Procuring Bees and Honey Cake

September 14, 2011

This is the fifth in a series of weekly farm reports from our own Tom Hirschfeld, complete with recipes, cooking and gardening tips, and wisdom dispensed.

Today: Tom on honey cake and procuring bees.


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A Different Sort of Education, Part I

- Tom

If the number of dumb ass things you have done in life stops with the number of fingers you have, you can consider yourself lucky. Since dumb ass is a matter of objectivity, you may need to throw in all your toes too. Even so, you should still figure yourself rightly finishing on the high side of exceptional if the number doesn’t surpass twenty.

Thus far I feel I have been lucky.

So the day I went to pick up a hive of bees and planned to put them in the back of the 4Runner, I had to scratch my noggin and ask myself if I was putting myself at risk of being downgraded on the DA scale.

You have to understand: I spent the better part of a day searching out a hive body full of bees that might be for sale (notice I said might). First off, finding beekeepers who use a phone and don’t think you're the census man is full time affair.


Beekeepers are borderline off-grid-aphrenics. They are skeptics at the very least or they think the world is going to end, and if the world isn’t ending they are just planning for hard times. It is just their nature -- a lifestyle in fact -- and it is all in the oral handbook of beekeeping. Just ask a beekeeper.

So you have to take a Woodward and Bernstein approach when looking for a hive. Start with the officers of the local beekeepers association, only to have them give you a list. As you work your way around the call list they gave you, you quickly learn a few things.

You can never get a definitive answer from a beekeeper. You feel as though everyone is using aliases. At some point you expect to see the name Deep Throat on the call list. And they all have a perfect mid-state Hoosier accent where neck is pronounced nick and next is nixt. This is when you realize the linguistics classes you took in college weren’t for naught, even though it is some twenty years later, but that they still have no real world use. 

Meanwhile you hear this lady yelling, and I mean yelling, out the front door of the house for her husband because they still have a phone with a cord that attaches to a wall and you are listening to this yelling but also thinking about linguistics.

“I don’t know where he is,” she says, then instantly, “Oh, here he is.” Like an apparition appeared before her very eyes.

“This is Garland,” he says.

I go through my whole explanation of what I am looking to do, only to get to the end of why I need bees -- that I have small orchard, and a huge garden -- to hear Garland say he doesn’t keep bees anymore.

And I say, “But I was just talking to Orville Hegemeyer and Orville said...” I get cut short.

“How is Orville, is he doing better? You know I don’t keep bees on a professional basis anymore. I got sick a few years back, had a case of bone shaves. Sold everything, but people have been calling me to get swarms. Well you know if you got one hive you're soon to have ten. Now that my back is better I got a few hives. This spring I am gonna put together a few hive bodies. If all goes well I should have three or four to sell.”

I gave him my number, said I would buy a hive and would wait for his call.

Honey Bee

That spring I watched the pink and white blossoms of the apple and pear trees open, brown and drop to the ground. The asparagus came and went as did the morels. Peas and spinach were done.

The phone rang, “I got that hive body ready 'n full of bees if'n you still want 'em.”

“Garland, I thought you forgot about me!” I said.

“No sir, this weather put things behind almost two months. You still want it?” he asked. He gave me directions.

So that is how it came to pass that I am sitting in a gravel drive with my car window cracked, listening to a man with a bee veil on telling me I might want to park on the other side of the house since he really angered a bunch of bees over on this side, another reason I guess to have a door on every side of the house. So I do.

Garland lived in a small white clapboard ranch in the middle of a small town. It was like the town was built around his seven acres though. He had it all fenced off with that woven wire fence that was big in backyards in the seventies. The house butted up to a big woods, but then it was like a regular subdivision for miles surrounding him.

He had peas growing up the fence and green onions planted around the fence row too. He had stuff growing everywhere. Rows and rows. He had two sheds: one for squabs, the other for chickens. And hives and bee stuff piled everywhere.

He was proud of his place and gave me the grand tour, as if he had been stranded on a desert island and I was the first person to come along. I enjoyed the three-hour tour until finally we wound up at the hive he was wanting to sell me. Eighty bucks.

Funny thing is: when I left his place, I left with four live squabs, a mess of white raspberry starts, and a head full of useful information just because I showed up. I figured with the raspberry starts alone, I was down to twenty bucks for the hive.

The hive. I had no bee suit. I didn’t own one. I did all this stuff in such a hurry I didn’t really plan things out. Garland told me I didn’t need one, that we would screen the hive entrance and that the sides were stapled to the bottom board and top. He stapled it shut with screen, but bees were still flooding out of a small hole at the corner of the entrance. Seems sealing bees in royally pisses them off.

I pointed this exit hole out to Garland and he shot another staple into the screen and everything seemed fine. He said, "Besides, you will want to drive with the back window down and the two front passenger windows open to keep the airflow going out the back, just in case."  Then he laughed, which didn’t really ease my mind.

