Category Archives: Natural Living

Have Kids, Will…Extract Honey

After surviving a long, cold winter and a cold, wet spring, my beautiful honeybees shook off the chill and went straight to work collecting pollen and nectar, building new combs, raising baby bees, and creating that divine food of the gods: honey.  I was beyond ecstatic to find a super (the shallow box placed on top of a hive) full of capped honey.  It was early in the season for harvesting, but there they were: eight frames of golden deliciousness.

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The process of extracting honey isn’t difficult, but it is messy–in the best, possible way!  After successfully removing the super from the hive and making sure there weren’t too many stragglers hanging onto my stolen treasure, I drove from the organic farm where I’m now keeping my bees, back to my house, ten miles away.  I had borrowed/rented the extraction equipment from my local Beekeepers Association and set it up in my kitchen ahead of time.

Uncapping the honey is done first.  I used an electric uncapping knife, which gets hot enough to melt the top layer of wax which the bees create to seal the honey inside each cell of the honeycomb.  Holding the frame vertically over a container fitted with a wooden cross-bar, I carefully slid the hot knife downward, allowing the wax cappings to fall into the container.

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I then placed each frame into the extractor, which is a big, stainless steel drum with frame holders that look like metal paint straining pans.  Some extractors are spun manually, but the one I used was electric and very efficient.  The frames are spun around inside the extractor until the honey is flung onto the inside walls of the steel drum and drips down to the bottom, where a valve is opened for the honey to drain into another container.

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Once all the frames went through the extractor, I placed a nylon paint strainer around the valve and lifted the valve cover, straining all that wonderfully fresh honey into the bucket below.  The straining process keeps any dead bees, wax, or other debris out of the finished product.  That’s really all the processing required; no other filtering is needed, and under no circumstances should honey be heated or boiled.  Doing so would destroy all the beneficial antibacterial, antimicrobial, and antiviral properties that make honey so miraculously good for us.

The result of this fun, sticky process was almost two gallons of pure, fresh, straight-from-the-organic-farm honey made by my very own little, Italian honeybees.  The honey was sweet, floral, and bright, delicious on yogurt, in tea, or right off the spoon.  No matter how many times I’ve been stung, or how hot it gets in my bee suit out in the afternoon sun, the reward of harvesting my own honey is something that has me totally hooked.  IMG_1975

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Have Kids, Will…Fall in Love

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On my recent Spring Break trip to Savannah, I fell madly in love with the Savannah Bee Company.  You can check them out at www.savannahbee.com.  Not only do they have an assortment of local Georgia honeys, they also bottle honey from other parts of the country, and allow you to try them all before making a purchase.  If your experience in tasting honey has been limited to the bottles of clover honey from the grocery store, I’d like to invite you to expand your honey palate.  Just like wine, honey has layers of flavors that are determined by the nectar source, the terroir, and the weather.  You’ll visually notice these differences when bottles from different regions are lined up next to each other and the colors vary from pale golden to very dark amber or brown.  Most people are pleasantly surprised to actually taste the differences.  It feels magical!

So, in addition to offering great varieties of honey, the Savannah Bee Company also makes (or has made under their label) some fabulous products like Royal Jelly Body Butter, lotions, lip balm and lip gloss, hair products, and very cool tee shirts–my favorite ones said, “She works hard for the honey” and “I got my mind on my honey and my honey on my mind”.  To say that I was like a kid in a candy store is an understatement.  I was able to totally nerd out, especially when Usher, one of the employees, gave me a tour of their on-site apiary.  I had my younger two boys with me, so it felt like a really fun Mr. Rogers field trip.  But that was only one of their locations!  We headed to their downtown store where I was able to sample (and buy, of course) some meads, melomels, and metheglins.  In case that sounds like jibberjabber, those are all alcoholic wine-like beverages made with fermented honey.

When the boys and I came home after a 13-hour car ride (hell), the first thing they wanted to do was cut into our block of comb honey.  I’m so glad they’re almost as enthusiastic about keeping bees as I am.  Ben even volunteered to be my beekeeping helper this year…but he also wanted to trade in our chickens and cat for a house in Georgia.

