Posts Tagged 'Beekeeping'

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.

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

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

season finale

Every once and awhile keeping honeybees feels like a chore. There are times when I just don’t feel like running out to the hives to do a mite count or to check that the fence is still working after an electrical storm. And there are days when the weather doesn’t cooperate with my schedule, forcing me to readjust – or worse – to rush. But really, those times are few and far between. The reality is that beekeeping provides me with a perfect excuse to take a long lunch, or better yet, to cut out of the office a couple hours early and spend the rest of the day outside.

fall colors
I’ve noticed that the urge to impulsively go visit the bees seems to increase with the diminishing day length. Perhaps it’s because I feel the cold breath of winter lurking on the horizon. Certainly the stunning fall landscape might have something to do with it. Or maybe it’s just a plain old love affair with bees. Whatever the reason, I don’t fight it. Last week I headed out to the beeyard for a quick task and found myself lingering. I decided to have “just one more look” in my queenless hive “just in case.”
I pulled a frame from the outer edge, not expecting to find much. I was just about to set it aside for another frame when I saw her. A queen. A petite queen, but undeniably a queen. Here is where I can’t decide if the world sped up, or went into slow motion. Before her presence could even fully register in my brain, I watched as she zipped off the frame and flew away, high into the sky. It’s a good thing I was wearing a veil, because I’m pretty sure I just stood there with my mouth open, dumbfounded, for a good minute. A rogue bee flying into my mouth would have only clouded the situation.
I pulled myself together and, of course, immediately started second guessing what I had seen. It couldn’t have been the queen, I told myself. I must have just imagined her, out of sheer hopefulness. I made her up, I was sure of it.
But I didn’t. A queen can be tricky to spot, but when you see her, you know. There is no maybe about it. I saw the queen I had been hoping to find for weeks just a clearly as I saw her fly away.
honey jars
It doesn’t happen often, but it is possible when working with a hive that the queen will accidentally get out. I remember one occasion after a particularly rigorous hive check, I had everything put back together, ready to head for home when I happened to look down and see the queen sitting on the front porch of the hive, looking disorriented and maybe even a little miffed. I begged her pardon as I scooped her up and led her back into the safety of the hive. If you actually see the queen unintentionally fly from the hive, I’ve heard it is best to stand right where you are for 10 to 15 minutes and wait. The idea being that the queen has hopefully sighted you as she left and will use you as a guide to return.
So I stood. And I stood some more. I may have been standing still, but my brain was not. Was this new queen just waiting around for the exact right moment to depart on her mating flight? A moment which I had just indadvertedly created? Or had she already been on her mating flight but not really settled back in? Did I spook her out? Had I just undone a summer’s worth of effort from the hive to raise a new queen? And was that really the queen I saw?
Humph. That perfect golden afternoon light that drew me out to the hives in the first place was starting to fade. I put the hive back together and sent as many good thoughts as I could think out to the fly-away queen. Wherever she was. I drove home, wondering how the season finale would write itself. Would it be a gripping cliffhanger? A storybook ending? Hopefully not a tearjerker. It’s certainly been a roller coaster ride this summer – full of anticipation and thrills. And let me tell you, it’s been encourging to have so many people along for the adventure.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to leave you just dangling up there at the top of the ride. I couldn’t. Because I’d burst if I had to wait all winter to tell you that the hive is now home to Queen Freeda’s magnificent daughter. That’s right! The petite little queen made it back to the hive. I know, because this week, I saw her, plain as day, no maybe about it. And I found cell after cell of perfectly laid eggs. At this late in the game, I may need to borrow a few bits and pieces from other hives to make sure they have a fair shake at surviving the winter. But if their perseverance thus far is any indication, I’m not too worried. Those girls are troopers.
After a summer of meddling and fussing and worry, I finally have a daughter of my all-time favorite queen.This called for cake. But not just any cake. I wanted a simple, sturdy cake. One I could wrap up in a piece of waxed paper and head out to the beeyard with. Honey, of course, should be the star.
honey cake
The recipe sort of formed from what I happened to have on hand. But after enjoying several pieces, I’ll make it a point to have these ingredients on hand again – it was just the combination flavors I was looking for. I intentionally used half spelt flour, because it adds a subtle sweetness to a not overly sweet cake. And I have to admit that I am drawn to cakes that go just as well with a late afternoon espresso as they do with a smear of butter for breakfast. This is that cake. Oh, and it tastes especially lovely outside on a fall day – with or without some bees to enjoy it with.
Honey Cake
Adapted from Tom Herschfeld

