Thursday, June 30, 2011

Honey Ice Cubes for your Fresh Herb Tea!

Honey Ice Cubes!
These are perfect for iced tea because they add a touch of sweetness without watering down the drink too much.  You can add them to just about any unsweetened or lightly sweetened drink, though.  If you like scotch on ice, try it with some honey ice cubes and you just might be in heaven!

Blend 1/2 cup of honey with 2 cups hot (not boiling) water and 2 tablespoons lemon (or orange or lime or even peach) juice.  Stir until thoroughly combined.  Pour into ice cube trays and freeze until solid.  This makes 2 or 3 ice cube trays full, depending on the size of your trays.

Fresh Herb Tea
Just about any fresh herb out in your garden right now can make a refreshing cold tea.  I tend to use mints as a base and then experiment with adding one other herb for some subtle flavors.  Basil is a mint, so pepper or spearmint with a few sprigs of basil added lends a nice flavor to cold herb tea.  Try other herbs, though, such as lemon balm, lemon verbena, tarragon--even thyme or a sprig of rosemary.

1 cup fresh herbs, swished in a bowl of cold water to get rid of any dirt
2 quarts cold, filtered tap water
1/4 to 1/2 cup honey
Bring the cold tap water to just under a boil.  Bruise the herbs leaves by twisting them or mashing them to bring out their oils and place in a 3-quart heat tolerant container.  Pour the hot water over the herbs and steep for about 30 minutes (or until the tea reaches a strength you desire).  Strain the herbs out and add the honey, stirring to mix well.  Taste and check for sweetness, remembering that as the tea chills, the sweetness will diminish.  Chill well and serve over honey ice cubes!
Variations:  Before chilling, add juice of 1 lemon and then refrigerate.  Serve with lemon slices.  OR Add 1-2 cups of orange juice and serve with orange slices.  (When I use the orange variation, I usually just use spearmint or peppermint and skip the lemon balm and lemon verbena.)

What Exactly is Honey?

Such a simple question.  The answer...well, that's a bit more complex!

Honey is a blend of simple sugars, primarily fructose (about 40%)  glucose (about 35%) with a little sucrose (about 2%).  The other primary ingredient in honey is water, which should be between 16 and 18%.  The remaining ingredients are "trace"--that is, they aren't present in enough quantity to make honey a significant source for them.  These include minerals (such as potassium).  Honey is also somewhat acidic (a result of the enzymes honeybees add to the nectar when they begin to ripen it into honey).

Honey compared to sugar:  Honey has more calories than sugar (there's about 16 calories in a teaspoon of table sugar while honey has about 22 calories per teaspoon).  But honey tends to be sweeter, so you may not need to use as much of it.  In sugar, the fructose and glucose are linked together, while in honey they remain separate.  This accounts for honey's sweeter taste:  fructose is sweeter and because it's not linked to glucose in honey, its sweetness shines through.

From the bees' perspective, honey is a carbohydrate that gives them energy. And because honeybees are indeed busy,  they need all of the energy that they can get!  (Honeybees also collect pollen, which supplies their protein. Together, honey and pollen provide honeybees with a complete diet.)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Spring Honey Extraction!

Frames of capped honey waiting to be extracted
Spring honey is one of Western Pennsylvania's most amazing delicacies. Nectar from early and late spring tree blossoms, especially the black locust and tulip poplar trees combine to create a delightfully light and delicious spring honey.  With all the rain in early spring, we were worried we wouldn't have much of a spring crop.  Rain can dilute the nectar so much that the bees have trouble turning it into honey.
     Once foragers collect the nectar, they store it in their "honey stomachs" and take it back to the colony.  At the colony, waiting house bees take the nectar from foragers in a mouth-to-mouth transfer.  The house bee will work with honey for about 30 minutes, moving it in and out of her proboscis, a process that adds enzymes and helps with evaporation.  Nectar is usually about 80% water, while honey is about 17% water-very dry!  Once she works with the nectar, she'll place it in a cell to evaporate more.  She and her sisters will fan the nectar until most of the water in it has been evaporated.  At that point, they'll cap the cell with a bit of beeswax to prevent moisture from getting back in.
A close up of nectar and just-capped honey (as well as some pollen)
Here's a close up photo of nectar on the verge of being capped.  In the top left, you can see some that the bees are starting to cap some of the cells.  The shiny cells have nectar not yet ready to cap.  In the lower right, the cells are filled with solid, colorful pollen. Nectar and honey are the bees' source of carbohydrates.  Pollen provides their protein.

