Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Catching My Breath

It's been one busy blur from late summer to Thanksgiving around here.  A lot has been going on that I haven't had time to write about; projects big and small, major working weekends with WWOOF volunteers, and hosting Thanksgiving for relatives coming in from out of state.  In mid-November it finally felt as though the garden was winding down, though what was ripe/mature and needed eating still pretty much set our diet right up to Thanksgiving.  I pushed myself a bit to keep up with the outdoor work well into fall, and have been rewarded with a mostly clear conscience and lack of niggling thoughts about things left undone.  So as I catch my breath, I'll catch up on some topics I wanted to post about.

I painted the front room, a combination living and dining room, late this summer.  It was an attempt to make the room a little less stark and more welcoming.  We close off that room each winter because it's one of the coldest in the house.  But even in summer time, when that coolness is welcome, we hadn't been using it much.  It was a fair bit of work to get the painting job done, but the room feels very different with the change from stark white to some color.  We also got some decent blinds.  That part of the house dates from the 1870s, when houses were built with a lot of windows, probably because they valued the light in un-electrified times.  The ugly curtains the house came with were so prominent in the room that it was hard to see much else.  The unobtrusive new blinds take the ugly down several notches, insulate a very significant part of the total area of the walls, and also block out a lot of the street noise.  Again, homes built in this area during that time period were built right along the road, so the street noise also kept us away from this room.  Soon we'll close it off again for the winter, but I feel good about having made that room a part of the house we like to spend time in.

This year I made a big effort to be a more responsible gardener and put the garden to bed in a somewhat decent fashion.  Not in a nightcap or anything, but I'm not sending it into winter covered in weeds.  So garden work continued right through this month, and I'm hoping that this will lead to a less stressful spring workload.  It looks pretty decent out there.  Not perfect, but better than it ever has before in November.

I borrowed Tamar and Kevin's ingenious mini-greenhouse idea for my in-ground rosemary plant.  It's made with two plastic window well covers, available at hardware stores.  Mine is a taller version of what Tamar and Kevin built, with a smaller, rectangular footprint compared to their lower and wider version with a circular footprint, 'cause rosemary plants need the headroom.  Here in zone 6 our winters are just a smidgen too cold for rosemary to overwinter.  This is an experiment to see whether a little windchill protection, and perhaps less completely frozen soil, will allow the rosemary to survive.  So far the rosemary has come through some pretty respectable frosts (26F/-3C) just fine.  If it doesn't survive this year in the garden, I'm trying again next year in a more sheltered position.  Rosemary is an herb I most want for cooking winter dishes and for baking breads.  In fact, I practically ignore it during summer.  So I'm determined to find a way to provide myself with a source during bread baking season.

We pressed our apples earlier this month, blessed with an unseasonably warm Sunday and the help of an awesome WWOOF volunteer crew.  Having so many pairs of hands made the job go very fast, and it was delightful to not be freezing our buns off during cider pressing.  The yield was, as usual, depressingly small given the apple tally.  I pitched in earlier this fall to help a small scale local orchardist press her apples into cider at a commercial press.  Her yield in cider was amazing compared to ours, and it's pretty obvious that the advantage comes from the combination of very fine grinding of the apples, and the sheer force of a hydraulic press.  We can't replicate the strength of the press, but with some DIY tinkering we could improve a great deal on the extremely coarse grind we get from a hand-cranked vintage apple grinder.  I've been meaning for a few years now to find the time to convert an in-sink garbage disposal unit to a superior apple grinder.  The finer the grind we produce from our apples, the higher our cider yields should be.  So reluctantly I'm going to add this project to my list of formal goals for next year.

Because our chest freezer was very nearly full before we even pressed our cider, I encouraged my husband to use a good portion of it for hard cider.  He's got four different batches going at the moment in the cellar.  We'll see how they turn out.  Gonna have to work on eating through that chest freezer this winter...