1 cup spelt flour
1 cup unbleached flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon cardamom
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup honey
2 large eggs
1/4 cup plain greek yogurt
1/4 cup melted butter
1/2 cup half and half or milk
1 cup dried blueberries

Sift dry ingredients together into a mixing bowl. In a another bowl, whisk together honey, eggs, yogurt, butter, and half and half. Stir wet ingredients into dry with a wooden spoon. Gently fold in blueberries.
Spoon batter into a well greased 8×8 baking pan.
Bake at 350º F for 30 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.
honey cake

stepping back

Why is it that one of life’s lessons feels the need to repeatedly hit me over the head? Thick skulled? Slow learner? I don’t know. But here’s what I do know. Keeping bees is good for me. And it has relatively little to do with any honey I garner. But it has everything to do with being a part of something ancient, something miraculous, and allowing it to seep in and be just that. A mystery. Sounds simple, I know. But for some of us – that whole “letting it be” thing? It’s just not that easy.

Here’s the nitty-gritty truth. I like to be in control. I like to know what is going on – and why. I like clear instructions. I like to work hard and get results and answers. I like things that are specific. Give me instructions. Give me a recipe. But, as it turns out, honeybees are not conducive to any of this. I read endlessly about honeybees. I participate in online honeybee chats. I go to honeybee meetings. I give it my all when it comes to understanding honeybees. And still, they always seem to one up me.

My girls have been having an off summer. And it pains me to tell you that I can not figure out why. I can’t blame it on the weather, I can’t even blame it on my management skills. By all indications, things should be going well. But something is off. Valerie’s hive has been lackadaisical all summer – and with no clear indication as to why. I actually miss her girls’ sassiness. Freeda, bless her little bee heart, has been charging along as usual, setting an exemplarily example of what an A+ beehive should look like in the height of summer. Until a few weeks ago that is. I was doing a routine hive check and I got the eerie sense that something was wrong. I buttoned her back up, gave the hive a pat, and hoped it was just me being silly.

But when I checked her hive again the other day, I was dismayed. No capped brood + no larvae + no eggs = no queen. No Freeda. I could tell right away that her girls were squirrelly and unusually frantic. A bad sign. It was all I could do to hold in my tears as I pulled out frame after empty frame from the brood nest. Lest you think I am entirely sappy, I should clarify that Freeda is the queen bee I have had the longest relationship with. She has set the bar for all others. So I feel a particular bond with her. Her absence was palpable. (That’s her in the photo above – right in the center.)

A hive without a queen is not really a hive. I immediately ran through my options. I could get online and search for an available queen, paying an exorbitant price to overnight her to northern Wisconsin. Or better yet, I could call my good friend and bee guru Kris (who lives conveniently down the road) to she if has any of her northern hardy, queen stock to spare.

Another option would be to take a frame of eggs from Valerie’s hive and give it to Freeda’s girls so they can raise a new queen. A slower process by far, but one that is entirely amazing. Bees are the only species I know of that can dictate the outcome of an egg based on how they treat it. The majority of eggs in a hive develop into more female worker bees. But should the need for a new queen arise, the workers can feed an egg a special substance called royal jelly and raise a new queen from an egg that would otherwise become a worker bee. How and why they know to do this astounds me. But when it happens, you know it. Queen cells are very distinct. They look like full-size peanuts hanging off of an otherwise flat frame of brood.

I opted to stick a frame of eggs from Valerie’s hive in just for insurance, which also bought me a bit of time to check into my other options. I called Kris first. No queens. Drats. I did find a queen in Georgia that could be sent via UPS. But the cost coupled with the fact that I am heading off to the Boundary Waters for a few days of paddling, deterred me. The new queen might arrive in time, but if she was at all delayed, she’d spend a sad week on my doorstep and neither of us would be the better for it. So I have decided to let the bees take charge and run their own show. After years of keeping bees, I fully acknowledge that the bees almost always know better than I do. I might think I know, and as much as I might think they should be doing something differently, I’m really second fiddle to it all. My girls repeatedly remind me to relax and take a big step back from things. I love them for that.

