Archive for the 'bee yard' Category

going rogue

Remember last fall when I was oozing uncertainty about another season of bee keeping? Well. The tables have turned. I’m not sure exactly what transpired, but I’ve done a one-eighty. Spring can’t come fast enough (and, just for the record, it isn’t).

spring honeybee hive

I’ve got big changes up my sleeve. I’m switching from deep hive boxes to mediums. Which basically translates to “easier” lifting. Wait. Did you hear that? It was my back, already sighing with relief. I’m also converting to foundationless frames. This means my bees will draw out 100 percent of their honey comb instead of getting a pre-made starter sheet of wax foundation to guide them.

There are so many reasons why foundationless feels like the right way to go. The most obvious is that bees have drawn out their own comb for hundreds of centuries. Why we felt the need to introduce starter comb to show them the ropes, isn’t entirely clear. Also at the top of the list is a naturally healthier hive. Left to their own devices, bees tend to make smaller cell spaces. This decreases the amount of time larvae spend in the capped cells before hatching out. The shorter development time interrupts the lifecycle of the deadly varroa mite. And, foundation (which is made mostly out of wax from commercial hives) is laced with trace chemicals. Yuck. The bees have it hard enough. Why bring more garbage into their hives?

foundationless frames

I also want to raise more cut comb honey. Which means I’m going to do some radical moves this summer, like “double shook swarming” (a technique that’s just plain fun to say, if nothing else). I’ll spare you the details, but it involves strategically separating hives, placing the components back to back during the prime nectar flow and reorienting/reuniting the boxes again in the fall.

I love cut comb honey. There is, in my book, nothing finer. But for whatever reason, there’s less of a demand for it. People are shy about how to eat it. Which always steers me towards producing more extracted honey. This year though, markets be dammed. I’m ready to spread the gospel.    

These changes are invigorating. Interestingly, my decisions happened through no real process. And that’s what feels so great about it. I’m type A. I plan. I figure. I troubleshoot before the trouble. And there is always a process. This time though, answers just sort of landed in my lap without my brain inserting itself. I’m not only bucking some conventional beekeeping methods, I’m shaking up my general life strategy to boot. I’m going rogue. And I didn’t even plan it!

I’ve mentioned before how my bees bring out the best in me. They slow me down. They make me take notice. And they repeatedly remind me that there is never a concrete answer. Ever. But now they’ve taken it up a notch. They’ve outdone themselves. I let go, threw it all out there, and this is their answer. You know that Zen proverb, about the teacher appearing when the student is ready? Evidently I’m ready. Thanks girls.

cut comb revival

This isn’t a recipe, so much as a mini-manifesto. Paring knife required.

What’s all the fuss about cut comb honey? Plenty. 

At the very least, you can start your day by dropping a spoonful of honeycomb in the bottom of your cereal bowl. Smother it with hot oatmeal, add a pat of butter, a splash of milk, and swirl it all together for a breakfast that will give any cold, grey morning a run for its money. Wash it down with a shot of espresso and you’ll wonder why every morning can’t be cold and grey.

But summer will come, eventually. And when it does, you can drag your chair out to the patio, set out a slab of comb honey, some good French feta, a baguette, and if you’re lucky, a nice chunky beefsteak tomato. Pour a glass of strong sun tea and stay awhile. Hell, knock out a crossword. You’ve got all morning.

Sooner or later, though, you should get motivated. It is, after all, summer–ice cream season. Pairings are endless, but if you need a starting point, try your hand at a batch of fresh fig ice cream and top your cone with a thin sliver of honey comb. It’ll make you rethink the merits of those cold, grey mornings.

Still, when the weather turns and cool nights start rolling in, it means you can throw together big plates of crisp pears, spiced nuts, blue cheese, comb honey, and a nice pumpernickel. Set out some cold salted butter and call it dinner. But do save room for desert. There’s cupcakes glazed with bittersweet chocolate and honeycomb.

honey cupcakes with honeycomb

no path to power

My eyesight is notoriously bad. I was that bashful 2-year-old with the dorky glasses. Can I just say that kid’s eyewear has come a long way since the 1970’s? Fashion aside, I’ve never opened my eyes in the morning to anything but a very big blur. And it troubles me to report that the lush green blur that’s been gracing my bedroom window is tuning suspiciously yellow.

I do love fall, really. I’m just not ready to say goodbye to summer. In my world, summer is never hot enough nor long enough. But this one felt especially pinched. I knew things weren’t right when even my hobbies started to feel like chores.

Garlic, vegetables, honeybees. Too many living things were vying for my attention this summer. When all my attention really wanted to do with its meager free time was sit in the sun and get lost in a book. But attention knows better and it opted instead to tend to its commitments. Which sometimes left attention feeling resentful and cranky. It’s ridiculous, really—that selfishness should rear it’s head in the face of such great abundance. Still, I’m pretty sure I threatened to take up needlepoint and crop art at least twice.

bee journal notes

This summer’s bee journal is littered with harried notes, question marks, and “should haves.” Which, to be honest, isn’t all that different from other years, but something was lacking this year. My heart.

I found myself dashing out to the bee yard with just enough time to perform the minimal duties to make sure everybody got by. And everybody did. The bees provided a fine honey crop, despite my lack of participation. But even that left me feeling a little defeated. Now I had to find time to extract, bottle, label, and clean up. As with most things I undertake, my economy of scale is exactly wrong. Which sometimes seems like all I’ve managed to do is create extra work for myself. Clearly it’s time to reflect.