While the WWOOF volunteers were here we made further progress on the lawn eradication front, and set ourselves up well for digging big holes to transplant our hazelbert bushes in about 18 months.  We lasagna mulched a fairly large area in our side yard for the bushes.  This is a narrow and significantly shaded part of the property, situated close to the neighbor's house, and fully visible from the street.  None of the doors of the house open on to that side, so we don't go over there very often, except for my most hated task: mowing the grass.  The lawn eradication was satisfying, as it means that much less time spent on the dreaded chore.  Planting two hazels which will eventually grow into a substantial screen for that area will be equally satisfying.  The lasagna mulching will kill the sod there and, we hope, make the digging of deep holes much easier, while also improving the soil for the plants. So it's nice to look out the window and see the spot prepared so far in advance.

We just hosted Thanksgiving for my extended family, and several family members declared it the best Thanksgiving meal they'd ever had.  My family are mostly quite serious eaters, and none of us blow sunshine up each other's skirts.  Ever.  So this was a serious claim.  Not that I take credit for the success of the meal, because everyone contributed.  But I will say this - the pastured turkey we bought from my farming friend was grilled to absolute perfection by my husband, as the first snowfall of the season came down.  We've been grilling our Thanksgiving birds for quite a few years now.  It's a once a year endeavor, so it's not like he gets a lot of practice.  I had brined the bird for just 24 hours, then aired it out in the fridge for 36, pulled it out of the fridge two hours before cooking began, and iced the breast for the second of those hours.  The ice trick slows down the cooking of the breast so that it doesn't get dried out while the legs finish cooking.  Fresh rosemary sprigs and our apple wood chips were repeatedly laid on the mesquite coals while the bird cooked.  It's easy to overdo this flavoring technique and end up with a resinous, over-smoked bird.  But my husband dialed it in this year.  The bird was moist and beautifully flavored.  The leftovers are like the smoked turkey deli meat of your dreams.  I can only hope our New Year's turkey turns out so well.  The stock I made from the carcass also has a gorgeous hint of apple wood smoke.  It's probably the most delicious stock I've ever made.  And not incidentally, the side dishes were pretty awesome this year too.  I picked leeks and savoy cabbage from the garden on Thanksgiving morning, and cooked them very simply.  Family members brought other vegetable dishes and desserts that were equally good.  A few pints of our elderflower cordial made over the summer graced the table too.  It was a righteous feast.  Then followed the making of turkey pot pies and other attempts at letting nothing go to waste.  Pie of several sorts has featured at breakfast recently.

Image taken from the Remington website
We took advantage of my uncle's presence during the holiday weekend to do some gun shopping with him.  We had only intended to browse and avail ourselves of his vast experience with guns of all types.  He is a competition marksman, certified gun safety instructor, and his part-time retirement job is in a gun store in another state.  He hunted for many years to put food on the table as well.  So he knows his way around firearms.  As often happens, we stumbled into a good sale on the shotgun we were fairly sure we wanted before we even got to the shop.  The family-owned and -operated nature of this local business and its service guarantee impressed us too, so we walked out with a 12 gauge Remington 870, a shotgun my uncle praised for its reliability and versatility of purpose.  Our Christmas shopping for each other is done.  Now we need to find a place and time to practice shooting on a regular basis.  Who knows?  Maybe this time next year we'll go hunting.

There are a whole bunch of crafts and projects and recipes I've been putting off, and putting off while the garden was in session.  Felting a pair of mittens from an old wool sweater.  Duck confit.  A classic English pork pie.  A mosaic decoration on a stepping stone or two for the garden.  Making a variety of filled dumplings.  Hosting a cookie baking get-together.  And a handful of minor DIY projects, which the garage workspace is now usually chilly enough to deter me from even beginning.  I'm hoping that December and January will be slow enough, and my industriousness steady enough to get at least some of the indoorsy things done.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Harvest Meal Index

Just a bit of blog news.  I've added an index page for my harvest meal posts.  I figured there's now a sufficient number of recipe sketches on the blog to warrant collecting them in one spot.  It may be stretching credulity to call it the Recipe Index, but there it is. Maybe this will nudge me to post more recipes, or even more detailed recipes. 

