Spring is finally here. My bees are bringing in pollen and nectar that are used to raise many new bees for the hives. Brood rearing will continue a few more weeks until each hive decides it has enough foragers bringing in nectar that they will successfully store enough honey for the coming winter. Weather plays an important part in this as you might well imagine. Temperature has been 10 degrees below normal for the month, May, but the sun has been kind.
As I expand the number of hives I thought it would be good to be able to identify my hives from any others. Paint is the first choice for ID but even better is to brand the wood. I got the brander this past week and was able to start with some bottom boards and hive bodies. I like it!
This is also the time of year that bees yearn to create new hives. By working with this urge I can encourage a hive to create new queens to head colonies that I will assemble at this time. Honeybees are not domesticated and will march to no one's orders. A beekeeper has to understand and work with the cycles of this superorganism that is the sum of the workers, the queen and the drones.
I'm including a photo of a cell grafting frame with two bars of cells that I placed new one day old larvae in to encourage the bees to make queen cells. This is my first attempt. I was moderately successful as the bees have accepted some of the grafts. Under the festooning bees there are a few new queen cells taking shape. In two weeks virgin queens will emerge and then need to make several mating flights. When mated, each queen will return to her hive to stay for a year (I hope) and the following spring will be part of a swarm that leaves home to fly off to create a new hive.
Raspberries have been a concern of mine since I began using them in my Mermaid's Song Honey Wine. I was able to find small quantities of berries from local producers, but it has always been a struggle to maintain a steady supply that was under my control (What! You sold them to someone else?!). And, nobody allowed me to come in and pick my own.
I had planned to get this project done last year but there just was not enough time last spring to make it happen. So this year was a make or break effort to get a sufficiently large patch of berries going to supply my basic need. The variety I chose is called "Caroline", rated excellent for flavor and winter hardiness. It's an everbearing type which means I could theoretically have a crop in late spring on last years canes and then a fall crop on this years new canes. I'm not going to handle them that way though. By letting the canes bear like that, pruning would be a major hastle so I'm going to handle them as fall bearing only. That means I can mow all the canes down in very late fall every year and then all the growth energy will be put into those new canes, yielding a slightly larger fall crop in a single harvest. The rototiller in the photo below can be switched out with a sickle bar mower that will mechanically cut the canes as close to the ground as possible. Those canes will be composted and returned to the soil after a couple of years.
The raspberries are next to the elderberry bushes. I had to till new ground for the raspberries though, and then add soil amendments. Each of the rows is roughly 100 feet long and each row received 250 lbs of dolomitic limestone, 100 lbs of Pro-Gro which is an organic fertilizer from Vermont, and 60 lbs of dehydrated chicken manure that was sourced in Canada by Coast of Maine and is certified for organic growers.
So 200 raspberry bare root plants are in their permanent home and my knees and back are telling me to take a day off. Job well done!
March 26th I will be participating in a Wine Tasting at Grace Restaurant, 15 Chestnut Street, Portland, ME that will benefit the Cancer Community Center, also of Portland. The event is organised by my distributor; South Portland Wine Company. The tasting will be 6:00-8:00PM at Grace and is open to the public. Tickets are $25 in advance and $30 the day of the tasting.
The great thing about this tasting, not only a fundraiser for a great cause, but there will be many winemakers at this show, too. The day of the CCC Tasting, March 26th, is also the day that SOPO holds it's yearly wine tasting for the "trade"; retail wine shops whose owners can try all the wines in this years portfolio. There will be many pouring at this event who are also the winemaker. It's a great chance to hear about what's behind these wines; terroir, climate, and handling of the wines. I don't think it's too much hype to say this is the best wine tasting Portland will see all year! Mark this on your calendar.
Mid-winter in Maine can be cold and damp at the same time. Especially along the coast. Not a combination that can be endured cheerfully without recourse to a hot beverage that has spirit lifting potential. My very favorite is hot spiced mead.
Mulling mead is so simple, quick and warming that it should be part of every cooks repetoire. The trick to enjoying this winter warmer is to have the ingredients and a few simple tools ready when you need some core warming pleasure. A great mead to start with is my R. Nicoll not so Dry. It's made with my own wildflower honey and then sweetened lightly with extra honey so it's ready to mull right from the bottle. Pour 6-8 ounces of mead per person in the top of a double boiler. Place one half teaspoon of your choice of mulling spices per cup of mead into a tea filter bag such as the T-sac #1 size. (I personally enjoy Gryffon Ridge Silk Road Mulling Spices.) It will hold enough spices for at least 1 bottle of mead. Close the T-sac by folding the top a few times and then making two slight tears at the closure to hold it. (photo below) Place the spice packet in the double boiler with the mead. Make sure there is water in the bottom of the pot and then turn the heat on low. Place the cover on the top to trap and return any steam to the wine. Gently heating the mead will help to slowly release the volitile oils and other flavor components in the spices. Do not let the wine get above 180 F. That means no simmering, and absolutely no boiling! When the mulling is to your peasure, ladle or pour the mead into pre-warmed mugs. Enjoy!
Experience will help you judge the correct amount of spices and the degree of sweetness that you like. Use more or less of the spice mixture to suite your taste and adjust the sweetness by adding honey as you see fit. Additional flavors such as fresh organic orange or lemon zest, and extra cinnamon or vanilla can really help one forget the cold and damp!
Yesterday, January 24th, was in the low fifty degrees of temperature on the coast of Maine. Not unusual for midwinter as we almost always get a brief thaw after a couple of months of cold. This will pass into the very snowy months of February and March even though there will be increasingly more daylight as we get closer to spring.
