This is a unique Mother’s Day for me because I am a new beekeeper.

I feel much like I did on May 10, 1998, when I had a 10-day old infant to keep alive: excited into sleeplessness, amazed at his every move, terrified to make a fatal mistake. As I shared parenting of my human children with my husband, my friend Ann Light of Wiscasset is my partner in rearing bees. She shares in both my wonder of the work these (mostly) little ladies do to sustain the local food system as our national one is threatened by coronavirus complications, and in my catastrophic fear of failing them all.

“We’re getting 30,000 babies we could kill if we’re not careful,” she said one February evening as we sipped a nice red wine and contemplated the best spot for our hives on her spacious property cascading down to the Sheepscot River. We’ve known each other since our (human) daughters were in third grade, and our shared adventures range include managing a farmers market in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and shopping for camel meat in a street market in Cairo.

She has wanted to keep bees for forever. She pulled me into the plot when her family relocated to Maine last summer. We have two hives buzzing at the moment. We installed one package of Italian bees from Georgia in a horizontal hive that Ann’s husband built on April 15. And on April 28, we installed a second package of Russian bees from Kentucky in a vertical hive sporting beatitudes like BEE happy, BEE useful, BEE kind, and BEE careful. Ann’s hoping to catch a swarming bee colony in June to fill our third hive. I’m not so sure I’m up to that task.

Columnist Christine Burns Rudalevige, left, and Ann Light check on the hive they recently installed and look for the queen to check on her whereabouts and health. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

In Maine, we do not want for “how-to” beekeeping advice as local beekeepers are a very generous lot. Ann attended the Bee School offered by the Knox/Lincoln County Beekeepers Association in Damariscotta and has a mentor from that group who makes house calls. I took a similar six-week class conducted by Phil Gavin, accomplished beekeeper and co-owner of The Honey Exchange in Portland, and he’s the only person on speed dial besides my mom.

Both courses walked us up and down the relatively simple gear required to set up and maintain physical hives as well as when to wear your veil (always), when to don your gloves (most of the time) and when to wear black pants (never, as the bees might mistake you for a bear or a skunk). We got conflicting opinions on the types of bees that do best for beginning beekeepers in colder climates like Maine, mostly grounded in the individual beekeeper’s experiences. We were uniformly briefed on the dangers of varroa mites – the most pressing problem with bees in Maine as their presence in and of themselves does not collapse a hive but they do leave bees they latch onto susceptible to a host debilitating diseases. But, again, we got various opinions about the many ways to test for and treat them.

“The saying goes that if you ask 10 beekeepers how to do something in a hive, you’ll get 11 different answers,” said Maine State Apiarist Jennifer Lund. Lund’s paycheck comes from the Department of Agriculture, but she really works for each and every one of Maine 1,200 beekeepers – giving talks at bee schools and beekeeper chapter meetings, doing individual hive inspections, and tracking bees shipped in, out and around Maine for commercial pollination purposes.

It’s not so much that beekeepers are an overly opinionated bunch, Lund said. Divergent practices are driven by the myriad moving parts within any beehive, the fact that each hive has a distinct personality and positioning, and the reality that changing weather patterns affect how beekeepers manage their hives from one year to the next. Any answer to most questions starts with “Well, that depends….”

The variables of beekeeping can make a new keeper as anxious as a social butterfly practicing social distancing in the middle of a global pandemic. But I am happy to report that there is a remedy for that. Slip on a bee suit, have a trusted friend hold the smoker as a precaution, and open a beehive. The hum of a working hive calms your nerves in a way witnessing an entire community working toward a common goal can.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, a recipe developer and tester, and a cooking teacher in Brunswick. Contact her at: [email protected]

Honey buns Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Cinnamon Honey Buns
Ann and I won’t be pulling any honey from our hives this summer or late fall as we want to make sure our new bees have all the local, organic food they need to survive their first Maine winter when it arrives. But plenty of more experienced Maine keepers sell their honey should you want to try these buns. Given the recent run on commercial flour, I don’t list a specific type for this recipe on purpose. But I can tell you I have made these buns with bleached and unbleached all-purpose flour, bread flour, Maine Grains spelt and wheat pastry flours, and combinations thereof. While the crumb varies slightly with each flour, all the buns were delicious.
Makes 12 buns

FOR THE BUNS:
2 1/4 teaspoons dry active yeast (1 packet)
Pinch of granulated sugar
3 tablespoons honey
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons buttermilk
1 large egg yolk
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 3/4 cups flour
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup light brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

FOR THE GLAZE:
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
2 tablespoons honey

Combine the yeast, pinch of sugar and 1/3 cup warm (between 90-105 degrees F) water in a measuring cup and let sit for 5 minutes so the yeast foams up, proving it is alive and ready make the dough rise.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, combine the honey, oil, buttermilk, egg yolk and salt. Stir in the proofed yeast mixture. Add 1 cup of the flour and mix on low speed until combined. Add the remaining 3/4 cup flour, 1/4 cup at a time, until the dough starts to pull away cleanly from the sides of the bowl. Knead the dough for 2 minutes.

Transfer the dough to an oiled bowl and cover. Let dough rise in a warm place for 2 hours.

Place the butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted the paddle attachment. Mix them on medium high until the mixture is light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.

Punch down the dough and roll out into a rectangle, about 15-inches wide and 10-inches long. Spread the butter-sugar mixture over the dough, leaving a 1/2-inch margin along the long edges. Starting on one of the longer sides, carefully roll the dough into a log. Squish the ends of the log toward each other until the whole log is 12 inches long. Cut the log into 1-inch thick slices.

Place the slices on a parchment-lined baking sheet and cover loosely with a towel. Let the rolls proof on the counter (not in a warm place as the butter in the filling may melt) for 30 minutes, then bake them in a preheated 350-degree F oven for 10-12 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool slightly.

To make the glaze, combine the powdered sugar, honey, and 3 tablespoons of warm water in a small bowl. Drizzle the glaze over the top of the buns.


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