Monday, November 22, 2010

Pre-Thanksgiving Tip: Plan for Stock

Whether you're going to be responsible for cooking the turkey or not, I have recommendations for all my American readers.  Plan on snagging the turkey carcass this Thursday to make homemade stock - the very best kind.  Chances are that no one else is going to be motivated to make stock from the remains of the feast, so scoop it up!  After the larger bits of leftover meat are removed, the bones are likely to be up for grabs.  If you're around when the turkey goes into the oven and can lay claim to the giblets before or after cooking, do that too.  (Except the liver, which gives a subtle muddy flavor to stock.  But if you can't distinguish the liver from the other bits, don't worry about it.  It's subtle, as I said.)  When the stock is made, you can either pressure can it or freeze it.  To set yourself up for stock making there are a few areas in which you need to prepare - ingredients, equipment, and space.

Ingredients are easy.  Buy an extra couple of carrots and onions, plus a celery heart during your pre-feast grocery shopping expedition.  If you happen to use fresh herbs in the course of preparing your Thanksgiving feast, save a few.  Or just save the stems from fresh parsley.  They give a nice flavor to stock that rarely interferes with any other flavorings you want in the finished dish.  Leek greens, onion cores, and celery bases also are great in stocks - save kitchen scraps and you may not need to buy any ingredients specifically for the stock.

Equipment - Mostly what you need here is a big pot, a strainer, and something to put the stock in when it's done.  A colander will suffice if you don't have a strainer.  Cheesecloth is the best for those who are fussy about sediments and solids in the stock.  If you plan to freeze, you can use saved yogurt quart containers.  If canning, you'll want the usual jars, lids and bands.

Space - Turkey carcasses are big, so bring a big container, or a big bag to cover the bones if you leave them on the platter.  Make sure there's enough space in your fridge to hold the bones a day or two, unless you plan to get right down to stock making on Thursday evening.  If space is going to be a problem, have a meat cleaver on hand and plan on breaking down the bones so they fit in a smaller space.  (You can do this discreetly outside with a chopping board if it's going to freak anyone else out.  Use the excuse of needing some fresh air - with the turkey carcass as company.)  If you don't have a pressure canner, you'll need to make sure there's room in the freezer for the finished stock.  You're likely to get about a gallon of stock from a turkey weighing in the neighborhood of 15 pounds.  If space is a major constraint, break the bones down as much as possible so they'll be as tightly packed in the pot as possible,  then make a double-strength stock by adding only half the amount of water.  Freeze the stock in small quantities and mark it so you remember to dilute it to back to normal strength when using it.

When you're ready to make stock, see my walkthrough.  It's for lamb stock, but the all the procedures are the same for turkey stock.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

An Aha! Moment

Homesteading is equal parts experimentation, failure, and learning to actually see what's right in front of you.  At least, that's the definition I give you today.  Over this past year I've been eying the wooden fence that almost entirely encloses our small property.  It's old, and not in good shape.  I'd been thinking that next year we might have to scrape up some serious money to have it fixed or replaced.  In other words, I was thinking conventionally, and not at all like a homesteader.  It still happens.

The strong wind storm that visited much of the northeast this week toppled one of the panels of our fence.  It might well have toppled a few others at the same time, but the wind contented itself with making just one ten-foot gap in the fence line.  I sighed, and wondered whether I should call some fence guys right away, or just wait for spring.  Clearly, the wooden support posts on the entire fence are reaching the ends of their useful lives.  I expect to see them fail one by one in the coming years if nothing is done to remedy the situation.

