Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Hanke Christmas Extravaganza

I count myself lucky to belong to a family of people who like each other. I'm not just talking about my siblings here, although that's definitely a good thing. But my extended family also gets along really well, and we genuinely enjoy being around each other. This makes family get-togethers a lot more fun, and is part of why our family gatherings are so large. We like visiting with each other, so when there are parties most of us try to show up. Especially at Christmastime, we end up with some pretty large groups getting together, on both sides of my family.

The big gathering on my Mom's side of the family is the Hanke Christmas Extravaganza. It's usually held on Christmas Day at my great-aunt and -uncle's place. Luckily enough, they have enough room in their small house to hold between thirty and forty people, because that's how many of us normally show up for the Extravaganza. It's a big party!

Our Extravaganza always starts off with a little reading from the Bible. My great-uncle has selected some passages from the Gospels that relate the events of Jesus' nativity, and we read these every year. Since it's divided into about a dozen parts, most of the kids get to take a turn reading a portion. Even the little guys, like Fro and Fuzz, can read a part if they want to. This leads to some interesting pronunciations of words like "Magi" and "Judea," but, hey! We all know what they're talking about so it's all good.

After the Scripture reading, we sing some Christmas carols. Dad brings out his guitar, we pass around songbooks, and sing our way through a dozen Christmas carols.
Somehow I don't think Skinny is singing very tunefully just now.
I won't say we're top-notch singers, but in my completely unbiased opinion we're not that bad. And what we lack in talent, we definitely make up for in sheer volume. We've been told we can be heard from the street outside. Somehow, that doesn't surprise me at all.

But a family gathering just isn't complete without food. That's what comes after we finish singing. We don't sit down for a big meal at this Christmas party. Instead, everyone brings a little something to help fill the table, and we spend the rest of the evening snacking.
We got a few more things after this, but by then it was too late to get a picture.
Because there's no particular order for who gets to serve first, the kids usually jump in first and start dishing up. This tends to make it look (and probably sound) a lot like feeding time at the zoo.

Exactly like that, actually.

As you can see from the picture above, we have a whole sampling of different snacky foods at the Hanke Christmas Extravaganza. The menu varies from year to year, but these are some of the things we had this year—the ones I can remember, at least.
  • Crackers and dip
  • Chips and dip
  • Veggies and dip
  • Caramel corn
  • Fudge
  • Toffee
  • Peanut brittle
  • Pretzels and almond bark
  • Chex mix
  • More pretzels and almond bark
  • About seven different kinds of cookies
  • Even more pretzels and almond bark. You can never have enough pretzels and almond bark, right?
  • Meatballs. Like, five gallons of meatballs. It's rumored that there were some cocktail wieners, too, but those didn't make it past the first handful of kids.
I'm pretty sure this poor, starving child didn't get nearly enough
meatballs. Good thing he knows how to fend for himself.
That's pretty much all we do at the Extravaganza. We don't unwrap presents anymore because that just took way too long and there's not really room for that many presents in my great-aunt's living room anyway. Instead, we come, we sing, and we eat (a lot) and generally just have a good time being around each other.
I'm pretty sure he got enough to eat.
With that many people eating, there usually aren't very many leftovers by the time we get ready to leave. This year it was mostly just meatballs. Even this family can't eat that many meatballs in one sitting.

But it was a really good evening. Everyone was enjoying themselves and we got to catch up with people we hadn't seen since last year. That's why I enjoy going to the Hanke Christmas Extravaganza so much. My extended family always manages to have a good time when we're together, and that makes everything we do much more fun.

Happy Holidays, everyone!

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Clan and Christmas trees

Hello all, and Merry Christmas!

I'm sure you've all noticed the complete and utter lack of new blog posts over the past couple weeks. I'm properly sorry for that, but real life happened and I just wasn't able to get around to it.

I'm also sure you've noticed my failure to post anything Christmas-y so far. Last December, although I wrote some birthday posts for Mom and Skinny, everything else was completely unrelated to the holiday. And I was almost going to skip over Christmas posts again this year, but then I thought "What the heck! Why not?" After all, Christmas only comes once a year, so I should probably use this opportunity to share a little of how the Clan celebrates this holiday.

I'd like to say we don't do Christmas too differently from the rest of the world. We give presents, we get together with family, we eat a bunch of food, etc, etc. As far as those traditions go, we're pretty normal. But as I'm sure you expected, there are also a bunch of Christmas-y things we don't do.

