handheld cakes filled with roasted apricots and spruce-tip infused cream plus bee stings, the contributions of gardening to bee conservation, and foraging for spruce tips.
I felt a bit of fluffiness against my cheek, the familiar motor-hum vibrato – and then, unexpectedly, a sharp, fine pain. I broke my rule of allowing all sting-equipped yellow-and-black striped insects to go about their business on my face without harassment and brushed the bee away, a bit late.
It felt rather unfair – all I was doing was crouching beside the voluminous horseradish plant – though after I slipped away from the garden meeting, I tempered my ire with the melancholy realization that the sting would be causing a (bad-tempered, but otherwise) innocent bee’s death. Whatever it was, something had put the bees on edge – another few people had also been stung the same night.
Utterly anticlimactically, the pain faded away on my walk home (and the residual cheek swelling resolved with an anti-histamine). It was not how I recalled bee stings – the last time I was six and nearly convinced it might be the end of the world or, at the very least, the end of my right wrist. This sting ended up a small blip in the day, but a visceral reminder of the presence of bees in the garden.
It’s certainly not new news that many bee populations, of which there are 850 in Canada, are in decline, and some at risk of extinction, but I’m not meaning to write about how these sorts of issues can fall to back of one’s mind nor moralize about paying attention to them.
While urban beekeeping has grown in popularity as a method of conservation, it may not be as effective as we would wish: “There are over 800 different bee species in Canada, each with sometimes similar, but ultimately unique habitats, needs and threats. As Sheila Colla, a York University ecologist, explains, using one species, the honey bee—and an invasive one, at that—to save a whole taxonomic family is futile and, frankly, bizarre.” Rather, wildlife conservation may require the more holistic approach of habitat preservation.
This stinging encounter made me wonder about the interactions of our community garden and bees. This year, the garden seems to be replete with them; the flowering raspberry bushes sometimes seem to have more bees than leaves. A biology student had carried out a research project a few years earlier by building a nest for solitary bees and wasps passing through and had observed a number of different species taking residence – though I likely didn’t encounter a solitary bee as they tend not to be as quick to sting. I was curious about how our garden was affecting bees in general, and whether urban gardens might be of any use in bee conservation.
To begin with, though it’s quite intuitive, it has been established that many bee species’ distribution and abundance is lower in urban landscapes. Urban green spaces and gardens have been found to have positive effects on bee populations and diversity relative to developed urban spaces, but those effects can vary depending on the characteristics of said green spaces. I’ve touched on some of those characteristics below as ideas that we may be able to incorporate into our own gardening.
In a meta-analysis, which is a large study that combines data from many other research papers, Majewska and Altizer identified a few factors that consistently attracted pollinators (in this case they looked at bees, but also butterflies, moths and other pollinators):
- Increase plant diversity – some pollinators are very particular to some plants, and so more plants may attract more types of pollinators
- Include more woody vegetation – may help by improving habitat quality by providing shade and respite from winds; similarly, some smaller studies identified positive effects of shade from canopy cover, taller vegetation, and less grass cover
- Larger garden size
The authors also found that the surrounding landscape mattered. Generally proximity to natural landscapes and farmlands improved diversity compared to urban landscapes; however the authors noted that this had a smaller effect on pollinators than the above factors. While still important, location of gardens is something we usually have little control over, making it heartening that pollinator diversity can be improved through internal characteristics of the garden that can be adapted.
