Archives for category: chores

Spring, Not for the Faint of Heart–

A.V. Walters–

We celebrated today. The trees are in. It’s a little late, but then, spring was late. My hands are rough and raw and I ache, but all 100 trees are happily in their new homes. Once the trees arrive, we drop nearly everything to get them in the ground. The hurry is twofold; to minimize the stress on the baby trees, and to get them in the ground before the bugs arrive. I’d post a picture, but 100 baby trees spread over many acres doesn’t present well.

We put 50 bass trees into the forest, this season. The ash are almost all dead now–victims of the Emerald Ash Borer–though many remain standing. The beech trees are dying, too–beech bark disease. Beech Bark Disease is the result of an introduced insect, beech scale, combined with one of two native fungal infections. It takes both the insect, and the fungus to kill the trees. In the past few years the disease has been making its way west, and it’s estimated that Michigan will lose over 90 per cent of its beech trees. Rick and I have forest panic. We are desperate to plant our way ahead of the devastation. Though the insect involved in beech bark disease was introduced into Nova Scotia almost a hundred years ago, its impact here is recent. And fast. We feel we have no choice but to keep planting. The bass trees are a favorite of the bees, so it was an easy choice.

This year, spring came so late that the sellers (catalog and the Soil Conservation District) all had to delay their tree deliveries. You cannot plant in the snow. We had two major snow storms in April, leaving us knee deep in the white stuff at mid-month. It was the first time I saw people angry about the snow. Our local police blotter told of a woman  who reported a man on her block who was yelling and cursing. When the police arrived, the guy was surprised, and embarrassed. He’d been shoveling, yet again, and he was just venting. A lot of people felt that way.

I had a trip planned–to go downstate with my mum. Rick and I planted as many trees as we could–about seventy of them, before I had to leave. Rick heeled in the rest until my return, and now those are planted, too. Though Spring is late, the bugs are on time–and the past two days of planting were challenging. Black flies don’t care that the trees must be planted…they just want a bite of you, swarms of them all want a bite of you.

Now that the trees are in, we can concentrate on getting the bees ready. We are moving our bee yard up the hill, into the pines. That way they’ll be far from incidental human contact and out of sight. It’ll be cooler in the summer. There’s always a light breeze up there, and they’ll be partially shaded. Hot bees are not happy bees. Rick has already put the new fence up, and tomorrow I’ll sort through all the bee stuff and ready the hives. By the weekend the bees will be installed in their new digs.

In the meantime, we are starting to get the garden ready. That’ll be another few weeks of work. It will be interrupted, though, because I found a great craigslist deal–on blackberries. We want to put in a long hedge of blackberries to shield us from the cornfield on our south side. Blackberries grow fast (sometimes too fast) and they’ll give us a good wind break. So, next Monday we’ll pick up 200 blackberry plants and get those in, before returning to the garden project. The bees will love them.

It’s Spring. What can I say? It’s not for the faint of heart.

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I am so behind the curve. I saw the ads, but didn’t realize it was a new thing. In the world of gadgets with plugs, I am oblivious. I do own a crock pot–but we use it exclusively for processing honey and beeswax. So when my friends all began to rave over insta-pots, I had no idea what that was about.

Turns out it braises, simmers, boils, even pressure cooks. And it’s programmable. Who knew?

You still have to chop and stir. You still have to plan the meal and have the ingredients. I just don’t see its charms.

I have one of these.

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It braises, simmers, boils, bakes and even pressure cooks. It has timers and other gadgets. It is not, to my knowledge, programmable. But I am.

Finding Rhythms

Any time you make a major change, it takes a while before you find your “sea legs.” We’ve been here just over a fortnight, and certain things are falling into place. Granted many of our new patterns are as much about season, as they are about location.

I’m one to dally in the morning, enjoying the warmth of the covers and planning my day. Rick is up and about, almost as soon as his eyes are open. He’s taken to grinding and making the coffee–a pattern that started even before we moved. Now though, he uses the time it takes for the water to boil to tidy the woodstove and start the fire. Somedays that requires a full shoveling of ashes and cleaning the glass. And sometimes, he just stacks the kindling on the embers still left from the night before.

We do not build roaring fires. So far we haven’t had weather cold enough to warrant more than a solid ember bed and a log or two. If we pushed this stove to capacity, we’d have to open the windows. It’s nice to know that all that insulating was for good purpose. It’s easy to heat this little house with wood. We have back-up heat–both propane and electric, but mostly that’s reserved for if we are not at home.

By the time I get up, the fire has started and there’s coffee in the carafe. I am spoiled.