The big one is decorating. I hope no one is surprised to learn that the Clan doesn't decorate for Christmas. I mean, honestly. You've been reading this blog for a year and a half now. I would have thought you'd have gathered that by now. Our house doesn't look any different at Christmas time than it does at any other time of year. We don't string lights, We don't pose reindeer and sleighs on our lawn—just the usual pair of big white dogs. And to top it all off, we don't decorate a Christmas tree. In fact, most years we don't even have a Christmas tree.

This didn't used to be the case. Before we built this house, we lived in a four-bedroom farmhouse on this same property. While we lived there we'd set up a tree for Christmas. I remember being appropriately excited when the time came for this event—decorating the tree and helping Dad string lights is pretty fun for a five-year-old. But I've helped put up trees since then, and I know the kind of hassle that comes with having one in the house. There's setting it up and taking it down. You have to store all those fussy decorations all year long. And even if you have a plastic tree, the needles still end up everywhere. Eventually, we just stopped putting one up altogether.

And I haven't missed having a tree for Christmas. Maybe that's just my Grinch side showing, but I’m not into decorating and I don’t understand the fascination people have with putting a tree in the house and hanging it full of decorations. It’s not that I hate Christmas trees, but they aren’t what make Christmas special for me. However, many of my younger brothers and sisters don't remember having a real Christmas tree, and for a few of them at least, that can still be really special. And so we still have a tree hanging around that we can set up for Christmas if we feel like it.
Now, I know what you're thinking. That probably doesn't look like much of a tree. But consider the benefits we reap from having one like this.

  1. It doesn’t shed needles.
  2. It comes pre-decorated.
  3. We can use it as a night-light in the bathroom during the rest of the year.

I guarantee you wouldn’t be able to do that with any other kind of Christmas tree. And because it's so small, we can move it around easily. Carrying it upstairs and plugging it in the living room is the work of five minutes. Tops.

Another special thing about this tree is that it’s one-of-a-kind. Some neighbors made it for us one year, using some old boards from a barn and a few other distinctive items. Those are real grapevines you're seeing there.
We also haven't changed the little pieces of fabric they tied to the lights either—which makes me wonder if we've ever changed the lights. I'm not really sure. But we've had this tree for a long time, and it really fits with my family's attitude toward Christmas decorating. Beyond this one little tree, we don't change a thing.

And in my humble and totally unbiased opinion, this is totally fine. With less fluff and stuff to worry about, Christmas becomes that much more enjoyable. And isn’t that kind of the point?

I hope you all have a Merry Christmas this year. Happy holidays, be safe, and look into getting your own wooden Christmas tree. Seriously, they're so easy to work with and they make fantastic night-lights. Perfect for using all year round.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Kitchen Patrol

Just finished supper at the house, and I thought that you might like a peek at what our kitchen looks like after a meal has been eaten.

Basically, it looks like this:
Some meals, it’s not this bad—but on the other hand, sometimes it’s worse. At the moment there’s a lot of clutter on the counter in need of another home that just…hasn’t gotten one yet.

But that is what our kitchen looks like after the ravening hordes have torn through it, filled up with food, and then hidden themselves away in dark corners of the house until the kitchen magically cleans itself.

Unfortunately, we still haven’t got a magical, self-cleaning kitchen installed in the house, so someone has to manually tidy up after meals. Or better yet, several someones.

Mom is a big fan of delegating household jobs out to the rest of us. We all have our daily chores to keep up with. Most of us have a room of the house we’re responsible for tidying and keeping fairly clean. The kitchen, though, is a responsibility we all share.

I honestly can’t remember how long ago it was that Mom thought up the Kitchen Patrol, but it’s probably been around for eight years or more. At some point, she decided the job of cleaning up the kitchen after meals wasn’t going to be her job anymore. So she created Kitchen Patrol (or KP) and assigned out parts of the kitchen cleanup to us, giving everyone a different job to do.

For instance, I’m in charge of clearing counters after meals. I’m the one who puts away leftovers, loads and starts the dishwasher, and washes the counters. I’m the one who turned this:

Into this:
It might not look like a whole lot, but at least the one counter is completely cleared off.

Other jobs like sweeping floors, washing the table, emptying the dishwasher, or washing pots and pans belong to various others of my siblings. Our least favorite of these jobs is definitely the last one. I’m pretty sure there’s no such thing as a happy dish washer—as long as that dishwasher is a person. Tubby and Jo got stuck with the dish washing duty. No surprise that they’re the only ones anxious for KP jobs to be rotated.

