Homemade Hazelnut Butter

February 20, 2014 · 5 comments

homemade hazelnut butter // Wayward Spark

Hazelnut butter. It’s a thing. A really delicious thing.

Hazelnut butter is not peanut butter. I was kind of hoping it would be so that I could phase store-bought peanut butter out of our lives. But no, hazelnut butter seems to have a slightly more savory aspect to it even though it still shows some sweetness. The more I ponder the subtleties of its taste, the more I want to liken it to tahini. I wouldn’t want a tahini and jam sandwich, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want hazelnut butter and jam either, but I know I’d be into a beautiful salad with hazelnut butter-honey dressing or miso-hazelnut butter soup. Yossy recently posted a recipe for seeded whole grain scones with tahini that I think would be perfect with hazelnut butter subbed in. So far, I’ve mostly just been spooning it out of the jar and into my mouth.

Normally I don’t get too worked up about trying to get skins off hazelnuts, but some of the ones I was working with (‘Jefferson’ variety) were particularly crusted over, so I did make an effort to peel them at least partially. If you roast them in a 325° oven for about 10 minutes, the skins will split open. At this point, everyone will tell you to rub them in a kitchen towel, which I’ve done before, but it kinda makes a total mess. Someone on Instagram suggested swirling them around in a large strainer to sort of rasp off the skins, and I found that this method works pretty well and the mess is somewhat more controlled. Or you can just grind up the skins. You probably wouldn’t notice a difference in taste.

Homemade Hazelnut Butter

roasted hazelnuts, skinned or not
a bit of fine sea salt


Continuously grind hazelnuts in a food processor until the texture transforms from chunky bits to mealy fluff to a smooth, viscous liquid. Add a touch of salt. Store in the refrigerator.

Oregon hazelnuts // Wayward Spark


{this moment}

February 14, 2014 · 2 comments

Valentines // Wayward Spark

{this moment} A Friday ritual. A single photo – no words – capturing a moment from the week. A simple, special, moment. ~ Amanda Soule

**inspired by Soule Mama’s (and Erin of Floret‘s) Friday reflections



all photos in this post from Becerra Photography

Today is my 31st birthday. It’s also the fifth day in a row that we’ve been snowed in at home, and the eighth snow day of this school year. Here’s a little update on the state of things…

It started snowing hard on Thursday. By dark, the white stuff had really piled up, and I was in regular communication with Henry who was driving back from California. With some pretty questionable automotive maneuvers, he was able to make it up our hill and home that night, frazzled but safe after the long drive. I was really glad to know that even if we were snowed in, we were going to be in it together.

On Friday morning, we discovered that our big semi-gable greenhouse, the one with all the citrus trees in it, had collapsed. It was probably a preventable occurrence, but we didn’t act soon enough or motivated-ly enough. It was pretty terrible. We haven’t made any final decisions about whether to demolish, modify and rebuild, or rebuild with a few upgrades, but there’s a high probability that we will be selling a number of robust, Oregon-acclimated citrus trees in the near future. I’ll keep you posted.

Aside from grieving for our greenhouse, we’ve been having a pretty good time during our long days here at home. Henry and I have always been big believers in the boredom-breeds-creativity parenting method. (I have no idea if it is a known and defined parenting strategy or if it even counts as a “method”, but I’m going with it.) Our kids have a reasonable stock of supplies and resources (books, paper/crayons/random art supplies, Legos, stuffed animals, puzzles, play food, and more structured toys plus regular household stuff like rubber bands, sheets and blankets for making forts, toilet paper tubes, etc.) available to them nearly all the time. Sometimes Henry or I actively play with our kids, but more often, we’re just around, throwing out suggestions or merely supervising their own creative play. Although the last five days haven’t been entirely conflict- or whine-free, I will say that those kids did an incredible job of entertaining themselves for hours at a time. They did watch one movie yesterday, but other than that, they weren’t behind screens at all.

Levi’s been working on reading a lot at school, and now he seems to be moving forward at warp speed. For the first time, he read an entire (easy) book to Charlotte without any help or interference from us. It was one of my most heartwarming moments as a parent so far. (Sorry to be so sappy!) He also drew me a seven-page book for my birthday this morning about a monkey swinging through the jungle that jumps down on the neck of an unsuspecting giraffe.