I wrapped up my tenth summer of beekeeping not sure if I’m ready to commit to an eleventh. I typically wait until the thick of winter to pull my bee books off the shelf for inspiration, but this unfamiliar feeling I had couldn’t wait that long. I went straight to Richard Taylor, my hero of beekeepers. His writing is practical, witty, and full of wisdom. One of my favorites is his Comb Honey Book. This felt like an especially appropriate choice since my attempts at comb honey this summer were unsuccessful. Managing bees to raise comb honey is an art, for sure—which means that just going through the motions probably isn’t going to cut it. It didn’t.

frame of bees

Partially I revisited Taylor’s book for management strategies. But really I was looking for a bigger answer. Why do I keep bees? What keeps me returning to this hobby that can be expensive, time consuming, and heart breaking? Is it worth consistently making three trips to the apiary because I forgot something I didn’t know I needed at home? Only four pages into the book and Taylor offered this up:

…the way of life available to a serious beekeeper offers a special kind of fulfillment. It is no path to power or riches, but it does offer, or at least make possible, rewards that are vastly more precious. A beekeeper’s work can be not merely a means of production, but an art that has its place within the total scheme of life, which is itself an art. It challenges both body and mind, demanding not only endurance and strength but the cultivation of great skill, and at the same time calls forth from within one the inventor, the artist, the poet, and the worshipper. The beekeeper has constantly before him some of the most exquisite of nature’s creations, often the beauty of nature that no gallery or temple can rival, and through his own ingenuity and skill he is able to offer to others the loveliest product of nature.”

Damn. That’s a hell of an answer. And one that left me thoroughly humbled. Because he’s right. My bees do all of those things. How grateful I am to be a part of their ancient world. I can’t deny that some days I yearn for fewer obligations. But at what cost? I’ll take all the help I can get channeling my inner inventor, artist, poet, and worshipper. I doubt that hours spent hunched over the crop art table glueing amaranth seeds into place would provide such perspective. Maybe, but for now at least, I’m in for another season of bees—no matter how many extra trips it takes. 

wax curl

p.s. That said, I do have honey for sale I’d love to share with you. Drop me a note if you’re interested and we can work out the details.

sugar snack

Remember my friend Kris? The one who brought a plate of sprouts as a hostess gift? Which subsequently turned me into a sprouting fool? Well she’s also the woman who nudged me into beekeeping. It’s a hobby I’d flirted with, but until what I’m pretty sure amounted to Kris rigging a holiday gift swap so that a copy of Sue Hubbell’s A Book of Bees: and How to Keep Them ended up in my hands, I wasn’t really ready to jump in. As romantic as it sounded, I think there was something about boxes of stinging insects that gave me the heebie-jeebies.

But guess what? I finished Hubbell’s book and I knew, almost certainly, that I wanted bees. Or at least I wanted a hive that I could sit and have a sandwich with. My heebie-jeebies were gone. Well, mostly gone. Gone enough for me to register for a two-day crash course in beekeeping at the University of Minnesota. Forty-eight hours with Dr. Marla Spivak (a renowned bee researcher) and her sidekick Gary Rueter put me over the edge.

winter beekeeping

I came home, fumbled my way through building hive boxes and wrangling delicate wax sheets into wooden frames. Not really a hard job, but one with a bit of a learning curve for sure. Later that spring, I got a somewhat terse call from my local post office. It was 7:00 a.m. and they wanted me to know that three pounds of bees were waiting for me. Outside. In the back alley.

I love that you can still order bees and chickens through the mail. It feels very pony express-like. Which, in a way, it sort of is. Most bees packages come via truck from apiaries in California. It seems like an arduous journey. The queen gets a luxury sweet, tucked into her own private little mesh cage with a few worker attendants to accompany her. The rest of the bees are stuffed into shoebox size, wood and wire box surrounding the queen. There are always a handful of unlucky bees who don’t get sealed inside. Amazingly, most of them manage to make the 2000+ mile journey clinging precariously to the outside.

It is, of course, best if you can install the weary travelers into their new home as soon as possible. From the few times I’ve ordered bee packages though, I’ve learned that the arrival of bees almost always triggers a major weather event—typically a blizzard. So if need be, they can spend another few days tucked inside somewhere. A few spritzes of sugar water through their wire mesh is all they need.

Getting the bees situated is a pretty painless job. At this point in the game, they’ve got nothing to protect and are simply looking for a place to set up shop, which means they’re mild mannered. All that’s required is to pry open their wooden top, remove the mini-queen cage (tucking her safely in a warm pocket is a good idea) and give the box of bees a good upsidedown whack into an empty hive box. The bees (about 12,000 of them) literally just pour out. I remember Gary from bee class instructing to use the hive tool (a mini crowbar-type tool) to spread them around, “just like pizza sauce.” Which is of course what I now visualize every time I spread pizza sauce. Thanks Gary.

Frames of foundation—containing the same delicate wax sheets you toiled over weeks ago—are added to the hive, and the queen gets nestled in last. Then it’s best to shut up the hive and let them acclimate to their new surroundings. If the weather cooperates, they’ll be out flying and getting down to business within a day.

bee-treats

I’ve been lucky. I’m going into my tenth year of beekeeping and I’ve only had to buy a handful of packages. My overwintering success has been good, allowing me to split and divide them to make new hives as they grow. But I almost always have to nurse my bees along a bit in the spring.