Kitchen Patrol is technically supposed to happen as soon as we finish eating. I will be the first to admit that this is not always the case. More than half the time, there are a few people who need reminders. And as often as not, someone is in need of a personal invitation.

Note: Around here, a personal invitation is not something to be desired. It is, in fact, something to be avoided at all costs.

Hey, I never said we were perfect! We’d be just fine with that magical, self-cleaning kitchen, no problems whatsoever. Until then, however, it’s the Kitchen Patrol to the rescue. Sometimes it takes a while, but KP does eventually get done and life is able to go on as pseudo-normal as it ever does. 

If you ever run across a magical, self-cleaning kitchen, though, be sure to look me up.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Playin' games with Becca

There comes a time in every big sister’s life when you are called upon to entertain your younger siblings. My turn came—well, my turn came a long time ago. But my turn came again just recently.

It started when Becca got bored. Fellers, when Becca is bored, my advice is to look out, because things get a little interesting. For some reason, I became her target of choice, and she came to me asking if I would do something with her.

First it was “Can you paint my fingernails for me?”

Ok, sure. So I painted her fingernails. If you’ve never had the honor/misfortune to paint her nails for her, you’re missing out. She’s very precise about what color she wants where, on what fingernail, and in what order.

Then it was, “Will you play Battleship with me?”

O-kay…sure. How long can a little old game of Battleship take?

An hour.

It wasn’t that she didn’t know how to play the game, because she did. The problem was she’d hit one of my ships, and then decide to shoot somewhere else before she sunk it. It took a lot of persuasion to convince her she had to shoot all my ships before she could win—I think she was planning on changing the rules on me before the end.

It also took her longer to find the co-ordinates for the place she wanted to shoot, or where I had shot so she could tell me if I had hit or missed.
A little brotherly advice from Nah.
Another complication was the fact that Becca is still a little hazy about her letter shapes. I had to give her some help. For example: “The A is pointy. B is two bumps and a line. The C is a circle with a hole…” That kind of thing.
"C is a circle with a hole." That one right there.
But we did get it figured out, and at long, long last the game of Battleship was finished.

I can’t remember who won. I think she did. Becca always wins.

After Battleship, I thought (for some ridiculous and completely unfounded reason) she’d be tired of playing games with me. Nope.

“Can we play Uno?”

Um…yeah. Okay, one quick game.
It turns out there is way more strategy involved in Uno than I had ever imagined.
Needless to say, she won.
After Uno, though, I had to put my foot down. It was fun, Becca, but I got things to do and places to be. Articles don’t write themselves.

I’m pretty sure she had no trouble getting someone else to take over where I left off.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Counter-mousing countermeasures

If I haven’t mentioned this before, it’s high time I do.

We have a cool Grandma.

No, seriously. She’s very cool. For one thing, she reads every blog post and newspaper article I put out there, which is what all the cool people do. (Right?) But for another thing, she also happens to have found a solution for counter-mousing.

If you haven't yet read my post on counter-mousing, you'd better do that now so you know what I'm talking about. So go THERE now, and come back when you're done. I'll wait.




Patiently waiting...


OK, done waiting now! Back to what I was saying.

Shortly after I wrote my counter-mousing post, Grandma brought down a tray of bars for snack. This is something she does from time to time, and we like her bars very much. They’re usually different from what Mom makes, since Grandma doesn’t use the scoop-and-dump method. Mom’s bars are different every time, but Grandma’s are more reliable. 

On this particular occasion, though, Grandma had wrapped her tray in plastic and taped a note to the top. It was the note that was significant. Here, read it for yourself.
Don't tell me my Grandma doesn't know what's what.
If she hadn’t left that note, there would have been a fair bit of counter-mousing going on, and those bars would have been very nibbled around the edges by the time we were ready for snack. As it was, we just watched each other like hawks to make sure nobody else was counter-mousing when no one was looking.
You can almost feel the eyes on them.
Come snack time, those bars vanished in about fifteen minutes. We couldn't wait any longer.

And they were good bars, probably worth waiting until snack time for. But I’m still a firm believer in counter-mousing. If it hadn’t been for that note, I wouldn’t be making any promises.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Clan-size dogs

One of the characteristics of my family—beside the thirteen kids, of course—is that we've always had dogs around the place. Back in the day I used to share dog food with our Black Labrador/German Shepard-cross Spike. Good dog, good times. Not necessarily good dog food, though.