We’re hoping to make it off the hill for the first time tomorrow, but really, we could be here unaided for a pretty long time if we needed to. Tragically, we ran out of pesto, capers, and frozen blueberries, but other than that, our larder is unnecessarily full, and we’re fine. My parents lost power at their house for over 48 hours, and my mom who always complains about our dim lights and outdoor shower kept calling me to whine about her situation and lust after our hot water and internet. Because the roads everywhere but our hill were to be more or less cleared by this afternoon, my mom drove out, parked, and hiked in two miles to see us and wish me happy birthday. It was nice to see her for sure, but she spent a fair bit of time making me read her the weather forecast, check the schedule of the local library, and google various things.

My mom is the one who usually makes me a birthday cake, but she couldn’t do it this year, so at my kids’ insistence, I barbecue baked one for myself. We picked out Molly Wizenburg‘s “Winning Hearts and Minds” nearly-flourless chocolate cake (from A Homemade Life), and it certainly won all of us over. I know I swore off chocolate as a new year’s resolution, but…um…I’m not doing so well on that one.

I ran 10 (slow) miles in a row last Wednesday, farther than I’ve ever run in my life, and I didn’t even feel like dying during or afterwards.  I’ve been working up to it for a while, and honestly, I’m pretty proud of myself. I haven’t been able to run since all the snow started, but I did get my heart rate up for a few bursts during this stormy weather by jumping rope and doing jumping jacks in the house.

Last but not least, the photos in the post come courtesy of my friend Chris Becerra who came out to our place in the fall to shoot our first official family portraits. Chris is an amazing photographer and a stand-up dude. If you’re looking for a wedding or portrait photographer, check out his work.

So will 31 be the best year yet? I sure hope so!



{this moment}

February 7, 2014 · 3 comments

cabin in the snow // Wayward Spark

{this moment} A Friday ritual. A single photo – no words – capturing a moment from the week. A simple, special, moment. ~ Amanda Soule

**inspired by Soule Mama’s (and Erin of Floret‘s) Friday reflections


spices // Wayward Spark

Henry is back in California this week. He was home for a short while after his last trip south, but now he’s helping his team place hives in the almond orchards just as the bloom begins and the bees go on contract. This kids and I are holding down the fort, and so far, like most of this winter, it’s been pleasantly mundane (except for the gnarly case of pinkeye that Levi has at the moment).

Because life around the homefront has been pretty dreary and somewhat boring to write about, I’m giving you a few links today to perk things up a bit.

I talked a little bit about my intentions to be less of a consumer this year, but this Radiolab podcast whacked me over the head on the subject, laying bare the tole of online retail on real human beings. So far, I’ve resisted buying any new clothes, shoes, or kitchen stuff (as laid out in my New Year’s resolutions), but now I don’t really want to buy anything except food to supplement what we have on hand already. I know I can’t completely drop out of the consumer world, but I’m going to try to participate as little as possible (thrift stores excluded). Also, I love Radiolab.

I’ve been following Tara Jensen on Instagram (@bakerhands) for a while, but I was thrilled to see her tutorial about making pies beautiful on the sort of new-to-me Nothing in the House blog. I also recently ordered (before I heard that Radiolab story!) a copy of the Four and Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book, which promises to be a font of pie-baking inspiration. Then again, I made an off-the-cuff raspberry-blueberry-brown sugar-orange zest pie (kinda like this one) that was pretty killer, so maybe I’ll just keep winging it.

I just finished reading Molly Wizenburg’s first book, A Homemade Life, which is part memoir and part cookbook. It’s seriously so good. I laughed, I cried, I felt a burning need to cook up every. single. recipe. In fact, I could probably be quite fulfilled by going all Julie and Julia on Molly’s book plus her blog archive. There’s a little bit of everything in there. I’m now anxiously awaiting the release of her second book, Delancy, that’s supposed to come out this spring. (Rest assured, I plan on buying it in a brick and mortar bookstore or better yet, at the restaurant in Seattle.)

I thought about starting a “2014 Food Preservation Season” series beginning with David Lebovitz‘s recipe for Moroccan preserved (meyer) lemons, but I’ll just give you these couple photos instead. Citrus fruits (and frozen blueberries) have really been getting us through this winter. I’d never made or used preserved lemons before, but I really liked the idea, and I had a bunch of meyer lemons that Henry brought back from his last trip to California. For the “Moroccan” part, all of the spices except the cinnamon were homegrown. This batch won’t be ready for another couple weeks, but I was hoping you might share any favorite recipes that utilize preserved lemons. Pretty please?