Our days are ordered by the weather. A light snow you can ignore. A medium accumulation will require some hand shoveling of the paths and parking area. There are paths to the garden, the compost, the woodpile and around the house and parking area. And then, somedays you get up and the biggest task of the day will be snow removal. Rick does the bulk of it. He’s the one on the tractor with the snowblower–after all, it is 400 feet of driveway. For a heavy snow, I’ll suit up and do the hand shoveling. It’s a workout that we both enjoy. We have a lifestyle that includes a regular upper body workout, as a matter of course.

About once a week, a little more often if it’s cold, I fill the wood crib from the wood pile out back. The crib is a brick enclosure built into the retaining wall at the basement level. It lets us keep our firewood stock just a step out the door. The area is sheltered by the front porch, and keeps the wood dry and at hand. The larger wood pile is about forty feet behind the house, back up in the pines, generously covered with tarps to keep the wood dry. It takes four heaping wheel barrows to fill the wood crib. At some point in the future, we’ll build a wood shed to keep our heating supply dry and snow-free.

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We enjoy being out in the snow. We watch the tracks to see who else is enjoying our home. Rabbits (of course), and deer (more than we first thought) are the most frequent visitors. There are squirrels, chipmunks, and a couple of kinds of ground squirrels–mostly we see their tracks. In the New Year, we’ll resume our regular walks. They fell by the wayside in the past few months of building. It’s time to get back into it.

By mid-day, most of the maintenance chores are complete and we can turn our attentions to working on the house, or, for me, sitting at the computer and working. Evenings, we read, write, play Scrabble, or grouse about current events. Things will be much busier once Spring rolls around. For now we are enjoying the peace and quiet of the season.

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And the next morning, we can start, all over again.

They’re Here!

A.V. Walters–

I don’t celebrate Earth Day. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice idea. But it annoys me no end when folks known for driving down the driveway to the mailbox “celebrate” Earth Day by buying “green” products they don’t need.

Perhaps it’s a meaningful reminder to people inclined to forget that the planet sits on the edge of the abyss.

Instead, we do our damnest, everyday, to live lightly on the planet. We’re not perfect. Our Spring tribute to the Earth usually involves planting trees. Many, many trees.

This year we backed off. It wasn’t that last year’s 203 tree extravaganza nearly killed us. That was last year. Annual memory lapse is normal. This year, though, we switched to pricey nursery trees. That puts a damper on how many we can plant.

When you pay the big bucks for pedigreed trees, you want to be sure you give them the very best opportunity to survive. We dig deep holes. No matter that the little bare-root sprig is less than a foot tall, our paltry soils must be amended deeply. We sprung for high end organic compost this year—horse manure may be fine for conservation trees, but only the best for these babies. That adds another $6.00 per tree. And, of course we’ll have to cage them, to protect them from the deer, the bunnies, and any other herbivore threats; add rabbit proof welded wire fencing, and a full day to manufacture their cages. We’ll have to extend water down to this newly planted area. There’s plenty of rain this time of year, but by August, I don’t want to have to carry water in buckets.

Needless to say, once the trees arrive, we drop all other activities. Some holes have to be dug by hand. Most though can be done with the backhoe. (You see, we are very serious about these trees.) I figure it’ll take about a week. Then, sore and weary, we’ll return to our regular overloaded lives knowing that we’ve done what we can to make the planet more green.

See you in about a week.

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Honey, Cooking, and The Science Behind The Sweet

A.V. Walters

Honey is a foodstuff of almost mythical proportions. It is one of a handful of foods that, left in its original form, never spoils. Honey has been known to last literally thousands of years—and still be edible and sweet. Honey will crystalize—a condition that may put off the uninformed consumer—but crystalized honey is still good. If it offends, you can simply warm it gently and it will resume its liquid amber loveliness.

Honey has three characteristics that, acting together, serve as its natural preservative. Despite being a liquid, honey has a very low water content of only 14 to 18 %. Bees will not “cap” honey in the comb until it has reached this low moisture threshold. Most bacteria cannot survive in such a low-moisture environment. Honey is also highly acidic, with a pH between 3.0 and 4.5. That acidity will kill off the few remaining things that might want to grow there. And, as we all know, honey is sweet. That natural sweetness also discourages bacterial growth. Archeologists have found sealed honey in ancient Egyptian tombs that was still preserved and unspoiled. Add to these three basic characteristics are the enzymes in honey that come from the bees’ stomachs. These enzymes combine with nectar sugars to produce gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide—natural components of honey. Blended together all these characteristics make a super-food that keeps, nearly indefinitely.