My dog food days are long past now (trust me!), but we still have dogs around. Our dogs have never been just any old dogs, though. We're not a poodle kind of family—our dogs are big dogs, and I mean big dogs. They're not quite Great Danes, but most of our dogs have weighed close to a hundred pounds.

Currently we have a pair of Great Pyrenees called Marley and Odin. To clear up any confusion right away, I want to point out that our Marley is not to be confused with the dog from the 2008 Marley & Me movie. We named our dog after Jacob Marley, the ghost with the big chain from A Christmas Carol.

Because we're classy that way. (Yeah, not so much.)

Marley and his pal Odin live outside like all our dogs have done. They're free to roam around the yard and even out to the woods behind our house where they collect ticks, burrs, and other clinging seeds. Afterward we have to brush out their long hair, which is a royal pain, but thankfully the dogs are fairly patient.
When he gets tired, he'll get up and walk away. No problem.
We've been lucky enough to always have dogs that don't mind being outside. Since many of us aren't consistent about closing doors, it's nice to know the dogs won't try and sneak inside when we're not looking. In fact, our dogs haven't the slightest inclination to enter the house. Sometimes during the winter when their drool is freezing to their lips and they have ice chunks in their pads, we'll bring them in to thaw out and dry off a bit. When we do, we have to drag them through the door. We've only had dogs come into the house voluntarily when they were really injured and needed stitches. Otherwise, they vastly prefer the great outdoors.

Except, that is, when there are guns going off.

Marley, the older of the two dogs, is particularly gun shy. The week before deer season opens is a hard one for him because we practice firing at targets in the yard. While we have the guns out, he doesn't care to get off the front porch. And if you happen to open the front door—ZOOM! He's inside!

This happened just the other day. I wasn't expecting him to come in after me, and he was all the way into the dining room before Skinny collared him. I think if we had let him, he would have crawled under the table and stayed there the rest of the afternoon. Skinny and I did manage to coax him back to the door, but eventually we just had to push him onto the porch to get him outside again.
Poor guy. He would really, really like to be inside right now.
You might be wondering why we don't let the dogs come inside. I know many people who have dogs only slightly smaller than ours that stay inside, but that's something we've never done. There are a couple reasons for that—besides the fact that we're not fond of dog hairs getting in everything.

First, we've always figured dogs are happier outside where they can run around, chew on bones, humble the cats, and do whatever else it is that dogs do. 

Second, there isn't room in the house right now for two gigantic dogs.

But more importantly, Marley and Odin serve a function on our place. Living in the country the way we do, especially since we started keeping chickens, there can be problems with night-prowling critters coming in from the woods. Two big dogs are a very effective deterrent to such unwanted visitors.

They also make door-to-door salesmen think two or three times before getting out of the car. And that can only be a good thing.

Basically, it isn't practical to keep them inside, and they're much happier where they are. Besides, check out those long coats. They were bred to live in the freezing cold! Minnesotan winters don't faze them at all.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Counter-Mousing meets Minnesota Nice


Maybe you've never heard that term. Probably you haven't. The Clan coined it years ago to refer to the strange and gradual disappearing act that unfailingly overcomes any food left uncovered on our counters.

Mice eat it.

Or kids. Or something else that nibbles. Whatever causes it, food (especially cookies, cake, and other desserts) tend to slowly but steadily vanish the longer they stay out. All it takes is a slice off the side here, a wedge missing there, and so on. In a couple hours, an ordinary slice of brownie can be reduced to a fraction of it's former size.

Counter-mousing happens in a couple of ways. Sometimes it's just a pinch here and there. If a pan of apple crisp should happen to be left on the stove/table/wherever to cool, the oat/brown sugar crumble on the stop starts to look a little dented.

(Pro tip: If you can pick the top off an apple crisp without burning your fingers or leaving obvious holes in the crust, you're well on your way to becoming an expert.)

Other times, especially with something that's already been cut into serving-size pieces, you'll see it gradually shrink. Cakes and brownies commonly fall victim to this. Whole chunks mysteriously vanish. If this goes on for too long, your piece of cake could end up being half it's original size...or less.

You would think that with all the counter-mousing going around, we'd go through cake and those kinds of things in no time flat. I mean, how many times can you shave a sliver off a piece of cake before it's totally gone?

But here's the thing. We counter-mouse, yes. Ruthlessly, too. But we also happen to be Minnesotan's.

If you're lucky enough to live in Minnesota, or at least know some Minnesota people, you'll probably be familiar with the term "Minnesota Nice."

This is the bizarre phenomenon which inflicts Minnesotans everywhere. We just can't bear to take the last of something—usually a food item.

