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.