Herbalists and healers of ancient times understood these qualities in honey. It was widely used to treat wounds, for skin ointments and to prevent infections. To retain its natural preservative qualities though, stored honey must be sealed. Because honey is hygroscopic (naturally low in water) it will absorb liquid from the air and eventually spoil if left uncovered. Though honey is naturally pure, it can contain trace amounts of bacteria, and while this is not a problem for healthy children and adults, raw honey is not recommended for infants or people with compromised immune systems.

What about cooked honey? Cooking honey poses two questions: Does cooking undermine honey’s otherwise beneficial qualities? And, is it actually toxic? Purists and practitioners of natural or ayurvedic medicine will tell you that cooked honey is poisonous, and should never be eaten. There’s a smidgeon of science that supports that position, technically, but most feel that’s a little extreme. At the end of the day, this is something you’ll have to decide for yourself. Honey is essentially a natural, supersaturated sugar solution. Added into that are enzymes, courtesy of our friends, the bees. Many of the purported health benefits of honey are connected to those enzymes. But, when you heat honey, the enzymes begin to break down, beginning at about 118 degrees, Fahrenheit. Over-heating may result in losing most of the beneficial properties, making honey just another sweetener. (A good reason to gently heat your crystalized honey. You can warm it in a bath of warm tap water or in a double-boiler, at very low heat, to protect its enzymes.) In cooking, you can preserve honey’s integrity by adjusting how and when you heat it. Whenever possible, wait and add the honey until later in the cooking process (this is especially true when sweetening sauces or glazes.) Or, you can also “dilute” any heated honey mixture with a larger quantity of unheated ingredients. Check your recipes to see if there might be ways to limit exposure to high temperatures. Needless to say, honey is always at its best when used in recipes that are never heated, like salad dressings, toppings, dips or icings.

But, is it toxic? When honey is heated, its fructose, in combination with its natural acidity, degrades and begins to form hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF), which is mildly toxic. The hotter it gets, the more HMF forms. The solution is dilution. Diluting the honey with other ingredients, (prior to heating) lowers the acid level of the honey, helping to prevent HMF formation. Even then, the actual HMF toxicity levels that result from normal cooking are very low. Our evolved human gut is fully capable of digesting cooked honey products, with no observable adverse affects. If you are a purist—don’t heat your honey. Otherwise, take reasonable efforts to preserve the maximum beneficial effects by keeping honey temperatures as low as practical. You can cook and bake with confidence, knowing that you are not putting yourself at risk.

There is one group that should never consume heated honey. That is your BEES! Bee guts and intestinal systems are relatively simple and cannot safely digest HMFs. Ingesting even a small amount of honey that has been heated can result in bees developing gut ulcerations. Many beekeepers use heat to separate wax from honey—and feed the resulting honey back to the bees. Don’t do it! Only give bees cold-processed, unadulterated, honey. Even adding water to honey, for bee feeding, must be done carefully because once water is added, the honey mixture is subject to bacterial spoilage, and fermentation. (Think mead!) If you use watered-down honey for bee feeding, make sure that it remains fresh. Remove any unconsumed honey blends within a day or so, replace with a fresh mixture, and periodically clean containers.

The very characteristics that give honey its extended shelf life can require some adjustments when cooking or baking with it. The most obvious is that honey is a liquid, so when substituted for sugar, you must adjust the balance of dry and wet ingredients to retain the desired texture. Every cup of honey used as sweetener contains about three extra tablespoons of liquid. So, you must reduce the other liquids in your recipe, increase the dry ingredients, or a combination of both. (The approach you take will depend on the recipe.)

It is often assumed that you can do a “cup for cup” substitution of honey for a recipe’s sweetener. Not so. In addition to increased moisture content, honey is sweeter than sugar when measured cup for cup. Depending upon the bees food source, and the seasonal time of production, honey can be anywhere from 1.25 to 1.5 times as sweet as sugar. You’ll have to substitute accordingly, and remember to taste as you go. Honey has a lower glycemic index rating than sugar (55 compared to sugar’s 61) so it’s a healthier option, with a slower impact on blood sugar. It’s easier to standardize baking with lighter honeys—the darker honeys come laden with their own native flavors. They can add depth and character to your baked goods, but darker honeys are a shifting exercise in taste exploration. Since the sugars in honey brown faster than regular sugar, you might have to lower your baking temperature by 25 degrees and cook your baked goods a little longer. Even if all your adjustments are correct, remember that baked goods made with honey are moister than sugar baking. If you’re looking for a drier finish—carefully bake longer, at a lower temperature.

