Making Tupelo Honey: My Season with the Bees

Tupelo honey jar

Imagine going to work knowing that someone was going to sneak in and slap the ever-lovin’ snot out of you 30 to 40 times a day, every day. There’s nothing you can do about it and you don’t know when or where it’s going to happen – just that it will, a lot.

If that sounds appealing, beekeeping may be your dream job. Except that instead of hard slaps, it’s painful stings that interrupt your day. There’s no retaliation because the bee dies shortly afterwards anyway. For you, it’s a few minutes of burning pain. For him, it’s a kamikaze attack.

I know this because at 13 years old, I spent a tupelo season working for Charlie Cook Bridges, a Chevron distributor in Blountstown and my father’s long-suffering best friend.

As I remember, the interview and selection process went something like this: Daddy came home one spring afternoon and said, “Charlie Cook’s coming by in a little while to pick you up. You’re going to work in the bees with him.”

I took some time (about a second) to consider all my options (none) before delivering my carefully worded counter-offer (“Yes, sir”).

Contents: Delicious honey. Also, 100,000 angry bees.

I’m still not sure if Charlie Cook considered my service partial repayment for all the hardship Daddy put him through – or if I was just one more on his long list of McClellan-related burdens.

Whatever the case, I’ve never had a better boss, teacher or workmate than Charlie Cook. You’d also be hard-pressed to find anybody more entertaining. However, by my first night on the job, I realized that my relationship with the bees wasn’t going to be nearly as pleasant. That part became clear when we moved them.

Since tupelo season lasts for only a few days to a few weeks, the bees had to be moved to wherever the trees were blooming.  But the only time all the bees are in the hive is at night, so that’s when we had to do it.

What tupelo blossoms lack in beauty, they make up for in delicious honey-making potential.

The problem is that bees really don’t like being disturbed any time, especially after dark. They make that pretty clear by crawling out of the boxes and blindly stinging anything that isn’t another bee. It may not sound like an efficient strategy, but I can vouch for its effectiveness.

My beekeeper’s uniform helped protect me somewhat. However, with several thousand bees attacking, a few dozen were bound to get through.

Moving the bees often lasted until the wee hours. Once they were in the right place, we had to get the titi, gallberry and other less-desirable honey harvested so that the bees would fill the hives with tupelo.

Early beekeepers believed that b.o. protected them from the bees.

To do this, we placed boxes with empty frames on the hives and took the full ones (minus bees) back to the “honey house,” a concrete block structure where we worked in 90- to 100-degree heat. Charlie Cook used a hot knife to unseal the combs and I ran the stainless steel centrifuge that extracted honey from the frames.

We also collected the excess beeswax, which is used in everything from makeup to candles to soaps. Pound-for-pound, it’s worth more than honey, so we took care not to waste it.

Working in the honey house was easier than moving bees, but it had its own set of challenges. For one, it was too hot to wear protective clothing, despite the large swarm of bees that loitered there. Adding to the misery was a thin layer of honey that coated everything in the place, including me.

On a normal evening, I’d usually get stung first by a bee under my collar, inside my shirt or in my hair. My reaction would be to dig the stinger out with my honey-covered hands. The honey in turn attracted yet more bees, and so on. Also, it seemed that anything I grabbed invariably had a bee attached to it, making my hands frequent targets as well.

This went on every day of the week, but I got used to the grind and even the stings. Soon, the reddish “bakery-grade” honey began to take on a lighter color and before long pure, golden tupelo began flowing by the barrelful.

This old photo shows an centrifuge (slinger) inside a honey house similar to the one where I worked.

This is the same honey that years later was the subject of the movie Ulee’s Gold and eating it since childhood has spoiled me forever. As far as I’m concerned there is no better honey in the world.

That’s why I’m happy now to see tupelo honey and the people who produce it getting the attention and respect they deserve. It’s a unique natural treasure, produced by hard work, fraught with financial risk and physical pain.

I’m also very proud to have worked with Charlie Cook Bridges in his last tupelo season. That experience taught me a lot, including how to suffer through a little pain and how to keep working until the work is done. Those skills have helped me in every job I’ve had since.

Working in the bees convinced me of something else as well: If I was a beekeeper, Bill Gates wouldn’t be able to afford the honey I produced.

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