Say there's a plate of cookies. Everyone takes one, and maybe there's a few left. Well, some people want another—honestly, who doesn't? But Minnesota Nice dictates that you must leave some for others. So cookies get broken in half. Or in thirds or quarters. However it's managed, there will still be a cookie (or part of one) left on the plate when the meal is over.

That's how Minnesota Nice works. We want everyone to have some. Even if it's a really pathetic amount.

You wouldn't think that the Clan, who never do what everybody else does, would exhibit Minnesota Nice behavior. But we do, at least as far as counter-mousing is concerned. Cookies may end up more like large crumbs rather than whole cookies, and a piece of cake could experience exponential shrinking. But they won't entirely disappear.

Maybe this is a bizarre attempt to conceal the fact that anything is missing? A "maybe they'll think it was always this size" way of thinking? I can't really say, but I do know that this is accepted counter-mousing protocol. You can spirit away as much as you can get away with, as long as there's still some left.

Only under extreme conditions can this rule be broken. For instance, I can recall a case a few weeks ago when we had a pan of brownies for desert. Only one was left over, and whoever was in charge of putting away the leftovers (which I'm pretty sure was not me) left it out on the stove. Over the next few hours, the brownie began to shrink.
This is all that was left by nine o'clock.
Skinny and I happened to be in the vicinity of the stove around this time, and he remarked, "You know, someone should just eat that."

So I did. Strangely, Skinny didn't appreciate my selfless act of community service. But sometimes there's just no point in being Minnesota Nice.

In fact, a lot of the time it just gets in the way. That's why you only see Minnesota Nice behavior in the Clan when we're trying (and generally failing) to be sneaky. Around here, food is pretty much up for grabs. As a general rule, you can bet that if you don't eat it, sooner or later someone else will.

One disclaimer before you go.

"All parties mentioned in this post may or may not have been involved in past episodes of counter-mousing. However, this should not be interpreted as an admission of guilt, or even a declaration that guilt exists. As far as can be determined, the food has been disappearing spontaneously from this and other kitchens over the past twenty years, with no connection whatsoever to the activities of the Clan.
"Just sayin'."

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Life Without Washing Machines

Disasters come in all shapes and sizes. At my house, the worst kinds of disasters are:
  • Not having anything for supper
  • Washing dishes
  • A broken washing machine
Of these three, the broken washing machine is definitely the most serious. I bet you can imagine why. On an average day, we wash between five and six loads of laundry. If the washing machine stops working for even one day, things literally start piling up.

All over the laundry room. Filling the laundry baskets. Spilling onto the floor. That kind of thing.
We fill two of these mongo laundry baskets every day.
Our washing machine has been replaced 3 times in the past ten years. It gets used so much that they just wear out faster than they're supposed to. Apparently normal people only fold laundry every few days or so, instead of twice a day.


After the machine stops working, there's always a waiting period while we wait for the repair guy to come in and look it over. Usually there's just a part replacement or simple repair that he can take care of, and within a day or two we're back in business. With the washer running nonstop for the next couple of hours, we can get caught up on laundry again. Before long, we'll forget the machine ever stopped working and life will return to normal. But sometimes a quick fix won't do the trick, and then we have to wait a week or more for a replacement washer to be installed.

This makes life very interesting. In a few days we start running out of the necessities. Clean rags and towels. Pants for little boys. Shirts. The things we can't function without. When that happens our day will be completely interrupted by a trip to the laundromat. The house is scoured for dirty laundry. We load the van with every basket and milk crate we can find and run into town to wash about six loads as fast as possible. Then we spend the rest of the day keeping our dryer hopping so none of that wet laundry sits out overnight.

It makes for a long, crazy day.

Depending on how long it takes to get a new washing machine ordered and installed, we might have to repeat that process two or three times. It's no one's favorite thing to do. (Because seriously, who likes going to the laundromat?) 

Our washing machine died two weeks ago, which is why I thought to write this post. After going through life without a washing machine for over a week, I've been reminded of just how miserable it can be. I may not be fond of washing laundry, but I'm a lot less fond of the inconvenience of not having any clean laundry in the house.

But there's a brand new washing machine in our laundry room now, and laundry is back to normal again—we had to run it nonstop for a whole day to catch up, though. I've pretty much mastered how to use the new washing machine, too. The only thing about it that I don't like is the end-of-cycle signal. Our old machine would beep when it was done with a load. This one plays a tune.

