Mistakes Are How We Improve

Apple Cider Vinegar
Jars of apple cores and peels ready for fermentation.

Sometimes homesteading can feel like a giant blooper reel. At some point in your journey you are going to feel like a complete moron more than just once, it’s an inescapable fact of this green-growing, furry, feathery life we live. I have taken some time to list a couple things that I have totally screwed up and learned from. Maybe it will take the sting out of some of your mistakes.

Apple Cider Vinegar
You may remember my post about making applesauce last year and how I rattled on about making apple cider vinegar from my peels and cores. After we made all that applesauce and prepared all the peels and cores that we could fit into our big 1/2 gallon jars I was feeling pretty high on life. ACV, after all, is pretty easy make. I researched different ways to make it and I was confident that I chose the route right for me. All I needed was peels and cores, water to top off the jars, cheesecloth, and a big ole rubber band, a warm dark place, and time. About a week after I got the process going I discovered that my ACV had bubbled over and made a mess on the floor; turns out the room was much too warm and also that I had filled up my jars too full of water. If a smelly sticky mess on the floor wasn’t bad enough two weeks or so later I went down to do a taste test and possibly filter and bottle my ACV and discovered that some of the jars had become a nursery to roughly a bazillion fruit flies … INSIDE the jars under the cheesecloth. Turns out I needed to layer my cheesecloth a little bit thicker than just two ply. Next time I plan on using a flour sack towel. All in all I ended up with 1 jar of usable vinegar. If you want a great book on things to do with apple cider check out

 

Trellising
This year will make my 8th garden. In that time I have tried just about every single method of trellising that I could come up with. All of them were miserable failures. I love those photos in the gardening magazines with the plants neatly growing up string and bamboo posts. I quickly realized that while those string methods of trellising may work well for others they do not work for me. I lack the time, and patience. Any strong wind would knock over all my hard work. I ended up using a roll of fencing zip tied to T-posts for my peas to grow up. It ain’t pretty but it’s sturdy.

The Chicken Tractor
I could go on for days about how chicken tractors are not what they are cracked up to be. Don’t get me wrong, they certainly have their place and I love the concept. Fresh grass! Safety! Super cute! We ordered a totally adorable fancy chicken tractor from some page we found on the internet. It’s got a nice roofed detachable run and the floor has trays that you pull out to make cleaning easier and four nest boxes, and wheels to push it around the yard. Except this puppy is heavy and it is a total five-letter-word to move around the yard. The ramp going from the coop to the run was fixed, not hinged, so to move the tractor you had to have two people … one holding the coop up while the other pulled the run out of the way. The handles to move the tractor are on the same side as the run attaches on so it’s awkward to pick up and move out of the way. And you have no choice but to move it to a new location twice every day because the run is so small the birds eat and scratch the grass down to dirt in a couple hours. Now that we have our big coop our tractor is used as a maternity ward, broody breaker or integration pen depending on the need. But it serves as a constant (expensive) reminder that what looks good in theory is not always good in practice.

Crush and Strain
The first year that I harvested honey it came at a totally unexpected time…a huge tree fell on my first hive crushing it (…like, seriously?! UGH!) So I was totally unprepared for the task. It’s fair to say that I had no real idea what was involved. At that time my kitchen had brown shag carpet in it. I had the gist of it, you get the honey comb and you crush it, then you strain out the wax chunks. No big deal. No one told me that everything in the house would be sticky. Someone told me they used a big potato masher to crush their comb. After I busted my METAL potato masher I grabbed my lunch lady gloves and started crushing by hand. Turns out the gloves were the only thing I had right. I then used a flour sack towel to strain the honey because I could not find cheesecloth anywhere in any store at the time! And while it was effective it was painfully slow. That was 4 years ago. Crush and strain is a slow process anyhow, but these days the straining takes significantly less time. After that first year my husband made me a honey press and I found a reliable source for cheesecloth. This year I got a mesh strainer that fits over a 5 gallon bucket after my father-in-law got one, and dang, does that thing make quick work out of straining.  I highly recommend getting one. I had my highest honey yield yet because of the combination of the strainer and honey press.

Wax
The big benefit of crushing and straining your honey is that you get a lot more wax that way. The first time I processed wax from my honey I used my hot water bath canner. STUPID. I knew how to do it. What I didn’t know how much of a pain it was to clean up. I got my job done and the wax was cooling in a bucket into a giant puck. Then I noticed that I had a nice lemon yellow ring inside the canner. Nothing, and I mean nothing, got it off. I scoured Google for an answer and failed. I chalked it up to a learning experience. Now I use an old garage sale crock-pot for wax processing. I also recommend using silicone measuring cups and molds when working with wax. You can peel the wax right off, making clean up a lot easier.

These are only a few. I hope that my mistakes maybe made you feel better about some of yours. I can say I don’t regret them (except maybe the water bath canner …) because I learned from my screw-ups and I do things a better way now and I always feel like my methods are improving. Bottom line! Don’t give up just because you failed, or did something the hard way. No one is perfect.

Our Patch Of Green Grows

A busy blurry bumble bee on a Virginia Blue Bell Blossom

This season has brought us many new things. Probably the newest and most exciting thing is the arrival of our third son mid-May. This makes us not only outnumbered, but the parents of 3 kids under two. If you are the praying sort and feel so inclined, send some our way … lord knows some days we need it.

