Why do people keep bees? These days, it seems that honey has nothing to do with it. “I don’t care about the honey,” they say with conviction. Instead, they cite a desire to pollinate their gardens or save the bees. Maybe that’s true for some. Others, I think, just want to look cool or intimidate the neighbors. Their reasons are personal and multilayered, but for me, it was always the honey.
I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains of Pennsylvania, a wild place where I learned to love nature and covet solitude. The mountain folk were superstitious — something I’m definitely not — but they managed to instill in me many other traits, including a painfully embarrassing diction that still surfaces now and again. In unguarded moments, I’m apt to mutter, “I just as lief stay home” or “It’s fixin’ to rain” or worse, “Don’t touch! That’ns his’n, not your’n.”
I’m convinced my fanatic approach to English is a response to being mocked when I began school in a “civilized” part of the world where they didn’t take kindly to my speech. It also made me shy.
The scent of the country
My mother married well, as they used to say, and the young physician who became her husband took her far from her Appalachian roots. But when military service called, he went to war and my mom and infant me spent the next four years back in the foothills with my grandparents. Without a doubt, those were the formative years of my life. I became a child of the mountains, the sparkling beech/maple forests, and the nearby fields teeming with corn and buckwheat and potatoes. The memories of those carefree days are as much a part of me as blood and bone.
The family farms were a complex of smells: fermenting silage, wheat bending to the wind, and cow manure, fragrant in its steamy way. The local farmers had lots of children, kittens, a few pigs, and a scattering of hens that left eggs under porches and beneath bushes. They each had their own aroma, as did the open kitchen windows that smelled of bubbling ham bones, elderberry pies, and freshly baked biscuits.
The weekly wash was hung from ropes that straddled the yard, tree to tree, and was kept off the ground with a center support that tilted with the wind. Wooden clothespins held the clean clothes in place, their surfaces as smooth as marble from years of use. Within minutes of pinning, berry-colored bird droppings marred the sun-bleached sheets, but no one seemed to notice. Folks just brushed the seeds away once it dried, leaving nothing but the scent of a summer day.
Sounds of life
The countryside was noisy, loud with birds, insects, machinery, and livestock. Everything, it seems, had something to say. Each morning I was awakened by the clanking of metal milk cans from the dairy down the road. The cans danced and clanked along the chain-driven conveyor and into the dark building. All day long, beginning at five in the morning, the trucks arrived and left, with squealing brakes that announced their progress, but what happened inside that building, I never knew.
Insects of all sorts called, buzzed, scratched, and tsipped in the fields. Regardless of what was planted — food or forage — they rattled and trilled through day and night.
The ubiquitous beehives
On the edge of the fields, chalky curls of lead-based paint laced the beehives that leaned precariously this way and that. The hives weren’t tended, except to harvest the honey, and I never once saw a bee suit. Nearly every farm had bees, three or four hives were common, although not much was said about them. They were unremarkable fixtures, like woodsheds, corn cribs, and bird baths.
Although people didn’t discuss bees all that much, honey was everywhere. A comb of honey sat on the kitchen table along with salt, pepper, a ball of homemade butter, and a crock of mustard. Honey went into tea, and chunks of comb were allowed to melt atop stacks of griddle cakes and waffles, sliding to the plate in viscous amber drops that smelled like flowers and spice. Honey crowned biscuits and toast, graced sweet potatoes and glazed hams. Back then, I couldn’t imagine a table without a honey comb.
The bees that lived in the hives came from the edge of the forest. Colonies were everywhere, it seemed, and well-known bee trees were landmarks for navigating the woods. Whenever I got close to a bee tree, a chill ran down my spine. I could feel the bees before I heard them, and the sense of danger made me shiver with delight.
The wild colonies threw swarms every spring which were easily retrieved from fence posts, mailboxes, and lofts filled with hay. If a colony didn’t make it through the northeastern winter, you just went to the woods and retrieved another.
One of the things I loved about growing up in rural America was the post office. The postmaster put out the mail twice a day — once in the morning and again in mid-afternoon. My grandfather walked the few blocks to the flag-topped building religiously, using the dual outings to greet passersby and learn “the news.” As often as not, he had me in tow.
His box, which I still remember was 122, had a dial with letters instead of numbers. He carefully turned it this way and that until the heavy door opened to reveal a letter or maybe a postcard — not the shiny kind with pictures, but the plain kind that had writing on both sides.