After our Portland honey sampling events in December, Henry and I had Lebanese food for dinner at Nicholas Restaurant. It was the kind of place where they give you a huge slab of flatbread as you sit down, and you get so full before the end of the meal that you want to die, but you just keep eating. And it was fabulous. I didn’t know the name of it at the time, but there was this weird but wonderful dark sesame seed sprinkle stuff all over several of the different dishes. Though I still don’t know how to pronounce it, I’m pretty sure it was za’atar, and yesterday, I bought the ingredients to assemble Heidi Swanson‘s za’atar recipe. I’m looking forward to sprinkling it on everything.

Last but not least, I need to sing the praises of Megan Gordon‘s new cookbook, Whole Grain Mornings. It’s another new addition to my cookbook collection that I know won’t just sit on the shelf looking pretty. I’ve already (barbecue) baked her gingerbread cake and hazelnut-cacao nib granola, and my steel cut oats will never be the same after reading her tips.

I hope everyone is making it through the poler vortex(es) okay. It’s been pretty mild here, but we’re due for some snow again, and it’s supposed to get pretty chilly (for temperate Western Oregon) for a few days. Stay warm, and eat well, folks!
meyer lemons // Wayward Spark


Maple Syrup Season 2014

January 29, 2014 · 11 comments

tapping maple trees in Oregon // Wayward Spark

We made our own maple syrup from bigleaf maple sap for the first time last winter. You can read more about our experiences and thoughts here and here.

Freezing nights and warmer days in the 40s are ideal for maple sap flow. As I understand it, the wider the day/night temperature gradient, the more pressure is built up in sap channels and therefore the more sap will be expelled if tapped. In more wintery parts of North America, these temperatures typically occur in early spring, but in Oregon, we only get semi-consistent nighttime freezing in the middle of winter. Last year, we tapped right at the tail end of a cold snap in late January, so the flow started off good, but then things warmed up and basically never froze again, so the sap run (at least our collection of it) was short lived.

We knew we wanted to put in our taps earlier this year, and we had discussed January 1 even though much of what I’ve read about maple syrup production suggests focusing more on the climate conditions and the signs of spring coming along instead of calendar dates when deciding when to tap. We didn’t actually get our act together until Monday, January 6, again right at the end of a cold spell perfect for pressurizing maple trees.

tapping maple trees in Oregon // Wayward Spark

Last year, we originally tapped two trees along our driveway and one tree about a half mile down the hill by our pond. After a few days, it became clear that although one of the trees by the driveway was a moderate producer of sap, the other one was pretty pitiful, so we pulled that spile and plugged it into another maple, which ended up being a little more productive but not much. The tree by the pond, however, was, at times, dripping in a nearly constant stream, and it ended up yielding at least two or three times as much as the other three trees combined.

With that in mind, we headed straight for the pond on the afternoon that we decided to put our spiles in this year. Before rigging the tree that we knew would be good, Henry drilled two other maples nearby to see if they had any potential. One was essentially dry, and the other wasn’t doing a whole lot. According to this publication from University of Maine, trees over 25″ in diameter can handle up to three taps, so we decided to put all our eggs in one maple tree basket.

We know from our own limited experience that individual bigleaf maple trees in Oregon can be highly variable in their production of sap. This fact was previously recognized in this 1972 Forest Service study conducted in Benton County, OR where we live. The thing that has really surprised me this year is the variability of output among taps ON THE SAME TREE. Of the three that we have in our high-output tree, one is pretty weak and sometimes dry, one has significant flow, and one (lowest in height) is dripping away, outpacing the other two by 200-300%. I must stress that this is a sample size of three taps on one tree, so I can’t make any generalizations about bigleaf maples on the whole, but it seemed pretty weird to me.

kid running // Wayward Spark

I have observed (maybe you have, too) that there seems to be a 24ish-hour lag between a change in weather conditions and a change in sap flow. When the weather turned warmer the middle of the month, our tree was still producing pretty well even though it hadn’t frozen the night before, but after two thawed days, the flow waned considerable. Conversely, it dipped back into freezing temperatures again after a week of warmer weather, but the morning after the first freeze, our sap buckets were still nearly empty. There were days when I was convinced that the buckets would be full, and they turned out to be dry and other sap collecting trips where I was pleasantly surprised by the output. This single best day was probably January 7, the day after we put the spiles in, although there was another uptick around January 21-22. 

