Sugaring Season

_DSC7147A mile or so from us, in the suburb of Maplewood, there is a yard with half dozen or so maple trees. Each spring, early in spring, you’ll find buckets with tubes or blue plastic bags hanging from those trees.  It’s sugaring season.  It’s that time of the year where tree sap flows relatively freely.  Capture enough of the watery sap, boil it down — a lot — and you will end up with maple syrup.

Larger operations will skip the buckets and bags and go straight to stringing tubing from their tree, through the sugar bush to the sugar house.  These operations may also employ vacuum suction in the tubing to draw out even more sap.

_DSC7060Sadly, we are lacking in many areas for the production of maple syrup.  Our little acre-plus in St. Paul has many trees – mulberries, Siberian elms, hackberries, buckthorns, pines, cedars, cottonwoods, pears, apples – crab & regular, cherries, plums and black walnuts – but not a single maple tree of any variety.  No silver maples, no red maples, not even a boxelder tree, but more importantly, no sugar maples.  We also are lacking in having a dedicated sugar house; we have an old garage at the back of our property, but the lack of maple trees kind preempts the need to turn that into a sugar house.

I have written, before, about our black walnut trees, and I often try to think of interesting uses or benefits for these great trees.  Last year, I stumbled across a blog post on tapping black walnut trees for their sap.  It was not spring when I came across the post, but the idea seemed very intriguing, very simple.  It is exactly like tapping sugar maples for their sap.

A few weeks ago, spring seemed like it was about to arrive.   News articles about the pending sugaring season started to come to my attention.  The walnut syrup posting came to mind.

A fleet supply store chain, here in the upper Midwest, had recently advertised the sale of beekeeping equipment; I wondered if they also carried sugaring supplies.  The nearest one of their stores is about 20 minutes away; it’s always fun to wander around the store.  A hop in the car, and wander around the store yield a roll of blue plastic sugaring bags and the metal hanging brackets.  Throw in a couple of taps and we were set.

_DSC7374This being a bit of an experiment, we decided to only tap one tree.  I picked the largest walnut we have that is outside of the dogs’ fence – we had visions of our coonhound running the yard with a blue plastic bag full of sap dangling from his clenched jaw; he has enough energy without sugar water.  Outside the fence seemed safer.

I punched two ½ inch holes into the tree; one higher and deeper than the other.  A few taps on the taps with a hammer and I hung the bags on the tree.

…and we waited.

The weather was great during this time; you want above freezing temperatures followed by below freezing.  That’s exactly what happened.  High 30s during the day, and high 20s at night.

_DSC7394The bag hanging from the higher, deeper tap began to accumulate liquid.  The bag on the lower, shallower tap did nothing – a few black flies ended up in the bag.

When there was a bit less than a gallon of sap in the bag, I decided to boil it down and see what I could produce.

The sap was strained through cheesecloth to remove any insects that had been unfortunate enough to get stuck there before the nightly temperature drop.  The clean liquid was then placed in an enameled cast iron pot and that was placed on the stove over medium-low heat.

We waited…periodically stirring the boiling liquid.

In the end, we ended up boiling down the near gallon to about a ½ cup of syrup.  Poured over hot waffled with a bit of butter – the syrup was delicious.  It was much more nuttier than maple syrup.


Chocolate Sheet Cake

Chocolate Sheet Cake
Chocolate Sheet Cake
  1. Preheat oven to 350
  2. Bring margarine, cocoa and water to boil and remove from heat
  3. In large mixing bowl combine flour, brown sugar, soda, cinnamon and salt
  4. Add cocoa mixture and beat well
  5. Stir in the condensed milk, eggs and vanilla
  6. Pour into greased 15x10 jelly roll pan
  7. Bake at 350 until cake springs back - about 15 minutes
  1. In small saucepan melt margarine
  2. Stir in cocoa and rest of the can of condensed milk
  3. Stir in powdered sugar and chopped nuts
  4. Spread on warm cake
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Potato Chip Cookies

Potato Chip Cookies

Potato chip cookies
5 Dozen
5 Dozen
Potato chip cookies
5 Dozen
5 Dozen
Servings: Dozen
  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees
  2. Sift flour, baking soda and salt together
  3. Cream sugar and butter until fluffy
  4. Add vanilla and egg. Mix well
  5. Add flour dry mixture and mix well
  6. Add chocolate chips and potato chips and mix thoroughly
  7. Drop by tsp on un greased baking sheet
  8. Bake at 375 for 10-12 minutes
  9. Store cookies in tightly covered container
Recipe Notes
  •  I didn't have any cookie sheets I could use so I ended up making cookie bars in an 8x8 pan instead
  • We used 50% less sodium Lays, which I think were a bad idea.  Alex said, "it's like chewing on toenails" as they got soggy and chewy.
  • If I was to make these again, I'd use a thicker crispier potato chip with more salt.