The bees took flight during the midday warmth. These are known as "cleansing flights" as the bees will not defecate inside the hive and so wait for decent weather to fly. Honeybees are very fastidious; they coat the inside of the hive with propolis, which is famous for it's antibacterial properties. It gives all the exposed wood on the inside of the hive a golden color. Thus, they live in a very clean environment. I was hoping they would be flying so I visited my two bee yards with a camera to record what was happening. The results are shown below.
I'm sad to report that I've lost three hives this winter to mites; a very tenacious and widespread pest. I had noticed one hive absconded in the fall. I feared the worst and so called the Maine State Bee Inspector to get his opinion on the hive collapse. We inspected the hive in late November. His opinion was collapse due to mite infestation. Beekeepers are now trying to breed bees with even greater hygenic behaviour so that they will groom the mites off of themselves. There is good progress being made on this front.
An interesting fact about honeybees and their pollination of plants and flowers; depending on the pollen source, there can be anywhere from 250,000 to 6,000,000 grains of pollen on one bee while it is foraging.
After looking at the wine environment on a very small scale last time, I think it's appropriate to look at how the blueberry mead "Wild Blue" fits into a broader picture. When I decide to make a wine I try to imagine its "utility" if you will; just how will it compliment the world out there, what need am I trying to fill. What will be that match made in heaven? Wild Blue is a stellar compliment to many foods (of course!) and in particular Appleton Creamery's Blueberry Torte. The torte is a multilayered affair consisting of goat's milk cheese, cheese mixed with blueberries and something called blueberry bark (blueberries pressed into a fruit leather). Handmade and sweetened only with blueberries it is earthy, creamy and fruity. When you add Wild Blue's flavors of warm blueberry blossom honey and dry, spicy fruit you have a celestial match!
I want to call attention to the handiwork of my honeybees as well. Both the beekeeper (me) and they have had a good year. They have taught me much about how to nurture and not obstruct them as they go about their business. But fall is here so it's time to prepare them for winter. The biggest part of which is to insure they have plenty of food for the long Maine winter. I've harvested all the honey that is extra for the bees. The "supers" are all removed from the hives. Some hives produced more than others and so I am setting out this extra frame of honey (photo below), and the others that make up a super, to even out the supplies between hives. All the hives will forage this honey equally. It forces them to pack more honey into the two brood boxes that are their core home. They will remain in these boxes through the winter, coming out on the warm days for a stretch and weather check (sound familiar?).
Part of the business of running Fiddler's Reach Honey Wine is making sure that I have product integrity and consistancy. With that in mind I have always considered the laboratory testing/ knowledge side of this business to be as important as the winemaking side. They go hand in hand, and I feel comfortable in keeping the testing of wines in the forefront of wine related work. Part of that lab work now involves visual observation of the wine through a microscope and the possibility of photographing the wine at that level. Not only is it fascinating to see but reassuring to know that all is well at the microbiological level. I've mentioned before that I've received a grant from the Maine Technology Institute to analyze the biomass of blueberry mead regarding wild organisms, as well as optimizing wine yeast performance in mead. I think a photo or two showing the hidden workings of honey wine could be of interest. Note the measurement line in the first photo. I can measure the size of these microscopic yeasts! The color differences come from me playing with the camera settings for color and contrast while observing different samples. This is Saccaromyces cerevisiae fermenting my Blueberry Mead. The Mead is called Wild Blue and is made with wild Maine blueberries and blueberry blossom honey. And, yes the yeast is filtered out before bottling.
Several years ago I committed to developing a business model that is "vertically integrated". My goal is for Fiddler's Reach to provide its own honey and organically grown fruit for the wines. That means I have more than just winemaking duties to consider on any given day. Its something of a balancing act, but I love the variety of projects and how they integrate within the bigger picture of the meadery. There is a learning curve for something like beekeeping, but for elderberry cultivation and winemaking it is a total reinvention of the wheel, so to speak. I am learning by doing over many seasons. Here are some photos of this spring's "vertical integration projects".
Installing Nucleus Hives in the bee yard
Hanging Swarm Traps. If the hive increases its population in the spring, it might divide, with the old queen and most of the field force leaving to start a new home. Hopefully they stop here.
A cover crop of Crimson Clover between the rows of Elderberry bushes. I'm growing Elderberries using organic methods such as adding rock dust to the soil like dolomitic limestone and greensand, along with cover cropping nitrogen fixing plants like clover.
I've been growing elderberries for about five years now. I started with six small plants, taught myself to propagate them and now have approximately 300 plants situated on a quarter acre. It is now time to work on the process of turning elderberries into mead. These photos show a color (anthocyanin) extraction test based on a certain variable (that will not be revealed here).
I believe time is speeding up. Either that or I have been secretly deceiving myself about the number of things I can accomplish in any particular day. I will admit that on a daily basis I fail to accomplish my list completely. Some checked, some no check. That's ok for the day, and usually there are some checks, and partial checks count for something, too. As I move forward with the winery I've become very familiar with many of the routine tasks on the daily list. Sufficiently so that my motions are pretty streamlined now and I generally avoid doing more than I need to get the various jobs done well (no moving full cases of wine more than necessary!) check!
I'm in the midst of a Grant from the Maine Technology Institute titled "Biomass Analysis in the Blueberry Mead Process". The photos show flasks of Blueberry must being aerated (with control flasks alongside) and the temperature controller that governs the heating mat that the flasks rest on.