Thursday, February 9, 2017

Maple Tapping: A How-To

In case anyone else wants to try this.  Instructions courtesy of Eric:

Step one:  Determine if your trees are maples (or otherwise tappable).  It can be hard to tell during the winter, but the branching patterns can help you determine what type of trees you have.  Oak trees, which are common here in New Jersey, have an alternating branching pattern, while maple trees have an opposite branching pattern (see image, below).  You can also tap walnut and birch trees, but they have a lower sugar content, so you'll need more sap to get syrup, but it will be equally tasty.  Obviously, if you're allergic to walnut, avoid tapping walnut trees.

Step two:  Order equipment.  You'll basically only need a few things.  Your taps, or spiles, are what go into the tree.  You'll need one tap for each tree over 12" in diameter, and 2 taps can be put into trees over 18".  Don't tap anything smaller than 12".  There are different types of spiles, metal and plastic, but they all work similarly.  Below is a photo of the ones we ordered.  Depending on the spiles you order, you may also need tubing to direct the flow into your container. Our spiles came with 2' lengths of tubing attached, as pictured.

You'll also need buckets to collect the sap.  You can use 1 gallon milk jugs or water bottles, but you'll need to collect the sap frequently.  We did this last year, and, sadly, probably lost a ton of sap to spillage without even realizing it.  We learned from our mistake, and this year are using 5 gallon pails with a hole drilled in the lid.  In just a day or two, we found that we already had 20 gallons of sap in 4 full buckets, so if you keep up with it, you can get quite a bit!

Step three:  Tap trees when temps are freezing at night and above freezing during the day.  You'll need a drill and a 5/16" wood bit for this.  Mark the bit at 1.5" with either tape or a thick sharpie marker.  You want to drill no more than 1.5" into your trees.  Don't skip the marking of the bit, as you don't want to go too deep and damage your trees.  Use a new bit, or one that has been cleaned well and wiped with alcohol to sanitize it.  Drill into your tree at a very slight upward angle to 1.5".  If it's a maple and the temperature is right, you should have sap flow almost immediately.  (When we tapped ours this year it was still a bit too cold, so there was no instantaneous flow, but it started the next day.)  Insert your spile, and carefully tap it in with a hammer, or (better yet) a rubber mallet.  Choke up on the hammer, and tap it in lightly until the hammer bounces back when you tap it.  Put your tubing in the bucket and you're done.  Wipe your bit down with alcohol before moving to the next tree to prevent possible disease transmission.

Step four:  Collect your sap frequently, and store it below 38 degrees.  If you have to leave it outside, cover it and try to keep it in a snow bank, or pile snow around it.  Sap should be used within a week.

Step five:  Freeze your sap.  We skipped this step last year, thinking it'd be a waste of time, and of course learned the hard way that it's actually a time saver.  This step separates much of the water out of your sap, and speeds up the boiling time.  We're definitely doing it this year; 10 gallons are already in the chest freezer.

Step six:  Clear your day.  Pour your sap in a large pot. (This is best done outside, on a large propane burner, or your house will become a rainforest, complete with dripping ceilings.  For real.  Don't ask me how I know this.)  Bring the sap to a rolling boil and watch it throughout the day, adding more sap as necessary to keep the pot 2/3 full.  Once it all boils down to a smaller amount, you can transfer the sap to a smaller pot and finish the boil indoors.  The sap is officially syrup when it reaches 219 degrees.  It takes up to 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup, so seriously... Clear your day and start early.

A note - that was how we did it last year.  This year, we've bought an evaporator pan.  We'll be building a trough out of cinderblocks and placing two propane burners in it, with the pan over them.  This allows for a shallower, longer, wider surface and two burners rather than one, and is reputed to be much faster.  I'll be posting once we get to boiling, which will be Friday or Saturday, so watch this blog for more photos and updates!

Step seven:  Filter your syrup through a few layers of cheesecloth, and pour into pre-warmed canning jars (if you put 219 degree syrup into cold jars, they can crack, so make sure you warm them in a pot of hot water beforehand.  Wipe the rims of your jars, put the lids on, and screw the bands finger tight.  As they cool, the lids should pop in, and you can store your syrup at room temperature for a year or more.


Friday, January 6, 2017

There's a Reason I've Been So Quiet

Lots of reasons, actually.  They boil down to:  We've been busy!  Insanely busy.  And I've been downright lazy about keeping up here.  But at least now you get a ton of photos!

We had a warm spell back in the winter/early spring, which got the queen bees laying new brood early... and then a really cold snap that kept us from getting into the hives to do splits.  And then warmth... and then rain that again kept us from getting into the hives.

As a result, were dealing with swarms from all our hives for the entire spring and into the summer, in addition to the nucs we bought.  It was exhausting.  Eric was working from home a lot, and our friend Carol, who was a brand new beek and our mentee this season, also works from home, so they spent every day chasing swarms all over town.  We have one tree in the backyard we dubbed "the swarm tree," and at one point, it had three swarms in residence.