Finally, honey’s natural acidity can play havoc with the leavening in baked goods. Most leavening agents (baking soda/baking powder) are “base” ingredients. The higher acidity in honey can act to neutralize your leavening agent—leaving an unadjusted recipe as heavy as a brick! You will need more leavening to achieve a proper rise, usually an additional 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoonful per cup of honey sweetening. There is no need to adjust if you’re using yeast. Yeast usually does well in the more acidic environment of honey. Add the honey to the bread dough mix, itself, to avoid interference with yeast performance. Do not “proof” your yeast in a honey mixture.

Honey as a food product has been with us for thousands of years. Whether you revere it for its mystical healing properties, or enjoy it as a healthy sweetener, it’s helpful to know how it behaves in cooking and baking. Following these tips, along with a little experimentation, will yield light and tasty results.

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A Matter of Scale—

A.V. Walters—

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Beautiful? Yes. But look closely at the bumps on the twigs.

Rick and I have returned to our Sundays “day off,” in which we spend Sunday afternoons cutting wood up in the woods. We are still clearing trails and cleaning up after the wild Storm of 2015. I’m sure that the trees down, from just that storm, will heat our Michigan winters for several years to come. This doesn’t even touch the backlog of deadfall accumulating from the dying ash and beech trees. We’ll have work, and heat, for the rest of our lives.

Last Sunday I noticed that the forest was sticky. All over, the understory plants are glazed with a tinge of sap—not unheard of in spring, but a little unusual, given how dry it has been. After a light snow year, April and May had precious little rain for us. The forest is crispy-dry. We didn’t get any of our usual spring morel mushrooms. Here, and up in the U.P., there have been fire warnings. (In May!) We watched the Canadian wildfire in Fort McMurray in horror.

This is not really unusual—when California has an El Nino season, Michigan’s weather is mild and dry. Finally, this week the dry spell broke and we’ve seen lovely storms to accompany the greening of our forests.

So what’s up with sticky? Yesterday, a friend, brow furrowed with concern, pointed out the scale on the maple tree next to our house. Yuck. His trees have it, too. Scale is an insect infestation. Maples always have some measure of scale, but the outer branches of our tree were lined with the limpet-like outer shells of these tiny sap-sucking vultures. It appears that we are having a major infestation of scale. The scale is responsible for the sugar-coated forest.

We live in Michigan. Bugs, in all shapes and forms, are a way of life here. Still, bugs of any kind, in great numbers, are unnerving. After our friend left, I stood in the soft rain, running my hands down every branch I could reach, squishing all those thousands of little scale bugs. Rick just shook his head.

“What are you going to do, molest every tree in the forest?”

Well, no. But the two maples next to my house—those I can help. It’s worrisome. Is this, yet another forest calamity in our future? Naturally this called for a research trip to the internet.

The likely problem is the dry spring. Maple trees under stress produce a thinner, more sugary sap. It’s a stress reaction, to ensure the energy needed leafing out in spring. The scale bugs, in turn, thrive on the sweeter mixture, ironically putting the trees under more stress. So, as long as the dry cycle is not repeated too much over the years, the scale is a cyclical problem that will solve itself.

There are measures I can take. I could have “power washed” the trees, before the leaves came out. I could use poisons (not likely!), sprays or root saturation with systemics. I could use a dormant spray in the very early spring—a perfectly acceptable organic measure—like we’ll be using on the orchard trees when they’re bigger. But, Rick is right. I cannot treat the entire forest. I need to relax here, and wait patiently for the ladybugs. Scale is a favorite of ladybugs and birds.

In the meantime, the rains will wash the forest clean of “sticky.” And, at the same time, they will feed the trees, making them stronger and better equipped to deal with the pests. I’ll step back and let the problem solve itself. Sometimes there is a danger of looking too closely.

 

 

The Scent of Bees

A.V. Walters

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I’ve wanted to keep bees since my age was in the single digits. My grandfather kept bees. And turkeys. And rabbits. We never knew how many hives he had, because he was forever loading them up into the back of his old Suburban, and carting them around to “someone who needed them.” I didn’t understand why someone might need bees.

He was a quiet man of many talents. He was not a big feature in our lives, because there had been a divorce. For their own reasons, neither my grandmother, nor my grandfather’s second wife, were eager to see a relationship between Grandpa and his grandchildren. The visits were few and far between. But he was interesting and different. He made things with his hands. He was, literally, always trying to build a better mousetrap. He didn’t talk much, but when he did, what he said was solid. Or funny. Sometimes, darkly funny. He thought it was funny to pick up hitchhikers when his Suburban was full of bees.

