Saturday, June 10, 2006

Honey is a Magical Substance

Honeybees use nectar to make honey. Nectar is almost 80% water with some complex sugars. In fact, if you have ever pulled a honeysuckle blossom out of its stem, nectar is the clear liquid that drops from the end of the blossom. In North America, bees get nectar from flowers like clovers, dandelions, berry bushes and fruit tree blossoms. They use their long, tubelike tongues like straws to suck the nectar out of the flowers and they store it in their "honey stomachs". Bees actually have two stomachs, their honey stomach which they use like a nectar backpack and their regular stomach. The honey stomach holds almost 70 mg of nectar and when full, it weighs almost as much as the bee does. Honeybees must visit between 100 and 1500 flowers in order to fill their honeystomachs.

The honeybees return to the hive and pass the nectar onto other worker bees. These bees suck the nectar from the honeybee's stomach through their mouths. These "house bees" "chew" the nectar for about half an hour. During this time, enzymes are breaking the complex sugars in the nectar into simple sugars so that it is both more digestible for the bees and less likely to be attacked by bacteria while it is stored within the hive. The bees then spread the nectar throughout the honeycombs where water evaporates from it, making it a thicker syrup. The bees make the nectar dry even faster by fanning it with their wings. Once the honey is gooey enough, the bees seal off the cell of the honeycomb with a plug of wax. The honey is stored until it is eaten. In one year, a colony of bees eats between 120 and 200 pounds of honey.

The peas are up twice as high as they were last Monday. The kale and mustard greens and cabbages are bursting in their beds and waving gently in the breeze their giant purply green bodies—tough and leathery like farmers’ hands. My body aches every day…I thought by now this would be easier on me, but as it turns out, my rhythm is just changing to one of hard physical work in the morning, often under a hot sun, followed by a weariness like I’ve never known. It’s not complete exhaustion, but like a depletion of the energies needed to do anything else productive with the day. I take long, deep naps that I never really wake from and spend the evening listing and dazing…eating and maybe watching a movie. The concentration needed for any kind of serious reading or thinking eludes me these days.

On Monday, I was hit by a car while riding my bike to the farm. A young driver pulled too close in front of me and I ran into the back of her car and fell on my knee. Nothing is broken, but for the week I’ve been hobbling and limping around the farm, daily tweaking it again while trying to jump over a bed or wrestle a hose. I should have taken a day off to let it rest—I’m a bit worried about it now that I seem to re-injure it every day—but I guess I don’t like to sit still. Josh remarked that most people in my position would have gotten angry, gone to the hospital, complained of missed work days and missed pay and extracted some restitution out of the girl. I told him that I dislike that aspect of our society—that we’re so eager to sue, to blame, and to take advantage of such situations for financial gain. I knew I wasn’t seriously injured (although I’m thinking I should have filed an accident report, just to document it) and so I just continued on my way.

We had a new Youth Harvest kid on the farm this week—Donny. Donny felt very “out of his comfort zone” at the beginning of the week, but it was great to see how his attitude began to soften as the week went on. I had a good interaction with him on Monday—telling him that he doesn’t have to like farming, but that he might gain a lot just by opening himself up to having a new experience. By Weds, I could see that he was much more into the work…I think watching Hannah’s enthusiasm for the work really helped him to relax into it.

We planted tons of peppers, tomatoes, celery, summer and winter squash this week. We moved all the plants out of the greenhouse on Wednesday, and then in the pouring rain on Thursday, we moved them all back in again. I learned to drive the tractor and till the soil. I tilled in several beds of rotten potatoes—damaged by the rains over Memorial Day weekend. It’s the biggest loss the farm has experienced, according to Josh. In the pouring rain on Thursday, new potatoes were planted by a team of very muddy, but happy, PEAS farm interns while Josh, Dan, Jordan and I harvested kale, mustard, lettuce and bok choy for the CSA on Thurs. afternoon. We were wet to the bone—our rain jackets were drenched inside and out. I was covered in mud. I had mud in my shoes and between my toes.

The highlights of the week were the quick lecture about honey bees from a man who brought Queens for our hives all the way from Iowa. Honey is a magical substance. When I asked him what it actually is, he couldn’t really tell me. He has been keeping bees since 1972. The bees mix the pollens and nectars with enzymes to make honey. But how? He didn’t know. I want to learn more about it ( and to maybe have a hive of my own someday…
On Friday, Josh gave us a little class about direct seeding vs. transplanting. We got to talking about the Solstice and its significance to plants/ farmers. Josh gave the example of onions, which spend their energy as the days are growing longer to produce the green part of
the plant. After the solstice, as the days begin to get shorter, the plant diverts its energy to the bulb, which grows in proportion to the greens which developed before the solstice. Josh said it’s like they’re on a dimmer switch: as the light gets “turned down” the onions grow bigger. These are called short-day onions. There are also long-day onions which react in the opposite way. They need to be planted in the fall (this works best in southern climates) because the bulbs develop as the days grow longer after the winter solstice. I want to learn more about this.

The first (or only) full moon in June is called the Honey Moon. Tradition holds that this is the best time to harvest honey from the hives. This time of year, between the planting and harvesting of the crops, was the traditional month for weddings. This is because many ancient peoples believed that the "grand [sexual] union" of the Goddess and God occurred in early May at Beltaine. Since it was unlucky to compete with the deities, many couples delayed their weddings until June. June remains a favorite month for marriage today. In some traditions, "newly wed couples were fed dishes and beverages that featured honey for the first month of their married life to encourage love and fertility. The surviving vestige of this tradition lives on in the name given to the holiday immediately after the ceremony: The Honeymoon."

After our class, we visited the Ten Spoon vineyard and winery in the Rattlesnake. It was a very interesting operation. It was particularly fascinating to hear about the meticulous way in which the vines must be cared for. Each trunk has two cordons (or arms) from which new growth sprouts each spring. The previous years’ growth was pruned in the early spring (Feb?) to leave several “spikes”—the last year’s growth which is cut down to 3-4” sticks. From the spike, three new shoots are allowed to grow (others being removed). Two shoots will grow grapes (they are pruned before flowering to two bunches per shoot) and one shoot will become the next year’s spike and will not have any grapes on it. This is done to every single plant. Then there is all kinds of other pruning that takes place throughout the season. Compared to a vegetable garden where the tasks are alternated every few minutes, vineyard work looks incredibly dull and repetitive. However, I suppose the financial return must be much higher in the end. But this winery is seven years old and is not yet turning a profit. It takes at least five years to achieve the first harvest. I was quite impressed not only with the knowledge of Katie and Casey, the two young people who were in charge of the vineyard, but also by the fact that they are learning so much as they go. It’s great that they can be hired to actually learn as they go, rather than being expected to know everything before getting the job. Much of what they are doing now is trial and error—Casey said he hasn’t had the opportunity to visit many other vineyards. One would think that might be a good idea! But the plants look really healthy, and the wine apparently tastes good, my colleagues tell me…

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