Saturday, September 22, 2012

Of Bees and Beekeepers

This being our second year of beekeeping, we approached managing the bees with firm conviction in our philosophy of "Healthy Bees". Deciding over the course of the long months of last winter that what we really wanted to manage for was healthy bees (honey and other bee "crops" being a happy side effect of our mantra). Our approach to the ominous and ever-present varroa mite was of the mildest and closest to natural product we could find -- thymol (oil of thyme) and a firm conviction that we would not take off every last tablespoon of honey but instead leave much behind for the bees.

We embraced the spring with all four hives surviving and an optimism that, like all farming optimism, would be challenged during the year.

We lost one hive to a drone-laying queen. This is when, basically, a queen runs out of sperm with which to fertilize eggs leaving only her  DNA to create drones.  This condition means that there are no worker bees to create honeycomb, tend brood, bring in nectar, pollen and propolis. Drones' only function in life is to mate and thus they are a terrible drain on the colony. We fumbeled our way through dealing with this finally dumping all the bees out quite a distance away from the hive and requeening it with a strong queen and some bees from another. It survived quite nicely.

One of the hardest things we have to do as beekeepers is not OVER-manage our hives. Especially as new beeks, we definitely were too invasive last year. Even so, watching for signs that the bees may swarm does require some in-the-hive interventions. But we still had two swarm--one almost to the point of the death of the hive. Again learning another valuable lesson about bees -- they have an agenda.

So even with one drone-layer colony and two swarmed colonies, we had one hive that just blossomed (love the pun). The queen was strong, the colony expanded and, wow, could the workers ever bring in nectar. From this hive alone we got 97 pounds (approx. 44kg) of honey.

So we got busy extracting. Now this is really STICKY work! Supers of honey (the wooden boxes that are put on top of the hives) are filled with frames and on these frames, worker bees build comb. Now in the bottom boxes a lot of this comb is used to raise brood -- thus it is called brood comb -- and is very dark compared to honey comb.

In the upper most boxes the workers build honeycomb (although the blighters can get filled with brood if you have an agile queen). This comb tends to be white or light yellow wax, which is also highly prized for candle making.

Worker bees out foraging collect nectar in their honey stomachs and pollen on their legs and backs. All this comes back to the hive for storage in comb. While in the honey stomach, an enzyme called invertase is added to the nectar and converts the the sucrose (type of sugar in nectar) to fructose and glucose. Basically, the bee pre-digests the nectar.

Once back at the hive the nectar is regurgitated (yep honey starts out as bee vomit!) and packed into the comb. Then the process of reducing the moisture content through fanning begins. Once the moisture content is decreased to 17% the bees cap the comb with wax and--VOILA--honey storage!!

This capped comb is how a beekeeper knows the honey is ready. If taken before that at a higher moisture content the nectar will attract yeast and ferment -- but not in a good way like when making mead. The result is a bitter and will rapidly spoil. 

On the other hand, honey at the right moisture level is nearly impermeable to yeast and bacteria so last nearly forever -- as made apparent by findings of edible honey in Egyptian tombs.

With capped honey comes the Beekeeper's greatest day -- extracting day.

More about this in the next blog.......


Sunday, September 16, 2012

A Mighty Pickle

This year I found myself inundated with ripe cucumbers. Too energetic a gardening plan and a suddenly overburdened schedule meant that the garden was more neglected that tended this  year.  So according to my philosophy of life....make lemonade. Or in this case ripe cucumber pickles.

Now there isn't much difference between the green cucs you tend to find in stores and the ripe ones except their peel colour and potentially a bit of softening. There are three types of cucumber: picking, slicing and burpless (English). My ripe crop is of the slicing cuc variety ripened to a colour that just screams summer.

Thanks to my pickling guru, Leonard Levinson (I have spoken before about his fantastic book,  The Complete Book of Pickles and Relishes) I found a lovely recipe called "Sun Glow Spears" to take up what would otherwise be a lost crop.

While this is a recipe that takes place over two days, it definitely ISN'T two days work so don't let that keep you from trying this!

12 large ripe cucumbers                                    2c sugar
6 large onions                                                    2 tbsp white mustard seed
1 cup salt (I use pickling)                                  2 tsps celery seed
4 quarts water                                                     2 tsps turmeric
3 cups vingear
1 cup water

Day 1: Pare (and I peeled) cucumbers, slice in quarters lengthwise, cut off seeds. Soak cucumbers and sliced onions overnight in brine made of the 4 quarts water and 1 cup salt. I weigh mine down with the lid of one of my crocks for a while until the liquid comes easily up over everything. (HINT: Make sure you put the bowl of soaking pickle somewhere where a little spillage isn't going to ruin your day. Mine sat out on our back deck overnight as the nights are cool enough here and there was a small stream evident in the morning.) The salt's job is to bring out a lot of the liquid of the cucumber and onion so an already full bowl overflows quite quickly and this salting is what makes a pickle a pickle.

Day 2: Drain the cucumbers and onions well. Combine remaining ingredients in large pot and cook for 5 minutes. Add cucumbers and onions; heat to boiling. Place into hot, sterilized quart jars and fill with liquid. Seal.

Makes 6 quarts.

These are incredibly tasty and of such a bright yellow that they pay homage to the hot dry summers that cucumbers love so well.  In the middle of a dreary winter night they are bright and pungent.

 Serve cold with ANYTHING!

I am especially proud of these little babies as they also include the first crop of celery seed from my garden. I can't believe I have never grown celery before...there are SO many uses for the plant and seed....But more about that in a later blog.


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Melancholy of Fall

Always, even as a kid, I loved the Fall. The back to school shopping, the hectic warm days and cool nights, helping my mom can whatever bounty came from the garden and going out fishing with my dad.

As a young mom  I canned most everything I could find and specialized in "free fruit" -- that fruit that grows abandoned beside the road, in vacant lots, or drops to the ground unused in your neighbours yard.  When the kids were small, it was what sustained us through lean winters while I was a student and early on in my career. I still love that about Fall -- all its promise of comforting nights to come, its self-satisfaction from hard work done and shining on the kitchen counter, its promise that your own efforts will sustain you. 

But as I get older, as the kids have moved on to start their own lives, I find that my Fall work leads me more and more to a melancholy place. My mother died in the Fall. Good friends seem to have passed away in remarkable numbers in the Fall. The smells of Fall so evocative of the final ripening of the earth now more than hint at the slowing down and ceasing of life. In a poem I wrote about my mom's end of life journey I called it a "slow-down winding" and that term seems as apt now as it was two years ago.....but now I see it in relation to everything.

Maudlin maybe, but Fall now, for me, is as much about remembering that life is short as it is a time to prepare for long, cold nights. It is a time of great gratitude and moments of intense sadness. Life is so good right now that it seems strange that it is tinged with this melancholy but maybe that is what sharpens my focus, my determination, my (hopefully) humble joy at the way things turned out.

Our bees have taught me a lot about the melancholy of Fall. A typical hive expands to 60,000+ members during the hectic and frenetic flows of summer only to begin dropping in number with the cooling of the nights and the shortening of the daylight. They overwinter with significantly less population and the die off is noticeable. Any remaining drones are kicked out of the hive and die due to cold or wasps or starvation. It is something to watch the younger workers carry off the bodies of those who died in the hive, to be deposited safely away from the entrance to discourage the ever-hungry meat-eating wasps. Bees know it is about preparing to survive the changing conditions and instinctively do what is necessary to prepare the colony. They are thinking about Spring.

New beginnings always come from endings. And it is in the ending of things that we learn our best and most precious lessons.  I hope I have learned them well.