No kidding. Every time you push a button a different tune plays. I've got to push three or four to get it to run a normal cycle, and the machine sings to me the whole time. Very annoying. It sounds like we got a model meant for Snow White or some other princess-y type.

My question is: What genius decided to get rid of the good, old-fashioned end-of-cycle beep and replace it with singing? Personally, I find it very irritating. I'm fine with being summoned by a beeping washing machine at the end of a cycle. Being sung to, on the other hand, just isn't my style.

But since a singing washing machine is better than none at all, I'll keep my complaints (mostly) to myself.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015


Here's a little tool I bet you've never seen before.
This gadget is officially called a honey refractometer, but we've always referred to it as the honeyometer. It's the tool that lets us know whether we're extracting honey or nectar from our frames, because sometimes bees will cap cells that barely have the moisture content of honey. It can be handy to know exactly what it is we're extracting, and how close to being honey it really is.

Officially, honey has a moisture content that's below the 18.5-18.3% range. Anything above that range is nectar. Usually if we're extracting stuff that's in that 18.5-18.3% range, we treat it as nectar just to be safe. It's better to expect that borderline honey to ferment in the bottles after six months rather than treat it as honey and be taken by surprise.

What the honeyometer does is pretty useful. It gives us the percentage moisture content in whatever we're extracting, which let's us know for certain whether we're bottling jars of honey or nectar. This is really useful, because we know what bottles need to be used first, which we should use for baking bread (since it doesn't matter if we use fermented nectar there) and which we should save to give away as gifts. Sometimes when we come to honey spin we bring frames that hold uncapped cells of nectar mixed in with the capped honey. In these cases, the nectar can dilute the honey enough to make it borderline, and we like to know which jars are like that so we can prioritize using them up. Also, bees sometimes cap stuff with the moisture content of nectar. I mentioned this in my last post: Bee Spit. As a rule of thumb, it's fine to assume that everything that's capped is honey, but that's not always the case, and the honeyometer is a more accurate guide.

I can't explain to you exactly how a refractometer works, because I'm about as clueless to it's fine workings as you are. What I do know about the honeyometer is fairly simple, and that is: how to make it tell you whether you've got nectar or honey in your frames.

It's not a really complicated process, either. Dad gets a bit of the honey that's pouring out the opening at the bottom of the extractor. This gives us an example of the honey being extracted from the current set of frames.
He puts this honey sample on the lens of the honeyometer, and sets the glass down over the top, compressing our honey sample to make it easier for the honeyometer to read.
Then he takes it outside, points it toward the light, and squints through the eyepiece. There's a knob there so you can adjust the focus - I have never been able to make this work for me. Probably because I would have to twiddle the knob quite a lot to adjust it for my eyes when I'm not wearing my glasses, and I don't ever spin it far enough. Who knows.
That's a professional beekeeper squint right there.
When you look through the eyepiece, there's a chart that shows the moisture content of the honey, and from that we're able to tell whether we've got honey or nectar in our frames.

And that's basically it. It's pretty simple stuff, but the honeyometer is a really useful tool for these hick beekeepers.

Plus, honeyometer is fun to say.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Bee Spit

You know, of course, that honey comes from bees. It's one of those things that everybody knows. (I certainly hope everybody knows that!) But how exactly do bees make honey?

I'm glad you asked.

Honey is actually dehydrated nectar, which comes from flowers. Honeybees collect that nectar and store it in empty honeycombs inside the hive. Actually, they do more than just collect nectar. They carry the nectar from the flowers in their stomach, and then regurgitate it into empty cells once they reach the hive. 

And in case you were wondering, regurgitate means exactly what you think it means. Bees throw up their nectar into empty cells. This is why the Clan often refers to honey and nectar as "bee spit." That's sort of what it is.

The bees then dehydrate the nectar by using their wings to create currents of air that circulate throughout the hive. Ever wonder why a beehive is full of that loud buzzing noise bees make when they fly? Because whole hordes of worker bees are sitting around on the frames turning nectar into honey. This is why honey is thicker than nectar: it has a lower moisture content. 

Worker bees building wax, feeding brood....and making honey.
And bees go to all the trouble of making honey not because they don't have anything else to do, or so that we can eat it later, but because honey lasts longer than nectar. By February, nectar collected in the summer would have fermented, but honey would still be good. If they're going to have anything to eat during the winter, bees have to make a food that will last all year round without spoiling. And that's honey.

Fascinating, huh?