Then my husband went out to take a look at it and came back inside with the obvious and fully brilliant idea of scrapping the fence entirely and replacing it with a hedgerow.  A hedgerow.  A hedgerow!  It hit me like a thunderbolt.  Why hadn't I seen it?  How could I have missed such a neat solution to so many problems?  All the years we've been on this property, I've looked at that fence and only seen it as demarcating space we can and can't turn to production.  It's not as though I'm unfamiliar with the amazing benefits of hedgerows.  They do enclose space, true enough.  But they're often more productive than the spaces they enclose.  They require little maintenance while providing abundant food and habitat for wildlife.  The wildlife, in turn, improve the fertility of the surrounding soil by adding their manure and their dynamic contributions to the immediate area.   They provide privacy and often are more attractive than fences.  Not least significantly, they cost less to establish than a new fence, have a much longer lifespan than any fence, and don't generate any waste or pollution in their construction.  Also, this section of the fence partly defines an underused space on our property that I've been wondering about.  Specifically wondering whether it might ever sustainably support a few miniature dairy goats.  It's a shady area with marginal soil, so it currently doesn't offer much food to livestock.  If it were bordered by a hedgerow instead of a fence however, that could change dramatically.

A hedgerow that replaces our fence could answer all the functions of that fence while dramatically increasing the amount of food that is produced here.  I've been coddling a pair of hazelnut plants in containers this year, because the open space I've been planning to put them into is significantly shaded.  Now I see that I could have a hedgerow with several hazels in it without sacrificing any open space.  We could have so many hazel plants that I could retire my concern about the squirrels robbing us of all of the nuts before they even ripen.  We could afford to be open handed with the bounty of our little piece of land, rather than fighting wildlife for every morsel.  It's hard to believe that I could have missed something so obvious and so awesome.

Now the challenge is to figure out how to do it.  This is where experimentation comes into homesteading.  There are no tidy guidelines for planting a hedgerow.  All sorts of factors conspire to force me to do my own research: our soil type and climate, the fact that I don't want the hedgerow to grow high enough to shade our garden, and our personal tastes as far as diet go.  The challenge is greater because I'm in Pennsylvania, not England.  I can't tap a local expert on hedgerows, or pick up amateur advice from the neighbors.  A hedgerow should be a densely grown mixture of shrubs and vines.  But we have to decide what those should consist of.  Of course, if you have no preferences and just want any old sort of hedgerow, there's an easy way to go about it.  String a line of barbed wire or other fencing where you want the hedgerow.  Wild birds will perch there, poop out the seeds of things that grow well in your area, and after a few years' benign neglect, you'll have your own hedgerow. 

Obviously, we're going to be a bit pickier when stocking our hedgerow.  I plan to start with just the section of fence which collapsed.  If I can establish a few suitable plants there in the near term, I'm guessing I'll be able to propagate from those plants as more gaps in the fence line appear over the coming years.  When the plants grow larger, we could remove the panels to either side of the existing gaps if they're hanging on, and encourage expansion to either side.

So, I'm now doing research to see what plants will meet our requirements.  We'll need plants that won't grow too tall, aren't fussy, and some that tolerate partial shade.  Those that provide food for livestock, fix nitrogen, or propagate easily are going to get extra points.  Candidate plants near the top of the list include hazels, elders, black raspberries, Siberian pea shrub, muscadines, and wild cucumber. If you know a perennial or reseeding annual productive plant that is hardy to zone 6, doesn't grow above 12 feet/4 meters, and is suitable for hedgerows, I'd love to hear about it.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Harvest Meal: Kinpira Gobo

This is the most macho harvest meal yet to grace our table. Sure, it looks like a wimpy vegetarian dish, but a lot of muscle went into the harvest and preparation.  It's kinpira gobo, which is Japanese for awesomely delicious burdock root.  I know, "kinpira gobo" sounds so much better.  Gobo is burdock in Japanese.  They've cultivated this root vegetable which is viewed only as a common weed where I live, refined it into a proper crop.  Though if you know your weed lore, you know that burdock burrs were the inspiration for velcro, so show it some respect.

I put a few Takinagawa burdock seeds into a patch of deeply amended ground early this year, watered them once or twice and then largely ignored them through our brutally hot summer.  Like the good descendants of common weeds that they are, nearly every last one of them germinated, and they thrived on neglect.  Really.  What they did can only be described as thriving.  They outgrew the elder seedling we planted nearby, almost to the point of shading it out. (I'm not worried.  The elder is a perennial, and those plants grow big in year two.)

