The Local Food Report: Bee School

I can imagine enrolling in all sorts of schools. The Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. Colombia Journalism School. The Salt Institute. But honey bee school? I had no idea.

As it turns out, it's quite the thing on the Cape. Bee School—put on through the Barnstable County Beekeepers' Association or BCBA—fills up every spring. Its waiting list spills over to next year already, and this season's class doesn't even graduate until early May. Apparently, beekeeping knowledge is in high demand.

There are lots of reasons people want to keep bees: because they love honey, because they have a cranberry bog out back, because their brother wanted to take the class with a friend. You name it, someone's there, and the class covers just about everything, too. Students learn about all the key points in a hive's life cycle, what you need to build a hive, and how to protect the bees from disease and ensure a good honey harvest come fall. As far as tuition goes, it's certainly less than any of the other schools I've been dreaming about. Thirty bucks gets you in the door: handouts, mentoring help, lessons, and all. You even get a BCBA membership!

It seems like there would be a lot of red tape and town regulations to go along with getting a hive, but really, most people have no trouble at all. It can be a bit complicated—laws vary by town—so the best thing to do if you're interested is just walk over to town hall, talk with the health agent, and then give your neighbors a heads up. One woman I spoke with lives next to a pre-school, and even she didn't have any problem enrolling, so I'm willing to bet you have a pretty good shot.

In the event that you check things out with the town and your neighbors and do one day enroll in bee school and end up tending your very own hive (or, ahem, are inspired to buy a big jar of the sweet liquid gold at the farmers' market come May), you'll need something to do with all that honey. There's tea, certainly, and peanut butter and honey sandwiches, but those will only take you so far.

That's why I made you these. They're honey spice squares. (It took me three tries to make them for you, and I'd rather you didn't tell anyone about the first two recipes I tried out. One went directly into the compost and the other tasted much more like chewy cardboard than anything that should rightfully be parading around as a dessert.) But the third—this one's a gem. Soft, sweet, a little bit gooey—just the thing for a blustery afternoon.

It has a few more steps than the other two did, but based on the results, I'd say they're worth it. Plus, the whole mixing process couldn't have taken me more than twenty minutes, tops, and that's really not so much time to spend on a batch of sweet, zesty, ever-so-subtly-spicy squares that will carry you through the afternoons all week.

I got my honey from E & T Farms in Barnstable, but who knows: you just might have your own.


adapted just slightly from Great Coffee Cakes, Sticky Buns, Muffins, & More by Carole Walter

for the batter:
2 and 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 and 1/2 sticks butter
1/4 cup honey
zest of one lemon
2 eggs
1 cup brown sugar, packed
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cup sour cream
1 cup pecans, broken into small pieces

for the syrup:
1/3 cup honey
juice of one lemon
1/3 cup water

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. In a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt the butter with the honey and the lemon zest. Meanwhile, in a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking powder, baking soda, and salt and set aside.

Get out another, medium-size mixing bowl, and crack the two eggs in. Beat them on medium high speed until they lighten up, which will take about a minute. Then begin adding the brown sugar as you beat, a few spoonfuls at a time. Beat until everything is well combined, about 2 or 3 minutes.

Turn down the speed and slowly pour in the butter mixture (it should have cooled down some but still be slightly warm). The mixture should thicken as you mix; then add the vanilla. If everything looks curdled, that's okay.

Alternately add the dry ingredients and the sour cream, mixing until just combined after each addition. Fold in 3/4 cup of the pecans with a spatula, and spread the batter evenly into a well-greased 9- by 13-inch baking pan. Sprinkle the rest of the nuts over top, and bake for about 20 minutes, or until the center is set and the cake is a deep amber brown.

Now it's time to make the syrup (I know! We're almost done.) For this, you simply combine the honey, lemon juice, and water in that same small, heavy-bottomed saucepan, and bring them to a slow boil. Turn the heat down, and let the liquid simmer for a few minutes until it thickens somewhat.

Using a toothpick or a skewer, poke holes in the cake at one or two inch intervals. Spoon the warm syrup over top, continuing until every drop is absorbed. Let the cake cool for a few hours before cutting it into squares. If you need to have a hot and toddy while you taste the first one, I completely understand.


Anonymous said...

Wow, how interesting! Bee School -- who knew? This is a wonderful report, Elspeth. I just listened to the Local Food Report on WCAI, and that is great too. I might have to take up beekeeping. ~A Maine Reader, and Listener too!

Elspeth said...

Thank you!

It was very fun to go to class. Unfortunately, someone at my house is allergic to bees, so I don't think I will ever have a hive of my own.

You'll have to let me know if you end up taking up bees as a hobby what the resources are in Maine—I would imagine there's a similar class.

All the best,

Tara said...

I'm in Texas (about as far from Maine as I could be) but just took a beekeeping course myself, and have a colony arriving in a couple of weeks. They're really fascinating creatures!

Elspeth said...


How fun! Why did you decide to sign up?

Tara said...

We live on 12 acres in the country, and I wanted to keep bees for honey and pollination, and actually, a friend brought me a colony last fall so I decided I'd better get an education! That didn't really pan out, though. They're content to keep living in the log they came in, and don't have any interest in moving into the lovely hive we tried to give them. That's why I have a new colony coming soon - to populate my empty hive!

Elspeth said...

What a blast! I will have to live vicariously through you, as there are certainly no bees in my future. You'll have to keep us posted once the new hive arrives!

Anonymous said...

You have, as a not-too-close-for-comfort neighbor, a great resource in a beekeeper who has taught and mentored many an aspiring bee wrangler. Mel Hammond (great first name for a beekeeper, eh?!)lives in a modest house, American flag always flying out front,right on Cole's Neck Road near the curve where "old rt 6" (or whatever it is called) intersects it. He is across from that lovely wetland and neighbor to the new house up on the hill. His bee yard is at the top of the hill that he lives at the bottom of, and if you have any honeybees in your garden, it is mostly likely thanks to him. I learned beekeeping from both Mel BCBA bee school. A major reason for me to do it was to have the company of honeybees in my yard, but a disappointment for me was that they tend to range far and wide for their foraging. I primarily saw my bees zoom out of their hive and rocket up into the blue, disappearing as little specks! You can buy Mel's honey-- which would be eating extremely locally for you!-- at the Orleans Health Food Store, and possibly also at the B Naturel Health Food Store, Provincetown. Also, perhaps Mel would allow you to stand by and watch him work his bee yard sometime.
Irene, South Wellfleet

Elspeth said...

Thank you so much, Irene. The world is such a small place—I will have to go down the street and poke my head in one of these days. And of course, give thanks for our well-pollinated garden!

All the best,

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