After a few months of well deserved rest, the queen—miraculously perceiving a change in season—resumes laying eggs in February. This means by March there is a growing number of baby bee mouths to feed. And where I live, the first dandelion doesn’t typically bloom until well into April. Sometimes even May. So if the hive is low on stored honey, they can starve to death, right when things are beginning to look hopeful.

I bring any hive that seems like they need it a homemade sugar snack to get them over the hump until the nectar is flowing naturally. Their treat is a simple boiled sugar mixture that, in candy making speak, has reached the soft-ball stage. What results is a nice, moist, pliable sheet of bee candy. I also slip my hives a “pollen patty”—a substance that mimics the protein structure of real pollen–which the bees use to rear their young.

So even though spring officially arrives on scene today, I was in the kitchen making sugary, glossy bee treats. And since I was already there with an apron on, I also whipped up a small batch of honey shortbread cookies. After all, I’m going to need something to accompany that first sandwich of the season out at the hives, right? Happy spring friends!

honey pecan shortbread

Honey Lavender Pecan Cookies

The lavender is optional, but I was feeling particularly springy, and it seemed like it would be a nice floral addition. It was. Like most shortbread, these are not overly sweet and are great for dunking.

1 1/2 ounces (or roughly 1/3 cup pecans) 3/4 teaspoon culinary lavender flowers (optional) 4 ounces (1/2 cup) unsalted butter 6 ounces (or roughly half of 1/3 cup of honey) 1/2 teaspoon vanilla 1 cup flour 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt 1 tablespoon honey for glaze

Toast the pecans on a cookie sheet in a 325º Foven for 8-10 minutes. Let cool and pulse them in a food processor with the lavender flowers until they are ground up, but still a little coarse.

In a mixing bowl, beat the butter, honey and vanilla until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add in ground nuts, flour and salt, and mix until just combines and the dough starts to come together in a ball. Turn out onto a piece of parchment, wrap, and chill for an hour or two. (You could easily pack a picnic lunch while your dough chills, just saying.)

Let dough come to room temperature for a few minute before forming into roughly 1-inch balls. Flatten with a flat bottom glass dipped in flour.

Bake about 18-20 minutes in a 325ºF oven until lightly browned. Remove from oven and while cookies are still warm, brush their tops with honey. Makes about 15 cookies. Recipe doubles easily.

undiluted joy

Holy winter did we get snow last week. The fifteen or so inches that fell isn’t a particularly unusual accumulation for the Lake Superior snow belt, but it was a wee bit early. I think we can all agree on that. The storm caught almost all of us off guard. Climate change is so unsettling, isn’t it?

cold-guy

Needless to say, it took almost twenty four hours for me to remember my bees. My bees! The electric fencer is still plugged in and is now shorting out! The bottom air vents on the hives are buried in snow! My bees need me! Clearly I was going to be late for work.

That’s the thing about winter that I always forget. Everything takes LONGER. Getting dressed takes longer – stripy tight season, long underwear, and multiple layers. Getting out the door takes longer – which coat, what scarf, and where’s my hat? Warming up (please start) and scrapping the car takes longer. And the commute. The commute is a lesson in patience that takes F-O-R-E-V-E-R. Eventually this all becomes second nature. But the first week is brutal.

I did make a detour to the bee yard on my way to work, but I was frazzled by the time I got there. I donned my snow pants (more layers, yea!), grabbed my green shovel, and tromped through the snow to unplug the electric fence. I scraped out around the hives and snuggled up close to have a listen inside. The moment I heard their low, sweet buzz, I sank down in the snow and sighed. It gets me every time.

Suddenly I wasn’t late for work. I wasn’t ticked offed by winter’s early onset. And I didn’t care that my entire left sock was half way down my heel. I was just with my bees. It was that simple. Eventually I pulled myself away and landed back in the reality of Wednesday. But for a good minute or two I was in a state of undiluted joy. Which may not sound like much, but I’ll take it. Those two minutes carried me through the rest of a very long week, thank you.

hive-cap

As luck would have it, I also have a stack of honey comb in the pantry to help carry me though the brunt of winter. There’s plenty of extracted liquid honey too, which is nice for cooking and baking, but for almost any other use, I reach for comb honey. It’s like regular honey, only supercharged with texture and flavor. And it’s laced with enzymes and pollen to boot.

Comb honey used to be the honey of choice among consumers because it was guaranteed 100 percent honey with no additives. But once bottled honey became a regulated commodity in the early 1900’s, comb honey gradually fell out of fashion. It’s slowly becoming trendy, but even so, a lot of people just aren’t sure what to do with it. And I don’t blame them. Because really, you’re asking them to eat wax. Nowhere in the food pyramid does wax appear.

comb honey

I initiate people by suggesting they dip a knife into the comb honey and spread a thin layer onto warm buttered toast. This comes with the caveat that doing so could lead to an excessive desire for toast and honey. Which really, in the scheme of things, isn’t so bad. Is it?

Comb honey is also melts deliciously into oatmeal and hot cereals. I like it in my tea too – most of the comb dissolves, but there are usually a few mini honey rafts floating about that I quite enjoy. It’s terrific sliced thin and served with cheese and fruit (blue cheese and crisp pears are a favorite). Very dark, bitter chocolate and a dab of comb honey is a duo to write home about. And it’s an unbeatable, natural sweet pick me up when eaten straight by the spoonful – chewy and soothing.