We weren't able to catch them all, and lost a lot of bees.  On top of that, we had bear attacks that took out six of the twenty-four hives to which we'd built up.  We tried combining, requeening, and did what we could.  It was a tough season that resulted in much more work and less honey than we anticipated, and us being down to eight hives now.  Fingers crossed they all make it through winter!

Agriculture is rough.  Love it anyway, even through the occasional tears.

On top of all of that, there's We Bee-lieve!  Eric and I have formed a NJ domestic nonprofit corporation to bring bees to kids and vice versa.  Feel free to visit the site or Facebook page (and "like" it to keep up with our doings!  We're on Instagram too!  The plan is doing bee talks, which we've already started (photos on the Facebook page and Instagram), plus put hives in depressed areas and teach kids everything from how to make seed bombs and what pollinators do all the way up to how to be beekeepers.  We have our five inaugural hives on the roof of the old Uniroyal factory in Passaic, NJ, and our initial investor is the land developer who owns that property.  It's amazing, and so far the girls up there are flourishing.  The hives are facing the Passaic River, where there must be a ton of forage, because over the spring and summer they were working their little wings off bringing in nectar and pollen.

In case we weren't missing enough sleep (Who needs sleep?  Sleep is boring!), we've taken on some new endeavors too!  First of all, Eric has gotten into fine woodworking.  You can see his wares at Blades and Board, and like his Facebook page if you're interested in also seeing his stuff that doesn't get listed for sale.  He's really amazingly talented.  In addition to the stuff on his site and FB page, we had a joint effort... he turned apple wood and walnut ornaments, and I painted them!  We got a ton of custom orders, which was fun but harrowing.  These are a few of the ones we did...

Of course, I couldn't let Eric have all the fun!  I've taken up some new avocations too!  It just so happens that Eric and I made some new friends from whom got these angora buns...

Washburne William, a/k/a "Wash"

Malcolm Lassie, a/k/a "Mal," together with Jack

How freakin' cute are they?... and this drop spindle...

... and what felt about two seconds later, I had this spinning wheel.

She's a 1960-something Ashford Traditional, named Serenity (you nerds will get the connection if you read the buns' names), and I made some more new friends in the process of the purchase!  This was in October, and I've been spinning ever since!  I'm completely addicted.  I even got to spin with some help from Santa when Eric and I were vendors at a holiday festival.

And for Chanukah, Eric got me the best gifts ever.

Those right there are two yarn dyeing books, which I plan to start reading imminently.  I'm really looking forward to putting the one on the left to good use right away, and the one on the right, which is about creating natural dyes, to good use come spring when things start blooming.  Apparently tickseed makes an amazing red-orange that Eric is really looking forward to.

In the middle is King Gumdrop, an out-of-print antique book (1916) I had as a kid, which has old candy recipes in the back!  And that little thing there is a remote shutter control for my DSLR.  Expect some amazing photos of the bees come spring!

Meanwhile, I think in the not too distant future, there will be yarn for sale!

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

It's Spring!

OK, so today's high is forecast to be 38 degrees Fahrenheit, with snow, and the current precipitation consists of ice pellets.  And yes, it's February.

But for the bees, and therefore beekeepers, it's early spring!  The girls are starting now to build their populations up, the queen is ramping up her laying of brood, and they're preparing for the inevitable arrival of dandelions, their first food of the year aside from what we feed them.

As an aside, we don't touch our dandelions until they've bloomed and gone to seed.  And then we make sure to kick and blow the seeds around the yard so there'll be even more later in the summer and next year!  Yes, that's the exact opposite of what my mom told me as a kid, when she classified dandelions as "weeds" and freaked out that there'd be too many when we blew the seeds.  But that's because now that I'm an adult, with my own yard, I know their value and I want them!

At any rate, it's definitely time for us as beekeepers to start thinking spring, and this time we're expanding from 10 hives to nearly 30 (yes, you read that right!), so on Saturday we went to the bee supply store and picked up a bunch of woodenware for some of our new hives.

Photo:  Carol Peterson

Part of the fun was also bringing two friends who've just ordered their first two nucs, and getting them set up with everything they'll need as well!  Eric and I are both so excited to be mentoring new beekeepers, you have no idea.

And then on Sunday when it was nice and warm, I visited the hives to see how they're doing, give them some more food of protein filled "winter patties" to keep them going until the nectar and pollen arrive, and treat them with a bit of Apivar.  Now's the time for "spring" mite treatments, since varroa mites attack the larvae, and the queen is ramping up her brood production, the mites'll be ramping up too.  Yuck.  There's no sadder sight to me than seeing honey bees with varroa mites clinging onto them, sucking them dry like a plate-sized tick on a human.  (shudder)

Spring feels so, so close now.

In the meantime, we console ourselves with our tapped maple trees, which are producing nicely.  I have to say, I understand why maple syrup is so expensive now!  Boiling it down is a long, long, long process, and when 10 gallons of sap yields just 1.5 pints of syrup... well, you get the picture.  But it's such a pretty picture!