Even so, I can’t help mentally wrestling with what might have transpired in the hive. The last time I looked, I found one fully developed, neatly exited queen cell in the hive. It’s possible that they decided to swarm. Which means that once the new queen cell was underway and developing, the older bees with Freeda in tow took flight from the hive in search of less crowded accommodations (a simply astonishing sight and sound to behold). After Freeda’s new daughter hatched (a solid two weeks from the egg stage) she’d have to leave the hive in order to complete a few mating flights. So it could be that I looked in on the hive on an afternoon when the new queen was simply out. The timing was perfect for this. It could also be that the new queen went out, but never made it back – leaving the hive queenless, and eggless. A bad combination. Or, for all I know, they were planning on swarming but something happened to Freeda before they could pull it off.

If pressed, I could probably provide a half dozen renditions of what might have happened. But eventually, after several whacks to the head, I realize that I don’t need to figure it out. The girls certainly aren’t asking me to. They’re forging on in whatever way they can. For my part, I am reminded yet again to step back and watch the mystery unfold. Maybe when I return home from canoeing and peek in the hive I’ll see that tell-tale peanut, signifying one of Valerie’s daughters is about to hatch. Or perhaps there will already be new eggs and larvae, indicating that Freeda’s daughter made it back to the hive to carry on the legacy. And it’s entirely possible that I still won’t have a clue. And that’s okay too. I can let it be.

hunker in

There is nothing more thrilling for me than a wintertime trip to the bee yard. I generally pack my camera, a shovel, and a thermal mug of hot green tea. Once there, I literally sprint from the car through the deep snow to get to the hives. Then, like a little kid, I drop down on my knees in front of the snow-capped towers. The suspense of it gets to me every time. Are they going to be alive? I eagerly put my ear straight up against the hive entrance and listen for the tell-tale hum. Valerie’s hive, check. Queen Ruth Wilson, check. And my lovely Freeda? Three for three! That’s how it went today anyway.

Now I can relax and go back for my tea. I shovel out around the electric bear fence to keep the weight of the snow from stretching out the woven wire. I scrape the snow and ice from their front porches and clean up around the hives. And then I plop down and sit with my head up against a hive. It’s bitterly cold, but for once it doesn’t matter. There’s life in there! I can hear it! I look around at the frozen winter landscape and laugh.

On a mild winter day the girls will certainly be standing by at their entrance, surveying the day. If it’s nice enough they might even venture out for a little spin – or what is technically called a cleansing flight (they keep their quarters clean). But on a day like today when the mercury is struggling to get up to 0º F, they stay bundled in tight.

Bees don’t hibernate. Instead, they spend their winter shivering their flight muscles to stay warm and heat the hive. They band together and form a cluster in the center of the hive. The colder it gets, the tighter of a cluster they form around the queen. They maintain an internal cluster temperature of anywhere from 70 – 95º F. The bees sort of continually rotate through from the outer edge of the cluster into the center, accessing their stored food supplies as they go. How cool is that?

If that’s not impressive enough, get this. A winter bee is physiologically different from a summer bee. They have fatter bodies and a different blood protein profile than a standard summer bee. And they live considerably longer – 4 to 6 months versus the reckless 35 day lifespan of a summer gal. They are specifically designed to make sure the colony survives the winter. Somehow the cooler fall weather triggers the girls into rearing stockier, heartier winter bees. That blows my mind.

Any hive that is going to make it through the winter needs enough stored honey to see them through. But the danger an over wintering hive faces is if it gets too cold for too long, the bees won’t be able to shift in the cluster to access their food. So I always get a little nervous when the first arctic blast of the season hits. Last night the thermometer dropped to -11º F and more of the same is in store for tonight. But I’ve done all that I can. I down the last of my tea, give each hive a pat and tell my girls to hunker in just a little tighter.

love people

Santa was good to me this year. He brought all the right things. My husband Mark did a marvelous job at tipping him off. I was giddy after opening an odd shaped, cleverly wrapped package that revealed a bright red rolling pin. A red rolling pin! I don’t really need another rolling pin, nor do I really have the space in our little kitchen to store another rolling pin. But a red rolling pin! I love it. I’ll make room.