I use comb honey liberally in the kitchen. I like to experiment and see what it does to flavors. My only rules are to slice it thin and use it sparingly. I want it to complement, not overshadow.  When I needed a fast appetizer a few months ago, I stuck some feta cheese under the broiler for a few minutes, opened a box of rice crackers and assembled little baked feta honey bites. It was so easy and good that I’ve repeated it a half dozen times since. It’s got that sweet, salty, savory mix that I love.

Winter may have come earlier than expected, but its chilly winds bring a welcomed kick in the pants to get back in the kitchen and play. Eat well and keep cozy!

honey bites

P.S. The bees had a marvelous summer and I do have extra comb honey and bottled honey for sale. Comb honey is tricky to ship, but if you live in the Chequamegon Bay Area, I deliver! More info here.

Roasted Feta Honey Bites

These are dynamite served while the feta is still warm, but they are mighty fine at room temperature too.

feta cheese
olive oil
comb honey
crackers

Slice the feta into pieces about 3/8” thick. Place on a lightly oiled baking sheet or cast iron skillet. Drizzle very lightly with olive oil.

Broil the cheese until it is just beginning to turn golden brown on top, about 5 minutes, depending on your broiler. Watch it closely! It will get a little bit melty, but once it cools it holds it’s shape nicely.

Remove from oven and let cool a few minutes. When it is firm enough to handle, use a spatula or knife to transfer cheese pieces to individual crackers.

Top each with a thin slice of comb honey.

baked fets

bee flop

I’m a list person. I write lists to help empty out my head. The idea of course, is to get my jumbled thoughts on paper, thereby freeing up precious mental space for something else. I keep an ongoing work related notebook, and at the back of each of these books are pages and pages of neat, tiny lists. And, yes, I even break my lists into sublists. Things I need to do for work, people I need to talk to, items I’m on the look out for, errands I need to run, perfect dinner party menus. You name it, I can subcategorize it. I can’t help it. It’s genetic.

But mostly I write lists to help maintain an illusion of control. That said, I’ve learned to be careful when making bee yard lists. Yes, there are always routine jobs that need doing, but I’ve come to understand that most of the big bee jobs are unpredictable. You might know certain tasks are impending, but generally there are so many variables, it’s hard to say exactly when they’ll need doing. Making them difficult to plan for. This is hard for me. Which is why I couldn’t stop myself from writing “split hives” on a list a few weeks ago.

pink-bees

The problem is that as a beehive grows in population, it can start to feel a little cramped inside. At a certain point, the bees will take matters into their own hands and split themselves into two populations. They do this by swarming. Which means that half of the hive leaves (with half the honey stores) to find a new home. The really rad part of all this is that bees have the ability and wherewithal to raise a new queen for the hive when they need one. All fertilized eggs that the queen lays develop into female worker bees, UNTIL the workers decide to provide the growing larvae different nutrition. Just that slight change in diet changes larvae from a developing worker bee into a developing queen.

Prior to swarming the bees will start raising a handful of queens, just to be sure at least one survives. The bees know (miraculously) that it takes 21 days for a queen to fully develop. Shortly before the new queens begin to hatch, roughly half of the bees will fill up on honey, surround themselves around the old queen, exit the hive, and take off to a new home. Like clockwork, the queen cells in the hive begin to hatch. The first queen out wins, as she will promptly begin to destroy any unhatched queen cells. Her second task is to exit the hive – her one and only foray into the world – to be mated so she can return and resume the role of egg layer for the good of the hive. Problem solved.

As a beekeeper though, an even better solution is to keep the exiting swarm of bees in your possession. There are two ways to accomplish this. Catch the swarm before it sets off for new real estate and install them into an empty hive, or manually split the hive into two BEFORE they get the notion to do it themselves. Method one requires vigilance and a healthy bit of luck that the swarm actually lands where it’s retrievable. But method two, method two, you can plan for.

incoming

I knew that Hallie Frances’ hive was strong coming out of winter. And she didn’t miss a beat with resuming laying eggs this spring. So I also knew it was only a matter of time before they would start to think about swarming. Hence my preemptive list item. I was going to beat them to the punch.

My plan was to pick a fine day where I had plenty of time to more or less dissect Hallie’s hive. I’d find the queen, isolate the frame that she was on, and then hand pick an assortment of ten other frames – a nice mix of honey, pollen, capped brood, and fresh eggs – to create a second hive. Then I’d put the frame with the queen on it back into the the initial hive and reassemble it with empty frames to replace the ones I’d removed. The new hive would get to work raising themselves a fresh queen, and Hallie’s hive would have their breathing room.

Ha.

It sounds so perfect, doesn’t it? Which is why I looked at my list one fine day and decided the time had come. But here’s the thing. Nothing went according to plan. In three full boxes of bees, I could not find Hallie to save my life. I always find the queen. Always, except for when I’m looking for her. And halfway through the job, my overtired back decided it was done lifting heavy things. Like done, done. As I was looking around at the mess of boxes and frames I’d created, dubious  that I’d find the energy to put it all back, a rogue thunderstorm rolled in on my perfectly fine day. And on top of all that, this very full hive of bees showed absolutely no signs of swarming (they’ll often pre-build telltale queen cells). Everything last little thing was telling me that this hive simply did not want to be split.

bee-mess

Wet, tired, and disappointed, I laid down on my back next to the hive in defeat. A wood tick creeped along the inside of my veil. Eventually, I got up, put everything back together how I found it and headed for home. I keep bee notes in my calendar and when I got in and sat down at my desk I simply wrote “bee flop.”

