September 14, 2006
How sweet it is: behind the buzz at two of California’s hives
I'm trying not to freak out at the high-pitched scream of the bees. See, I'm wearing full protective gear for the honey-making process -- a white jumpsuit, a netted straw hat affixed to me with a series of complicated rigmarole of strings (the zipper ones had run out), long tan-leather gloves that reach past my elbow, and socks as high as my knees, with the pants taped down over them. Not an ounce of my skin is exposed, but still I can't help but feel nervous -- it's Hitchockian, really -- as thousands of bees swarm around me.
They're doing this because I'm standing in the beeline -- literally the line of passage of bees swarming from the hive because they have been smoked out of there; it's kind of like the 405 during rush hour, except faster, as they stream out of their man-made hives and into the countryside of Northern California.
Call this my week of honey. As the High Holidays approach, I've embarked on a two-part honey tour: First, traveling to a friend-of-a-friend's private honey extracting pre-holiday party at his family villa in Sonoma, and next at a commercial honey farm in Southern California.
For as long as Jews have been eating on holidays, it's been customary to eat honey on Rosh Hashanah, as a symbol of hope for a sweet new year. The tradition of eating honey is ancient, recorded as early as the Babylonian Talmud in the seventh century. There are also many mentions of honey in the Bible, most notably in Exodus, when the land of Canaan promised to the Israelites is called "a land flowing with milk and honey." Although that honey is thought to be fig or date honey, by using honey on Rosh Hashanah we are remembering Israel, no matter where we are.
It is also noted in Psalms that God's commandments are "sweeter than honey and the droppings of the honeycomb," and "sweeter than honey to thy mouth." The High Holidays, which are a time of judgment and preparation for the upcoming year, should be filled with mitzvoth, and honey reminds us of that.
We usually eat it with apples, as well as challah, and for many, as part of every recipe on the table. (See recipes throughout this special Rosh Hashanah section.)
But where does the honey itself come from? I'd always known generally, on a third-grade science-class level, that bees make honey from flowers, but I'd never really thought about the complicated process that bees go through to make honey, or the complex operation that people go through to get that honey to the table. Until now.
It's Labor Day weekend and instead of lounging out at some pool, I'm standing in a buzzing field, sweating profusely in my mad scientist/spaceship/safari outfit, invading the bees' habitat in order to help take honey from their hives. These hives are not like I've imagined them: those brown, hairy ovals found in trees at summer camp and replicated in ceramic honey holders. Man-made hives look more like small armoires, a short stack of wood dresser drawers, called supers. Each super has about 10 frames, long rectangles dotted with the geometrically perfect honeycombs, the octagons where the honey is deposited. Our goal today: to remove the frames, bring them to the farm, extract the honey, then filter, bottle and label it.
They say it's easier to catch flies with honey, but how do you catch honey?
The first thing we have to do is light a fire in the smoker, a can with an accordion-like pump that produces, eponymously, smoke. Bees hate the smell of smoke, so we pump smoke into the top drawer, close the lid and the bees make a mad dash out, which is when I discover, standing in front of the hive is probably not the best place to be.
Then we take the frames out of the drawer, brush off the bees and run it over to the car for transportation. (Walk is more like it; it's not easy to run in this jumpsuit, nor is it smart to make sudden movements near bees -- although swarming bees, rushing to get out of their smoky hives, don't often stop to sting visitors). We have four hives here today -- some 40,000 bees -- but only two are producing honey. It's tedious work, this smoking, brushing, transporting of the frames -- and it's only the first step. (I suppose that our job is nothing compared to that of the worker bee, who makes about 40 trips a day to the flowers).
Finally, we can take off our paraphernalia for the rest of the process and get out of the hot sun to go to the honey "farm": It's more like a high-ceilinged garage structure containing honey extracting equipment.
If you're a good turkey carver, you'd probably be good at scraping off the capping, the layer of capped wax that seals the honey in the frames. But if you're like me -- someone who cooks the bird but never carves it -- handling the hot knife turns out to be quite tricky. It's easy to tell which rectangle frames hold honey -- the combs are darker, heavier. I hold the frame diagonally over a container that will catch the drippings, and try to shimmy the knife at an angle. Oops! No, I didn't slice my finger, just cut too deeply into the combs.
I uncap the other side too but my wrist aches and I feel kind of sorry for the poor bees that will have to rebuild the combs just because I'm a lousy home destroyer -- I mean carver.
I decide to move over to the next step in our human assembly line: combing the frames. I use what looks like a hair pick to scrape off the last remaining wax.