Winter honey

Bee colonies die over the course of the Maine winter for all kinds of reasons. The most common is starvation. We have a short summer of very long days and the bees are well, busy, from April when the maples throw their nearly invisible flowers through early November and the last of the goldenrod. Some summers we have a drought in August that kills off any chance at an autumn honeycrop, and that’s what happened in 2010. I encourage goldenrod in my garden and have even planted a few hybrid varieties to lengthen the season, and I grow Japanese buckwheat and autumn blooming clematis, but sometimes it’s just not enough.

Some winters a colony doesn’t make it through for other reasons. My autopsy of “Stripey” found a medium number of dead bees and a lot of honey so- not starved. I couldn’t find the queen but that’s not unusual in a dead hive. There were some pupae and larvae in evidence but not nearly enough. The colony may have been weakened by a late season swarm that I missed, or the queen may have been old. In any case, it was time to clean house. Mice and red squirrels will nest in a hive that has honey comb and no bees to defend it and they make a terrible mess of the equipment.

I opened the hive, lifted out the frames and scraped the comb into a 10 gallon food bucket with a petcock in the bottom. I cut the comb up into chunks with the flat end of my hive tool and let it sit overnight in front of the Rinnai heater. There was no evidence of disease in the hive, so I wrapped the scrapped frames in plastic and put them in the freezer. I’ll feed them to the new colonies that will be arriving in early May. This afternoon I drained the honey out of the bucket into jars through a strainer. It was much slower work today than it was last July, when the summer heat made the honey flow like water. This batch is very dark, with flavors of buckwheat, goldenrod and asters.

I filled 8 pint jars and had enough left over for honey cake. Honey cake!

For the Cake

  • 3/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 3 eggs
  • 3 tablespoons orange juice
  • 1 teaspoon finely minced orange or lemon zest
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon ( or 1/2 teaspoon for a more pronounced cinnamon flavor) and 1/4 tsp cardamon
  • 1/2 cup matzoh cake meal and 1/2 cup all – purpose flour
  • (I add 1/2 tsp baking powder. The addition of leavening to the recipe, at this time of year, means this isn’t traditional! My apologies to Julia, who gave me this recipe.)
  • 1 and 1/2 cup finely chopped hazelnuts or almonds or walnuts, or a combination. Black walnuts are very nice.

For the Syrup

  • 1 cup honey
  • 1/3 cup orange juice
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Generously grease a 8″ square pan.

Using a wire whisk, beat the granulated and brown sugars with the oil and eggs until the mixture is thick and pale yellow. (If you’re a little impatient and don’t get them quite to the “pale yellow” stage it’s OK – you’re using baking powder!) Stir in the remaining batter ingredients. Turn the batter into the prepared pan.

Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until the top is light brown and set. Cool for at least 20 minutes. Meanwhile, mix the syrup ingredients together in a small bowl. A whisk is helpful for blending the honey and OJ.

Pour the syrup over the cooled cake, poking holes in the cake with a fork, to permit the syrup to penetrate. Allow it to stand for 2 to 4 hours to absorb the syrup. Refrigerate so that while it is absorbing the liquid, it is also firming up.  Serve small pieces on splayed muffin liners. It’s also very nice served with sliced strawberries and drizzled with more honey.

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