But after a few days, I realized that it wasn’t actually a bee flop at all. The bees were fine. It was just a list malfunction. As is often the case, it took three boxes of bees to remind me of something big. My lists are futile. They may make me feel more on top of things, but not necessarily the things that count. As much as it makes my precise type-A personality squirm, deep down I know that there’ll be no tally of how many things get crossed off my tiny, neat lists. Life is much bigger than that. Thank god.

“The days aren’t discarded or collected, they are bees that burned with sweetness or maddened the sting: the struggle continues, the journeys go and come between honey and pain. No, the net of years doesn’t unweave: there is no net.” – Pablo Neruda, Still Another Day

confidence boost

Well, here we are a solid week into Spring. And while I wouldn’t exactly say that the melt is on, we have at least had a handful of days above freezing. Which has given me a chance to sneak out to my bees for the first check of the year. I haven’t lifted their covers off since October – five long months ago. And unlike most winters, I’ve barely even been out to put my ear against the hives for a telltale, hopeful listen.

winter-bees

Which means that I was especially wound up on my drive over to the bee yard. I was fairly confident that I left both hives with enough of honey for their winter food supply. But I’m also painfully aware at what a remarkably harsh winter its been. Even if a hive has enough honey, if it is too cold for too long, individual bees won’t be able to break away from their big cluster to access it.

I also knew that one of the hives – the reinging Queen Ella-Bella – went into the winter with a slightly smaller population than is ideal. True, fewer bees means less mouths to feed, but the hive also needs critical mass to maintain a cozy interior hive temperature of roughly 80º F. The bees achieve this by banding together in a big clump and literally shivering their flight muscles all winter long. No rest for the weary, I tell you.

fall-cluster

Since it was my first formal visit to the hives, I decided I had better bring gifts. I’d been away five months after all – it just didn’t seem right to show up empty handed. I didn’t know if the hives had survived or not, but I wasn’t in the mood to take chances. I reasoned that if they were still living, they are most likely starting to run low on honey. So I mixed up a fondant like ”candy board” for each hive. Which is basically a cooked sticky mixture of sugar, water, and vinegar.

I also mashed together a pollen substitute. If things were going according to plan in the hives, the queens started laying new eggs back in February. But developing larvae need pollen in their diet. And if my phenology records are to be trusted, it will be mid to late April before the maple trees are budding and even longer until the dandelions are blooming. And this particular “Spring” doesn’t seem to want to play along. Things could get ugly.

I got to the bee yard and awkwardly hobbled over snow drifts, clutching my my sugar cakes and pollen patties for fear they fall and disappear into the abyss. Ordinarily I start my hive check with the most easterly hive, but since I was nervous and wanted a confidence boost, I decided to look in on the stronger of the two hives first. I pried the lid off Hallie Frances’s hive and to my sheer delight, a handful of bee friends – albeit slightly stunned – buzzed up to greet me. My heart literally leapt. I resisted the urge to pull out an entire frame for a better look. Because even though it was technically above freezing, it was also snowing. I plunked down their sugar and pollen treats, ushered a few strays back into the hive, and sealed them back up.

winter-cluster

I sank deep down into a snow bank and sighed with relief. Hallie’s hive looked amazing. Her large population of bees will almost certainly need to be split into another hive later this spring. That’s the best any beekeeper can hope for. Even if EB’s hive hadn’t made it, I knew I would still have two hives of bees to keep company with this summer. I wrestled myself free and held my breath as I proceeded on to the second hive. I popped the lid and found another bunch of buzzing bees. The clump was much smaller, but Ella’s girls were hanging on!

I drove home with a grin on my face, bursting to share my good news with someone. I e-mailed my beekeeping friend (and source of both of these hives) Kris with the late winter bee report. I knew she’d understand. And she did. She replied back saying that my news was like getting an overseas letter from someone dear and feeling so relieved that everyone is still okay. Which really struck me. Because in this day and age, waiting for an overseas letter doesn’t really happen anymore, does it?

Kris’s comment reminded me that we live in a society that is increasing losing its ability to wait, its capacity to simply not know. And for the umpteenth time since I started keeping bees, I understood that the bees were teaching me something I should pay attention to. They were showing me of the value of uncertainty. That not only is it okay to wait and wonder, it’s often immensely more rewarding to do so. Of course, it can also be more heart wrenching, but either way, I’d argue the waiting – if we let it – takes us to a deeper, more meaningful place within ourselves. The practice of not knowing keeps us hopeful and raw and real.

And you know what else? I’m learning that it’s okay to live with  a little anxiety. Healthy even. Every bit of the the type A-ness in me wants to squelch it out, but my itty-bitty bee brain tells me to let it rest. To hover around it, invite it in, and let it breathe a bit. Because sometimes, living with a little unease is the best way to learn about who we are and why. And the more we understand and respect that, the better we can be for one another.

spring-nuc-cluster

(The photos in this post show Hallie Frances’s hive just starting out in May 2013 (bottom), in October 2013 after a summer’s worth of work (top), and March 2014 on the tail end of  a long, cold winter.)

bee bundle

I’ll be the first to admit that I have a recipe problem. I love recipes. I can read a cookbook like a novel. I’m not capable of paging through a cooking magazine without tearing out at least a handful of pages. And frequently when I’m asked to dinner, I’ll inevitably wind up in the host’s kitchen, asking for a pen to copy down some recipe I’ve discovered in their cookbook collection. There are worse addictions, I tell myself.

