Preserving a Hornets Nest

Before I became a beekeeper I never paid too much attention to wasps and hornets. But then I saw the body of bald-faced hornet hanging out of one of my beehives. The honeybees had attacked and decapitated her and were in the process of pushing the body out of the hive. I did some research and learned about hornets’ unique life cycles and behaviors. Even though they have spelled disaster for more than one of my beehives, they quickly gained my respect. For one thing, they build amazingly beautiful homes. You have probably seen them hanging in the woods, or near your home though I hope not!

A Collected Hornets Nest, look at those swirls and rings of different colored paper!

Bald-faced hornets (aka: bull wasps or blackjackets) are a species that is prolific in my area and across North America. They aren’t hornets at all, but a type of large wasp. They are big, black in color, and have dabs of white on their abdomens and heads. They build large, paper nests typically high in trees or on structures. Although these nests resemble the “beehives” from Winnie The Pooh, you won’t find any honey in them. While they do collect some sugars from fruit and flowers for feeding their babies, they are mainly carnivorous and can be found eating meat or other insects. Their queen emerges from her burrow underground in the spring and begins constructing a small nest and laying eggs to build up her colony. Soon her offspring will help her build the nest, and she will retreat to lay eggs for the entirety of the season. In the fall, the queen will burrow underground or under a log, leaving the rest of her brood to freeze and die. The queen will start constructing a new nest in the spring; this leaves the previous nest vacant and available for collecting.

nest in tree
A Hornets Nest Hanging 30 Feet Above Ground. Sometimes they can be dangerous to collect…

The best time to collect a nest is after several hard frosts — this ensures that the inhabitants are dead and eliminates the possibility of getting stung. In most instances, hornets nests are located very high in trees. Please take extreme care and caution when collecting a hornets nest. You will most likely need to cut some branches around the nest to get it out. We like to leave the sticks and branches intact at a length because we like the way it looks.

After you have successfully collected your hornets nest, it’s a good idea to place it in the freezer for a week or two, especially if you are concerned about remaining, living hornets. Your nest may have a slightly foul scent to it; this is the result of remaining larvae and eggs rotting. If this is the case, leave it sitting in the garage or barn for a couple of weeks. We have done this a few times and have never experienced this … however, we do have very cold winters in our area.

The paper nest will last indefinitely in its natural state, though you can spray it with a coat or two of shellac if you wish. Hang in the desired location with clear fishing line, and you will have a conversation starter for years to come!

Prune Your Blackberries To Maximize Yield

While all bramble fruit seem pretty no muss no fuss, they actually do require some tender loving twice a year. They will continue to fruit and reproduce without pruning of course, but they won’t be nearly as vibrant from season to season if you don’t devote just a little time to them. These pruning methods can be applied to raspberries, too, since the plants’ growing habits are the same.

There are several kinds of blackberry plants that behave in all sorts of different ways. The three main types are Erect, Trailing, and Thorn-less. It helps to know what type you have when it comes to trellising the canes. I happen to have erect blackberries, they have tall arching canes and I do not trellis them. I find that they do just fine without it for our circumstances, though perhaps in the future it would be nice to do an upgrade. No matter the type you have, they all like to be pruned in the same manner. Pruning has many benefits including helping ward off diseases, larger berries, and higher yield.

 

Blackberry Primocane, This primocane is ready to be tip pruned!

Blackberry canes are “biennial” meaning that the canes live for two years. In nearly all varieties first year canes will not bear fruit and are called “primocanes”; they are easy to spot because they are bright green. In the spring you will want to tip prune the first few inches from the primocanes when they are still shorter than 3 feet tall. This makes the primocane grow a thicker stem that will support a larger fruit load next year, and send off more lateral branches where more berries will grow. You will notice in the fall that the primocanes will have grown their thin brown bark in preparation for the winter and next year

Blackberry runners or “suckers” Suckers will pop up 2-3 feet away from your blackberry patch, we like to dig them up and plant them back in the row!

Some varieties of blackberries send runners or “suckers” off a few feet away from the patch. If the suckers look nice, we like to dig them up and plant them back in the row. Its a nice free way to expand our patch. -Suckers are primocanes.

The current year’s fruiting canes are called “floricanes”. Besides blossoming and bearing fruit these canes can be identified by their thin brown bark. After their fruit ripens the leaves on these canes start to fizzle out. In the winter trim the spent floricanes back to the crown. In winter when there are no leaves and the brand new floricanes for the coming season look the same at first glance as last year’s dead floricanes, pruning can be a little tricky if it’s your first time. Last year’s spent floricanes will look brown while new floricanes (last years primocanes) will have a purplish tint when compared with each other. Another way to tell them apart is to look for the remnants of last years fruiting blooms. And if that isn’t quite enough to make you certain you are about to chop the right cane, you can take your clippers and scrape a teeny bit of bark off. If it is green underneath the bark you have a new cane, if its brown you have a dead cane that needs to be pruned. Getting rid of the spent canes in the winter before fruiting helps the plant to focus nutrients on the new floricanes.