To further preserve their stores of honey, bees also cap the cells with a layer of wax, sealing the honey inside for later. This is how Dad can tell how much honey stores the bees in his hives have, and how many of the frames really contain honey instead of nectar. If they're capped, they hold honey.

Uncapped cells: nectar
Capped cells: honey
Why did I feel the need to make the distinction between honey and nectar?

Because sometimes when it comes time for honey extraction (sometime in the early fall) we aren't actually extracting honey. Usually bees are capping stores all through the summer so that  by the time fall rolls around, there are several boxes of capped honey for Dad to bring to honey spin. But sometimes, for some reason we can't explain, they won't have capped anything. For the past two years, we've pulled a lot of frames of nectar from the hives because that was all they had. There might have been a few frames of capped honey, but mostly it was just nectar. 

We don't know why the bees did this, but sometimes they just do. We extracted the nectar the same way we would have if it had been honey, bottled it up, and used it, but it did eventually start to ferment. It didn't really make much difference to us, since we mostly use the honey for baking bread, but the fact remains that there is a difference between honey and nectar, and it's something we have to keep in mind on honey spin day. 

Monday, September 21, 2015

Honey Supers: 60 pounds of honey in a box

Throughout the summer, Dad is keeping an eye on his hives, making sure that they have room to expand if they need it. Sometimes this means more room for brood, but once the hives get well established, Dad starts putting on more boxes for them to put honey in. Depending on how well the hive is doing, he can end up with hives that are as tall as this one:
He can't just put boxes on willy-nilly, though. If allowed to construct a hive normally, bees won't separate honey from brood and pollen. It'll all be mixed in together in the same frame. This is great for the bees, because it means everything they need is conveniently located for when they need it. But when it comes to extracting that honey, we're not really interested in having bee brood mixed in with everything else. We still strain out a fair number of impurities after the honey has been extracted (wax, stray bee wings, etc.). But if we didn't have a way to keep bees from putting anything but honey in some of the frames, we'd be doing a lot more straining and of more than just be wings and wax.

To accomplish this, Dad uses a queen excluder. This is a wire screen that Dad sets between boxes. The holes in the wire are big enough for workers to squeeze through, but the queen can't get her wider abdomen through. With her restricted to a different part of the hive, the worker bees will start storing their honey in the empty frames on the other side of the queen excluder.

These boxes that the bees fill with honey are called honey supers. They're the boxes we'll bring to honey spin. Technically, honey supers aren't any different from other boxes, but usually Dad will use shallower boxes than he would for where the bees are building brood. Why?

Because honey is HEAVY.

Really heavy. A full honey super has ten frames of honey in it, and the medium size boxes we use weigh around sixty pounds. Even if you used a shallower box on your hive, you'd still be looking at over forty pounds per box. That's a lot to be lifting up from ground level, which is why most beekeepers use the shallow to medium-size boxes as honey supers. Otherwise it just gets to be too much to lift.
Dad with a honey super. It might not look
like much, but those are heavy boxes.
Dad pulls his honey supers off the hive around the end of August, usually just a week or two before honey spin. Full supers or full frames could technically be taken off the hive at any time, but it can be a lot of hassle to go out there every few days to move frames and boxes around, and this kind of activity really disturbs the bees. Most years Dad saves all of it for one day and gets it all done in one go.

And that's the last thing Dad does with the honey before we go to extract it—which is the subject for later posts.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Entrepreneurship Through Tomatoes

The Clan has always planted an enormous garden in the spring. Though the contents of that garden change from time to time, the garden has always been there. Nowadays, we rely so much on our garden produce that we've had to expand it to other parts of the yard. Rhubarb has been transplanted along the fences, and we have a big patch of cucumbers and strawberries right in front of the beehives.

Last spring, however, we had yet another small garden planted in the yard. This one belonged to Cob and Pete. The boys decided they wanted to grow some vegetables by their shack so they could eat produce from their own personal garden. The garden itself turned out nicely, but Cob and Pete realized they weren't too interested in eating that many tomatoes and green beans and radishes all by themselves.

They were going to give their produce to Mom so that it could be incorporated into the supply of green beans and tomatoes, etc, from the large garden and be canned with everything else. But then they had the idea of selling it. My brothers have a tendency to buy as many LEGO's as they can pay for, so increasing their income to something beyond money from mowing our lawn sounded like a really good idea to them. At the time, I was going to a local farmers' market and selling some of the crocheted crafts I occasionally make. The boys figured they would go with me and sell things from their garden.