One of the things I vowed to do better this year is record keeping. At the end of our run last year, I had no idea how much sap we collected and only a fuzzy guess as to how much syrup we produced because we had already eaten a good deal of it before I thought to measure. This time around, I’ve been diligently logging approximate number of gallons of sap collected each day (or two days when flow is slow) as well as the amount of finished syrup produced. So far, I’ve collected approximately 15 gallons of sap and produced about 5 cups of syrup.

small batch bigleaf maple syrup // Wayward Spark

My sap collecting schedule has been a little erratic, but so far, I haven’t let any buckets run over. I’ve been making the trek down to the pond almost every day, but a few times, I left things alone for two days when I knew because of the weather that not much would be dripping. During peak flow last year, we had to collect sap twice a day to prevent any spillage.

Each time I collect sap, I bring it up to the house and pour it through a strainer (to remove bits of moss and drowned fruit flies) into a pot on the stove right away. I haven’t tried storing sap to accumulate a larger quantity because it can go bad unless it’s refrigerated or kept cold in a snowbank. We’re using the wood stove in our house for most of the boiling. Last year, lots of folks suggested that we should boil outside to avoid various unpleasantries (sticky condensation, peeling wallpaper, and such), but we’re doing it indoors again because it wasn’t so bad last year, and we’re working with what we’ve got.

If we keep a not-necessarily-roaring fire going, I can boil one or two gallons of sap into syrup in less than 24 hours. More than two gallons takes a little longer, especially if we’re not home the whole time to keep stoking up the fire. The problem with doing these kinds of less-than-two-gallon micro batches of sap is that it’s really hard to tell when they’re done. Two gallons of sap will only yield less than a cup of syrup, and with a tiny amount like that, it’s difficult to check the temperature accurately.

maple caramel // Wayward Spark

From what I’ve read, one can know when the sugars in syrup are sufficiently concentrated without using a hydrometer by allowing the liquid to reach 7° above the boiling point of water. At 800 feet elevation, the boiling point of water for us is between 210° and 211°, making the syrup point about 218°. About a year ago, I bought a Thermapen instant read thermometer (the one they’re always raving about on America’s Test Kitchen) for cheesemaking, but it works well for syrup, too, although you’ve gotta have at least an inch of liquid in the pot to get a decent reading. The problem for me is that even with a fancy thermometer, I’ve still over or under cooked nearly every batch of syrup so far. I have a few jars of watery syrup that I’ve marked to eat first instead of hassling with boiling it more, and I have one jar of nearly solid maple sugar that I made on accident. Another time, I overboiled the sap until it turned into the most amazing maple caramel of sorts. It was delicious but also unintentional. I boiled one of the smallest batches until it was all stuck to the bottom of the pan and somewhat burned, and then I tried to salvage it by adding more water and reboiling it to syrup consistency (not recommended).

Last year, Abby (among others) left some insightful comments including one that suggested syrup season was over when the crocuses bloom, and I saw my first spring crocus blooming a couple days ago. Maybe this is the end for this year. Was it worth it? For me, yes, but for someone who has less free time or no wood stove or less productive trees, it might not be. The abstract in the 1972 study about making bigleaf maple syrup in Oregon ends with, “Sirup production appears quite feasible as a hobby. The possibility of commercial production should not be ruled out as additional local experience is gained.” I think those are pretty appropriate words, and I’ll be working on gaining that local experience for at least a few more years.


{this moment}

January 24, 2014 · 3 comments

Wayward Spark

{this moment} A Friday ritual. A single photo – no words – capturing a moment from the week. A simple, special, moment. ~ Amanda Soule

**inspired by Soule Mama’s (and Erin of Floret‘s) Friday reflections


honeybee hives in a holding yard // Wayward Spark

For most of the year, Henry maintains apiaries of 20 to 30 hives in relatively remote locations in the Coast Range. He decides on ecologically appropriate numbers for each yard by assessing the nectar and pollen resources available at any given time, and he’s careful not to exceed the carrying capacity of the area, especially late in the season. Keeping bees in such low to moderate-density clusters allows bees to fulfill their needs with natural forage (plus seasonal supplements) and discourages robbing. Because Henry is breeding his own lines of bees, he also tries to keep virgin queens away from other people’s maintained hives, so he can incorporate genetics of local, feral-derived bees into his managed colonies.