It’s important to keep in mind that results from meta-analyses look at the overall relationship between garden characteristics and pollinators to determine if the relationship meets a statistical threshold. The effect of some variables were too variable across different studies to show a statistical association – particularly if the impact on different pollinator species varied. Some variables did not have enough data to include in the analysis. As a result, I think it’s worthwhile to also consider other factors that have either been found in smaller studies or theorized advice:
- choose native plant species – native plant species have been found to increase bee abundance as they are more likely to attract and support the diversity of native bee species. However, some studies have showed no difference which Majewska and Altizer chalked up to the appropriate choice of non-native plant species which happen to attract and support the same bees
- increase floral abundance – improves diversity of bee species
- delay clearing and pruning until later in the season – dead vegetation can harbour different stages of pollinators such as butterflies, or winter homes for cavity-nesting bees
And for a bit of trivia, unexpectedly, this study examining bee populations in Vancouver found that out of the plants they studied, dandelions seemed to attract the greatest diversity of bees species. Of course, they’re still a bit of an invasive species (in the context of North America) so this doesn’t mean that we want to stop weeding…
Further reading on the subject:
- How backyard beekeeping may not help bee conservation efforts (Maclean’s)
- A very intriguing article about the concepts and understandings underpinning approaches to bee conservation (Agriculture and Human Values) – paywalled though & may require academic affiliation to access
Harvesting spruce tips is a lot less painful than bee stings by the way.
Foraging extraordinaire Hilda’s blog, Along the Grapevine, had previously drawn my attention to the existence of spruce tips and how creatively they could be used – see her spruce tip panna cotta with rhubarb mint sauce or this spruce tip gravlax. When I noticed the soft green, spiny buds had popped up along the boughs of a close by coniferous tree, I started brainstorming how I could try using them.
When it comes to harvesting spruce tips, I found this guide quite handy to make sure that I wasn’t harming the trees: namely, not to harvest more than 1/5th of the tips from a tree and not to pick tips from the top of a young tree. By the time I settled on an idea of how to use the spruce tips, I did notice they had started to open up – I’m not sure whether that was also accompanied by a change in flavour, but I adored how they tasted – definitely like how one would imagine a pine tree to taste, but not musty like an old pine bough wreath, but fresh and almost minty.
I based the format of the cake off of an image I had seen on the instagram account of NEO Coffee Bar – a small round cake folded in half to enclose a filling. This cake has a soft whole wheat sponge filled with roasted apricots, a spruce tip cream and, to generally reinforce the theme of things from trees, topped with pine nuts cooked in maple syrup.
I was pleasantly surprised by the spruce tip cream. Fluffy and light, the spruce tip cream can get a bit lost when you have a lot of apricot in your mouth, but otherwise I found the flavour refreshing. It tasted akin to the air you breath in on a brisk afternoon walk – if that air were to be 50% whipped cream.
I had been worries this would be one of those cakes which doesn’t actually taste all that good, but with the combination of tart roasted apricot and the light spruce tip cream, it was quite bright. In my imagination, I had relegated the pine nuts to merely a garnish of little significance (yes, how insulting!), but actually, the toasty flavour seemed to linger and wasn’t lost.
As far as the cake goes, I had a few missteps – an initial go at a kvaefjord type cake, but the butter cake was far too brittle to bend. Then I tried modifying a sponge cake (without trying out the original recipe) – though I found my modifications also made it less flexible, and I noticed that piping the cake with a larger piping tip made the cakes thicker and less flexible. Finally I settle on the something much closer to the original sponge recipe and piped it much thinner. While still very warm, I draped the cake rounds over the handle of a wooden spoon – there was a bit of cracking at each end, but the cake was otherwise quite flexible.
The cake is so easy to eat too – it can be held in your hand with no mess and no need for cutlery (I hate having to cut up my food and find it one of the most dreary things so that was delightful). The fiddly part is that unfortunately, most of the cakes didn’t stand up on their own, so I’m afraid they sort of need to be propped up against each other when set on a plate.
roasted apricot and spruce tip cakes
Makes 7 to 8 8cm cakes.
- 1 egg, split
- 15g granulated sugar
- 10g milk
- 10g oil
- 10g whole wheat flour
- 7g cornstarch
Preheat oven to 350F. Line a pan with a sheet of parchment paper and trace eight 8cm circles. Fit a piping bag with a Wilton #12 tip (~3/8″ round tip).
