Sunday, December 27, 2015

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year!

I'm a little late in well-wishing, but it's only the third day of Christmas today. ;-) I hope that you have all been enjoying your mid-winter celebrations with friends and family and that you are looking forward to a happy, prosperous new year! I meant to compose a new ditty for you this year like I did last year, but I got sidetracked by our trip to Florida. (Sighs of relief all around.)

However, I thought you'd enjoy this video of some honeybees on a queen palm in my dad's backyard. I caught this three days before Christmas.

Speaking of my dad's backyard, I'm finding it very difficult to return to New England. Even with the unusually warm winter we've been having up North, I love the warm (my DH says hot) weather here in Florida. Even though I left the south years ago, I still can't do winter (or the lack of pastelitos de guayaba y queso for breakfast).

Also, I'm totally envious of the ability to have a garden (and bee-keep) year-round. Although my dad took out most of his garden a few years ago, he's still got a lot of interesting things going on.

This is my dad's definition of not having a garden anymore.
Nope, absolutely nothing growing here.
The best part about his garden are the trees. It's always at least 10 degrees cooler in their shade, and they're filled with the sounds of wildlife -- like the buzzing of bees.

It's hard to pick a favorite tree in his yard. For me it's probably a tie between the jaboticaba with its graceful branches, gorgeous bark, and luscious dark fruit and the coffee trees with their glossy leaves and colorful berries. Although I avoid drinking coffee because I get a paradoxical effect and crash instead of waking up, I do enjoy a nibble on coffee fruit, which is pleasantly sweet, though it tastes nothing like coffee.

Coffee fruit

Trees/wild gardens seem to attract children, too. My kids get lost in the backyard jungle looking for lizards and other critters, climbing, experimenting. They get a kick, too, out of picking things that they know like pineapples, papaya, citrus as well as the oddities (for them) like sapodilla.

Ginger flower
I like the "messiness" of my dad's garden, and I asked him if he had planned it that way. He told me he used the "Rolando" method. Rolando is a friend of ours who also has a backyard jungle. When my dad asked Rolando how he went about deciding where to put his trees, and the answer was, "Wherever there's an open spot."

I've been struggling so much with planning, which is a fundamental step in every permaculture book I've read, that I just stalled. I believe I'll have to adopt this more chaotic approach, which is much more in line with my fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants personality. In any case, I'm feeling inspired again to work on a permacultured yard in the new year.

So anyway, since I'm always planting things that my bees like, a messy garden is my sort-of-beekeeping goal for the new year. How about you? What are your beekeeping resolutions?

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Abracadabra, Presto Change-o!

My daytime temps are in the upper 40's to low 60's, so the girls are still flying just about every day. I don't see much of anything blooming, but somehow the bees are bringing in pollen. Watching them today, the ladies reminded me of a magician pulling flowers out of his hat -- they seemed to make pollen appear out of thin air. But then I remembered Hermione Granger saying that food was the first of the five Principle Exceptions to Gamp's Law of Elemental Transfiguration. Muggles in the know will understand.

Some gray pollen

Anyway, I noticed 5 different pollen colors:
  • Extremely pale yellow, nearly white
  • Light buttery yellow
  • Orangey yellow
  • Tan
  • Gray
Maybe a couple of those colors (thinking of the first two and maybe last two) could simply be variations on a theme, but even three distinct colors is a surprise. Witch hazel blooms about now. Given our warm temps, maybe some ivy is persisting, but I can't think of anything else. If you live in/are from New England, I'd love to know what you think it could be.

Around Thanksgiving, I was concerned that the bees didn't have enough ventilation, so I opened some entrances for Elsa, and made sure the last bars on Buttercup and Bubblegum weren't super tight. Today, I noticed that all three of them have reduced their entrances. Clearly, I know nothing and should trust them to do what's best. Additionally, Elsa was trying to dispose of the straw that I placed behind the divider board.

Austeja, my hive that swarmed in the fall, has an observation window, so I took a quick peek. She seems to appreciate the sugar combs that were added on Thanksgiving. If this warm weather persists, I may try to top her off before Christmas.

Tomorrow is supposed to be another 60 degree day, and I'm concerned the bees will eat up all their stores before the end of winter. As much as I enjoy the "warmth," fingers crossed that things cool off (15 degrees should be enough) soon.

Friday, December 11, 2015

A Sticky Question

Perhaps this is a side effect of beekeeping, but I've really begun to notice a proliferations of cheap and/or fake honey on the market. It's a bit annoying, but the general public has caught on that real local honey is something special that is worth paying for. So while cheap diluted garbage is annoying, it doesn't cause any philosophical dilemmas.

Though the image is from Amazon, I actually saw this product at my local supermarket recently.
For me, this is the probably the most egregious example I can think of regarding cheap/fake honey.

However, there is an issue that provokes me a little more. I've taken note of a new trend called "artisanal honey." Some of these are honeys that are unique monofloral honeys or high-quality local honeys. Most of them, though, are honeys that have been mixed with some sort of flavoring, either in the form of an extract, fruit, or syrup, or they're produced using a maceration process. This actually bugs me quite a lot because I frequently see these flavored honeys on shelves in my local groceries, wrapped in fancy packaging and sold for as much (if not more) than good quality honey.