There are downsides to keeping hives in remote locations. The travel times and fuel expenses associated with maintaining hives in far-flung areas are much greater than keeping larger groups of bees closer to home. There are bears and yahoos out in the boonies that might mess with hives. The roads are rougher and often less accessible, increasing the amount of loading and unloading that must be done by hand. (Each hive weighs about 100 pounds and must be lifted using a crazy amount of finger muscles onto a truck bed that’s 43 inches high.)

In contrast, there are resident beekeepers in parts of the Central Valley in California who keep yards of up to 120 hives. The only way to sustain these hives is by feeding corn syrup and pollen supplements in place of natural flows almost year round. This approach to beekeeping is super cost intensive, and hives in this situation are never able to store honey, let alone produce enough for the beekeepers to harvest any substantial quantity. It’s kind of the cattle feedlot equivalent in beekeeping.

beehives in a holding yard // Wayward Spark

A while back, Henry got permission from the landowner to use a large gravel lot that’s easily accessible and relatively close to home as a temporary holding yard (seen in the photos in this post) in trade for several jars of honey. In preparation for transporting all his bees to California for almond pollination, Henry has had to round up all his hives and bring them into this holding yard.

It’s only feasible to move hives in cool and/or dark hours, so nights and early mornings are best. In the last week, Henry took six trips to pick up hives from seven different apiaries. He’d leave the house around 3 pm to start loading around 4:30, and he wouldn’t get home until 8 or 9 pm. Often times, he’d be off again the next morning at 5 to get another load.

We have an ASV skid steer with forks that can lift pallets of hives, but it’s not possible or efficient to use it to load out all his yards. Hauling equipment makes driving riskier (especially in the dark) and more expensive. Not all of Henry’s yards can be accessed by a truck with a trailer, and counting on equipment to do the job also can lead to disappointment and hassle when things break down or don’t work as smoothly as was hoped. In the end, Henry hauled the skid steer to four apiaries to load hives onto the truck, and he loaded another 50 hives in three apiaries by hand.

hauling beehives // Wayward Sparktransporting beehives // Wayward Spark

Henry is filling an almond pollination contract with a team of relatively small but well established beekeepers, some based in Oregon and the others in California near the almond orchards. The Oregon beekeepers offered to share the semi they were using to transport bees to California, which is great because Henry doesn’t have enough hives to fill a semi on his own, and by sharing, he and the other beekeepers can also share the expense. The drawback is that Henry still needed to move all his bees from the local holding yard to the other beekeepers’ home base on the east side of the Willamette Valley, about an hour and a half away from our house.

Our friend Stu, an amateur beekeeper who doesn’t mind getting stung a few times, offered up his services and his flatbed farm truck to help with the move. Henry used the skid steer to double stack pallets of bees, and then he loaded a total of 112 hives onto Stu’s truck. Henry took another 16 full-sized hives plus another 32 singles on his own truck, a flatbed Mitsubishi Fuso. Henry and Stu drove in the dark to the other beekeepers’ place where there was a forklift operator ready to unload the bees into the holding yard there. It took Henry and Stu about six hours round trip to deliver all of Henry’s hives. Henry paid Stu for his time, fuel, and effort.

beehives // Wayward Spark

A couple days later, the other beekeeper loaded all of his as well as Henry’s bees into a semi and sent them off to the Sacramento Valley in California where the Californian partner beekeeper unloaded them all. The most recent news is that Henry’s bees are settled somewhat comfortably in a holding yard there.

Henry will leave tonight in his own truck hauling another 40 nucs down south. His plan is to work his bees for three or four days, getting them set up for the hustle of pollination and the growth spurt that comes with warmer weather and a good nectar flow as well as supplemental syrup. His Californian beekeeper friend, the one who will be negotiating their contract with the almond grower, has generously offered to let Henry stay in his home for the week, so Henry won’t have too many traveling expenses beyond fuel and some food.

We hope to have Henry home by next weekend, but his bees will stay in California for over a month. After he heads north, his bees will be moved once again to the almond orchards that are about 40 minutes away from the holding yard. They’ll be on contract starting around February 1.

There are a lot of ways that little and big things can go wrong in this business, so I’ve got my fingers crossed that everything goes smoothly for all the people, all the bees, and all the vehicles/equipment.



Red Onion Woodworks

My online shop, Red Onion Woodworks, is once again open for business. My sincerest apologies for the fact that there are still product photos with holly in them. I will reshoot those boards eventually, but honestly, it just hasn’t been a priority. This winter break has really been pleasant, but now that I’m feeling refreshed, I’ve jumped back into production mode. The fruits of my labors should end up in the shop soon(ish).

