Posts Tagged 'overwintering bees'

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.


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!


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.

tricky business

Northern Wisconsin has had a particularly blustery winter. Which means I’ve been checking in on my beehives more often than usual. Any time I hear talk of an Alberta clipper coming our way I make a trip out to the girls. And then I always check in on them again after the cold snap breaks. Of course my visits can’t really change the outcome of things, but still, I like them to know that we’re in this cold mess together.

hive view

I also visit them after significant snow falls. If we get more than a few inches, I’ll need to clear away their bottom entrances so the hives maintain adequate airflow. At least on these trips I feel useful. Another chore is to keep the electric bear fence shoveled out. It’s a small thing, I know, but it feels good to get the beeyard nice and tidy before checking in with each hive. By “checking in” I mean sitting down next to the hive and putting an ear up right against their top entrance. Sometimes it’s faint, but if you listen hard, you’ll be treated to the most magnificent buzzing.

But the buzz isn’t actually the sound of their wings moving. It’s the vibration of their flight muscles. In essence the bees generate just like we do – by shivering. It’s a remarkable thing though. Thousands of constantly shivering bees produce a core hive temperature of about 90ºF. I wish I could bring on 90º temps just by shivering. As the bees on the outer edge of this shivering mass get chilled, they move inward, pushing warmer bees out for a turn on the edge. Go team!

Naturally, the colder it is, the harder the bees need to work to maintain their cozy hive temperature. And just like humans, the harder they work, the more calories they need. This raises two potential problems. If it stays too cold for too long, it gets difficult for the bees to break away from their big warm cluster to access their honey stores. It also means they will need more honey than usual to make it through the winter. Which is why Alberta clippers make me nervous.

lonesome yard

My usual routine when visiting the winter bee yard is to shovel first, check second. But on my most recent trip, I went straight to the hives. Something in me must have known. I listened to each hive, but the life I craved wasn’t there. All three hives we quiet and still. Sweet queen Freeda, her newly established daughter hive, and even the boisterous and obnoxious girls of Valerie’s hive had moved on. I stared up into the colorless sky and waited for sadness to seep into me.

I know it sounds silly, to be emotionally attached to a box of stinging insects, but I am. Deeply. Which I guess just speaks to the extraordinariness of honeybees. The bees know something. And unlike humans, they have not forgotten. They have not buried their instincts. Nor have they managed to hide behind the veil of something better. I yearn for their sacred knowledge. I cling to it. So I watch and listen. And in doing so, they give me infinitesimal drops of wisdom.

Finally I manage to pick myself up from the snow and, because I don’t know what else to do, I shovel out the hives. While I work, I berate myself, wondering if I have failed my bees. Did I leave them enough honey? Did I wrap them differently, causing unforeseen airflow issues? Did they go into winter with too small of a population? Probably, after all my late summer shenanigans trying to “help” Freeda split her hive into two. Freeda’s hive is the one I will miss the most. She gave me something extra, something unnamable.

Enough. I shake off my sadness and instead focus my energy on opening my heart to the new arrivals who will come later in the spring. I think of the delight in getting to know each new hive. And in the meantime, I’ll be able to go through my equipment, remove old comb, and make any other necessary hive repairs. Fresh starts are good, I try and convince myself.

bee gone

Weeks later, on a Saturday morning, I find one of the last seats in the crowded basement of the Salem Baptist Church. About 60 of us have gathered for the Northern Wisconsin Honey Producers annual spring meeting. The room is a quirky mix of old timers and newcomers. We’re a funny lot, beekeepers, but the one thing we have in common is our willingness to sit on folding chairs in a church basement for hours on end to talk bees.

As I settle in, my neighbor informs me that Verne has already been by. Verne is our club’s secratary. Every fall he takes the honey report and every spring he takes the overwintering report. I go over, and with a sigh, give him my data – went in with three, lost three.

A few minutes into the meeting Verne is ready with a rough statistic. Out of 269 total hives going into winter, 125 are still living. Which means about a 46% survival rate. This low number saddens me, but as the meeting forges on, my curiosity and love of bees is sparked even higher. Bee keeping is a tricky business to be sure, but you can count me in. There’s so much more I need to learn from them.

girl talk

I tell my bees everything. From the mundane to the monumental, they get to hear all sorts of news from me. I especially like to tell them my troubles. They seem to have a way of talking me down from just about anything. They’re always so calm and practical. Their attitude sort of rubs off on me. And after a while, my problems generally seem less problematic. I can’t really explain it, but I’ll take it.
There is plenty of folklore out there that suggests bees should indeed be kept in the loop. Old timers will tell you that a hive will swarm if they aren’t informed of big news. This bit of Celtic wisdom nails it:
Marriage, birth, or burying, 
News across the seas, 
All your sad or marrying, 
You must tell the bees.

And I get chills when I read about the ritual of tapping three times on a hive to let the bees know that their keeper has died. There is a beautiful Deborah Digges poem about this gloomy task.

In the spring and summer I look in on my bees about once a week, which means I get ample time to gossip. Sometimes I even run out of things to say. But even then it’s an easy silence. Basically visiting with my bees is a little mini-escape. It’s like having coffee with a good friend. So I always get a little nostalgic on my last visit to the bee yard of the season. Sure, I’ll check in on them all winter long, but I won’t open up the hives again until early spring. So I take my sweet time tucking them in for winter.
After the fall asters and goldenrod have dwindled I usually give each hive a couple of pails of sugar water. This helps to bolster their winter food supply – one of the most critical factors affecting their odds of winter survival. And then some time before the end of October, ideally on one of those last sunny, brisk afternoons, I’ll pull off the food pails and literally wrap up the hives. I use a black plastic that is backed with a thin layer of insulation. I top each hive with a piece of moisture wicking construction board so that any winter moisture – another key survival issue – gets drawn out of the hive. I also make sure to leave an air opening on the top and bottom of the hive so that air will circulate though, hopefully keeping things nice and dry.
I especially like the top hole because it means I can peek in and see what the girls are up to. Even in the dead of winter I can usually coax a few girls out onto the opening. I like to think they are spreading any news I’ve brought once they scurry back into the warmth of the hive cluster.
We’re having such a splendid fall that I’ve been putting this job off for as long as I can. After a few nights of hard frost though, I know it’s finally time. So this afternoon I packed my lunch with a thermos of tea and headed out out to the hives to bundle the girls up for a long winter ahead. But not without telling them the news of the day.


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