In mid-fall, when the goldenrod bend their heads low in the meadow behind my house, I visit the apiary.
I've been slightly obsessed with the honey-makers since I spoke for a ladies tea at a little country church. The hostess served honey from her husband's hives and I had never sampled such delightfulness. "It tastes like sweet clover," I told her, as I sipped tea with my pinky raised. She smiled and nodded her head. This was entirely different from that syrupy stuff I buy in the bear-shaped bottle at the grocery.
Every day after that, I think about the bees. In the night, I dream of honey. When I awaken, I carry a memory of amber -- a dewy sweetness on my tongue. I cannot shake the taste of it.
Sometimes God works on me this way. An idea rests in my mind and though its purpose remains a mystery, it will not let me be.
I Google up local beekeepers and I talk to the state bee inspector on the phone and my father-in-law calls a friend of his who keeps bees.
"In the Bible, honey represents purity," Wade Stiltner, the Department of Agriculture's state bee inspector tells me on the telephone. He talks about the bees with wonder and respect. "I believe there will be bees in heaven," he says. I think about that little taste of honey from the tea and it seems that maybe a little piece of heaven is already here.
I read all the scriptures in my Bible about honey and I look up the original Hebrew in my concordance. The word used for honey in many of the scriptures refers to a syrup -- or a distilled version of a watery sweetness that exists naturally. It is the refined essence of the substance -- the richest part.
I read about how the honeybees make honey. How, after collecting nectar, the bees return to the hive and pass it on to other worker bees. These worker bees chew the nectar for a while allowing enzymes to break down the complex sugars in the nectar into simple sugars. This makes the nectar easier to digest as well as resistant to bacteria. The nectar is then deposited throughout the honeycombs of the hive. Here, water evaporates from it, making it a thicker syrup. The bees use their wings to fan the nectar and accelerate the thickening process. The honey is sealed with a plug of wax and stored until it is eaten.
By us or them.
When, finally, I am invited to meet the bees, my entire being is hungry for the hives.
We walk into the apiary under a shower of walnut tree leaves. They float slowly to the ground like tiny canoes, sailing the air. I breathe in deep, thinking of honey. The farm smells like wood smoke and decaying leaves. The sky is blue marble.
I hear the steady thrum of thousands of beating wings rise into that familiar buzz while we are still within a hundred yards of the colonies. The sound thrills me but I feel my heart begin to slow with the low resonance that emanates from the hives. He aims his smoker at the bees flying about the first hive. I watch him open the tall box-like structures and use his tools to remove one frame at a time. He lifts a frame, points out the shiny honey down in each little dimple. Then, he shows me the brood. "They look like little curled up worms," he says.
The bees light haphazardly on my arms and midsection and on the veil I am wearing -- they seem as curious about me as I am of them. I close my eyes and let the sound of their greeting fill -- that low buzz pressing down around me. I know the smoke has made them docile, triggering them to consume as much honey as they can and slowing them down with the weight of it. They are afraid we have come to steal their golden treasure, and so they hide it the best way they know: inside their bulging abdomens.
He lets me take pictures of his bees, hunts out the queen for me to see. He is a good teacher -- patient and kind. After he closes up the hives, he shows me his workshop.
He makes beeswax candles and sells them. His wife has won numerous blue ribbons for baking with honey. He teaches candle-making classes and gives talks about beekeeping. "I'd like to see you get a hive," he says. "I think my husband will leave me if I start anymore hobbies," I laugh.
But I am smitten. "There's so much to know," I say. "I think you could study all your life and still not learn all there is about beekeeping."
"Oh," he says, "I learn something new every day. You never stop learning from the bees."
I think about the long process of making the honey -- all the work and hours that go into its refinement. I think about the way the bees live a metaphor for sanctification -- this slow process of being conformed to Christ's image.
"What have the bees taught you?" I ask.
"Hard work," he says.
"That's where the sweet stuff comes from, right?"
"Right," he says.
It's in this becoming ... this journey of refinement ... that is the richest part.
Boggess would like to thank Paul Carbonneau of the Killer Bees Apiary and Alan Leadmon of Leadmon's Bee Farm for their kind patience with her bee curiosity.
Laura Boggess lives in Hurricane with her husband and two boys. You can follow her blog at lauraboggess.com or find her on Twitter @lauraboggess.