Needless to say, I have no shortage of recipes. It’ll be a miracle if I ever manage to cook my way through my stash. Of course that would require that I stop adding to it. Which isn’t likely. It’s such a thrill to stumble on combination of flavors I hadn’t thought of, or to find some fun magazine spread that instantly makes me want to throw a dinner party. But nothing compares to getting a recipe in the mail. Because it means that someone thought a particular recipe might resonate with me and come to life in my kitchen. I love that.

kitchen clips

I have a bulging folder of recipes to try – all waiting to see if they’ll make the cut and be taped into my permanent collection. But I keep a separate, slimmer file, of recipes that people have sent me. This is my favorite file to delve into. I tend to wait for more special occasions to try these recipes.

Which is what happened this weekend with a recipe that someone (thank you Pernille!) sent me months ago. I’ve been thinking of this treat, off and on, waiting for just the right time to try it. The recipe is for a simple, honey-based Italian budino (pudding). And right away, a sentence in the description caught my attention: “This is a sweet to enjoy straight, unembellished, the way you might a complex single-malt Scotch.” The idea being that flavor of the honey, be it a mild clover or an earthy buckwheat, will really shine through. That’s my kind of dessert.

bee-box

For me, late fall is the most melancholic time as a beekeeper. Its the time of year when I tuck in my hives, batten down the hatches, and wrap them up in black insulation – hopefully creating a bee bundle that will survive the long winter. I peek under each hive’s inner cover one last time, knowing we won’t see each other for almost 5 months. I’ll check in on them during the winter, but I won’t open up the hives again until the first March thaw. So my final trip to the fall bee yard is always a quiet one.

But this year, I knew just the thing to lift my spirits. Honey Budino. My friend Julie was hosting a dinner and I offered to bring dessert. It was the perfect ending to a lovely fall meal. Making  this luscious honey pudding was also a nod of gratitude to my bees. Something to make our parting a little sweeter.

Like most puddings, this one is not without its fair share of cream and eggs. I take comfort knowing it is spread over 8 servings. And the indulgence is worth it. This one gets taped in the book. My budino took a little bit longer to set than the recipe suggests, but I thinks it’s because I also had a tray of pumpkin seed brittle in at the same time. It’s hard to beat autumn in the kitchen. Enjoy!

budino

Honey Budino
From The Wall Street Journal
Aleksandra Crapanzano / Karen DeMasco

1 cup honey
1 quart heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 large egg
7 large egg yolks
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar

In a medium-size saucepan cook honey until it darkens and just begins to smoke. Remove pan from heat and slowly add cream, whisking continually. Set aside.

In a separate bowl, whisk together vanilla, salt, egg, yolks and dark brown sugar. Temper yolk mixture by whisking in about a cup of the hot cream and honey mixture. Scrape yolk mixture into cream mixture and whisk until well combined. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve.

Divide pudding among eight 6-ounce ramekins. Place filled ramekins in a deep baking dish or roasting pan, spaced evenly. Add enough hot water to pan to reach halfway up sides of ramekins. Cover pan with foil and place on center rack of a 275º oven. Bake 15 minutes, then rotate pan, lift foil to release steam and replace foil securely. Continue baking, rotating and releasing steam every 15 minutes, until budinos are completely set around edges and slightly loose in centers, about 45 minutes total.

Remove foil and set pan on a rack to cool. When budinos are cool, remove them from water and refrigerate, uncovered, until completely chilled. Budinos can be stored, loosely covered, in refrigerator up to 2 days. Serve as-is, unadorned to let the honey take center stage.

sweet perk

September is looking up. Not only is it National Yoga month, it’s also National Honey month. Hard to go wrong with either one in my book. Oddly enough, they generally go hand in hand for me. My back typically needs a dose of yoga after slinging around fifty pound boxes of bees and honey. Beekeeping is a weird balance between delicate finesse and sheer brawn.

Overall it was a pretty quiet summer in the bee yard. Nothing compared to last summer’s drama. Since I started the season with two young hives, my main goal was to grow each hive from one box of bees into three so they will be ready for a long Wisconsin winter. Things got off to a painfully slow start. Cold weather kept the bees a solid month behind schedule. I conceded early on that there would not be much of a honey harvest this year. Leaving it instead for the bees’ winter supply.

full-house

I got my new bees from my good friend Kris at Wild Girl Farm, but the queens came form neighboring apiaries in northern California. Queen Hallie Frances has a two week head start on Queen EB and it showed all summer long. Hallie’s hive hit a population boom at just the right time. When the Basswood stared blooming, she had a fleet of foragers ready to go in full force. They started packing so much nectar into their hive, it caused me to reconsider my decision not to pull any honey off.