So, bees have always been in the back of my mind. But, there were always too many reasons why I couldn’t keep bees. In my urban years, my partner was adamantly against it. In Two Rock, my landlord was allergic to stings. (You don’t waste a good landlord, like that.) So the move to Michigan was my chance to finally become a beekeeper. I say “become,” because it takes some time to really be a beekeeper. There’s a lot to learn, especially now, when the bees are in so much trouble.

I’ve joined a beekeeping group. Many of us are “newbees” but in the group there’s a generous wealth of talent and experience—and the rest we make up for with enthusiasm. Our founder is a dynamic young man, willing to share his decade or so of experience.

When spring rolled around, our group put together an order of bees from a supplier down in Holland. It’s a three and a half hour drive to Holland, but our fearless leader, Matt, said he’d do the pick up. There was only one wrinkle, Matt’s wife was expecting their second child—if the baby came early, Matt needed a back-up driver. I volunteered. How hard could it be? Others in the group looked dubious. They teased me, advising me to drive with the air-conditioner on full—to chill-out the bees.

Of course, by volunteering, I somehow guaranteed an early delivery date (for the baby, not the bees.) The day before the scheduled pick-up I emailed Matt—to ask how his wife was doing. “Funny you should ask,” he responded. They were just checking in to the hospital. I was now on-the-hook.

I told my mother, who was horrified at the idea of sharing a ride with hundreds of thousands of bees.

I told my sister, who told me not to pick up any hitchhikers.

I told Rick, who devised a system of bed-sheets and boards—to put over the bees to keep them away from me in the car.

I’m not put off by a long drive. The morning of the trip, though, we lost our spring weather. On the way down, I experienced every kind of weather, driving rain, sleet, buffeting winds and hail. Finally, in Holland, I missed my turn. I didn’t worry; I could just double back—or so I thought. Holland was having its Spring Tulip Festival. Many streets were closed and the town was a maze of festival detours. It’s a pretty little town, and many of its streets are lined with tulips. Lots of tulips. The tourists were there, en masse, dressed for a spring festival despite near freezing temperatures and occasional snow squalls. And, predictably, traffic sucked.

Finally, I arrived at my destination. The bee pick-up was held in the bee-master’s garage. The car area was filled with bee “packages” and the adjacent shop area displayed many bee accessories—wooden-ware, bee tools and such. Bees are sold as three-pound packages, in shoe-box sized wood and screened boxes, each containing approximately 10,000 bees and a queen. They also come as “nucs”—mini-hives with five frames containing all the components of a working hive, bees; a laying queen, brood, drones, honey and “bee-bread” (the mixture of honey and pollen fed to the larvae.) I was there to pick up about forty packages.

The garage was not only filled with boxes of bees, it was awash with loose bees, and beekeepers. Beekeepers are an odd lot. The beekeepers assembled for the pick-up and bee related shopping were oblivious to the loose bees, drifting in and around the garage. Regular folk would flee.

The bee vendors loaded the car for me, concerned that I wouldn’t leave adequate space between the packages. “Bees need air, you know.” The bee-master was concerned that the car wasn’t big enough for the Club’s order. I was concerned that he’d want to put bees in the passenger seat, right next to me.

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Bees, in every nook and cranny.

Finally, after many adjustments, and one sting (not me), the loading was complete. Loose bees hovered in and around my open vehicle. The bee-master saw me unfolding Rick’s driver-protection-sheet, and shot out of the garage.

“Whoa, what’s that for?”

“To cover the bees while I’m driving.”

“No way. There’s too many bees—too much heat. You cannot cover them at all.”

“But it’s freezing out…”

“Good thing, too,” he replied. “I’d keep the AC on full, just in case.”

(FYI—when the temperature drops, the bees settle down and hunker together, to stay warm)

And so it was. I swallowed hard for a long drive with loose bees. I layered up my clothes and drove home with about 400,000 bees in the car, through the snow and sleet, and with the air-conditioning on full. The bees didn’t give me any trouble at all. I wondered what my grandfather would think of that! The bees had to spend the night, in the car. I worried, since it really was cold, but I needn’t have been concerned. In the morning the car was warm, and the windows were steamed up, all generated by the bees.

There was something else, too. Most beekeepers are familiar with the smells of their hives. On a warm day in the bee yard, the hives are redolent with the aroma of honey and the fragrance of beeswax. It’s a clean, sweet smell that I equate with beekeeping. But, that’s not really the smell of bees. In a small car with, 400,000 bees, you get to smell the bees. It took me awhile to figure it out—notes of the musky smell of barn and fresh cut hay, with a hint of tobacco leaf. That’s the smell of bees. I wonder if my grandfather, tooling about in his Suburban full of hives, ever caught the scent of bees.

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And, finally home in their hives.