And what to do with your maple syrup?  Well, I personally highly recommend this recipe for maple-buttermilk pudding cake that I tried Sunday night.


Monday, February 8, 2016

This One's for Us

Because we don't do enough things (yes, that's facetious tone right there), Eric came up with the admittedly awesome idea that we should make maple syrup too!  So he ordered a set of 10 taps, and we gathered all the plastic gallon bottles we could find, and this weekend before the Superbowl, we found five trees in our front and back yards that were viable to tap.  They've got to be at least 12" in diameter for a single tap, and over 18" in diameter for two.  One of the trees fit the bill for two taps, so we got to use six of them!

We were completely unprepared for (and amazed by!) how quickly the sap started to flow and how fast it came.  We put in the taps just yesterday, and we'll likely have 10 gallons of sap by tonight!  Of course, it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of actual maple syrup once it's boiled down, but at this rate, we'll have that before the week's out!  We were figuring 1-2 gallons would come from the whole 6-week season, but it looks like we'll have more like 5 or 6, which is awesome.

These won't be for sale in the shop, though, these are just for us and gifts for friends.  After all, who wouldn't love 100% pure New Jersey maple syrup?

Friday, February 5, 2016

Back to the Bees

Here in northern New Jersey, it got near 60 degrees on Sunday... January 31!  Crazy.  But that meant the bees were flying.  They were going nuts, in fact, uncrossing all their little legs in their "cleansing" (bathroom) runs since they won't go in the hive, bringing out their dead, and generally cleaning house.

We took advantage of the terrific weather and the girls' activity, and did inspections on all 11 hives.

The six in our yard are doing well, most with phenomenal populations, one with the population a little lower than the rest, and we'll need to keep an eye on them.  One of the hives, the Pooh hive, was downright angry because their mouse guard had been removed somehow, and we believe a mouse or other animal had gotten in and shredded some of their comb.  We replaced the guard, and when they get a chance, they'll repair it like new.

They all still seemed to have quite a bit of honey, but had eaten the two winter patties we provided to each colony, so we added one more to each hive.  Better too much food than too little, and if there's one thing these bees will not die of under our watch, it's starvation due to lack of stores.

The two hives up the road, one of which we're actually overwintering as a single deep hive box rather than our typical two-deep, are going gangbusters, bursting at the seams with bees.  We'll have to be right on top of them in early spring so they don't swarm!  We gave them each a new patty too; they'd devoured theirs.

The two hives farther across town were also going gangbusters, and actually really calm and unstressed, which was nice to see.  We gave them each a patty and let them go about their business unhindered.

And then there was the small summer swarm Eric had caught and collected back in June.  We tried our darnedest all summer and fall to keep them going, requeening them when theirs disappeared, adding honeycomb and brood from other hives, and feeding them, but they just never really got their population where it needed to be to survive the cold snap once it came.  We found the hive devoid of live bees, and just a handful of dead ones on the bottom and in the comb.  The top box still had all their honey and they hadn't come near the food we'd left them.

So we're down to 10.  In practical terms, we're ok with that.  I personally get upset over losing a hive, and cried for those girls, but in the end, we're doing well.  If it keeps going like this, we're in a really great place for honey and expansion come spring!

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Chickens and Mushrooms and Coloring, Oh, My!

We've been working diligently on the mushrooms, and have sold our entire first flush of lion's mane, plus a bunch of pink and blue oysters.

Lion's Mane Mushrooms

Pink Oyster Mushrooms

Blue Oyster Mushrooms

How pretty are they?  And I love that people are almost as excited about them as we are.  The ones we didn't sell, we used to make oyster mushroom tacos for dinner!

So good, and an amazing vegetarian option for the non-meat-eaters out there.

Meanwhile, I've been busy with the coloring pages, coloring the ones I'd already listed, plus adding some more!

And the chicklettes?  Well, they aren't fond of the cold and outright hate the snow we got over the weekend, but they're doing well.  We get eggs every day, even though it's understandably slowed down a bit in these cold, short days.  And Miranda is really personable.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Vegetarian Lobster?

The first of our mushrooms to fruit enough for us to try some were the lion's mane, so we harvested a small one today to share.  Aren't they cool looking?

Eric had read that these mushrooms can taste like lobster, but we were both skeptical.  I mean, that's just weird, right?  Eric actually has spent his life not fond of mushrooms, so after he sauteed them up in a pan with a bit of butter and a touch of salt and pepper, I was the first to try.

Would you believe me if I tell you they taste like lobster?!  They totally do!  My mouth is watering thinking about it.

It's vegetarian (vegan if you don't use butter), low cal, low point, naturally grown & chemical free lobster!  Kosher too, for those who are so inclined.

Even better?  Check out this article from the Huffington Post.  Researchers have been experimenting with lion's mane's apparent ability to regenerate nerves, improve memory and cognition, and boost mood.

Mind blown!

Oh, and the pink oysters?  Yeah, they're going to be harvested this weekend, for sure.

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