When our first WWOOF volunteer was here, we dug up a few gobo, even though the specimens of this long season crop weren't all that big yet.  She was of partly Japanese descent, and damned if I was going to let someone who knew what to do with this plant get away without cooking it if I could help it.  She whipped up a dish of kinpira gobo with a few early dug gobo roots, plus a few carrots from the garden.  The dish was strikingly hearty and satisfying, and I resolved to master the dish myself when the roots were ready for harvest.

Gobo is reputed to be anticarcinogenic and an excellent tonic plant for the liver, and it's also supposed to make you strong.  The joke is that you don't get strong by eating gobo; you get strong from trying to prize the suckers out of the ground.  Gobo roots will grow up to a yard long if given the right soil conditions.  Euell Gibbons recommended against even attempting a frontal assault on the wild variety.  It's pointless to try to dig the root out directly.  Instead, dig as deep a hole as possible alongside the root, then pull the root into the hole and cut it as low as you can.  Like I said, our gobo was planted in extremely well worked earth, amended with a lot of compost.  And it still felt like earning my dinner to harvest these roots.  Every single time I dug for a gobo root, I left part of it in the ground.  This is fine by me as it only adds more organic matter to the soil.  Dinner and soil amendment in one go.  Yay!

Kinpira gobo ingredients: homegrown gobo in the foreground
Okay, to the recipe.  This is based on the way our volunteer prepared it, and not necessarily "authentic."  She was working within the limitations of the ingredients we had on hand, and substituting as necessary.  As usual, I don't have measurements.  The root needs some moisture to cook through, but not so much that it turns mushy.  It should retain a toothsome firmness.  Here's an ingredient list:

Gobo root - about 5"-8" of root per serving, depending on root diameter
carrots - optional
kombu (a dried seaweed) for dashi (you can substitute another seaweed or another kind of stock if you wish)
cooking oil - peanut, canola, or the like
sake (you can substitute a sweet mirin if that's what you have, but then omit the maple syrup)
soy sauce
maple syrup
bonito flakes (fine shavings from dried, fermented tuna)
sesame seeds for garnish, optional
rice to serve it over

Make a simple dashi (Japanese cooking stock) by gently simmering a 10" strip of kombu (dried seaweed) in a pan, uncovered, with about 1 cup of water for 15 minutes.  Meanwhile, fill a large bowl with water and place another empty bowl in the sink.  Hold the gobo root at one end, so that it points away from you. Using the back of a chef's knife, scrape all the skin and small feeder roots off of the root, allowing the scrapings to fall into the bowl.  Rinse the root as needed to remove all bits of the skin.  As each root is peeled, put it into the bowl of water.  This will prevent or at least slow discoloration on the root surface. Once the skin is removed, swap the bowls so that the bowl of water is in the sink.  Begin cutting off slim shards of the root with the knife, rotating the root as needed, as though you're sharpening a pencil with a penknife. Allow the shards to fall into the bowl of water.  The pieces should be less than 1/2" thick and no more than 3.5" long.  Continue cutting pieces off the root until only a small piece remains in your hand.  Cut the remaining part of the root on a cutting board, into similar sized pieces to those in the bowl.  Leave all the shards in the water until ready to cook to prevent excessive darkening.  If using carrots, cut them into pieces similar in size to the gobo.  You'll want the proportion of carrot no more than equal to the gobo. 

When the dashi has simmered for 15 minutes, heat your largest skillet over high heat for a few minutes.  Strain the dashi and drain the gobo root very well.  Add some light cooking oil to the skillet to coat it generously.  Then add the gobo to the pan.  Stir-fry the gobo for a few minutes, until the sizzling of the pan is reduced.  Add the dashi, some sake, and soy sauce to the pan.  Cover the pan loosely with a lid or a baking sheet if you don't have a matching lid.  Stir the gobo about once every minute or so, until the liquids are almost completely evaporated.  If using carrots, add them when most of the liquid has cooked off.  Taste a small piece of gobo for doneness and flavor.  Add a small amount of maple syrup with a little water or additional sake to the skillet, and a generous toss of bonito flakes.  If necessary, also add more soy sauce at this time.  Stir constantly until the liquid is again reduced almost entirely.  The gobo should have a nice golden brown color and a rich flavor.