With the new year, I’ve been struck by this urge to purge a bunch of physical things from my life. The other day in an attempt to dismantle an abandoned blanket fort, I dumped my prized Rieger begonia and all its potting soil on the floor. The begonia survived (minus a few stems), but when I started to clean up the mess, I didn’t stop after vacuuming, dusting, and washing windows. Before long, I had multiple bags and boxes of stuff to haul off to the thrift store. I even thinned out my collection of novels, which surprised me most because I used to consider books “untouchable” even with limited space. I’ve never been a hoarder, but this tiny cabin has pushed me farther and farther into the use-it-or-lose-it, when-in-doubt-throw-it-out camp.

Red Onion Woodworks

How does my decluttering frenzy affect my business? Well, it means I’m looking to offload a stack of serving boards that’s been hanging around for a long while. These boards are all pretty, one-of-a-kind, and finished to my standard specs, but they have cracks. I’ve sold boards with cracks before, always taking great pains to make any flaws clear to potential buyers, but these ones are part of a side stash of servers that I don’t feel comfortable selling even at a slight discount. They’d be good for serving or display, but they’re not fit for serious chopping, and with significant use and abuse, their cracks might grow and cause problems.

Red Onion Woodworks

With this in mind, I’m offering up 12 serving boards at bargain basement prices. Basically I just want them out of my life and my space, and I thought it might be nice to give folks a chance to get one on the cheap instead of tossing them into the wood stove.

Here’s the deal:

Each board is $25 including shipping except the three smaller boards in the bottom photo that are only $20.

All sales are final. You know they have cracks, so treat them kinda gently.

US only.

I’ll mail them out USPS Parcel Post on Tuesday, January 21, and they’ll arrive at your doorstep about a week later. 

This is a grab bag, so you don’t get to pick out the exact board you want. (That’s what my online store is for.) Please let me know if you’d like one of the smaller ones, and the first person to express interest in the longer, thicker one (second to last photo) can have it. sold

To order one, email me at redonionwoodworks@gmail.com with your PayPal-affiliated email address, and I’ll send you an invoice. You have to pay by the end of the weekend, or your claim goes up for grabs again.

If/when they’re all sold, I’ll give you an update here.

Sold out! Y’all are awesome!

Red Onion WoodworksRed Onion WoodworksRed Onion Woodworks


feeding honeybees in winter // Wayward Spark

In late summer when many humans are beginning to reap the bounty of their gardens and to make plans for the harvest season, honeybee colonies already have their honey stores tucked away, and they’re starting to shut down in preparation for the winter. In September, workers will still have access to pollen, but the nectar flow will wane to a trickle. It will be time for a productive queen to lay the eggs for the colony’s overwintering population. After new brood emerges in October, the busy season’s workers will die off, and the young bees will start to cluster up during cooler weather.

Because Henry knew he was going to take all his full-size hives to California for almond pollination, he, like other commercial beekeepers, stimulated his bees from late summer into fall to increase the number of overwintering bees in each hive. He offered each colony three to four gallons of sugar syrup and five pounds of pollen substitute in three feedings to simulate a nectar flow and allow the bees to rear more brood when natural resources were scarce.

Commercial bee colonies are sized graded in units of “frames of bees”. One frame 75% covered in bees on both sides is considered a  ”frame of bees”. Henry’s locally adapted bees would naturally overwinter at three to five frames, but with the extra stimulation of syrup and pollen substitute, they are boosted to around eight frames, making them rentable for almond pollination.

After feeding, Henry assessed each of his hives several times throughout September and October. He observed that some hives weren’t eating the syrup and pollen substitute, an indication of a heavy mite load and/or disease, so he factored them out of his count of rentable units, assuming they wouldn’t make it through the winter. Some of those colonies actually have survived the winter so far, but overall, his numbers are pretty much where he expected them to be, right around 100 rentable units plus about 50 nucs (single boxes). (Some singles might be rentable depending on the particular details of Henry’s contract with the almond grower.) Losses are inevitable in beekeeping, and there are always disappointments as well as pleasant surprises. As it stands now, about 10%  of Henry’s colonies have outperformed expectations, and another 10% died out unexpectedly (not including the ones he thought would die).