This was in July, and Hallie Fances’s girls were just outgrowing their second box. I needed to decided quickly if I wanted to add their third hive box, or put on a honey super instead. I did a mental flip through the calendar, calculating how much time they would have to fill a third hive box if I interrupted things with a honey super. And then there was the question of what kind of honey super. I could give them drawn out comb that would later be run through the honey extractor, or I could put on some thin sheets of beeswax, letting them draw it out and make cut comb honey instead – a riskier and slightly more intensive undertaking.

I say “riskier” because in my experience, having bees successfully produce comb honey takes a certain sort of hive. They have to be strong, willing, and ready. And the hive needs to be managed in such a way that they have just barely enough room. Not so cramped that they’ll want to swarm, but tight enough so they don’t get all willy-nilly about their cut comb project. Some hives have what it takes and some hives don’t. Enough failures and successes have taught me to spot good candidates.

I love honey in any form – raw, baked into things, creamed – but pure comb honey is my favorite. The comb is imbibed with enzymes, traces of pollen, and subtle floral essences, all providing an extra richness and depth of flavor. And it adds a versatility that bottled honey lacks. You can slice it, crumble it, spread it, and above all – chew on it. Back in the old days cut comb was the honey product of choice. In fact there is even a historical “comb honey” era on the books from about 1880 to 1915. There were no Pure Food and Drug Laws in the U.S. until 1906 – which meant that a lot of bottled honey was spiked with corn syrup, which also meant a lot of consumers avoided it, opting instead for pure cut comb. No filler added.

honey comb

I sat down to consider my options, watching the rush hour traffic come and go from Hallie Frances’s hive. The girls were practically radiating determination. And that did it. I decided to hedge my bets and go for the gold. I got up and went for the cut comb super I had waiting in the car.

And sure enough, they took to their cut comb duty head-on, drawing it out, packing it full, and capping it over – all before the Basswood flow even finished. Rockstars. I slipped the comb super off and replaced it with their third hive box before I left on our annual Boundary Waters canoe trip. And now their third box is nearly packed full, ready for winter.

Queen EB never quite caught up with her roaring neighbor, but her girl’s held their own. They are just shy of 3 boxes, and will most likely spend the winter in 2 deep and 1 shallow box, which should do the trick. But the best part about both hives is their chill attitude and sunny disposition. When I slide their inner covers off, they generally buzz up, like old friends, glad to see me. One of the sweet perks of keeping bees.

cut-comb

Eating Cut Comb Honey

As-is: cut off a chunk and chew on it. It’s great for a simple after dinner sweet, or if you need a mid-day energy boost. After the honey is gone, the wax will turn into an almost everlasting piece of gum that you can chew and spit out whenever. If you chew long enough, it will slowly start to dissolve. Some people advocate it’s quite good for you.

Thinly sliced: use a pairing knife to cut thin slices. Add to cheese and fruit plates plates. Blue cheese on a thin cracker topped with honeycomb is excellent. As is a crisp pear slice with ricotta and honeycomb. Cheddar, fresh jalepeño slice and sliver of comb honey is another winner. Manchego and Granny Smith? The possibilities are endless here people!

Spooned/Crumbled: over hot cereal with a dab of butter. Fall mornings never looked so good.

Spread: onto warm buttered toast. The comb and honey will melt into deliciousness all over your toast.

goodness-sake comb honey box

smile power

I got my start as a graphic designer laying out ads for a newspaper in southern Minnesota. I had an old fashioned “in and out” box on my desk. Am I dating myself? Ad copy would pile up in the “in” box and finished ads loitered in the “out” box, waiting to be proofed. Every so often our proof reader, Hallie, would come by and empty my “out” box. She’d return my stack a few hours later.

My routine was to pour a cup of coffee and thumb my way through the return pile. Most ads had minor corrections. Ads that were perfect though got a signature Hallie smiley face scrawled with her blue proofer’s pen. Oh how I loved to find a perky little smiley face lurking in the corner. Ads that were really messed up got a confused face. And if an ad came through the proofing rotation more than twice, you could expect an evil stink eye. Shudder.

stink-eye

It quickly became clear to me that Hallie was a master. Nothing got by her. And boy could she draw a smiley face. I marveled at her ability to give a simple little face so much expression. Her faces frequently made my day. I actually started a smiley face file. Every once and a while I’d clip a face until slowly I amassed an envelope full of smileys. And let me tell you, when you’re feeling down and you dump out a pile of smiley faces that someone has drawn, it’s hard not to feel at least a little bit better. It’s been over 10 years since I left the paper, but I still have my envelope of smileys tucked in my desk drawer. Just in case.

The staff at the paper was small and frequently we’d gather together for lunch at the back table, sharing bits and pieces of our lives. Hallie’s kids and grandkids are scattered all over the country and I loved hearing about their lives. She could also talk food and gardening to no end. Truly a woman after my own heart. We shared many meals and swapped many recipes.

ruby-stems

I start every rhubarb season off with a batch of Hallie’s rhubarb muffins. Made with brown sugar, they have a rich carmel flavor that pairs beautifully with tart rhubarb. Last week I baked my third round of Hallie’s muffins in as many weeks. They’re that good. I packed a few muffins and a thermos of tea to take out to the bee yard for a hive check. My two new hives have been limping along with the cold spring weather – which has resulted in me clucking around them like a nervous mother hen.