Uncapping the honey to get it ready to extract
To extract the honey, we remove the beeswax cappings using a hot knife. The frames are then put into the extractor.

Here's a photo of "Big Green," our four-frame "antique" honey extractor, which we use when we don't have a lot of honey to extract.  The extractor spins the honey out of the cells using centrifugal force.

"Big Green" our 4-frame extractor  

And voila! Honey flows from the extractor into a strainer and a gated bucket.
Fresh spring honey!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Honey of a Father's Day Meal

It's all honey all the time for this Father's Day meal! Maybe your dad is already sweet and so one (or two) of these dishes might do the trick. The honey in the steak and the potatoes is not that overpowering, though--so the entire meal is one that even an already sweet dad would enjoy. These dishes all serve about four people.

We adapted this recipe from Lynne Rosetto Kasper and Sally Swift's How to Eat Supper cookbook. You can check out the original recipe on Rosetto Kasper's Splendid Table website.

3 tablespoons dry red wine
3 tablespoons honey--the fall honey is fantastic with this, but summer honey also works well
3 large garlic cloves, smashed
freshly ground black pepper (about 1 teaspoon)
olive oil
1-1/2 to 2 pounds steak (about 1-1/4 or 1-1/2 inches thick--get it from McElhaney's!)
kosher salt
more freshly ground pepper

Combine the wine, honey and garlic cloves and pepper and pour over steak. Let it marinate while you make the rest of the meal. Coat the bottom of a frying pan with olive oil and heat over medium high heat. Pat the steak dry with a paper towel and add to the pan. Let it sear on one side for about 3 minutes, while you sprinkle the top with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. Turn and cook 3 minutes more, sprinkling with more salt and pepper. Turn heat to medium low and cook, turning for about 2 or 3 more minutes until internal temperature is between 125 and 130 for medium rare. (This splatters a lot, so be prepared for the mess.) Let steak rest for 5 to 10 minutes before serving. You can thinly slice and use this for sandwiches if you'd like. Two pounds serves four people.

1 pound small new potatoes
2 tablespoons melted butter (or olive oil or peanut oil--or 1/2 butter and 1/2 oil)
3 tablespoons honey (spring or summer)
1 tablespoon dry mustard (or 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper flakes)
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Scrub new potatoes and place in a pot of salted water to cover. Bring to a boil and cook for no more than 5 minutes. Drain, return to pot and shake over the flame to dry potatoes and get them ready to roast.

Combine the butter (or oil), honey and mustard (or cayenne pepper). Pour over potatoes in the pot and toss to coat well.

Line a rimmed cookie sheet with aluminum foil (this will save clean up time!). Pour coated potatoes onto cookie sheet, and spread out, giving them lots of room. Sprinkle with kosher salt and pepper, being sure each potato gets a nice dose of salt and pepper. Roast in oven for 35 to 50 minutes, shaking pan after about 15 minutes and then at least once again. Begin testing to see if they're done at 35 minutes and keep roasting until a paring knife easily slides in (and out).

1 pound fresh spinach, washed and dried
1 crisp green apple (like a Granny Smith), chopped
1/4 cup walnuts, toasted
1/4 cup grated cheddar cheese

Toss together. When ready to serve, toss with Honey Poppy Seed Salad Dressing (recipe follows)

2/3 cup honey (summer honey works best here)
2 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon poppy seeds
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon grated onion
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
Combine everything but the olive oil in a food processor. While the processor is running, slowly pour in the olive oil until all is emulsified. Just before serving, pour about 1/4 on the salad and toss. Add more dressing as needed. Serve extra dressing on the side.

for the strawberries:
2 cups strawberries, cleaned and hulled (and sliced or halved, if large)
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/8 cup honey (summer honey is best)
Combine and set aside while you make the shortcakes.

for the biscuits
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup cold unsalted butter
1/4 cup spring (or summer) honey
2-3 tablespoons whole milk, plus more for tops of biscuits.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Whisk flour, baking powder and salt together. Cut butter into flour mixture until it's about the size of peas. Combine 2 tablespoons of milk with the honey. Pour over flour and gingerly combine (I use my hands for this). Add another tablespoon of milk if you need to--you want the dough to just barely come together. On a floured surface, pat dough out into a rough square (about 6 by 9 inches). Cut into six squares. If you'd like, you can cut the squares into triangles. Place on an ungreased baking sheet, being sure sides don't touch. Brush tops with some additional milk. Bake for about 10 minutes until tops brown.

