey to show for it.

Joe Hansen keeps bees and writes in Portland, Oregon.