Leave It To the Bees

Weedeater column originally published in ARTHUR Spring 2013

Honey, wax and wisdom is true currency. You can eat, heat, fuel and chew on it and hopefully, this:

Two years back, I worked for a fifth generation bee keeper who keeps bees over the 500,000 acres of wildlands that border Arizona and Mexico. Her 600 hives are located in several handfuls of bee yards scattered over the vast acreage of federal wildlife preserve and private large ranches of the Avra Valley.

In this valley, the peak Babaquiviri, center of the Universe to the Tohono O’odham people vibrates. Kitt Peak Observatory stands nearby. Lastly it 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 humans. In the Avra Valley, cattle range, quail nest, coyotes hunt and bees pollinate.

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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 and like most commercial bee keepers, she doesn’t strip them 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 varietals 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. I would scrub and scrape petrified bee bodies, dusty crusty wax and crystallized honey drips from the ancient wire and wood frames at half the speed she was doing it and she never neglected to remind me of this. She talked nonstop. 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, and therefore 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 before next month. You don’t do this because of some fossil fuel-scarce or apocalyptic scenario, no matter how keen that fantasy is or how likely we will see the first of these, but you do it because it is a handy and accessible technology to embody.
These are the basics to make a simple and direct sort of brew, not beer or wine per se, but alcohol that when distilled, you could generate some power with (or use to clean wounds and make your own herbal tinctures etc.)

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FRANK COOK’S DRIED FRUIT ‘WINE’ – timeframe: 1 week, give or take a week*
(Frank died suddenly of a rare parasite a few years back at the sweet age of 46. Peace to you, Green Man, you are sorely missed on this earthly plane.)

After dinner one evening in Devon, UK, The late planetary herbologist Frank Cook asked me to help raid the pantry at the small college I was teaching at. He wanted only the stale dried fruit. We emptied jars and boxes of all the dried fruit that had lost so much moisture that hydration was its only salvation and put it all in a large mixing bowl. It was quite the collection of figs, raisins, apricots, cherries, etc. that we threw in there. We added yeast dissolved in distilled water until all the fruit was well submerged. Frank whisked it up good and threw a bath towel on top and carried it back to his room where he stuck it under his bed and allowed it to get bubbly for a few days. We added a load of sugar, more water and stirred it well. We put a dish weighted down by a rock to serve as a lid. After a week or so, we strained off the liquid and served it up in the library late into the night.

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SPIT POTATO BEER – timeline: 2 weeks or so*
This is inspired by the chicha I imbibed while working in Peru and is guided by the writings of Sandy Katz, the fermentation guru.

Three friends of mine sat on my roof one fall morning chewing red skinned, red meated potatoes to form mushy wads and then spitting them into a collective bowl.
Note: We ended up slurping a lot of the potato juice by doing this. Admittedly, it was a very filling process and we didn’t need lunch afterwards.

We let this gooeyness sit so the starch to sugar conversion could happen. By chewing we were adding our saliva’s enzyme, amalyse. In our bodies, amalyse allows us to digest or break down our food. In alcohol production, amalyse allows us to convert the starches (in this case, of the potato) into sugars so the yeasts can feed on them and then burp CO2 and alcohol.

After a day, I slid the mixture into a pot and cooked off all our collective cooties. Next I introduced sugar, distilled water and yeast to the mixture, capped it off with an air lock and let the yeast eat and burp bringing it to a roil. Result: a beautiful purple-red liquid, low on alcohol (and therefore, not something worthy of distillation.) It was reminiscent of what I tasted in Peru, but certainly didn’t send me nostalgic. Maybe it was our North American salivas. Needless to say, I will need to try this again at some point next potato harvest.

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POTATO VODKA – time frame: 1 month or less*
My housemate Ben came home one night with a 50# bag of potatoes he found in the middle of the street. We made a huge Moroccan potato salad to share at a potluck that week and then made the rest into vodka. This is how we did it:

We cooked about 20# of the potatoes until gelatinous (about an hour), poured the cloudy water into the compost, added more water to the potatoes and powdered enzyme (commercial brew store amalyse – a cheap product probably cultured off of a cheap starch aka GMO corn) let cool to 80 degrees to allow enzyme to convert starch into sugar – over night.

We strained the mash into a fermentation vessel with an airlock, introduced the yeast and snuggled it up to a radiator (we keep the house cool and it is winter in the Midwest so…) in the basement where it burped and finished burping just over three week later.

And to circle back to the honey and end on a simple note…

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WILD MEAD a la Pliny the Elder (23 -79 A.D.) – 1-6 months*
‘One part honey to three parts rain.’ That’s what he wrote back in his 37 volume Naturalis Historia covering all of what was understood at that time in Roman pantheism as Animal, Plant and Mineral. What Pliny doesn’t mention to do besides diluting honey with rain in this proportion, is to do this in an open vessel, so as to let in the microscopic airborne wild yeasties, and covered loosely so as to not let the larger beasties such as flies and whatnot dust particles into the mixture. He also assumes that the oxygen supply to the honey water is cut off so you can trap the alcohol that the yeasties burp and not to let the winner takes all vinegar-making bacteria in. NOTE: Mead is a two-tiered fermentation. The first is active, the second is more still than anything. Do not be fooled by a quiet fermentation chamber. It can still be going through it’s second fermentation. A good mead is dry, not sweet and will dance through your entire mouth like an accelerated waltz.

And now, distillation of any of the above or other alcohol… to move it into from human drink to machine fuel… You’ll need toolage for this and which, if studied and handy, you can build yourself. Otherwise, invest in a still. You will not regret it.

What better time than now to embody skills? I for one, have a distaste of emergency homework. Don’t you?

*The rate of fermentation depends on the amount of available sugar and ambient temperature which effects the speed of yeast burping alcohol.

Copyright 2013 Nance Klehm