To serve, split warm biscuits, top with strawberries. Serve with sweetened whipped cream (beat 1/4 cup of whipping cream with 1/8th cup of honey) or vanilla ice cream (or some plain yogurt sweetened with a little--you knew this was coming, right?  honey!).

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Father's Day Gift Ideas for the Honey and/or Honeybee Lover

Looking for some unique gift ideas for your hard-to-buy-for dad? Look no further! (And don't worry, Dad: We're getting you a tie this year!)

For the bee-curious dad (who may or may not be a beekeeper):
He's likely to enjoy Thomas D. Seeley's 2010 book Honeybee Democracy (Princeton University Press) and recently featured on NPR. Seeley is a professor of biology at Cornell and a passionate lover of and advocate for honeybees. In this latest book, he describes how honeybees make collective decisions about where to locate a new colony when they swarm. From this, Seeley draws some delightful conclusions about how humans can make better collective decisions. The writing is lively and fascinating. The book is available on-line for about $20.

For the dad who loves honey and wants to know more about it:
Check out Kim Flottum's The Backyard Beekeeper's Honey Handbook. I reviewed this book in Review of Honey Cookbooks, Part I. It's written for beekeepers, but provides a very nice discussion of honey varieties, talks about how to treat honey well and includes some great recipes, too. You might also look for Gene Opton's Honey: A Connoisseur's Guide, (reviewed in Review of Honey Cookbooks, Part II), though it's out of print, and may take some searching to find.

For the beekeeping dad who like gadgets:
One of the handiest gadgets we've added to the many beekeeping gadgets we've purchased over the years is a simple and compact cigar lighter that makes lighting a smoker a dream. If your dad's a beek and doesn't have one, he'll thank you for it! You might also look for a "frame holder" or "frame perch" which is a handy when you're beekeeping on your own. They're available at all major beekeeping supply places. (Joe Z. at Country Barn Farm is a local distributor for Brushy Mountain. Blue Sky Bee Supply in Hiram, Ohio is another small and fairly close source.)

Sunday, June 5, 2011

A Pre-Father's Day Shout Out to Drones!

Drones of two different bee races.  The lighter colored drone is
likely Italian while the darker color is probably Carniolan.
Much-maligned honeybee drones (the male bee in a colony) get a bad rap for being lazy because their one and only function is to mate with virgin honeybee queens. Unlike the busy (and aptly-named) worker bees (who are all females), drones don't collect nectar and pollen.  They don't tend to the brood.  They can't even defend the hive because they don't have stingers.  When they're not hanging out in "drone congregation areas" waiting for virgin queens to fly by, they shuffle from one colony to the next begging food from busy workers.

Yet drones serve a crucial function for honeybees by providing a diversity of genetic material that helps the entire population of honeybees survive.  As Thomas Seeley writes in Honeybee Democracy (2010, Princeton University Press), drones "help their colony win in the ceaseless evolutionary competition to pass genes on to future generations" (p. 24).

An interesting "Father's Day" fact about drones is that they themselves don't have fathers, though they do have grandfathers.  Here's why:  in most cases, the queen will fertilize the eggs she lays with sperm she obtained from mating with 10 and 20 drones when she took her maiden flight.  Fertilized eggs become female worker bees (or, if fed a rich diet of royal jelly, a potential new queen for the colony).  As Seeley writes, the queen will withhold sperm from about 5 percent of the eggs she lays.  These unfertilized (fatherless) eggs will become drones.  So, drones don't have a father, but they do have a grandfather--the drone that provided the sperm that fertilized the egg that eventually became the queen that laid the unfertilized egg to produce a drone.

While the drone's seemingly lazy life might sound like a sweet deal, if he's successful in achieving his life's mission and does mate with a queen, he does not survive the event.  Seeley writes that "when it comes to seeking sex, drone honeybees are no slackers" (p 24).  They strive to out-fly the other drone competitors and inseminate the queen 30 to 60 feet in the air. Go drones!