Blackberry floricane
Floricanes Bearing Fruit

 

Dead Floricane
A Spent Floricane, This guy needs to be pruned. Notice last years blossom ends where the fruit formed.

When pruning there are a few tools you will need:

* A good pair of hand clippers
* Leather gloves and or kevlar sleeves
* Alchohol wipes
* Wagon, to haul away the debris

In between cuts wipe your clippers off with an alcohol wipe to prevent spreading diseases from one plant to another, especially if you are moving between species (raspberries, black raspberries etc.) sure it takes a little more time but this one simple bio-security measure can protect your berry investment for years to come.  All bramble fruit is susceptible to a wide array of fungal diseases and other icky stuff so it is always a good practice to burn the pruned canes after the job is done to prevent spreading disease.  Wild black raspberries are notorious for giving diseases to domesticated bramble fruit so do your best to keep your blackberry patch well and away from wild varieties.  But please folks, don’t rip them out as they are an important food for our beloved wildlife.

The Best Blueberry Pie & The Secret To Perfect Pie With Frozen Berries

Little O Sneaking Some Blueberry Pie
Little O sneaking some blueberry pie with whole wheat crust.

July is blueberry month. Those tasty blue orbs that they call a super fruit are finally back. I remember when my Grandparents got me and my sister so excited to go blueberry picking in Paw Paw Michigan. We were going to stuff our faces with blueberries then head to Lake Michigan and swim and try to climb the dunes. It sounded like so much fun!! If you have never picked blueberries, well you are in for a treat, let me tell ya. One of my favorite comedians, Jim Gaffigan, put it something like this: “Picking blueberries isn’t like picking pumpkins,” and he’s right. We were out in the blueberry patch on the hottest flippin’ day of the year picking blueberries all afternoon and I swear we never even ended up with a quart of stinkin’ berries. See, they send you out into the part of the patch that has already been picked over by the machine and about 100 other kids being tortured by their lying “this will be so much fun” grandparents. That was the last time we did that. And by God we earned that trip to the lake.

These days my grandparents still make that trip to Paw Paw every year but they buy us a 10lb box of blueberries and we laugh remembering blueberry-picking hell. Even though I could sit down and mow down that whole box of blueberries with the boys I have to preserve some by freezing for the dead of winter when we need a little sunshine.

To Freeze Blueberries:
1. Wash berries thoroughly; you can use a fruit wash, but I just dump them into a sink full of water and white vinegar and swish them around.
2. Line cookie sheets with freezer paper waxy side up
3. Drain blueberries and spread evenly over cookie sheet. Avoid clumping. Nothing is worse than a blueberry brick.
4. Put in freezer for about two-three hours or overnight
5. Put in freezer safe containers in portions of your choosing marked with the date. Store in freezer.

I like to freeze my berries in pie and muffin recipe sizes so I don’t have to mess around measuring.

Frozen Or Fresh Blueberry Pie Recipe

The trick to a great blueberry pie with frozen berries is allowing the berries to thaw and draining the excess liquid from them before beginning. You will want to measure your berries while they are still frozen, then allow them to thaw.  The same applies for muffins and anything else you want to bake with frozen blueberries.

The Crust:
1-1/2 cups flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons Crisco (or lard/fat of choice)
1/3 cup cold butter
1/4 cup cold water

Place dry ingredients in food processor and slowly add water while pulsing the mixture. Pulse until dough looks crumbly, you may need to add a teeny bit more water. Dump contents of bowl onto plastic wrap or into a bowl and form into a ball. Allow to chill for at least 4 hours or overnight. (I let mine chill for as long as it takes for my berries to thaw. Also I always double this crust recipe so I have extra for making pretty pie tops)

The Filling:
4 cups blueberries (if using frozen berries, thaw before use)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons milk
4 tablespoons tapioca powder (I use pearls, they work just fine)
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 egg beaten for brushing crust.

Preheat oven to 400F. Mix all wet ingredients in a large bowl, add cinnamon and tapioca whisk thoroughly. Fold in thawed or fresh berries until they are coated, let rest for 10 min. Pour filling into prepared pie crust. Add top crust if you wish. Brush with egg and sprinkle with sugar. Bake for 20 min. Reduce heat to 375F and continue baking for 30-45 min or until filling is bubbling. Allow it to cool before digging in. It’s always a good idea to put a pan under your pie as it’s baking to catch any spill overs.

Enjoy!