I was equally overjoyed when I discovered an antique comb honey dish under the tree. I’m not sure why, but comb honey has sort of fallen out of favor over the last few decades. It used to be the only way my grandpa’s generation ate honey. And I know why. A thin slice of honey comb melds perfectly with almost anything. It melts into sweet oblivion on a piece of warm buttered toast. It sparks up a slice of fine cheese like nobody’s business. It makes perfect chewing gum. We take it on camping trips and slice off hunks of it for times when we need an energy boost (it also keeps us in good with the bears). And the comb itself – which is loaded with enzymes, vitamins, and amino acids – is quite healthy.

Every August during my pilgrimage to the Minnesota State Fair, I spend a significant portion of my visit in the honey room – watching demonstrations, marveling at the prize winning honeys, cataloging new ideas for honey baked goods, and ogling over the displays of vintage comb honey dishes. Most have bees, flowers, and pretty patterns worked into the glass. They are elegant, yet still sturdy and functional – my favorite combination in tableware. And now I am the proud keeper of one. My dish has a relief of bees around it with a sunflower radiating out from the stemmed handle. What’s more, it is the perfect shade of pink! And I’m delighted at how it catches the morning light from the kitchen window. Quite an upgrade from the shabby tupperware that used to house our honeycomb. (I regret that there is not a fresh, new slab of honeycomb in the dish for the photo, but that required more planning than I could muster.)

There were plenty of other fun little gifts to be had this Christmas, but one that I keep thinking about in particular is a bumper sticker that my mom put in my stocking. It’s about as plain as a bumper sticker can get – just a roughly scribbled big yellow heart in the middle, overlaid with the words “Love People. Cook them tasty food.” I like it for several reasons, the simplicity of its design for one. But certainly for the message. It’s nothing terribly profound, yet in some ways it is. It feels so real, so attainable. Finally, a bumper sticker I can get my head around.

I have a tendency to get pretty overwhelmed with the world and our current state of affairs. Stories of poverty, hatred, cruelty, injustice, and discrimination hit me hard. And leave me feeling quite helpless. The only way I know to cope is to reign the most disturbing aspects of reality back down into my little sphere, my little place on this earth, and ask what I can do to make a difference. And here is one more answer for me. I can love people. I can cook them tasty food.

last hurrah

The transition from fall into winter can be brutal in the bee yard. It’s the time of year when the drones (the larger, sort of bumbling, non-stinging male bees) are literally dragged out of the hive. The female worker bees preform this task as a way to bring the hive’s population down. Fewer bees in the winter cluster means fewer bellies to feed. And not taking risks with the food supply is a sure way to increase a colony’s odds of making it through the long Wisconsin winter.
I hate to say it, but really, the drones wouldn’t stand a chance with any plea they might make to stay. They just don’t have a whole lot in their favor. Drones don’t forage. They don’t participate in making honey. They don’t work as nurse bees – tending larvae, or as guard bees – protecting the colony. They don’t do any comb construction. To make matters worse, they defecate in the hive, leaving the females to clean up after them (the ladies are fastidious and exit the hive to do their business). And to top it off, drone larvae is the preferred breeding ground for the deadly varroa mite.
When it comes right down to it, a drone’s only “job” is to circle high in the air some distance from the hive, waiting for rogue, unmated queens to come by. A queen only makes one mating flight in her life, so I have to think it is pretty lonely work for the average drone. What’s worse, should they actually get the chance to put the moves on a queen and pass on their lineage, that’s it – death is soon to follow. This doesn’t seem to get them down. Nor does getting chucked out of the hive to meet their end with the winter chill. Maybe it’s because I can think of no worse way to go than freezing to death, but I tend to have a lot of sympathy for the drones. I cringe to witness this annual ritual.
Sadly, I think we might have just seen the last of our languid fall days with that signature slanty afternoon light. But I cherished every last  one of them – not only selfishly, but for the drones’ sake too. This quote I stumbled across in one of my bee books couldn’t express my sentiments better:
“If skies remain clear, the air warm, and pollen and nectar abound in the flowers, the worker, through a kind of forgetful indulgence, or over-scrupulous prudence perhaps, will for a short time longer endure the importunate, disastrous presence of the males.”
I snapped this photo on Friday – just before the snow set in. Two drones standing side by side (their larger eyes and slightly burlier builds set them apart). At the risk of sounding anthropomorphic, I like to think they are enjoying one last fall afternoon on the front porch – remembering a summer well spent. One last hurrah.