Place the egg white in the bowl of a standmixer with the sugar and start beating the eggs.
Whisk together the egg yolk with the milk and oil, then whisk in the flour and cornstarch until smooth. Check the egg whites – once they are stiff, but still smooth and shiny, stop the mixer.
Whisk a spoonful of the egg white into the egg yolk mixture until completely combined, then add the remainder and gently fold in.
Transfer to the piping bag. Pipe rounds of batter following the 8cm circles traced on the paper. Starting in the middle and pipe in a spiral shape outwards.
Bake at 350F for around 10 minutes or until cooked through. Near the end I broiled the tops for around 1-2 minutes for more colour. Remove from the oven and lightly cover with a sheet of parchment to help the tops of the cake steam and stay supple. Allow to cool for just a couple minutes until they’re not quite so hot.
Set some wooden spoons over a high-walled pan. Lift the cakes up from the parchment paper and drape over the spoons so they’re folded in half (taco-like). Allow to cool draped on the spoon – don’t worry if the edges crack a bit, as placing them in muffin wrappers hides that.
I noticed while filling the cakes that a couple stayed upright on their own, but the rest would fall over without support – if you’d like them to stay upright, I suspect trying to have a flatter/rounder taco base instead of a pointed base may be helpful.
spruce tip creme diplomat
Makes enough cream to fill seven cakes.
- 120g whole milk
- 3 tbsp spruce tips
- 1 egg
- 2 tsp sugar
- very small pinch salt
- 8g rice flour
- 1 tbsp butter
- 1g gelatin
- 1 tsp/5mL cold water
- 1 tsp/5mL boiling water
- 50 g heavy cream
Warm milk until steaming, then add the spruce tips. Chopping them will help the flavour release. Let infuse overnight, transferring to the fridge once cool.
The next day, strain out the spruce tips and transfer the milk to a small saucepan. Whisk together the egg, sugar, salt and rice flour. Warm milk until steaming, then slowly pour into egg mixture, whisking constantly. Transfer back to the saucepan and cook gently over medium, stirring constantly with a rubber spatula. Cook until the pastry cream is thick enough that it starts to hold its shape for a few seconds and drops from a spoon. Whisk in the butter. Transfer to a bowl, cover and set aside to cool.
Whip the heavy cream until almost stiff.
Bloom the gelatin in the cold water, then add the hot water and stir until dissolved. Whisk into the pastry cream. Whisk in a spoonful of the heavy cream until homogenous, then gently fold in the remainder. Chill for a few hours to allow the gelatin to set.
- 3 apricots, cut into wedges
Toss the apricots with a small sprinkle of sugar and arrange on a parchment-lined baking pan. Roast at 375 for around 20-25 minutes or until they taste jammy.
maple pine nut praline
- 2 tbsp (19g) pine nuts
- 9g maple syrup
- small pinch salt
Toss the pine nuts with the maple syrup and salt. Spread into an even layer on a tray lined with parchment. Bake at 350F for around 6 minutes or until the pine nuts are beginning to look a bit toasty and golden. Remove, let cool, then break into small pieces.
Lift the sponge cakes off the spoon handles.
Take a muffin liner and place the first two fingers of each hand in the middle. Draw them apart in opposite directions to flatten the muffin liner in those locations, allowing you to set the sponge cake in the liner.
Fill the bottom of the cake with a few slices of apricots and some pine nut praline. Spoon the spruce tip cream on top to fill the cake and use a small offset spatula to smooth the cream so that it is flush with the edges of the cake. Repeat for all the sponge cakes.
Transfer the remaining spruce tip cream to a piping bag fit with one of the following tips: #65 (what I used), some other sort of plain petal tip, or a small Saint-Honore tip (what I wanted to use if I had one). Use this to pipe a tight zig-zagging swirl of the cream over the top of the cakes.
Garnish with the pine nut praline as well as little pieces of apricot or sprigs of thyme.