Out at the bee yard I pull the lid off of hive one and find a gorgeous queen, busy at work. Her brood pattern is good, but it’s still in small patches on the frames. Her hive population is small too – all young nurse bees and not many foragers. I close up the hive and give them a reassuring pat. The situation in hive two, however, is all together brighter. After multiple hive checks, I’ve yet to lay eyes on this queen, but that hardly matters. My heart leaps at her handiwork – frame after frame of perfectly laid brood. In a week or two this hive will be bursting with bees.

I remove my veil and take a seat on an empty pallet for a cup of tea and a muffin. I decide to call the elusive queen in hive two Hallie Frances. She has earned a smiley face, no question. I think I’ll even tape one of Hallie’s smileys to her hive for extra encouragement. I mull over hive one. This queen is younger by a good two weeks. I’m confident that she’ll catch up. Last fall I named the daughter of my all-time favorite queen Ella Bella – after another woman whom I respect and admire (childhood idol turned adulthood inspiration). Sadly this little hive did not get a fair shake and they met their match with this winter’s unrelenting cold. So I decide to call my new underdog queen simply, EB. Hell, maybe I’ll give her a smiley face too. Smile power works – I know.

I pack up and test the voltage on the electric bear fence before I go. Finally I can relax. I’m heading into the summer bee season with two strong ladies at the helm. And that, makes me smile.

yippee!

Hallie Francis’s Rhubarb Muffins
I don’t care for overly sweet rhubarb baked goods, so I do not pack the brown sugar. I also prefer a very rhubarby muffin. Adjust both to suit your taste.

1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup oil (something neutral like canola)
1 egg
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 1/2 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 1/2 – 2 cups rhubarb, chopped
1/2 cup nuts (optional)

Cream together brown sugar, oil, egg, and vanilla. Mix together dry ingredients and add to creamed mixture alternately with the buttermilk. Fold in rhubarb and optional nuts. Batter will be thick and sticky. Fill muffin tins 3/4 full and bake at 400º for 20 minutes. Makes 1 1/2 dozen regular muffins.

https://garlicpig.com/2012/09/27/season-finale/

bee season

I had forgotten what a tremendous, sad mess a dead box of bees can be. When I discovered this past February that I had lost all three of my hives, I sealed them up to keep rodents out and left them sit until the spring weather hit. But a few weeks ago – after I got fed up with waiting for the spring weather – I decided I had better tackle the job. I went out to the bee yard on a chilly, bright afternoon to get things tidied up for the new bees that would be arriving in a few weeks.

sad-mess

Without live bees in the hive boxes to regulate, moisture starts to accumulate and leaves things dank, damp and moldy. Add in clumps of slowly decaying wet bees and you’ve got one unfortunate state of affairs. Still, it was satisfying work to scrape everything clean, remove dark, old honeycomb past its prime, and bring home a few pieces of equipment for minor repairs.

Two of the hives were still loaded with honey, which means the girls probably died a temperature related death. Their populations could have been too small to generate the warmth they needed, or it simply could have been too cold for too long, preventing them from breaking away from the main cluster to access their food stores. The third hive was perilously low on honey, which means they might have starved. The colder it is, the more honey the bees go through.

No matter the cause, it’s a heart wrenching situation to see all of those limp little bee carcasses. I decided to collect as many bees as I could to bring back to my garden compost pile. I figure the best way to honor their lives is to return them to the soil where they can continue to give in another way. I ended up with a whopping 6 pounds of dead bees. And I was just about to tip them into the compost pile when my husband’s life flashed before my eyes.

What happens, I wondered, to bee venom as it decomposes? Does it become completely inert? Even after five years of shots to treat an off the charts allergy to honeybee venom, Mark is still highly reactive. It occurred to me that adding 6 pounds of venom filled bees to the compost might be an issue. It’s bad enough that Mark has to put up with my high risk hobby. The thought of sending him into anaphylaxis over a venom laced carrot seemed plain rude. It was a far fetched notion, I admit, but still, I thought it was worth looking into.

barrow-of-bees

I called Mark’s allergist, who was on the forefront of treatment for bee allergies twenty years ago (they actually used to use live bees!). He chuckled at my predicament and said he didn’t think it would be an issue. Though he did suggest checking with an expert, just to make sure. I e-mailed the University of Minnesota Bee Lab who said that while it’s possible to get “stung” from a recently dead bee by brushing it away, a dead, dried, and composted bee shouldn’t be a problem. One “didn’t think” coupled with one “shouldn’t be” seemed reasonable enough.

I got my companions turned into the compost heap just as my good friend Kris was setting up two “nucs” for me from her 20-plus hive apiary. A nuc (rhymes with “fluke”) is essentially a miniature hive that contains a new queen and a few frames of brood covered with young nurse bees to attend to the larvae and queen. After the nucs are set up Kris monitors them for a couple of weeks to make sure the new queens are laying and that the hives are building their populations.

My nucs were eventually ready to go, but the spring weather simply wasn’t. I picked up my new bees from Kris last week on a rather miserable, rainy, 40º F day. It was definitely too cold and wet to transfer the bees into their full size boxes. Bee season was barely out of the gates and already I was in a quandary. I decided my best bet was to  bundle the two mini hives together for warmth, make sure they had food and pollen, and like usual – hope for the best.

bundle-up

By Friday the weather had turned enough to make the switch. I’ll let the young ladies get settled into their new digs and check them again in a few days to make sure nothing happened to the queens en route. In the meantime I’m restlessly standing by, waiting for the dandelions to bloom (the bee’s first nectar source). Let the season begin!

blooming