The kitchen of my youth smelled of lye soap, smoked bacon, and peck baskets of walnuts. A throwback to the 40s, the kitchen had a linoleum floor and a table topped with red-and-white checked oilcloth. (Oh, how I miss the lead in my diet!) In the center sat the perennial must-haves of the day: salt, pepper, a squat vase of pansies, and a glass dish of comb honey.
The kitchen odors were delightful, despite the odd ritual at breakfast. On the counter, next to a fishbowl-shaped cookie jar and a staticky kit-built radio, was a two-slice toaster my grandparents used to burn bread. When smoke curled from the slots, someone would release the lever that raised the toast, carry the pieces to the sink, and scrape the char with a knife.
Once my piece arrived at the table, I slathered it with butter before adding the prize: chunks of magnificent chocolate-brown buckwheat honey. The honey oozed thick and glossy from a waxen comb, releasing a scent reminiscent of molasses, silage, tack rooms, and county fairs. The best things about the Appalachian foothills arose in a single whiff.
Popular purveyors of comb honey
Comb honey graced the table of nearly every family in my tiny hamlet. People purchased it directly from farmers or local grocers and general stores. You could even order comb honey from the Sears, Roebuck catalog.
In the 1897 edition, the giant retailer sold only two types of honey. If you wanted cut comb, you could choose Century Rose California honey in one-pound hermetically sealed glass jars (with a piece of comb in every jar). A case of two dozen jars would cost $5.
Otherwise, you could opt for white clover, strained, in one-, two-, or three-pound jars. The one-pound jars were $0.22 each or $2.25/dozen, two-pound jars sold for $0.34 each or $3.50/dozen, and the three-pound jars ran $0.47 each or $4.90 per dozen.1
The things that change
Because it was ubiquitous, I assumed comb honey would be around forever, just like sugar cookies and pancakes. But I was wrong. Caught up in daily life, I didn’t think much about honey during college and early marriage. Although I worked for an alfalfa breeder, the only time I saw bees was while I weeded endless research plots. (And yes, I have a permanent disdain for anything involving a hoe.)
By the time I was ready to outfit my tiny kitchen with creature comforts, comb honey was gone. I scoured farmers markets, specialty shops, roadside stands, and co-ops. The few pieces I found — crystallized inside dusty wrappers — bore egregious prices. I wondered if Americans had lost their minds.
Of course, extracted honey was everywhere, cheap as dirt. So why did comb honey — the ultimate treat — disappear?
The comb honey era
What beekeepers call the “comb honey era” occurred from 1880 to 1915. Historians tell us comb honey became wildly popular after some enterprising beekeepers began extending their harvests with sugar syrup. As a result, consumers wanted a tamper-resistant natural product, so they opted for comb honey instead of the extracted stuff, creating a surge in production. During those years, comb honey was everywhere.
But later, after the implementation of pure food laws in the U.S., extracted honey became more accepted. In addition, extracted honey became substantially cheaper as extractors improved and modern beekeeping techniques favored reusing the waxen honeycombs. Although comb honey has seen several short-term revivals since the early 1900s, overall it quietly slipped away from stores, farm stands, and the American conscience.
By the 1950s, suburban families abandoned comb honey just as they forsook cream-topped milk, hard cider, and wilted dandelion greens. They quickly replaced the unique experience of comb honey with “honey-flavored” breakfast fare, as if honey had only one taste.
First you see it, then you don’t
Decades later, when I couldn’t buy comb honey at any price, I decided to make it myself. Having no interest in extracting honey, saving the bees, or pollinating plants, I approached the project with laser focus. With lots of luck but no training, no mentor, and no fear of failure, I produced dozens of Kelley squares (called sections) in my very first year.
From there, I experimented with Ross Rounds, Eco Bee Boxes, and homemade supers of wooden squares designed and built by a friend. They all worked, so I tried Hogg half-comb cassettes and a Romanov-style super. And when they worked too, I convinced myself I could get bees to build honeycombs in glass jars.
Despite my success, I learned that getting bees to build in little compartments is tricky business. Worse, it requires much beekeeper strategy, like keeping each colony about six minutes from swarming. Lots of bees with lots of nectar and no room to store it will build comb honey anywhere, guaranteed. But it comes at a price.
Because bees are much smarter than we think, learning to read their minds is exhausting. And despite mucho conniving, some swarms get away, dashing our hopes of filling more of those cute little cubicles, and making us feel stupid. Losing a mind game to a bee is humiliating.
The sea change
Then, after years of fiddling with little compartments, everything changed for me in one afternoon. I had left some random equipment on a hive stand — the farthest one from my house — and forgot about it until a swarm moved in. The stack was simply a