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illumination: bees’ no lesser labor

ah yes, back to the hive. back to the inner sanctum, the holy hollows, of hundreds of thousands of Apis mellifera, uncommonly known as the western honeybee. more often, simply, the bee.

it is the wax of the bee we consider today, hardly the lesser of the sweet honeybee’s labors.

there is so much to ponder about the great pollinators, your pontificator soon will be percolating. strike that. make it a buzz. as in your brain soon will be buzzing.

consider this: to produce a pound of beeswax, bees must consume roughly eight times that in honey. likened to a sumo wrestler packing on pounds by sucking down steaks before the big match, the bee intent on waxing might be found gas-guzzling nectar.

put another way, it is estimated by those who estimate such things that bees fly 150,000 miles to yield one pound of beeswax.

or, this: 10,000 bees can produce one pound of beeswax in three days.

here’s how it works: the bee, known for short as A. mellifera, sucks up the nectar from les fleurs, from blossoms, from your own lowly rose bush, through a very long tongue. the nectar is then stored in a sac called the honey stomach. when the honey tummy is full, the besotted bee zig-zags back to the hive, and somehow transfers the not-yet-liquid-gold to young house bees, bees 12 to 17 days old, in case you’re counting. the house bees, not unlike a compulsive housekeeper, spread the nectar drop by drop into the honeycombs. while they’re at it, they add enzymes to the nectar to break it down from complex into simple sugars.

because the nectar, back at the blossom stage, is 80 percent water, the bees need to distill it down to its dehydrated essence, a fantastical feat they accomplish through, get this, the fanning of their little bee wings. flap, flap, flap, out goes the water, out of the nectar. turning watery nectar to syrupy honey.

here’s where the beeswax comes in: each little house bee has eight slits on her belly. when it’s time, teeny tiny shavings of wax–flakes the size of the head of a pin, one hundred of which are said to weigh hardly as much as a kernel of wheat–emerge on the bee belly.

what happens next is best put in the words of one holley bishop, author of the utterly mesmerizing, “robbing the bees: a biography of honey–the sweet liquid gold that seduced the world” (free press, $24).

she writes: “… like a construction worker pulling nails from her toolbelt, she reaches for a flake….in an advanced yoga move [she] transfers it to her mouth. there, she masticates it, chewing and working the wax like a baker kneading dough…all around her, other masons are patting and caressing their own scales of wax into place.”

never mind that she switches similes faster than a bee beats its wings. what she’s telling us here is fairly straight-forward: the bees do a helluva job constructing their hexagonally-heavy honey palace. and not only that: each she-bee minds her own beeswax.

when each honeycomb is filled, the ol’ house bees drop one final wax blob, sort of the tupperware lid on the sweet golden goo. in fact, one lid, about the size of a split pea, can take several hours and dozens of bees to assemble.

it is hard not to be awed, not to be wowed, by the fannings and droppings of the wax-wielding bees.

it is ancient, this hushed veneration of bees and beeswax. daedalus of course used beeswax for his flawed wings. and ulysses, in the odyssey, stuffed ears with the stuff, in hopes of blocking the call of the sirens. and, at the cusp of the first millennia, candles as we now know them were born, and, without haste, made their way to the front of the pews. the roman catholics insisted on beeswax. the greek orthodox, too.

in 1855, a thinker named karl von leoprechting wrote: “the bee is the only creature which has come to us unchanged from paradise, therefore she gathers the wax for sacred services.”

clearly, we are not the first to draw a line between the divine and the communal chaos of the hive where, through mystery and miracle, the sap of the back forty is turned into the golden sweet goop we spread on our toast. and the fall-out from the shelter is melted down and dipped into sticks that shine light on our lives.

perhaps this is all more than you wanted to know about bees and their pre-plastic, all-purpose wax. perhaps it’s making your head buzz.

but, in the end, i know one thing for certain: the next time i strike a match to a wick, i will marvel, will drop my head in a deep bow of reverence for the little winged things that laid down their lives for my sweet incandescence.

what if we all did away with those paraffin fillers? what if we vowed that the only candle worth burning was one built the hard way, through the flapping of hundreds of thousands of wings, for hundreds of thousands of miles, through the hard work and labor of A. mellifera & friends?
cast your vote here….

from tasha’s bees to me

a box arrived over the weekend from vermont. anything from vermont makes me happy. but this particular box said it was from tasha tudor, who is pretty much my hero. she might be the loveliest illustrator of children’s books that ever there was. think “secret garden.” she’s the one who painted the garden that pulled you in, and all these years later has never let you go.

tasha is my hero as much for how she lives as for how she puts color to paper. she lives at the end of a perilously-steep, much-potholed road, in a timeworn cedar-planked farmhouse–just like one built in 1740 in concord, new hampshire, one that caught her considerable fancy.

but her house, on the crest of a hill, the inside a labyrinth of rooms with low-slung doorways and uneven floorboards, is one that her son seth built for her, using only hand tools.

seth and his mama are both, they like to say, “a bit reluctant to live in the twentieth century.”

tasha, who is 91, lives purely. you might say she lives simply, but that would be to discount the bone-thinning work it takes to live the way she lives. she is old yankee through and through.

she cooks on an old black cookstove, roasts a turkey in a “tin kitchen,” a contraption she describes as a reflector oven, set in front of the fire. (“barricade the bird from corgies and cats with a firescreen,” she warns, right in the midst of her roasted turkey recipe, a recipe for which she insists a fireplace is required, not optional.)

she eats what she grows in her tumbly riotous garden. raises goats for milk and butter and cheese. wraps herself in shawls to keep away the cold.

when dusk rolls in through the windows, she lights her rooms with beeswax candles, candles she has dipped in autumn, after she cleans the hives so the bees can begin again.

which brings us back to the box that came from vermont over the weekend. it was sent by my sister who is married to my brother in maine (don’t be frightened by that construction; i just constructed it, but it seems right, more right than saying, sister-in-law, a term too clinical for me). it was sent by becca. but it came from tasha.

yes, tasha dipped the candles that now are at my house, now lying on my window seat. maybe it was her children who did the dipping, or maybe one of her grandchildren, some of whom live in cottages nearby. whoever dipped, it’s close enough for me.

and so, as i opened the box, unrolled the sturdy brown paper, i watched six nubby, knobby hand-dipped sticks of beeswax roll toward me. they are in pairs, their wicks still joined, their wicks all tumbled together.

i was dumbstruck by the candlesticks. by the bees’ hard work. by their purity. by the fact that they were dipped and came from tasha’s bees, bees that sucked the nectar from tasha’s enviable and magnificent garden, the garden that has long been the muse for all her painting. the garden that is a muse for me.

the candles got me to thinking about bees. i happen to love bees. i did some reading. soaked up all kinds of wonderful things about bees, about beeswax. i will tell you all about it tomorrow, because this seems to have turned into a tale about tasha. which is a good thing.

which is a pure thing.

please come back tomorrow for another pure thing, a bit about bees, a bit about beeswax, the less considered thing about bees and their labors. honey, of course, being the bee thing that tends to get more of our time and attention. because it’s a sweet thing. of course.