robbing the bees

After two years, we finally got to taste the fruits of our…well, actually, Bill’s…beekeeping labors. Our bees are Russian Carniolans, a species that is fairly resistant to varroa mites and does a pretty good job of taking care of themselves.

In the spring, the bees gather nectar and pollen from the blooms of tulip poplar, maple, honey locust, autumn olive, and willow, and a variety of wildflowers, to take back to the hive. They also pay regular visits to our neighbor’s peach and apple trees where they help to pollinate the fruit in exchange for pollen from the flowers.

After a very rainy spring, we have a bumper crop of wildflowers. Right now, the bees are foraging on milkweed, clover, coreopsis, butterfly weed, and blackberries. This is a picture of the bees coming and going from the hive.

Yesterday was a hot, sunny day, perfect for making honey. Bill collected four frames of honey and extracted the honey using the following “crush and strain” method.

He took an aluminum roasting pan (like you would use to cook a turkey) with a flexible cutting board in the bottom (to protect the bottom of the pan) and pushed the comb and honey into the roasting pan. Then, using a potato masher, he mashed it to “free” the honey from the comb. The mushy contents of the roasting pan were then emptied into a plastic tub that had a hole cut in the bottom covered with a stainless steel screen and cheesecloth. This tub was placed inside a second tub, which would catch the strained honey.

The contents gradually filter through the screen and the cheesecloth into the second (exterior) tub.

The honey flows from the second tub through the spigot and into the canning jar below. And voîla! We wound up with seven pints of beautiful, amber wildflower honey.

We couldn’t wait to try out the honey, so this morning I made biscuits.

The honey was so good Bill said he wants to do a “repeat performance” for lunch!

The next time you’re enjoying a taste of honey, remember that one-third of the foods you eat depend, directly or indirectly, on pollination by honey bees. The value of honey bee pollination to U.S. agriculture is more than $14 billion annually, according to a Cornell University study. They also pollinate more than 16 percent of the flowering plant species, ensuring that we’ll have blooms in our gardens. Not bad for an insect that isn’t even native. But then, most of our crops and many of our garden plants aren’t natives either. They evolved in areas where honey bees are native, and both crops and insects were brought to the New World to become essential parts of our agricultural system.

Some of nature’s most exquisite handiwork is on a miniature scale, as anyone knows who has applied a magnifying glass to a snowflake. — Rachel Carson

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jeepers! peepers!

Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

This week we began hearing the high-pitched calls of the male northern spring peepers in our front field. They are calling to attract a female. After mating, the female lays several hundred eggs, which are attached to vegetation in permanent or vernal (temporary) ponds. In about two weeks, the eggs hatch and tadpoles metamorphose approximately three months later. When the breeding season is over, the peepers retreat upland to damp, wooded areas.

The wetlands in our front field were created several years ago when our neighbor put in a pond, the overflow from which, created a perfect breeding place for the peepers. Every evening, as the sun goes down behind the mountains, the chorus erupts. When hundreds of peepers add their voices to the chorus, the din sounds like distant sleigh bells. It’s an amazing thing to hear.

It is not half so important to know as to feel.  — Rachel Carson

the phoebes are back!

First visit of the season by an Eastern phoebe. Phoebes are grayish-brown with a white breast and throat. They look like several other bird species; however, there are two big clues that you’re looking at a phoebe: their constant tail pumping and their call, a wheezy “phoebe, phoebe.” Their call sounds a lot like a child squeezing a rubber “squeeky” toy. This phoebe is holding a dragonfly in his beak.

A pair nested in our porch rafters last spring and kept us company all summer, long after their young had fledged. They called to each other throughout the day and would occasionally follow us around the farm, flying from tree to tree, sallying forth at times to snatch an insect from the air. Mated pairs tend to nest in the same place in successive years, so this pair is probably the same pair that nested here last year. We welcome these friendly birds and their voracious appetite for insects!

There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter. — Rachel Carson