I drove with the concentration of a winning Indy race car driver on the last lap of the Indianapolis 500. Got home safe and sound. Got the hive safely to its new home.

Now, how to get that screen off, with 30,000 angry bees behind it and me without a bee suit.


Bee Hive

Tom's Tips for Procuring Bees

1. I actually broke one of my cardinal rules. I try not to bring in animals, plants, or for that matter bees from producers I don’t know. It worked out with Garland -- you could just tell he was a renegade bee keeper who knew his stuff and knew how to keep the bees healthy. In fact I got a super hive from him and in the first year it produced 7 1/2 gallons of honey. I have another hive doing the same this year.

2. If you want to keep bees I recommend ordering package bees from a reputable supplier that insures the health and checks the health of the bees before shipping them to you. You can get bees and chickens through USPS.

3. Realize you are going to have to medicate the bees come the fall to rid them of mites and any other possible diseases. It is just how it is. Prepare ahead of time and order in advance because the weather will turn before you expect it to.

4. You will spend double or three times as much money the first year as you think you will.

5. Many city ordinances will allow you to keep bees in the city.

Honey Cake

Rustic French Honey Cake

Makes 9 pieces

This cake is only slightly sweet. It is a cake that answers the age old question, “Is it okay to put a slab of butter on my cake?” with a definitive yes. I find it great in the afternoon with an espresso and, if it is a Saturday, I might even attempt an armagnac, cognac or a sweet walnut liquor. If you just can’t help yourself, you could add another 1/8 cup of honey. The cake is good wrapped in plastic wrap for a couple of days. It was eaten over the course of 3 days here and, for me, only got better.

1 cup rye flour, fine grind
1 cup unbleached cake flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon cloves
1/2 cup honey
2 large eggs
1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
1/2cup whole milk
1 cup prunes, chopped

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Honey Cake

Want more life on the farm? See Tom's post from last week: Burnt Okra and Edible Memories.


See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Food52 (we cook 52 weeks a year, get it?) is a food and home brand, here to help you eat thoughtfully and live joyfully.


gluttonforlife October 1, 2011
Bookmarked this to read and finally got a free moment—moving right along to the next installment! Have every intention of getting some bees going just as soon as we can manage it, so very excited for more updates from you. And the cake recipe looks divine!
Oui, C. September 25, 2011
Tom - I've been on sabbatical for a while, and am just getting caught up with all that's been going on here. Really enjoying your "life on the farm" posts and can't wait to read the next one. I actually have some rye flour in the pantry, so this cake is getting made this week. Cheers - S
nogaga September 21, 2011
I just made this cake (and can send you a picture to prove it!) This is an absolutely wonderful recipe, on so many levels. It took just minutes to mix up. The instructions were flawless. The aroma that overtook my house is almost crazy-making. And now, I am sitting here with a friend, and we simply can't stop eating it. We are smearing it with creme fraiche instead of butter and honestly, we are veering towards some sort of drunkedness. I don't know what else to say except that you have made an already lovely Jerusalem summer night all that much sweeter. Thank you!
Shelly P. September 21, 2011
I was just about to post a comment on how I made this cake this morning, and how dazzled by it I am, but then I read nogaga's comment and decided that I couldn't say it any better. I want to make this recipe (and eat this cake) over, and over, and over again. And so I will.
machef September 21, 2011
Very much enjoyed reading your post - lovely pics too!
justcooking September 19, 2011
I have thousands of bees in my backyard! But no hive that I can see! The bees come for my flowering basil, lavender and citrus trees. I have no idea what they do with the honey. As a closet bee lover, I thoroughly enjoyed your story. Can't wait for part 2! If I ever find time to bake, your honey cake (minus the prunes-sorry) is first on my list!!!
monkeymom September 19, 2011
This is great to see such a passionate discussion on bees. I just wanted to pipe in that honey and native bee populations are in danger. The causes are still not fully understood. One way that any ordinary citizen can help is to join in the hunt for bees! If you can grow a sunflower, then you can help to document bee populations in your area and help researchers track bee populations. For more info go