Have Kids, Will…Battle Bugs and Harvest Honey

Just when I thought I had a good handle on my beekeeping venture, which I only started this past spring, I found my hives completely infested with Small Hive Beetles.  These creepy little pests didn’t exactly come out of nowhere.  I had noticed some during one of my weekly/biweekly hive inspections this summer, and knew I had to do something about them.  But, looking back, I think I noticed them right before we were taking a trip to the Outer Banks.  Then, I didn’t order my beetle traps until we came home four days later.  The traps took another week to arrive.  Apparently, that is plenty of time for a handful of small hive beetles to conduct quite an orgy, multiply, and destroy the entire hive of a bee colony.  I’m sure those of you who are expert beekeepers are wagging your fingers at me and shaking your heads.  I know.

Looking for help, I called my mentor, an apiarist with the University of Maryland Agricultural Extension, and asked for his guidance.  I also called one of my neighbors, a tall, statuesque blond, who has two more years’ worth of experience than I. Lucky for me, they both agreed to come right away.  As Mike the Mentor pulled frame after frame out of my hive boxes and knocked off all the beetles, as well as the surviving bees, my neighbor and I steadily smashed, by hand, as many beetles as we could.  Picture the game Whack-a-Mole, but with two ladies crouched over a hive lid beating tiny beetles with metal tools.  It was gruesome and barbaric.  The worst part was accidentally smashing bees when the beetles hid beneath them just as our instruments of death were coming down.  Mike assured me those lost bees were a necessary casualty in order to get the beetle population under control and to save one of my two colonies.  It really didn’t make me feel any better.

After about 30 minutes of continuous smashing and crunching, I stood, sweaty and woozy, to help reassemble the one hive that still had a chance for survival.  There was still a queen present, brood, eggs, and capped honey, all of which equaled hope.  I regretted the destruction I had allowed to happen due to my neglect, the loss of bees due to the violent measures we had to take that day, and the amount of honey I had to give up in order to provide more food for the surviving bees. However, there was an upside to the whole debacle.

Since I now needed to provide frames of capped honey for only one colony, the frames that were remaining from the disassembled hive were mine for extracting.  There wasn’t much, but out of six frames that were only partially filled, I got about three pints of my own, delicious, fresh-from-the-hive honey…a sweet reward despite a stupid mistake!  That simple gratification is the driving force for me to continue, with extra diligence, to care for my remaining bees and look forward to purchasing a new colony next spring.  That, and the idea that our mistakes don’t always lead to total devastation.  Sometimes there is something sweet to be gained from making mistakes.

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Have Kids, Will…Flee From Deer!

My husband has always had a knack for getting into scrapes involving animals. In fact, sometime around 1992, he was the first person on the Delmarva Peninsula to require rabies treatment after he had a run-in with a rabid raccoon during a party at a friend’s farm. When he was in middle school, he claims a deer came out of a thicket of honeysuckle, proceeded to single him out, and chased him across a field until he threw a motorcycle helmet at its head, causing it to turn and leave him alone. From that day on, he has always been afraid of deer, which I have always found incredibly funny. Who in the world is afraid of deer? I would tease. You better watch out, Bambi might sense you’re here and come charging out after you! Well, ha-ha, the joke is now on me.

My relationship with deer changed a few years ago, and not for the better. It all started when I was going for a run early one fall morning. I’ve always enjoyed seeing the wildlife around my neighborhood, especially on those early morning runs. Sometimes there are red foxes romping through the fields. Occasionally wild turkeys will make their way across the road, shuffling from one section of the woods to another, gobbling softly as I pass. Deer almost always make an appearance and will usually run off when they see or hear me coming. This one particular morning, however, in the crisp cool dawn, a male deer saw me and stood stock still as I approached. As I was running in its general direction, I was admiring the majesty of the great, antlered creature and thinking it would leap off into the woods any minute. But it didn’t. Instead, as I got closer, it clip-clopped toward me. Then, it started pawing at the ground and snorting the way angry bulls do in cartoons. It even lowered its head and tossed its antlers in my direction. Oh my God, I thought, I’m going to be impaled by a deer and no one is awake to help me! Completely losing my cool, I started leaping up in the air, clapping my hands, and shouting, “Shoo, deer!  Shoo!”   It didn’t budge and I think it may have even inched closer toward me. Feeling completely defenseless and absolutely ridiculous, I decided to turn back and run the other way, checking over my shoulder to make sure I wasn’t being stalked by the very confident, now terrifying, animal.

