Thursday, June 20, 2013

When It Rains It Pours

Adventures in Beekeeping and the Building of an Earthen Oven

As you may recall, I had mentioned a while back I have been building a top bar beehive as well as getting the foundation ready for an outdoor earth oven. I had the beehive completed about three weeks ago and have been waiting to catch a swarm to inhabit it... Looking for a swarm to come across my radar screen. Since then I’ve been working on the oven…

The Earth Oven

Our interest in sourdough bread baking began about 6 years ago. We started by reading books and surfing the internet for advice. The past 4 years we’ve been using a Cloche to bake inside our conventional oven. It does a really good job but I always had my sights set on a real deal wood-fired earthen oven for baking these wild yeast loaves. Since we finally now have a place of our own we decided to build one.

I started by digging a hole 48” diameter 3’ deep. Then I hauled rocks in a wheelbarrow from the other side of our property to fill the hole. Once I reached ground level, I began dry stacking them into a wall to support the hearth floor. The three primary keys to successful dry stacking are 1. Use flat rocks 2. Overlap the rocks in each subsequent layer 3. Build it leaning slightly in toward the middle so settling doesn’t send it tumbling outward. The foundation layers consist of a cob ring filled with empty glass bottles buried in a mortar of clay and jointer shavings, followed by a dense cob mass on top, with fine sand to level the hearth bricks once set in place.

This is where the friends help really comes in handy! Now we need cob. Lots of cob. A mixture of sand and clay and straw poured on a tarp and stomped to an even mixture. The more feet the merrier. We had friends from church come down to help as well as one of our close friends from the peninsula. And all the kids running amuck.

After the hearth bricks were set out, the sand form was made and wrapped with a barrier of wet newspaper. Then it’s time for building the cob walls. The method is to pack it firmly without crushing the sand form and build up in layers.

The Great Bee Adventures

Here’s where the interesting part comes in… right in the beginning of my planned project day with friends driving from an hour away, I get a call from my father in law. He’s found a bee swarm. Now’s the time. Oh man... What timing! The ironic thing is that this work day was actually rescheduled twice already due to serious downpours of rain. So here everyone is and I get a call that I have to leave to get these bees in the next few hours before they fly off and find a home elsewhere.

I decided to make the quick run to get them. I met my father in law with his extension ladder and drove over to Brooklin across the road from The Cave. The swarm had come out of the wall of an Odd Fellows Hall. There they were 20ft up the wall under the window sill balled up a little bigger than a grapefruit. This was a very small swarm which is good for me because I ain’t never done this before. We positioned the ladder, I suited up, lit the smoker, and ascended to meet my fate. It went so well. The bees were so docile and happy and were singing and humming away seemingly delighted to meet me. I held a cardboard box under the swarm and scraped them down into the box which was smeared with honey and dripped with anise essential oil. They couldn’t have been happier. I knew I got the queen because all the bees were so content to stay in the box after being brought down the ladder. I wrapped them in a blanket and drove them home.

At home, they were not as willing to get in the hive. They were buzzing pretty loud after that 20 minute bumpy drive. When I removed the top, the bees all scattered in the air and refused to get in box. I set the box and the blanket down and walked away to let them cool down.

So I went back to the oven building project and I kept an eye on the bees from a distance. I became disheartened as their numbers diminished slowly over the next half an hour. I was sure I’d lost them. Bummer.

My generous hardworking friends headed off for home and Eden and I finished off the last bit of the mud oven. With the dome finally completed at 7:30, we began cleaning up from the day’s events. Feeling pretty sad for myself for having lost the swarm, I walked over the hive area and began collecting the stuff. I lifted the blanket to fold it up and what did I see? Bees! There they all were hiding under the blanket. Glory! Glory! Thinking quickly, I picked up the blanket and laid it over the open hive. And then I walked away fast. Real fast. I left them alone to get acquainted with the hive. About twilight time when they began feeling calm and sleepy I suited up and began placing the top bars in place, hoping the clusters would leave the blanket and cluster to the bars (laced with beeswax). Success!

Feeling pretty excited I slept that night with anticipation to check on them in the morning. When I lifted the blanket my heart stopped for a moment because not a one of them were moving. I brushed them all into the box and they didn’t even as much as twitch a limb. Having never done this before, I thought that this could be a normal part of the process, I just never read about this happening. It turns out they were cold from the chilly morning. Fortunately after the sun began warming them up they revived and have been happy buzzing around the field all day long.

In a few days, we will cut the door into the mud oven and remove the sand form so that the drying is hastened. Then we will begin building the outer insulation layer and final finish surfacing.

Oh and today I bought a car.

So the past few weeks during the relentless rain, I kept saying “When it rains, it pours”. I guess I didn’t realize how true that really is. These two days have been insane.

Peaches are coming on now...

and Julia's been perfecting our bread recipe.


  1. Joshua, you never cease to amaze me. For someone of your young age, you are a true renaissance man. I don't know if I'd ever tackle the bee keeping, but I'd love to do a Earthen Oven someday. They have one outside the new blacksmith shop at Colonial Williamsburg and I've been interested since I saw that one. I actually just watched a Jas. Townsend video on YouTube about making one.
    Keep up the great and diverse work. Looking forward to seeing that shop being built soon also.

  2. Jamie, Thanks so much.The Jas. Towsend video is really great. If you do build an oven someday read Kiko Denzer's book first. It was very helpful!
    I am clearing the area for the timber framing and expect to begin cutting joinery next week. I have to clean up a few tools first. (Just bought a boring machine!!!)
    I am looking forward to hearing about your projects when you are feeling well again. My prayers are toward you, Jamie. May the LORD be your strength in this hard providence. Blessings on you, brother...

  3. Hello sir, I was wondering what kind of bread that is you all baked. Is it pumpernickel? It looks delicious. May the Lord's blessings be on you and you family as well. Roger

  4. Hi Roger,
    We bake sourdough bread (wild yeasts, long fermentation) with Whole wheat, white, and spelt flours. Traditional sourdough bread only has three ingredients: flour, water, and salt. It has been very fun working on our recipes the past 5 or 6 years. If you're interested in trying it out, check out Tartine Bread. This book is excellent.