Cob was the most interested in this idea, since he had purchased and planted some tomatoes that were doing pretty well. He priced his 'maters at 25 cents for the little ones and 50 cents for the big ones, and every time he showed up, he sold everything or at least got very close.

I personally think his marketing success had something to do with the signs he put on his display, which Mom had helped him come up with. They said something along the lines of "picked by a ten-year-old from his own garden today." Mom knows how to sell it! The "cute little boy and his garden" angle definitely worked—along with the fact that he had some really nice tomatoes and didn't ask much for them. He made way more money from the farmers' market that year than I did.

This year several of the youngest kids wanted to grow their own vegetables. Mom had to set aside quite a bit of space for them to garden in. Mostly the kids just wanted to grow their own tomatoes and green beans for fun, but Cob was in it for the money. He bought a bunch of tomato plants in the spring, and Mom helped him put up some cattle panels on metal fence posts so he could plant his tomatoes in a long row. And I mean a long row.
Just look at those plants. Those are some happy tomatoes!
Nah has tomatoes too this year—his are taller than he is!
More 'maters
Both the tomato-planting boys—Cob and Nah—intended to sell their tomatoes at the farmers' market like Cob did last year. Unfortunately, they learned that this year there was going to be a vendors' fee. That would cut back severely on their profit. Cob and Nah were left with tomato plants full of tomatoes, but no place to sell them.

And then Mom came to the rescue!

Mom happens to be full of brilliant ideas (yes, I did say that!), and she started asking around locally for tomato buyers. She also started putting up a notice on her Facebook page whenever the boys picked some ripe tomatoes.
No getting around it—those are beautiful tomatoes.
This strategy has worked incredibly well. So far Cob and Nah have been able to sell the tomatoes they've picked. This is a very substantial number of tomatoes, too. Cob has filled a couple huge orders. Like, for 75-100 tomatoes.

The boys are in business, in other words.

I have a feeling that Cob will be in the tomato business again next year. He's not stupid! He knows a golden money-making opportunity when he sees one. If I didn't have so many other things to do, I might even consider joining him. He's making some serious money! Over a hundred bucks?? Can you believe it?

As excited as Nah has been about his own tomato money, there's something else he's been growing in his garden that he's pretty stoked about right now.
The kids have shown some enviable green thumbs and business-management skills this summer. Cob has figured out how to price his tomatoes so he can move them quickly, and his sales have more than paid for the initial cost of the plants. And as for Nah, well, he's growing some pretty darn awesome pumpkins out there.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Eyeball deep in peaches

You know what time it is. August. September. Harvest season. Whatever you want to call it, the meaning is the same. It seems like everything we usually can up or freeze is ripe and ready right now! We're on our toes, and school is taking the backseat for the moment as we cope with the latest influx of produce.

Our most recent big project was peaches. We got our start on them in July, but the 5 bushels we processed at first weren't nearly enough. Mom had to go back and get another 6+ bushels later so we could get up to our usual total of canned peaches and peach jam.
This may sound like an insane amount of peaches to you, but it's only a few bushels over our yearly average. This year we've canned 177 quarts of peaches and 45 quarts of peach jams. That's a little over our normal total of canned peaches, but we'll likely have run out of peach jam by the middle of next year. A quart of jam doesn't last us very long.

With that many quarts of peaches to process in just a few days, we really have to have a system going when we get started, or peach canning would take us far, far too long and we would all go insane before it was finished.

Like many of the canning projects we do, peach canning is a whole family job. Everybody pitches in at one stage or another.

First, someone has to halve the peaches.
Professional peach-halvers
We blanch our peaches before canning to make the peels easy to remove. Halved peaches take up less space in the blancher than whole ones do, which saves us oodles of time in the long run. It's also easier to peel them after blanching if they've been cut in half.
This blancher is used heavily and regularly every
year to blanch green beans, tomatoes, and peaches.
We would have a hard time getting along without it.
After being blanched for about thirty seconds in boiling water, the peaches are dumped in the kitchen sinks, which are filled with cold water. The peels are removed, the peaches are sliced, and put into quart jars.
Professional peach-peelers
We slice the peaches before jarring them up because it saves space. Maximizing the number of peaches per jar saves us a lot of space in the long run.

That's our peach-canning process. There are a lot of small steps that have to be done to go from bushels of whole peaches to sealed jars downstairs. Even Becca and Nah can take turns peeling peaches, so everybody contributes to these jobs to get them done as quickly as possible. That's how we do things around here. Otherwise, we'd never be able to can 80+ quarts of peaches in one day.