This seems like it should be an odd, isolated incident, but it has happened twice since then!  Just recently, I was on my bike–MY BIKE–and a deer started charging toward me.  What the hell is this?  Did I absorb some bad animal karma from my husband?  Deer aren’t supposed to chase people!  They’re supposed to look pretty and remind us of why we love nature.  My sons have volunteered some creative solutions to this zombie-apocalyptic-like epidemic, such as strapping a shotgun to my back while I run, or carrying a machete and chopping off any offending deer’s head, or better yet, taking one of my children with me so HE can shoot any deer threatening poor, old Mommy while she runs.  Really, what do people do in areas of the country where bears or mountain lions are threats?  I can’t imagine having a true predator coming after me because, frankly, these damn deer are scary enough.  For now, I’m being totally chicken and just running away as fast as I can, hoping the deer aren’t going to chase me down and eat me.  I guess the upside is my sprints are getting faster!

Have Kids, Will…Get Over My Fear of Snakes (and Lizards…and Germs)!

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Here’s a little something for the parenting realm:  I have four boys who have all, at some point in their childhoods, become nature fanatics.  Not the kind of nature fanatic who reads a lot about birds and trees and flowers, then asks to plant his own garden so he can really connect with the earth.  No, my boys are the kind of fanatics who want to catch every living, breathing animal they come across (and some they only hope to come across–like alligators and tigers) and bring it into my house.

My son, Ben, has to be the worst (I mean, the best)!  He is very adept at finding and catching frogs, turtles, lizards, and yes–snakes!  What makes him stand apart from his brothers in this department is his ability to sneak these things inside without me knowing.  I’ve come across poor little toads, stiff and lifeless, in loads of laundry pulled from the dryer.  I once found a huge, brown skink (it’s a type of lizard that is insanely plentiful where I live) under my pillow as I was crawling into bed for the night.  We have had aquariums house all sorts of “rescued” turtles over the years, but somehow the aquariums just aren’t as homey as a bath tub or the kitchen sink.

Since I’ve been parenting for over 16 years now, I’ve found my tolerance for these close encounters with all things creepy has become much stronger.  My oldest son was probably scrubbed down with antibacterial soap and disinfectant after handling little outdoor creatures.  Now, my youngest will come to the dinner table with all sorts of black who-knows-what under his fingernails and I’ll half-heartedly ask, “Did you wash your hands?” But only after he’s already picked up a chicken nugget with his fingers.

So, as proof of my cool-as-a-cucumber reaction to my kids’ fascination with nature, here are some pictures of Ben in action.  Out of these two snakes that he caught, only the smaller one made its way inside…and I’m pretty sure I asked him to wash his hands after catching them.

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Have Kids, Will…Raise Chickens!

Have Kids, Will...raise chickens!

Keeping a small flock of backyard hens has been much more rewarding and entertaining than I ever, in a million years, thought it could be! This is a picture of our current flock, which is a mixed breed of Rhode Island Red and some kind of white–Delaware, maybe. They are docile, hearty, and good egg layers. With the six hens, we typically get five to six eggs a day. Since we’ve been raising chickens for the past few years, my kids have gotten tired of eating eggs and are now very willing to share them with our neighbors. The freshness of the eggs really does make a difference in how they taste. The hard shells and bright yolks indicate a healthier egg than what we buy in the grocery store.

Aside from these healthy, delicious eggs, the chickens also provide quiet entertainment on a sunny afternoon. When we let the girls out of their coop or chicken yard, we eventually get to see their personality differences. There is a definite pecking order, which is apparent when someone tries to pick up a bug that a superior hen is already onto. Even the dog and cat will get chased away by the big mama of the bunch.

When we ordered our first batch of chickens from a hatchery, we couldn’t be sure of their sex. We split a batch of 24 chicks with a friend and ended up with 11 roosters! Some people are content to raise roosters and don’t mind their constant crowing, which does not just happen first thing in the morning! However, I am not that kind of person. Once we realized what we had on our hands and the noise level in our quiet neighborhood suddenly increased 50 decibels, I asked my husband to please….do something!

He and this same friend decided they would take it upon themselves to humanely kill and butcher these noisy birds for our dinner tables. What a learning experience that was! We enjoyed some nice, rich stock for chicken noodle soup, as well as a few dishes of coq au vin, but I’m pretty sure both my husband and our friend considered becoming vegetarians after the ordeal.

Overall, our attempts at raising chickens have become better over the years. We don’t lose as many to predators as we used to, and our hens have survived a very harsh winter this year. I’ve even gotten over my self-consciousness at being THAT family with chickens wandering around the yard…well, sort of.

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