Boiled Alive: Turning Bees Into Mead
Sacrificing a beehive for a viking-era drink
I have a hard time explaining what happened to my bees. The short answer is, I killed them. Thousands of bees, and I killed them. I repeat this to myself in shock and wonder; wonder at the scale, so artificially vast, and the shame, as real and finite as a sting.
But the long answer is darker still: It wasn’t a massacre, it was an experiment. I was making mead.
Honey was the easiest source of sugar for early humans to find. A few stings beat the effort of chopping sugarcane or malting barley. That makes it a likely candidate for the first source of alcohol—as easy to make as letting watery honey go bad.
Honey-hunting was equally straightforward, and we have the 8,000-year-old cave painting to prove it. Find a hive, climb a tree, knock it down. Honey extraction, which today involves wax-melting knives and centrifuges, was a DIY affair. A bite of honey meant a bite of comb. And so the earliest meads were rough indeed. What Odin drank, and Beowulf, and Vishnu (madhava, or honey-born) and Zeus (melissaios, one of the bees), what filled the mugs of gods and men, probably had chunks of comb and a few stray bees in it. Which is why I had to kill mine. Historical accuracy is a cruel mistress.
“That’s some primal shit.” My beekeeping friend Dan and I admitted our plan to a mead-making friend at the local homebrew shop, and he seemed impressed. Not encouraging, exactly—a better-you-than-me enthusiasm one encounters when announcing a marathon or a sky dive, followed by the unavoidable request for a bottle. He, a mead-maker already, was the exception. If others we told knew what mead was already, they were, at most, interested. If they didn’t, they were confused. “Why do you need the bees in there?” Well, the Vikings did it that way. “Won’t it taste terrible?” That’s not exactly the point.
Besides a befuddling commitment to a barely remembered past, we chose whole-hive mead for health reasons. In a hive, honey may be the big bluefin, but the by-catch has a glory all its own. Protein-rich pollen helps with allergies; propolis, a mix of tree resin, nectar, wax and enzymes, seals and waterproofs beehives and treats wounds; a diet of anti-bacterial and nutrient-rich royal jelly turns regular bees into queens; anti-inflammatory bee venom is good for joint health and has been used to treat arthritis.
The only person I found who had actually made whole-hive mead had a crucial tip on that last point: make sure to squash the bees. I reached her by phone at the end of her shift in a busy upstate New York restaurant. “Use a wooden spoon,” she said, clipped, as if I was an incompetent line cook. Does it taste any good? I asked. “Of course it does. It’s whole-hive mead.” Good enough for me.
But what of the hive? Our bees had spent a restless summer, swarming three times, leaving at season’s end a colony shocked and shrunk by exodus and a barren queen. Winter is coming, and they wouldn’t have made it through. So: into the kettle.
We set up our brewery on a backyard gas grill. A five-gallon kettle of water balanced on a burner, heating up, as we tied on our mesh veils and donned out leather gloves in silence. The grill hissed, the bees buzzed, no one spoke.
When the water boiled, we carried it to the hive. We wanted to melt the wax and extract the honey without totally boiling it, which would ruin its flavor, a delicate cocktail of eucalyptus, sage, mint and rosemary. We opened the lid and the bees, stoked by mob rule and regicide, flared. One by one we pulled out frames black with barren brood comb or mottled milky white with wax-capped cells of honey, and all, all covered with angry bees. We dunked the frames in the pot. They sizzled. We squashed. Carcasses heaped the earth, our boots glistened with nectar and wax.
When the pot filled, we poured its chunky stew into a giant plastic bucket and added two packets of extra-strength wine yeast, bred strong for the months-long slog of breaking down honey’s complex sugars. We fit on a lid and plugged in an airlock and, for what felt like the first time that day, took a sheepish breath. “We did it.” What else could we say?
The hive, what’s left of it, is a wasteland, “A Bug’s Life” re-written by Cormac McCarthy. But the mead is bubbling. In a few months we’ll know if it was worth it. Until then, we’re not telling anyone.