Besides family expansion everything else seems to be expanding too. The garden got bigger and Little One being a mere week old helped me plant the potatoes, tomatoes, and sunflowers. Of course my husband helped too because bending over isn’t too easy with a baby carrier. It was a real family affair! We also acquired about 100 or so established blackberry canes from friends.  It is a really nice thing when folks share their bounty with their neighbors, whether they need to thin out their raspberry patches or a clump of rhubarb; it’s how to keep things going and inspire others.

 

We had a very mild winter and early spring and all of our bees made it through the winter! YAY! Then tragedy struck with freezing temps after the bees had un-clustered for the season and two out of the three hives died. There is a silver lining though. I got a phone call from my husband who had been out helping my grandfather get his drill around for this season’s planting and the dead hives at his place each had a new wild swarm in them. This isn’t the first time my grandfather has been blessed in the bee department; since getting a hive in 2012 he has had a total of 5 swarms come to his property and 4 of them have made it into his hives or bee tree. We are planning on putting a lure up at his place since he apparently has prime honey bee real estate!

I can’t wait to see what else this year brings us!
I hope your summer is bringing you bigger and better things!

A Beekeepers Off Season

Homework

The bees are all tucked away for winter. There really isn’t much for the beekeeper to do this time of year, (except maybe check in on the bees on a warm day to make sure every one is making bathroom runs out of the hive etc.) But there are a few things a thumb twiddling beekeeper can do in the winter months to keep their bee brain active and engaged for the upcoming season.

I am a firm believer that even if you have been a beekeeper for 50+ years there is ALWAYS something new to learn about bees. Reading something from a new perspective can be refreshing and eye opening and you may learn that you can alter your approach and get different or better results. I think by now my readers know that I tend to take a “different” approach when it comes to beekeeping … and just about everything else too … This is what works best for me as a beekeeper and I love to share what I know. My bee knowledge has come from my wonderful bee mentors over at Steller Apiaries, numerous books, studies, some great scientists that I have had to privilege to listen too, and seasoned commercial beekeepers alike. All offer great insights and ideas, making me a better beekeeper than I was the season before.

I highly recommend going to your Beekeepers Association meeting! I usually try to attend the Michigan Beekeepers Association Spring Meeting every year. This is where I learned that for the most part beekeepers are some of the friendliest folks you will ever meet. Every one is there to expand their bee knowledge. The MBA always has some great speakers and “How-To” breakout sessions. You can learn about everything from the intricacies of honey bee pheromones to how to make candles and lip balm. They also usually have a number of beekeeping supply booths there too, so you can talk up the fellas from Dadant and maybe pick up a new hive tool or grab a new bee suit. I personally love stopping by the Wicwas Press table to pick up new books.

Now is the time to really brush up on your bee trivia too. I LOVE “Fun Facts” to the point that it’s most likely extraordinarily annoying (yet informative!). Like did you know that you can tell how many times an apple blossom was visited by a honey bee (or other pollinator) by how many seeds that particular apple has? OR that the first ever shipment of bees to the Americas in 1609 ended up lost somewhere in the Bermudas when the ship was blown off course by a bad storm? Here are some books that I like, some are for a nice pleasure read and others are more in-depth and technical.

Understanding Bee Anatomy: a full color guide; by Ian Stell. Oh my gosh this book is beautiful! It has lots of great photos and information, you can actually see how bees work. It is divided into chapters like “Legs” and “Wings and Flight Structures.” So when someone says “You know honey is bee vomit right” you can say “Well technically nectar is stored in the crop, which can hold 30% of the bee’s weight in nectar, and is prevented from continuing further into the digestive system.” But people usually don’t like fun facts when they are trying to make a joke, so don’t be surprised when they aren’t nearly as impressed with you as you are with yourself.

The Bee Friendly Beekeeper, A Sustainable Approach; by David Heaf. This book is great for those wanting to get a better understanding of Top Bar Hives, and it mainly discusses Warre type hives. It also goes into some history of beekeeping by ancient civilizations, like the Egyptians.

Bees In America, How The Honey Bee Shaped A Nation; by Tammy Horn. Seriously if you only pick up one singular book this winter pick up this one! It is chock full of amazing history starting from the colonization of the Americas all the way up until now. It explains how “Quilting Bees” got their name and lots of old beekeeping traditions and superstitions that were brought here by all the different countries that made America what it is today. It also explains how bees were used for motivation and a job to prevent depression and lethargy in the new world. It also discusses the role Native Americans played in the integration of “the white man’s fly.”

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. This book is not entirely bee related but is still a lovely read and one of my favorites. It details a young girl that ends up living with a woman beekeeper and her two sisters in a big pink house in the south around the time of the civil rights movement.

And lastly don’t forget to update your bee diary! If you don’t have one you should! Every hive that I have ever started has its own chunk in my book. This is where I add dates of capture/install, dates of swarms and any manipulations and behavior plus what I find in the hive during my observations. Write down the weather the time of day and how the bees smell too as these details can offer great insight into what is going on in the hive without you having to actually get in there and look at things. Check out At The Hive Entrance by H. Storch. I like to draw pictures in my book too. It’s kind of a mini history of each hive’s life.

What do you do in the off season? Maybe you cram info or maybe you just relax and hibernate. Have any book suggestions for me? I will take them! Also I realize that bees are a hot topic right now and people have a lot of interest. Is there some particular “bee thing” you want to know more about? Shoot your ideas and maybe I can come up with a post to help a little or maybe point you in the general direction. Please keep in mind that I know only Top Bar Hives and not a darn thing about Langstroth and I am still growing and learning on my beekeeping journey much as you are. I often change my stance on subjects depending on the resources I encounter. Like I said above, growing into a better beekeeper than I was the season before.

Happy Overwintering!