This is on my mind because a friend of mine recently sent me a link to an article about a new shop in Mystic, CT called Sticky Situations. It looks like a fun shop that sells flavored honeys and maple syrup.

As you can see, they have quite a selection of flavors, about half of which you would never find in nature, which is a dead giveaway that they've been flavored. For example, although some of you might find bacon-flavored honey intriguing, I never saw a bee pollinate a pig. (That would be a spectacle, though!)

On the other hand, they also carry a number of honeys that are possible to produce naturally, but usually aren't here in the States -- for example lavender honey. When my DH went to Portugal last year, he brought me some fantastic mono floral honeys, including lavender and rosemary. These honeys are produced on farms that have fields and fields of just one herb. However, the "lavender" honey I've seen produced in the US and Canada has been local honey (a mild tasting honey, usually) flavored with lavender oil. (Note, I'm not saying all US lavender honey is flavored honey, only the ones I've seen. Maybe real lavender honey is available in California where there are big fields of it. Does anyone know?)

Lavender field in Portugal

In terms of Sticky Situations' cranberry-flavored offering, I find that an interesting flavor because monofloral cranberry honey can be produced right here in New England. Thanks to Marina Marchese's presentation last year (she's the owner of Red Bee and founder of the American Honey Tasting Society), I've had true monofloral cranberry honey. So looking at the photo of the cranberry honey being sold by Sticky Situations, it's immediately apparent that this stuff is not "real" honey. Without even assessing qualities like taste, texture, and viscosity, the color is just wrong. Cranberry honey is reddish, but it most certainly does not have the color of canned cherry pie filling.

This looks more like cranberry sauce than cranberry honey.
With consideration to these flavored honey products, here is my question -- How should they be compared to honey that is "just honey" -- no added flavors? In other words, is there (or should there be) a distinction between artisanal honey like the kind produced by Red Bee and the flavored kind sold by Sticky Situations?

Merriam-Webster defines artisansal as the adjectival form of artisan -- "one that produces something (as cheese or wine) in limited quantities often using traditional methods."

Applying this definition to honey, I suppose that there is no difference between honey that's allowed to stand on its own merits and flavored honey, but there is this part of me that works really hard out in the bee yard and has tasted the difference in nectars that are gathered throughout the year. It's this part of me wants to appreciate the unique flavor profile of each nectar source that comes in. This same part objects to this lack of distinction between honey produced only from flowers and honey that has been altered in some way.

BTW, it's not that I think flavored honeys have no culinary interest or that they're always inferior to the genuine article. I've had some creations that have carefully considered the flavor profile of the honey itself prior to altering it. In that case, I really do view them as artisanal products, and I appreciate the knowledge, time, and work taken to produce them. However, generally speaking, the beeks I know who create them make their buyers aware that the honey has been enhanced/mixed in some way. They don't try to pass it off as something the bees made all by themselves.

More often, though, the flavored honeys I've encountered use a neutrally flavored, cheap honey as the base. It makes sense because if you have great honey, why camouflage it? So in that case, are we really enjoying the honey, or the added flavoring? If it's all about the flavoring, is it really a special honey? Or is it more of a honey-based equivalent of a lollipop?

Flavored honey sticks

As a beekeeper, I've kind of developed a protectiveness for what my bees do and how honey is perceived. Ok, I'll admit that there are "baking honeys," but there are also honeys that you enjoy just as you would wine, olive oil, or any other luxury good. These special honeys, I feel, should not be lumped into the same category as honey that's mixed with flavorings, natural or artificial.

Of course, it's possible I'm just being snobby or close-minded or resistant to change. I do cook with honey, which means constantly mixing flavors up, so I'm not sure how that differs from selling a product that has been pre-mixed. Still, somehow it just feels wrong to not clearly label that the product has been altered. For instance, I love sangria and other wine-based drinks, but I would never consider adding a bunch of essential oils to wine and trying to pass it off as something that was grown and fermented that way.

I don't know... Are you a purist or a culinary explorer? If you sell your honey, what's your take? Do you view these flavored honeys as competition? Or do you simply see them as area to expand what you can offer (possibly at higher profit)? What do you think of all this? 

Tuesday, December 8, 2015


Last year, I grew some calendula in the garden, and it was a huge hit with the girls. This spring it self-sowed and lost none of its popularity -- with the bees or with me. Actually, I liked it so much that  I did some sneaky bee-advocacy by giving out plant pots with soil & packets of bee-friendly seeds (including calendula) as party favors for my daughter's birthday.


Calendula is a hardy little plant. Not only has it begun popping up all over the yard, it's even sprung up in the front "garden" where everything else dies. Granted, our weather has been unseasonably mild, but it's still blooming even in December.

Blooming on Dec 8

Personally, I like calendula petals as garnishes, in salads, and on sandwiches. However, they also have medicinal uses as well. Some people steep them in oil to make salves or make tinctures with them. (Note: if using calendula for medicinal reasons, the more orange varieties are supposed to have greater potency.)

Anyway, I saved a few envelopes of seeds from them this year, which I plan to distribute freely in my yard and garden next spring. Who knows? Maybe even some "guerrilla gardening" will occur during my visits to various public parks and walks along the road. But don't tell anyone. It's a secret. Shhhh!

A favorite with the ladies