By Haley Remenar
Photography by Beth Dukes
When he was a child, Bob Sanderson got stung in the head by hornets 13 times. He spent most of his life with an aversion to all things that sting.
But four years ago, the retired Abilene High School teacher and his wife and Austin Elementary School teacher, Carol, went to a bee convention in Texas and tried beekeeping for the first time.
“I thought, ‘This is pretty cool,’” Bob said.
Today the couple keeps hundreds of bees on their property. They protect the bees from predators and in return the bees pollinate their garden and provide sweet honey that actually helps fight Bob’s allergies.
It’s not uncommon in Abilene for people to raise chickens or make their own bread, but a few people in the city are making more unexpected products – like honey, skin care products, beer and even wine – out of their own home.
The Sandersons started beekeeping by ordering the foundations of a hive, called a “nuc,” and setting it up on their property. The nuc looks like a large white box with a plastic tray shaped like a honeycomb. The bees build their queen’s nest on the bottom part of the box, and honeycomb on the top part of the box in trays which slide out.
To extract the honey or check on the health of the bees, both Bob and Carol head out to their three hives, armed with white bee suits and a smoker. They use the smoker to release puffs of smoke in and around the hive.
“The bees think they’re gonna burn up,” Bob said, “so they’re going to gorge themselves on honey because they don’t know when their next meal will be. And when they get a lot of honey, it makes them real docile.”
Beekeeping comes with other challenges besides the danger of getting stung (like the time Carol wore black socks and the bees attacked her ankles). The Sandersons lost entire hives to wax moths that laid eggs in the hive and ate the very boxes the hives were in.
“You have to be willing to stick to it,” Carol said. “More than a few times we’ve asked, ‘should we sell our hives?’”
But both Bob and Carol agree the challenges are worth it. Bob said eating honey from local bees reduced his allergies to local pollens. Carol said she wore her beekeeping suit to school once to show her students. And two or three times a year, they get about 35 pounds of honey from one hive.
“My favorite thing with honey is putting it in my tea,” Carol said.
“Or coffee,” Bob said.
The last time they extracted honey, the Sandersons extracted beeswax from the comb for the first time. The wax can be used for candles or skin care, and that’s one of the ingredients Shannon Allen, another Abilene teacher, uses to create her own skin care products.
Allen started making lip balm, toner, body scrubs, body butter and more during her first summer break working as a teacher. She knew she would have extra time on her hands, so she decided to use that time to learn to make wholistic skin care.
“It’s genuine science, not just DIY,” Allen said. “I had to figure out how to combine water and oil, which is problematic because water and oil don’t mix and a lot of DIY recipes kind of forget that.”
As an English teacher at Wylie Junior High, Allen said she had never really enjoyed learning science until she started this project. Using chemistry textbooks and research, she learned how to create products that help balance the PH level on a person’s skin.
“Really it’s just, how do we eliminate dirt in a healthy way?” Allen said.
She said she tries to make her products efficient. Her “mermaid scrub,” made with sunflower oil and clay, works similarly to a face mask but doesn’t have to be left on the skin for a long time, so it’s easier for busy women.
She also created a face balm with her mother in mind that helps heal the skin and prevent wrinkles. Allen makes this product on the stove, melting beeswax in a double boiler, then adding rosehip oil, carefully measured in a scientific beaker.
Allen began selling her products at a local craft fair in December, and she also uses social media to sell her products. She said she hopes her products make women feel pampered but also educated about their skin. Most of all, she said she wants her products to have a homey touch.
“I whip my body butter in the Kitchen-Aid that my mom gave me,” Allen said, “the same Kitchenaid she used when I was a little girl. I really want it to reflect home.”
For Reverend Clyde Kieschnick, his creative hobby is actually built into his home through a small winemaking and beer-brewing room. The Lutheran pastor became so well-known for his winemaking that people started bringing him wild grapes grown in their yards.
Kieschnick said he attributes his love for winemaking to his German heritage and his father. Growing up in the Texas hill country, he would watch his father make wine in a 25-gallon oak barrel each year. The family would drink it for holidays or special occasions throughout the year, but the wine often didn’t last until the 4th of July.
“His wine always oxidized,” Kieschnick said. “The fun part was always to ‘drink dad’s wine before it went bad,’ that was the joke.”
Kieschnick started making his own wine using wine kits ordered from wine supply companies. The kits come with juice and yeast that matches the sugar and acid balance in the juice.
“For different fruits and different grains, you buy different types of yeast,” Kieschnick said. “I just keep it so simple.”
Sometimes he makes wine with blackberries from his garden and adds chocolate extract to make a chocolate blackberry wine. When he lived in Iowa, he made a rhubarb wine, and here in Texas he makes a prickly pear wine.
For a typical red wine, Kieschnick gets grapes from the Trails End Vineyard in Abilene. The roots of those vines came from Italy, Kieschnick said, and they thrive in the Abilene climate, soil and growing season.
Each year people gather at the vineyards and Kieschnick prays a blessing over the planting and the harvest.
“It was called the Blessing of the Vines,” Kieschnick said. “And then we always help pick. It’s social, it’s fellowship. I’m the chaplain of the vineyard.”
Using a kit, Kieschnick can make a drinkable wine in 60 days. He said it’s a relaxing way to make something when he’s not working. The main thing he does with his wine is give it away for wedding receptions, gatherings, and thank-you gifts.
“I think people love my wine more than they love me,” Kieschnick laughed.
Kieschnick introduced an elder at his church, Craig Sanders, to beer brewing 12 years ago. After watching the process once, Sanders got a beer brewing kit for his birthday, began brewing regularly, and now he’s a certified beer-brewing judge.
“I’ve always been a do-it-yourself-er,” Sanders said. “I’ve always liked beer and trying different kinds of beer.”
Through the years, Sanders collected all of the equipment needed to brew beer in his garage. First he grinds the grains with a grinder, then he puts the grains and water in a cooler for the “mashing” step. The grain and water combination then gets boiled in a large keg Sanders got at a junkyard and put on top of a turkey-frying stove. As it boils, he adds in the tiny green hops.
“You do have to strike a balance with this thing,” Sanders said. “If you boil off too much, you get too little beer at the end. Which is a bad thing.”
Using a home-brew computer program, Sanders calculates the exact temperature and amount of hops to add to make his current batch – a rye pale ale.
After adding the hops, the beer goes in a chiller, made from an old pump that acts as a backwards radiator, Sanders said. Then he puts it in a plastic jug to ferment. The jug has to have enough room at the top for the bubbles and gas formed by the fermenting process. Otherwise, the gases can cause pressure on the lid.
“You’re not a home brewer until you’ve had to mop the ceiling,” Sanders laughed.
The beer takes about two weeks to ferment. Rather than spending time bottling the beer, Sanders stores beer in a beer tap built from an old freezer. Sanders, his friends and family can just walk through the garage and fill up their glass.
“It’s kind of a long day to do this from beginning to end,” Sanders said. “It’s like someone who plays golf. I like to play golf too, I just kind of prefer doing this. And you know, it’s something you can drink later.”