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A sweet, thick fluid, collected by bees from the flowers of plants, and deposited in cells of the comb in hives. When pure, it is of a yellowish, white color, sweet to the taste, of an agreeable odor, soluble in water, and becomes vinous by fermentation. Its odor and fragrance are due to the flowers from which it is obtained, and when gathered from poisonous plants it produces deleterious effects upon the human system, though innocuous to the bees. — Webster, 1882

Charles Dennis and son, Ben, introduced bees to Kingsbury County. Ben gave his father two swarms, they doubled during the season and produced 100 pounds of honey. Came through the winter well and there are now 18 swarms. He lives on a lake and they take advantage of cherry and plum blossoms. Produced 400 pounds of honey this season. – Kingsbury County Independent, October 28, 1904

Honey is the sweet, sticky food made by bees from flower nectar and pollen and stored by them to be used as food during winter months when no fresh nectar is available. It takes thousands of visits to flowers for a bee to produce a tablespoon of honey. The sweet food was highly prized by pioneer families who collected it to use instead of purchased sugar. Honey is made by honeybees, who first collect nectar from flowers and store it in their honey sac. They return to the hive (located in a hollow tree in the Little House story), where other worker bees suck it out and chew it up, breaking the nectar down into the simple sugars, sucrose and fructose. It’s then deposited into the wax cells of the honeycomb for storage and it’s fanned with the bees’ wings until most of the water in the honey has evaporated, leaving thick honey. The cells are then capped with wax to keep the honey from drying out or becoming spoiled.

The honey collected by Charles Ingalls in Little House in the Big Woods was obtained by cutting down the tree in which the bees had stored it, then removing as much of the honeycomb that would fit in the tubs, pans, and buckets he brought with him. Although it was a common practice at the time to kill the bees by smoking them with burning sulfur, Pa doesn’t seem to have done this. The tree Pa chopped down may or may not have been dead.

Other than one meal in which the Ingalls family feasted on all the honey they could eat, Laura Ingalls Wilder doesn’t tell readers how the containers of honey were dealt with once they were unloaded from the wagon, nor does she explain how the honey was stored or used other than eaten fresh. The story of the bees stands alone in the chapter as do other stories in other chapters in Little House in the Big Woods: Pa making bullets, Grandpa collecting maple syrup and Grandma sugaring it off, or Ma making cheese, for example. Ma most likely pressed the honey from the unbroken cells of the comb, strained it to remove wax and dead bees and other debris, then stored it in covered crocks or jars. Honey candies or become hard and crystalline in cold weather.

Honeycomb / honeycombed. Honeybees also produce the hexagonal (six-sided) wax cells in which larvae develop and honey is stored. For every one pound of wax produced by the bees’ wax glands, about eight pounds of honey is consumed. In the Little House books, the comb and its shape are referenced, as well as comparing the grasshopper eggs pods covering the land in On the Banks of Plum Creek to the multitude of tiny cells of a honeycomb.

In the piece of honey with comb at right, you can see the hexagonal cells capped with wax.

“Land flowing with Milk and Honey.” And I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey… Exodus 3:8.

In the Bible, God promises the Jewish people an abundance of good things and highly fertile land. The phrase was commonly used as a metaphor during homesteading years. Homesteaders from the east would write to friends and family back home that the fertile creek-bottom soil and plentiful rain assured that farming attempts would be successful. Laura interprets the phrase as being literal, that fresh milk and sticky honey would cover the ground, but Ma explains it to her in a way that she can understand: that cows eating the good grass along Plum Creek would give a lot of milk, and bees would get honey from all the wildflowers.

The newspaper bit shown here is from a full page newspaper article titled, “Dakota: Its Agricultural and Mineral Resources. Great Inducements to Emigrants,” Dakota Republican (Vermillion,Dakota Territory), April 25, 1868, p. 2.


honey (BW 10, 12; BPC 27; SSL 22), see also bee
     honey-brown (BW 13; BPC 23) – golden-brown
     honey-colored (BPC 23; THGY 18) – the golden color of fresh honey
     honeycomb / honeycombed (BW 10; BPC 26; PG) – 1. A mass of hexagonal, waxy cells, formed by bees, and used by them as repositories for their honey and their eggs. 2. Any substance, as a casting of iron, &c., perforated with cells like those of a honey-comb. Honeycombed means formed or perforated similar to a honey-comb.
     “land flowing with milk and honey” (BPC 27) – Exodus 3:8
     thick as honey (LTP 2)