Between late September and the winter solstice in Oregon, a healthy honeybee queen will generally take a break from laying eggs, and the rest of the colony will just hunker down and try to conserve energy. As soon as the days start to get lighter (often imperceptible to us, but recognized by bees), the queen will begin to lay again. When he opened them up in the last two weeks, Henry observed that many of his hives already had two to three partial frames of capped brood. Worker bees are separated into different jobs (nurse, guard, forager, etc.) based on their age, and immediately after emerging from the cells, young bees take on their role as nurses, tending to the unhatched brood. It’s important that those first bees to hatch this year are healthy because they will be the ones to rear the beginnings of the spring population build up.

Henry’s bees will head to California later this week or early next week, and they’ll be on contract for pollination as early as February 10. Henry knows that his hives will have to meet the specs of his contract, so he fed “soft candy” cakes and pollen substitute again in the last week to encourage the next couple batches of brood to be larger and earlier than natural. He needs to have plenty of bees to take on nursing and other jobs when the overwintering bees begin to die off.

If a hive were left alone and not moved south, the population build up would be delayed for a couple weeks until alder pollen became available.

soft candy and pollen substitute for feeding bees in winter // Wayward Spark

The following is Henry’s winter feeding procedure. He is doing things differently than he did last year and will probably reform his methods next year. He is a relatively new beekeeper with some very non-traditional practices, some of which may be innovative, some of which might lead to failure.

Henry had bees hives in seven different locations in the Coast Range, so it took him several afternoons to feed them all.

soft candy for feeding bees in winter // Wayward Spark

Instead of the syrup that he fed in the fall, Henry mixed up a few batches of “soft candy”, a malleable concoction of 1 gallon cooking oil, 25 pounds of fine granulated baker’s special sugar, 2 mL each of lemongrass oil and thyme oil, and minerals. He formed the substance into one pound cakes. This is the first time he’s tried it, so the jury is still out about it’s effectiveness.

pollen substitute

He ordered a large quantity of 45-pound blocks of pollen substitute from Mann Lake, and cut it into 1.5 pound blobs (with a piece of smooth fence wire).

feeding honeybees in winter // Wayward Spark

In addition to feeding the bees, Henry also wanted to spend at least a short time observing each of his hives and making sure his rentable hive count was more or less accurate. Normally, a beekeeper would avoid breaking the cluster of bees by separating the top and bottom box when it’s is less than 50° out, but Henry chose fairly nice days (upper 40s) for feeding, and things seem to have gone okay.

Some beekeepers use spacers between the top box and the lid for feeding, but Henry is not fond of spacers for many reasons.

feeding honeybees in winter // Wayward Spark

He started by prying the boxes apart with his hive tool.

feeding honeybees in winter // Wayward Spark

Smoke moved the bees away from the area where he was going to place the feed.

feeding honeybees in winter // Wayward Sparkfeeding honeybees in winter // Wayward Spark

feeding honeybees in winter // Wayward Spark

He placed a cake of sugar and a pollen patty toward the front of the cluster.

feeding honeybees in winter // Wayward Spark

feeding honeybees in winter // Wayward Spark

As quickly as possible, he replaced the top box and squished the sugar and pollen into the frames by pressing down on the lid. In warm weather, the bees are able to get out of the way before getting mashed, but there will always be some losses.

Henry estimates that he was stung about 30 times during the hour of feeding the 16 hives in these photos.

winter cluster of honeybees // Wayward Spark

The size of a winter cluster does not necessarily forecast a colony’s ability to survive the winter, but Henry needs mostly larger clusters to make the grade for his pollination contract. The hive above would probably be considered four to six frames.

winter cluster of honeybees // Wayward Sparkstrong hive in winter // Wayward Spark

This hive (above) is strong, probably 12 frames. Frame numbers are somewhat subjective because the same number of bees can look more or less numerous depending on the shape of the cluster and its position in the hive.

Henry appreciates getting an idea of how his colonies look now, but there’s still another month of rearing brood and dying off before his hives need to meet the grade.

Last year, Henry took 20 hives down to almonds with his beekeeper friend Ethan Bennett of Honey Tree Apiaries. This year, he will have at least five times as many hives and will be sharing trucking with another Oregon beekeeper and filling a contract with an established California beekeeper who’s a really stand-up good guy. Henry will head to California soon for about a week of working his bees before leaving them to pollinate the almond bloom, the world’s largest honeybee pollination event.

We still have jars of Henry’s Old Blue Raw Honey with added honeycomb available online here if you’re interested.