I'm with Chef Jason Culp at the Pines Tavern on Bakerstown-Warrendale Road. It's a golden day, warm and sunny, although it's October already. We watch as wavelets of busy, buzzy insects make a beeline for the hives in the garden across the road.
"Tell me, please, what's going on over there?"
I know that I can get an informed answer because Chef Culp just finished telling me how he's become infatuated with beekeeping. Five years ago, he walked into the Agway store and read a notice about colony collapse disorder, the deadly epidemic that is wiping out honey bees throughout the country. "What a challenge," he thought. "I want to do something about that."
And he did. Not that he didn't have enough interests and enough demands on his time and energy. He was running the restaurant's kitchen, of course. And with owner Mike Novak, they were continually expanding the sizable garden that supplies most of the Pines' vegetables and some fruits throughout the summer. That meant getting up very early and grubbing for hours before the first customer arrived for lunch. Nonetheless, in went the first beehive.
But back to my question about all the activity across the road. Chef Culp explains that the bees from what are now eight hives are still out collecting nectar to be turned into honey to keep the colony well fed and the queen pampered all winter. From the first days of the long springtime, they'd been gorging on wildflowers, on wild cherry blossoms and locust and dandelions, then on all the berries they could find, the wild black raspberries and the cultivated black and red raspberries, the blueberries, followed by tomato blossoms and cucumber and zucchini and other squashes, finally corn pollen and any other tasty treat within five miles of home. That's how far a bee can roam in a day.
At summer's end, his bees had produced just under 400 pounds of honey.
He goes on to explain that in addition to continuing to gather nectar, the worker bees are gearing up to push out the drones (they're the studs) cluttering up the hive, before winter sets in. After the eviction, he plans to install a kind of storm door, a flap of hardware cloth that keeps mice out, while the bees still can fly in and out, for a breath of fresh air or a short sunbath on nice days.
I ask the obvious question: "Are your bees suffering colony collapse disorder?"
"NO" is the answer.
"And how do you explain that?"
His answer involves diligent, intimate management, meaning continually inspecting the hives and observing the residents. There are three men dedicated to these tasks: Chef Culp, Mr. Novak and (of all the sweet luck!) Bill Rausch, a neighbor from down the road, who's had years of beekeeping experience. When technical assistance is needed, they call in Bob Janerosky from Sun Apiary in Cranberry.
Another explanation for avoiding the plague is the quality of this home territory, 13 acres of garden and wild fields where no pesticides are used, no fungicides, no insecticides, no herbicides.
Mites are treated with menthol. Dosing with Terramycin in early spring and fall takes care of other infections. But Chef Culp believes in minimal intrusion in the lives of bees. "Let them overcome their problems naturally," he says.
Or as Britisher Adrian Bell writes in his 1932 book, "The Cherry Tree" and Sue Hubbell quotes in her wonderful 1988 book, "A Book of Bees": "Our postman said ... 'Isle of Wight disease? Never heard of it. My bees? No I never lost none. John Preach's? Why, of course they died; he used to feed 'em on syrup and faked up stuff all winter .... You can't do just as you like with bees. They be wonderfully chancy things; you can't ever get to the bottom of they.' "
A pound of Chef's Reserve 2013 Raw Honey is being sold at the Pines Tavern for $7.
Here are several of Chef Culp's honey recipes.
1 clove garlic
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/4 cup champagne vinegar
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/3 cup honey
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
In a blender, mince garlic. Add remaining ingredients except oil and blend to mix.
Drizzle in olive oil to emulsify. Adjust seasoning if desired.
Makes enough dressing for a salad for 4.
Honey Roasted Sweet Potatoes
2 sweet potatoes
2 sprigs rosemary
3 tablespoons oil
Salt and pepper to taste
3 teaspoons honey
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Peel and slice potatoes into spears. Chop rosemary.
Panfry potatoes in oil on medium-high heat, until browned and starting to get tender.
Remove to a mixing bowl and toss with rosemary, salt and pepper.
Transfer to a sheet pan lined in foil and sprayed or swiped with oil. Drizzle on honey.
Bake for 15 minutes or until potatoes are completely tender and honey has caramelized.
Frozen Honey Lavender Custard
3 cups heavy cream
1 cup mild honey
2 tablespoons dried lavender flowers
2 large egg yolks
1/8 teaspoon salt
Special equipment: candy or instant-read thermometer; ice cream maker
Bring cream, honey and lavender just to boil, in a 2-quart heavy saucepan, over moderate heat, stirring occasionally.
Remove pan from heat, cover and let steep for about 30 minutes.
Pour this mixture through a fine china cap or sieve into a bowl. Discard lavender.
Whisk egg yolks and salt in a large bowl, then whisk in 1 cup of warm cream mixture in a slow stream.
Pour yolk mixture and remaining sieved cream into a clean saucepan and cook over moderately low heat, stirring constantly, until it's thick enough to coat the back of a spoon and registers 170 to 175 degrees on the thermometer. DO NOT BOIL!
Again, pour the custard through the china cap or sieve into a clean bowl and cool completely, stirring now and then.
Wrap bowl in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 3 hours.
Freeze custard in the ice cream maker, using maker's instructions.
Pack frozen custard into an airtight container and put in the freezer to harden.
Makes 1 quart, enough for 6 servings, sparingly for 8.
Sweet and Tart Cocktail
Muddle a strawberry and mint in a chilled martini glass.
Rim the glass with honey.
Pour over ice in a shaker glass:
1 shot Barenjager honey liqueur
1 shot Patron Tequila agave liquor
1 shot Triple Sec orange liqueur
1/2 shot lime juice
Stir and strain liquid into the martini glass.
Makes 1 drink.
Nancy Hanst: firstname.lastname@example.org. First Published October 16, 2013 8:00 PM