Women Beekeepers Potluck!

Queen Bees tart de citron by Danielle Marvit
A busy swarm of Pittsburgh-area women beekeepers arrived at SteffesWood Apiary Saturday afternoon to share beekeeping know-how and some fantastic food, including this delightfully decorated and delicious tart de citron (lemon tart) made by Danielle Marvit.  Danielle is a baker at La Gormandine in Lawrenceville and is a partner in Churchview Farm (busy woman!).

Joan and Chris "cracking" open a hive.
Claudia's in the background 
A hive inspection begins with "cracking" open the cover, which sounds much more destructive than it is.  Honey bees glue their colonies together with a sticky substance called propolis that they make from tree resin and their own salivary secretions.  So, to get into a colony, beekeepers have to "crack" the propolis seal on the lid with their hive tools.

After cracking open the inner cover, Jennie, Joan, Monica and Barb look at the top of the hive to see if the bees need more space.  The one below is a small 5-frame "nuc" (short for nucleus) that just got started this year.  The bees in this colony were still building comb and didn't need more room.

from l-r:  Jennie, Joan, Monica (behind Barb) and Barb looking
at newly opened colony to see if it needs more space
Monica, Claudia, Eva (holding frame) and Kerry
looking at a frame to see if it has newly-laid eggs
Monica, Claudia, Eva and Kerry inspecting a frame to see if it has newly-laid eggs.  Spotting eggs is an important beekeeping skill.  If you can see freshly-laid eggs, you know that the colony is "queen right"--they have a queen who is laying.  

Barb, Claudia, Kerry, Chris and Jennie take a close look at a frame to see if it has brood (eggs, larvae and pupae).  Eggs are very hard to see--they look like a tiny grain of rice at the base of a cell--so it sometimes takes close inspection!  We brought a couple magnifying glasses to the apiary to help us out.  

From left: Barb (in pink), Chris, Kerry, Claudia and Jennie
looking at a frame of brood
(Clockwise from lower left:  Christina (her back is to us),
 Barb, Jana, Roberta, Kerry, Wendy, Mary Anne and Lynetta
(Linda and Robin are hiding in the corner.)

We called this the first ever Western PA Queen Bee Pot luck, but we were much more like worker bees than queen bees.   Here's part of the "field force" enjoying dessert!

Then it's back to work again! :)

Queen bee?  Looks more like a worker bee!
Barb at sink with honorary "honey bee" Lucy the Dog
Thanks to everyone who came out, brought food, shared your knowledge and then cleaned up!

This is a tart drink that is nice after a hot day in the apiary.
4 cups rhubarb, chopped in 1 inch dice
2 quarts water
4-5 cups (even more, if you'd like) orange juice
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 cup honey (or more to taste)
Seltzer water (optional)
Place rhubarb and water into a large sauce pan and bring to a boil.  Simmer, uncovered for about 20 minutes, or until rhubarb is very soft.  While the rhubarb is simmering, stir together the orange juice, lemon juice and honey in a large container (3+ gallons).  Strain rhubarb water into the container, pushing on it a bit to release its juices. Stir well to dissolve honey and combine.  Cool to room temperature then place in refrigerator. To serve, fill a glass with ice, then fill half way with seltzer water and pour rhubarb mixture on top. Add-ins and alternate:  Add a splash of vodka   Or, use sparkling wine instead of seltzer.  Or, skip all that and just pour a tall glass over ice.  Makes...oh...a lot!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Waggle Dance Video!

We took this brief (but exciting for us!) video of the bees performing a "waggle dance" in one of our colonies a few days ago.  Foragers use the waggle dance to communicate to their sisters where they found a good source of nectar or pollen when the source is far from the colony (over 150 meters).  She marches in a figure 8 pattern, wagging her tail as she walks down the center.  She angles the center "waggle" in relation to the sun and the colony to communicate the direction of the source.  The duration of each waggle she makes communicates how far away the source is.

If the source isn't far away, she'll perform a round dance--see diagram below.

Diagram of the honeybee dance.  (Credit: P. Kirk Visscher.)
Source:  P. Kirk Visscher, University of California, Riverside.