Average in height and a tad on the wiry side, Joy Stinger, 75, is sprightly, sharp and delightfully warm. Her salt-and-pepper tresses are woven into braids that ring her head, though a few random strands have worked loose. Tagus and Fado, her Portuguese water dogs, vie for attention and treats in the kitchen while cats Shysty and Paws roam the yard and living room.
She graciously offers her guest a cup of hot tea, which she serves from a china set in a wicker caddy. Hanging overhead is a rustic metal light fixture with a bulb that shines through cutouts in the center lamp shade and several candleholders that jut out like spokes. The candles burning there are a product of Stinger's Honey & Beeswax, which Stinger operates out of her Clayton home.
Stinger - no kidding, that's her real name - gets her surname from her first marriage, a union that dissolved some 40 years ago. "I wasn't thinking about bees at the time, but [the name] is a good thing now," she says, adding that people comment on the ironic moniker frequently.
A former graphic designer, she got into bees 25 years ago, more or less on a whim, and had no intention of pouring much money into the hobby, aside from buying an old-fashioned bee skep. (Skeps, constructed of straw or grasses, have little in the way of internal structure to support the honeycombs and are used only for decorative purposes these days.) "I saw a picture in a garden magazine with a bee skep in the garden, and I thought, ‘Oh, that'd be cool,'" she says. "I didn't know what I was doing. Nobody around here was really doing bees at that time."
She set the skep in her yard in the hopes that bees would move in. When nothing seemed to develop, a friend informed her that bees would never just take up residence in her skep - she'd have to buy bees and place them there. The first couple of sets of bees she ordered arrived with dead queens. When she finally did get a live one, it met a grisly fate - as a few real and fabled queens are known to have done - at the hands of the angry masses.
Stinger sought advice from Jim McCaskill, then a member of the Eastern Missouri Beekeepers Association, who examined the skep and, to Stinger's surprise, found eggs. Roaming bees had, it turns out, made their home in the skep; they'd killed the queen Stinger had bought in order to protect the one already living there.
Eventually, Stinger moved the colony from the skep to a wooden hive, where it could better withstand winters. One hive became three, and then three became eight, all sitting on her landscaped lot on Westmoreland. In those early years, Stinger took honey and wax for her personal use and gave much of it to friends and family. Eventually, there was too much to use or give away, and she began selling it to individuals and wholesale buyers.
Stinger gathers two or three honey-soaked boxes from each of her hives three times per year: late May, early July and mid-August. It's hard work, especially when she's covered head to toe in a bee suit and veil on muggy summer days. A single box can weigh up to 50 pounds, and she must retrieve two or three boxes from the top of each hive. (A screen between the bottom and upper sections of the hive allows workers to pass through and build honeycombs in the top boxes, but its spaces are too small for the queen. This prevents her from laying eggs in the portion of the hive from which honey is taken.) Though Stinger occasionally enlists help removing the heavy boxes, gathering and processing the honey is mostly a one-woman operation.
"Most of the effort is in taking honey off [the hives] when it's 90 degrees," she says, "and sometimes the bees aren't real happy to see you." With any luck, though, she can empty the boxes when most of the bees are away on official bee business.
Stinger quickly learned to recognize that special pitch and timbre of an angry bee. Others learn the hard way. Last summer the U.S. Postal Service refused to deliver mail to her home for a time after a postal carrier was stung. The post office agreed to resume service only after Stinger moved her mailbox a bit farther from the hives.
Each bee season can yield 1,200 to 2,000 pounds of honey, all of which Stinger extracts by hand. The extractor sits in the southeast corner of her basement, partially concealed by a laundry line laden with freshly washed clothes. Stinger uses a simple, fine-tined fork to uncap the honeycombs and places them in four roughly 5-by-17-inch frames that slide into the drum. She vigorously cranks the extractor to spin the frames, allowing centrifugal force to draw the thick liquid from the combs. The process can take a half-hour or more for each four-frame batch, and she works up to 50 batches each time she gathers the boxes from the hives.
There are pleasant floral notes in Stinger's honey. She plants mint, comfrey and hops on her lot for the bees to pollinate, and there's an abundance of bush honeysuckle growing wild in the neighborhood. But she attributes much of the flavor of her honey to the nearby linden trees, which impart a citrus character. She uses honey in place of sugar in some of her baking, to great success.
Stinger repurposes packaging as much as possible, cleaning used Mason and pasta jars for single-jar sales. She sells honey and candles out of her home mostly to individuals, but she still hits the occasional Clayton or Tower Grove farmers' market and plans to be at the Webster Groves farmers' market this year; wholesale buyers include Straub's Markets, Jennifer's Pharmacy & Soda Shoppe, Local Harvest Grocery, Winslow's Home, Schnarr's Hardware Co., and Starr's wine and liquor store.
In addition to honey, Stinger makes and sells beeswax candles and ornaments. She melts her beeswax on an antique gas burner, which she suspects has sat in the basement corner since the house was built in 1904. She forms decorative candles and ornaments in elaborate molds, and buyers can choose either the au naturel style or items she has painted by hand. Creations can range from a simple, undyed tapered candle or tea light to an entire nativity set, complete with a sycamore stable hand-crafted by a carpenter friend.
Even the fresh eggs Stinger sells at market are adorable. She gets striking baby blue eggs and pale green eggs from her Araucana or Ameraucana hens. Tucked into a carton next to the standard brown and white, they make for a lovely dozen, almost too cute to eat. Most of Stinger's customers, however, have no trouble gobbling up her wares ... and probably can't get enough of Joy either. It's all golden.