Divine delicacy: Holy honey

Story by Carolyn Males

The first time I had honey fresh from the hive, I was sitting on a rickety blue vinyl kitchen chair outside a small mud hut 12,300 feet above sea level on the desolate ridge of Bolivia’s Altiplano. The man who lived in this one-room shelter had greeted us in Aymara, his native language. One of the two development workers accompanying me lived in La Paz and had picked up a few phrases, so he knew what was about to happen. “Ah, you’re in for a treat,” he exclaimed. Meanwhile, our host had ducked into the low opening beneath the thatched roof and emerged with battered tin plates filled with chunks of honeycomb. He beamed with pride as he presented us with the product of his hives, an enterprise made possible by a micro-grant he’d received.

As a condor circled overhead in the deep blue sky and headed across the windswept plain toward the snowcapped Andes beyond, I stabbed at the honeycomb with a bent spoon, uncertain of whether I should break off a chunk and chomp on it or just probe for the sweet nectar. I looked to my fellow traveler from La Paz and saw he was chewing, so I followed suit. Teeth against wax was a strange sensation but oh, the honey. It was the nectar of the gods.

A year later I made my first trip to Bluffton and had a second heavenly honey encounter. Here at the edge of the May River on a bluff amid palmettos sat the Church of the Cross in all of its Carpenter Gothic splendor with its board-and-batten exterior, its arched windows and latticed shutters. Intrigued, I went inside for a tour. As I stood in the rose-colored interior lit by shafts of sunlight, the docent gave us a short history lesson: Charleston architect E.B. White had designed the church that was consecrated in 1857. Six years later the church had been spared in the burning of Bluffton by Union troops. It had sustained damage but also had survived the big hurricane of 1898.

Then the docent told us about the invasion of the bees and the 48 colonies that had taken up residence in the walls of the church. It so happened that honey produced from those same bees was for sale on a table by the door. “Holy Honey” read the label. I bought a small jar, took it home and savored its amber sweetness.

However, it was only recently that I’d gotten the full story behind Holy Honey. As I stood within buzzing distance of the bees on a sunny morning, docent coordinator Mitch Brach provided me with the back story. I’d been picturing beekeepers masked and suited up in protective gear periodically moving through the church aisles, reaching into some secret trap door in one of those rose-colored walls, breaking off the honeycombs, then processing it all somewhere on the property.

But Brach quickly disabused me of that illusion. It turned out that the Holy Honey production process was set in motion back in 1991 when the church’s deteriorating cedar shingle roof needed to be replaced. The bees, which were swarming through boards in an exterior wall adjacent to the bell tower, would need to be removed so that repairs could begin. A beekeeper did the sticky deed and, with the church’s blessing, relocated the buzzy residents to his hives in Beaufort.

Meanwhile several women in the church had come up with an idea. Why not sell honey collected from the evicted bees? The beekeeper agreed to process and jar it. Now what to call it? “Holy Honey!” the women exclaimed. Today if you stand in the side yard of the church and look up and to the right of the bell tower, you’ll see smudges along the seams of a few boards. Let your eyes adjust and you’ll soon see moving specks. Honeybees! As it gets warmer, Brach tells me, thousands appear and start swarming. They may even fly down to check you out, he says with a grin.

So are they back? It so happened that sometime after the old resident bees went north, a new group of honeybees had flown in and started their own congregations here. And for now, it looks as if their home is safe from another beekeeper sweep.

After we watch them maneuver in and out of a thin crevices between boards for a while, I ask, “Can you hear them droning inside the wall during services?”

“Let’s see,” Brach replies. We enter the side door, walk through the right transept and climb the narrow staircase up to the balcony. But before we turn the corner to the pews, he stops me and points to a spot in the wall between an arched and a cloverleaf window. “They’re inside here,” he tells me.

We both lean in to listen, but not a single buzz.

“That’s because the interior walls are made of thick plaster,” Brach explains. “It only cost $5,000 to build the church. Italian marble was expensive, so they used plaster, painted it rose and scored it to look like marble blocks.” The bees, he adds, hive between the inner and outer walls. Other than an errant one winging its way up the aisles through an open door on occasion, they’re pretty much content to hang out with their queens in their walled colonies.

Just before I leave, Brach shows me a framed photo of the great honeybee removal of 1991. The image, a little hazy beneath the glass, shows the Beaufort beekeeper, outfitted in white protective gear, up on a ladder amid a huge swarm of soon-to-be booted-out bees. Today, he tells me, the honey is processed at Bee City in Cottageville, South Carolina.

How can I resist buying another souvenir of my visit to take home? This time I spring for a large jar. That afternoon I stir a dab of Holy Honey into my tea. Divine. LL

Bee yourself

Learn the history of Church of the Cross and Holy Honey with a guided tour offered from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Holy Honey is sold during these times or can be purchased at the parish offices on Buckwalter Parkway.

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