We planted a sunflower and counted bees this last year! Great fun for kids to learn about plants, bees, our environment and participate in a community science project.
thirschfeld September 19, 2011
what a great project!
nikishelley September 19, 2011
Eep! Medicating your bees isn't "just how it is"! It's certainly been part of the prevailing beekeeping wisdom, but that is changing fast! Read "Toward Saving the Honeybee" By Gunther Hauk or "Bee-Friendly Beekeeping" By David Heaf!
thirschfeld September 19, 2011
I think you mistook what I was saying there. If I do something to keep my bees healthy by natural means I still consider it medicating them. Just like if I drank some herbal tea for constipation, while it is all natural, it is still medication. And just for the record I also think it is a poor choice to feed your bees processed sugar during the winter months. I do know who Gunther Hauk and David Heaf are and they have both presented great information for beekeepers.
Atahini September 18, 2011
My lord you that was a fun, funny read. Looking forward to trying the cake.
LEELEE114 September 18, 2011
I am a beekeeper and must say that not all beekeepers are alike! Shame on you for pigeon-holing all of us. Yes, we're pretty nice people, we're obsessed with bees and helping them survive in these dicey times. I do have a non-corded phone, and I have no idea what "bone shaves" are. I have a masters degree and know no one named Orville. Another way I'm different from Garland is that I do not dose my hives and bees with antibiotics, antifungals, insecticides, in short, nothing that modern chemistry has brought us. All these "miracles" from Dow, Dupont, etc., are one of reasons why our bees are dying. Stop with the chemicals! Google "organic beekeeping" and learn how to stop poisoning your bees and your honey. P.S. I'm anxious to try the honey cake with my gift from our "girls". Regards, Linda
thirschfeld September 18, 2011
Mam, I have been a beekeeper for a number of years, anywhere from 3 to 7 hives, and one of the true joys I get from the beekeepers association is its diversity of folks, those with masters degrees and those without. I don't think I pigeon holed anyone, Garland is a wonderful nice man and while he is different that is his beauty. Personally I believe the public is smart enough to know that there are very smart people, you, scientists and laymen, who are doing a great job advancing the knowledge and care of bees and that Garland is just one person and not the whole. Sorry if I offended you in any way that was not my intention.
unoynot September 18, 2011
Years ago I read a book written by a woman who became a beekeeper, and have lusted after a hive ever since. Your narrative is lovely, so true and touching, I feel that I know these people (and having lived in rural Nebraska 30 years I do). Thank you for sharing. What a great tale, can't wait to bake the cake!
thirschfeld September 18, 2011
thanks unoynot. I hope you get to have a bee hive someday.
TheWimpyVegetarian September 17, 2011
Everything about this so perfect - I've been laughing here almost since I started reading it. You have such a wonderful way of creating a clear image that we can all connect to in some way with the words and punctuation you use. I love your rhythm of writing! And once I hit my diet goal, your cake will be made! It looks like the perfect fall dessert. Or breakfast.
thirschfeld September 18, 2011
Thanks ChezSuzanne and thanks so much for you kind words.
cheese1227 September 15, 2011
Very Calvin Trillin-esque. Great read.
thirschfeld September 16, 2011
you are to kind cheese1227, thanks
nogaga September 14, 2011
I loved every single thing about this post. I'm contemplating breaking out the armagnac and rereading it all. Beautiful.
thirschfeld September 16, 2011
Droplet September 14, 2011
As an alternative to a bee suit you could get a plain old pipe, :) as the smoke calms the bees I've heard. It will go well the overalls :). The cake reminds me of these round honey cakes I used to eat as a kid.
thirschfeld September 16, 2011
SKK September 14, 2011
Still laughing! I think Food52 should have a DA section! And what did you do with the live squabs?
Looking forward to the continuation. And do you have a picture of Garland?
thirschfeld September 16, 2011
No I wish I did have a picture of him. The squabs became dinner.
Midge September 14, 2011
Another great story. Cannot wait to try this cake, so intrigued by the rye flour and prunes.
thirschfeld September 16, 2011
Thanks, I love the rye flour in the cake.
ndenzel September 14, 2011
Loved the story. My husband and I decided to do this too.........our first swarm ran off on us (was it something we said?) In your next installment can you please elaborate on the medicine needed in the fall, perhaps it was that we didn't medicate them that they ran off....I do hope we don't have to innoculate each of them, if so, where would one get tiny syringes? Nora.
boulangere September 15, 2011
thirschfeld September 16, 2011
My neighbor had the same problem. The hive probably wan't strong enough in numbers going into winter and couldn't make a big enough cluster to survive the cold. I medicate for varroa mites in spring and fall and then I also give them something for nosema in the fall. The syringes are easy to find the hard part is finding someone with hands small enough to hold the tiny syringes.
boulangere September 14, 2011
Where to start, there's just so much here. First, a couple of trips to France ago, I came home on a mission to duplicate the rustic honey cakes we'd gotten in slabs at green markets. I love the prunes here. I double up on the armagnac - a tablespoon right in the dough, then some into me along with the cake. Your humorous punctuations had me barking out laughter (the three hour tour is especially good) to the point that one of my students tapped on the door to ask what was going on in here. I know a guy who keeps bees alongside his massive garden, both of which will sustain him well when Armageddon arrives. Love the serialization. Only 6 long days until the next one.
boulangere September 16, 2011
I agree with you - I don't know what it is about bees, but I've heard the rant often enough that he seriously seems to expect the 4 horsemen to appear on the horizon any day now. And they'll all be Democrats.
Kelly C. September 14, 2011
I wish this was a tv show. I want to see Garland's place and this phone with a cord you speak of.
thirschfeld September 16, 2011
Kelly he lives in Alexandria you probably know him
tucsonradish September 14, 2011
Great story telling! Can't wait for the next installment.
thirschfeld September 16, 2011