Procuring Bees and Honey Cake

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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.



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.