He explained that the code to open the box was secret. But it wasn’t — at least not to me. Twice a day I watched as he swung the letters left, then right, then left, and I always knew which ones came next. I was confident that as soon as I could reach the dial I could do it myself. Today I’d be called a hacker.
On most days, we returned home on the same route. But on some days, the kind with azure skies and chirping squirrels, we continued east on the root-cracked sidewalk, crossed the railroad tracks, and climbed the hill toward the church. He stopped to talk to everyone — people crocheting on porches, sweeping their steps, or pruning their privets. He knew everyone and everyone knew him. Sometimes people gave him things like sugar cookies, greens, and eggs.
The church cemetery
At the church he would talk more, light a cigar, and I would play in the cemetery. I liked it there. It was dappled with sun, rich with flowers, and tended like a park. But there were things I didn’t understand, like why some stones had flowers and some had flags, why some were big and others small, and why some lay broken and mossy on their sides. The whole place was odd with undulating ground, quirky plants, and statues of angels mounted on stones that read, “Baby.”
But the thing that most bothered me was the beehive far in the back. It was a tall beehive that sat on the ground and tipped away from the craggy maple beside it. The hive was just on the far side of the iron churchyard fence. It faced away from the cemetery toward a small vegetable garden that filled the backyard of a two-story wooden house with a clothesline that cranked off the porch.
Even though the beehive faced away from the churchyard, the honey bees still went into the cemetery. They were everywhere, sampling the flowers that grew beside the stones, along the walkways, and beside the fence. This upset me. There was something passively sinister about honey that came from flowers that grew from dead people. Seriously. I worried about it late at night and considered how it all might work. Like the dairy building, I never knew what happened inside. But did I want to?
On to the general store
Once my grandfather was all talked out, we left the church and circled round to the general store. The store, behind a wide porch with rockers, sold pickles in barrels, string-tied meat wrapped in newsprint, and cookies by the piece. They also sold honey in combs. We didn’t always get to buy honey, but when we did, I was allowed to select the one we would take home. I always chose the darkest, richest kind called buckwheat. Always. And I preferred the ones that were nearly black.
My choice was based on precocious reasoning. I knew exactly what a field of buckwheat looked like. Buckwheat flowers gleamed white as snow on every farm, and the triangular seeds were ground into flour for buckwheat cakes or cracked into pieces for porridge. But more importantly, I knew that no buckwheat grew in the cemetery. I checked each time we went, peering behind the stones and along the fence line.
Because there was no buckwheat to be found anywhere in the churchyard, I decided that buckwheat honey was safe to eat. While many people dislike the bitter-molasses taste of buckwheat honey, the fact that it was free of angel-topped babies was its grandest endorsement. To not have to worry about things that happened underground was reassuring. To this day, buckwheat is still my favorite honey.
The disappearance of buckwheat
Unfortunately for those of us who love buckwheat and buckwheat honey, acreage planted annually in the U.S. has plummeted since its heyday. In 1918, over 1 million acres were planted to buckwheat, much of it in Pennsylvania and New York. But as time passed, production fell to an average of about 50,000 acres per year.
A major reason for the decrease is buckwheat’s poor performance in high-nitrogen soils. Since nitrogen is applied in copious amounts to crops like corn, buckwheat is no longer suitable in many crop rotations. On the plus side, buckwheat flour is gluten free, meaning more acres were planted in the last decade — about 70,000 — than in many of the preceding ones. Still, it’s scarce, and buckwheat honey has all but disappeared from roadside stands and farmers markets, and the darkest honey is not nearly as dark.
No more mysterious honey
Children today needn’t worry about cemetery honey and its origin. A few years ago, I toured a selection of western Washington cemeteries, thinking they might make perfect homes for a variety of native bees. In my mind, I kept picturing an old cemetery I had visited about thirty years ago where crocuses of purple and gold knitted together in a continuous mat that stretched from one weathered stone to the next. I remember feeling guilty because the flowers were so dense that every step I took mashed a few more. But the scene was magical, like something out of Oz. I kept thinking it wouldn’t be so bad to croak among the crocuses.
But now, cemeteries are different. Most are treated with herbicides, so gravestones and fences surrounded by flowers and weeds are a thing of the past. And so, alas, are the bees. Like family farms and combs of nearly black honey, flower-strewn cemeteries are part of our collective past, and cemetery honey is no more.