It surprises me, but I find this dish of two vegetables plus rice to be substantial enough for a full meal.  My husband remarks on how "meaty" the gobo seems, every time I make this dish.  When I include carrots, I don't feel the need to pair it with anything but rice, though something green is also nice to have should the ambition strike me.  If you follow this sketch of a recipe, you'll probably end up with something pretty good, but you can refine it with a little practice and experience.  The dish should have plenty of flavor, with a lovely balance of earthy root, salty soy, rich ocean, and just a hint of sweetness. 

We're definitely planting this crop again next year.

Update: See my follow up post on the portion of the root that remains in the ground after harvest.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Backyard Chicken Coop - Year 2 Modifications

In April of 2008 we added four laying hens to our wannabe homestead. It might well have been the event that changed us from wannabe homesteaders to budding homesteaders. To prepare for our new arrivals, I designed and my husband and I built a mobile pen and a mobile coop, capable of docking together. Both pen and coop were designed with the aim of making them easy for me to move each and every day by myself. This allowed our hens a fresh patch of our untreated lawn every day. It also meant that no part of our property was stripped of vegetation, overloaded with chicken manure, or hard packed into barrenness.

We tweaked our pen and coop in several ways while we had the girls last year. We added better wheels to allow for easier moving. I'm a little taller than the average woman, with only average strength for a woman. Sometimes after heavy rains moving the pen and coop took a lot of effort. After observing the pen and coop in use for the better part of a year we had other ideas for modifications that had to wait until the girls were gone. (We'd planned to slaughter them, but they ended up going to another farm with better housing for the coldest winter months.)

I thought I would use the opportunity to talk about the design of our coop and pen, and to highlight what worked well and what we have improved upon. Our design began by closely imitating this ingenious mobile coop and pen system used for a very small backyard flock. The coop was built with 2x4's and plywood, some of it pulled out of dumpsters. The footprint is 2' by 4' and about 4' tall from floor to the base of the roof. This is really taller than it needs to be, but I wouldn't go any smaller on the footprint. The 4-foot roosting bar that runs the length of the coop is long enough to hold our four fully grown hens comfortably. They seem to like to snug up together when it's chilly outside.

Keep in mind that this tiny coop with its single nesting box housed just four hens. Four two-year-old hens kept us in more than enough eggs for a family of two adults. We were able to barter some eggs, and to freeze some for the winter months. But if you want a larger backyard flock, you will likely need a larger coop as well.

Our coop has two wheels at one end, and wheelbarrow type handles at shoulder height on the other end. Inside are a couple of roosting bars and below them a little roofed nesting box. The nesting box roof is hinged and rests on struts along the side walls. It protects the nest box and the eggs from droppings and gives the girls a sense of seclusion to encourage egg-laying in that location. The hinge of the nesting box roof allows me to take it off its supports inside the coop, fold it flat, and pull it outside for cleaning.

One thing I would do differently if I were building this coop over from scratch is use 2x2's instead of 2x4's. We had free 2x4's from the dumpsters, but they make the coop quite a bit heavier than it truly needs to be. I wouldn't mind a lighter coop on many mornings. I also wouldn't build the coop quite so tall. I really didn't know what was needed for the girls before I got them, so I erred on the side of generosity. I think we could easily have shortened the coop by 8" and perhaps even by 12". Again, that would make for a lighter coop.

This spring we sealed the inside of the coop, including the roosting bars, side walls, and the nesting box lid with deck sealer. This will make the wood less absorbent and easier to clean. I also replaced most of the floor beyond the nesting box with hardware cloth. I came across this idea in Eliot Coleman's Four-Season Harvest book, when he talks about the design of his "Duckingham Palace" - his duck coop. The hardware cloth floor will allow some of the chicken poop to fall through directly onto the earth, and make the weekly cleanings go faster. But it also makes walking over chicken manure on a daily basis unavoidable.

