One of the things that’s important to know about me is that I like my fantasies as realistic as possible. When I was a kid, I wanted to know how a unicorn-pegasus princess could have super-human intelligence (as everyone knows they do) and still have a horselike or deerlike head. Did they somehow fit their extra neural capacity inside their horns? As an adult, I decided I wanted to write a story about australopithecines, so I spent about five years researching the subject….
In a similar way, when I had my book-launch party the other week, I decided it would be a good idea to serve the audience refreshments similar to what my characters would have eaten. The event organizer had a similar thought and brought animal crackers. I brought actual honeycombs, some of them full of real baby bees. Because, you see, apes eat raw insects. I wanted my guests to do the same.
In retrospect, that may have been a little too weird, even for my friends.
In any case, these bees turned into an interesting and educational disaster. I wasn’t surprised that very few of them actually got eaten, but I hadn’t put any thought into how to handle left-overs. I didn’t want them to go to waste, but they came in a big wooden frame that wouldn’t fit in the hotel fridge or in a bag with ice for the five-hour car trip the next day. I didn’t realize I could have cut the comb free from the frame, nor did I know when or how the raw, dead bee pupae might go bad. I didn’t think to ask my bee supplier about any of this.
To make a long story short, most of the bees did go bad and when I finally ended up processing the combs for wax, I made a huge mess of our kitchen for which I’m not really sure my husband has yet forgiven me. I could have done it outside, but that would have attracted bees, and I am allergic to their stings.
Since then, I’ve learned that very few people, even very few bee keepers, have ever actually eaten bee brood, as the larvae and pupae are called. The only reason I knew bee brood was edible was that I used to have a friend who would gather and eat wild honey, including the brood, when he was little. He said he liked it. There’s very little information out there on what to do. So, with all this experience behind me, I offer the following pointers:
- Yes, you can eat bee brood.
- Raw, it tastes like cabbage custard. Not bad, but not good, either.
- Boiled, the texture firms up and gets a little mealy and the taste mellows. Definitely better.
- To eat raw, use a toothpick to open each brood cell and pull the animal out. Alternatively, boil the comb in chunks–the wax dissolves, leaving each baby bee in its own waxy/papery sort of sleeping bag, like a gel-cap pill. Open these carefully by hand with your finger-nails. There is no non-labor-intensive way to do this.
- You can’t just pop the brood-filled comb in your mouth and chew, unless you want to chew up those sleeping bags, but the honey elsewhere in the same comb IS edible and tastes good, though bee-keepers may tell you different because it is dark and tastes strong. But I like it, and it’s not poisonous.
- Pupae and larvae taste the same. The difference is that the larvae look like grubs and the pupae look like bees, except for the color—young pupae are all white, but darken as they mature.
- Sometimes a larva or pupa develops black spots or turns entirely black. I am afraid to eat these, especially since my cat tastes some and immediately puked and then hid in the closet. But then, he did the same when he ate lamb kidney, and I didn’t. Just in case, I now check every baby bee carefully for black spots.
- I’m not sure what the best way for extracting honey is—mushing those sections of comb that have honey and then straining might work. You should probably ask a bee keeper instead of guessing.
- You can, in fact, cut up a honeycomb with a knife, although there are wires inside to support the comb on the frame, so be careful of those. But when you cut, honey will leak out all over, so be forewarned.
- One way to render the wax is to boil the comb sections in water to melt the wax and then then the wax float to the top, cool, and solidify. Except that the water will then be honey-water, which, unlike honey, can go bad. Do you want to waste honey like that?
- Also, boiling wax and water spits wax all over your kitchen and coats the pot and any stirring utensils you use and anything else that has ever been near the stove and you will never get all the wax off ever again. However big a mess you think wax is, it’s worse. Much worse.
- A frame of comb does not actually yield a lot of wax—maybe enough for one or two candles. But it’s kind of fun to render your own beeswax, except for the whole mess-thing.
- Do not go outdoors with anything covered in honey or even honey-residue. The bees will launch a salvage operation. They will hang around your house for DAYS. Are you allergic? Why are you doing this?
- You can boil the honeywater in order to drive off the extra water and revert to honey—sort of like making maple syrup? The trick to this is—HOLY CRAP, what is all that smoke? Where did all this charcoal foam come from? Wait, you’re telling me that honeywater can catch ON FIRE? Maybe if I just…OUCH, that hurts, does anybody have some burn cream? Ok, never mind, I have no idea what the trick to this part is. I just hope I didn’t ruin the sauce-pan.
If all this sounds like such a pain that you can’t figure out why australopithecines would bother, remember that they didn’t have office jobs. Their only work was to gather food, care for children, and (probably) explore and defend a community foraging territory. While we spend hours every day making money and fifteen minutes making lunch, they had no money to make and lots of time to eat one bee grub at a time if that’s what it took to get food. A lot of their food would have come in tiny pieces that required individual preparation like that. The same is true for many animals.
And that, by the way, is why it’s impossible to build a squirrel-proof bird-feeder.
A squirrel might have to work for hours to find one bite here and another bite there, using up precious calories the whole time. So, a big pile of seed in one place? That squirrel can literally spend all day working on how to get into that feeder and still come out ahead. And while humans ARE smarter than squirrels, no human wants to put as much time and energy into a bird-feeder as a squirrel does. So the squirrel always wins.