The other modification I made was to reverse the hinges on the door that the hens use to go from coop to pen and back. Last year it was a drawbridge-type door, hinged at the top, that they walked up and down to enter and exit. But it also became another surface that they pooped on; another surface that I had to clean. And because the hinge was on the bottom of the door, it was often difficult to close because hay and other debris got stuck in that area. This was true for the access door to the nesting box as well. So we changed the door so that both of them are hinged on top. This makes it just a little more tricky to get to the eggs. I now have to open the door farther to see if there's a hen on the nest. Before I could just crack the door, peek in and leave her to it if she was occupied. There's also a little more risk that a hen in the nesting box could hop out when I open the door, but so far I'm managing.

As you can see, the roof of the coop is simply hardware cloth covered by plastic sheeting. The hardware cloth provides security from predators, and the sheeting keeps the girls mostly dry when it rains. I say mostly dry because we don't cover the gable ends of the roof with plastic. That means they have lots of good air flow, and a nice view when they're perched on their roosting bar. This ventilation is important for the girls in the summer months when it's hot out; the open gables allows them to catch cooling night breezes, and prevents the top of the coop from getting stuffy and hot during the day. The plastic sheeting also lets in almost 100% of the available daylight, which encourages egg production. Even if I'm late for my morning chores, the girls have plenty of light as soon as the sun rises. When the weather got cold last fall, I covered the whole roof overnight with a heavy sheet to protect the girls from the worst of the chill and any wind that might have come through the gable ends. They were never sick, so I guess this system sufficed for them.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Honey Bees Update

Now that we're settling down into some properly autumnal weather, with temperatures dipping below freezing overnight, I think it's finally time for an update on the honey bee experiment that began in April.  The short version of the report is: we lost one colony early, and the surviving one is understrength going into the winter.

Izhevsk, our colony of Russian honey bees, looked good all through the spring and into midsummer.  But sometime during late July they ate down just about all the honey they had stored, and have basically been limping along ever since.  They appear to still have a functioning queen.  We've seen her clearly, as she's marked with a blue dot.  No signs of supersedure cells, so the workers apparently think she's healthy and capable of performing her duty as the reproductive organ of the colony.  And yet, we've seen precious little brood since July.  Many experienced beekeepers reported starving colonies this year, apparently due to the exceptionally hot and dry summer here in the east.

There was no question of taking any harvest of honey whatsoever.  We've been feeding them sugar syrup, which I don't like to do.  But there's little doubt they'd long since have died without the help.  They have two full feeders' worth of the syrup at the moment, but if temperatures are cold enough they won't even travel within their own hive to get at the food.  Honey bees have been known to starve to death in the center of a hive, with full frames of honey mere inches away.  Right now the colony is mostly huddled into a single medium box.  That's likely not enough bees to generate sufficient heat to make it through winter.

We added a thick insulation layer of rigid foamboard to three sides of the hive, and black tarpaper to the south-facing side, in an attempt to help them along.  We cut plenty of space around their reduced entrance, so that they still have a front door landing pad. The idea is for the insulation to prevent windchill and the black paper to provide a little solar gain.  But we've also left the bottom completely open except for the built-in screen on the bottom board.  We also added a few spacers to increase airflow from the top cover.  Condensation and moisture in the colony is more of a risk than cold temperatures - at least for a strong, well provisioned colony.  Izhevsk is not strong however.   It seems almost futile to insulate the sides of a hive while leaving so much airflow, but such is the received wisdom.

It's possible the bees may survive this winter, and the milder it is, the better their odds.  I figured this first year of beekeeping would be a major learning experience, and it has been.  Experience is one of those things you get after you need it.  Sadly, the bees paid dearly for our year of learning.  If we lose Izhevsk, we'll certainly try again next year, and I believe, make fewer mistakes.  I put in quite a few perennial plants this year with a view to providing bee forage.  They'll be larger next year, and so provide more nectar to them.  In any case, we're likely to try again with an Italian colony next year.  We're not giving up on beekeeping.

So that's the report - ambiguous but definitely not rosy.  It's unlikely we'll check on them or feed them again unless we happen to get a particularly warm day before spring.  Until then, all we can do is hope the golden ladies make it.