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Hives in Saint Paul

DSC_5685---2014-11-19-at-16-22-55Here in Saint Paul, we entered winter with three hives buzzing with activity.  Our fourth hive was empty; the bees had likely swarmed earlier in the fall.  No honey, no pollen, just wax crumbs in the bottom of the hive; they packed up all their belongings and left.

When we checked the hives in December, during a stretch of warmer days, we were surprised to find all the hives empty.  Two of the three seemed to have suffered the same as the previous empty hive.  With the exception of a few dead bees, wax pieces and pollen on the bottom board, the hives were empty.  There was still some honey and pollen, but the bees were gone.  The fourth hive had a very small cluster of dead bees in the middle.  A small amount of honey and pollen remained.  My guess, and it is just a guess, as a group, they just could not maintain an adequate temperature.  Maybe there were not enough bees (perhaps varroa mites spiked in this hive and weakened the population).

For the last few winters, we have wrapped the hives in tar paper to act as a barrier to the wind as well as allowing for the ever-so-small warming effect from the sun.  We had mixed success over the years. The use of tar paper for this winter was no different.  However, with the hives being without bees early in the winter, meant that we would likely have to deal with mice in the hives.

Even with the hive entrances blocked off with scraps of tar paper or duct tape, mice can still get into a hive.  The hives are ideal mouse-hangouts; slightly warm from the tar paper wrap and food in the form of honey and wax (it is a lipid, after all).

Over this past weekend, I decided to do some spring cleaning and rearranging of the hives.  The hives could be completely torn down, wax scraped if need be, debris removed, components inspected – all without needing to wear a beesuit or be concerned with getting stung.  The bee-free situation of the hives would also allow for something that I have been wanting to do for a while: better level the hives and physically arrange them differently.

It is difficult to tell from the photo (above) that the hives are actually located on the side of a hill.  It is only a slight angle – less 15° – but the layout still has problems.  Originally, I had dug into the hill to better level the hives, but with heavy rain last spring, the general cycle of forest-dross-buildup, as well as burrowing rodents below – the hive bases were buried on the uphill side and beginning to be excavated on the downhill side.  We had shimmed up the downhill sides with sticks and left over cedar shakes (from siding the coop); it looked tacky and felt flimsy – like the hives would tip over if top-loaded with honey frames.

Mouse Nest in a HiveThe first hive we opened was empty.  No signs of mice; just the wax bits and a few dead bees on the bottom board.  The second hive, however, was a bit different.  The piece of tar paper that had been blocking off the top-box’s entrance hole had a hole through it.  In pulling off the tar paper wrap, bits and pieces of what looked like shredded paper fell out.  The smell of mouse-living hit my nose.

Lifting off the top deep box, I nearly fell over as a mouse jumped toward me – from the box to the ground.  It made some mouse-noises as it ran between my legs and off into a nearby brush pile; I assume it was cursing me out in its native tongue.

The middle deep box was more or less completely packed with shredded paper and stunk of urea.  I am not sure where the mouse or mice were getting the paper to shred; maybe our near by “open air” garage (the building had red squirrels living it throughout the winter).  Frame by frame, I shook the paper and mouse-crap into a pail.

The mice had also eaten through several frames of honey and comb.  Two frames had bottom bars that had been chewed through and two more frames of nectar that had not been turned into honey had mold on them.  Theses frames went into the fire we had started in the fire pit a bit earlier in the day.

Mouse Nest Under a HiveOnly one of the hives had a mouse nest in it; all of the hives, however, had nests under their bases.  More shredded paper, leaves and twine were all bundled up.  Mice would jump out from under the hives as I picked up and moved the bottom boards.  I would let out an explicative as if having a mouse jump at me was something unexpected at this point.  That night, all I dreamt about were mice in the house or in our bed.  Any creek or cracking sound in the house would send me fly up out of my sleep – It must be a mouse!

The next morning, with the hives torn down, and moved out of the bee yard, we set to work clearing out the buckthorn seedlings and other bits of flora that taken up residence over the last few years within the confines of the bee yard fencing.  A quick run-around with the push-lawnmower and a quick raking made short work of the task.  Maybe a sprinkling of rape seeds or clover in the areas where we will not be walking is in order.

Getting the hives set back up.Our neighbors to the south of us had given us a heap of wood pallets earlier in the fall; pallets make nice platforms for hives.  Previous owners of our house, at one time, had left a piles of short concrete pillars (14″ long, 6″ in diameter) in the woods and near the “open air” garage; we have no idea what pillars were for, but we have used else where around the property – the fire pit, for example, is ringed with them.   More pillars, deeper in the woods, would make for great pallet supports in the bee yard.

Honeybee Visiting the HivesHaving hauled half a dozen or so of these pillars into the bee yard, I set to work with a shovel, digging in to get the right depth to bury the concrete supports.

With the pallets in place, reassembling the hives was the easy part.  They stacked together quickly.  As I put them back to together, I noticed that we had a few winged visitors.  Maybe a dozen bees – or simply the same few – land here or there on droplets of honey on the tops of frames.  The question of whether these were actually our bees – a few of the bees that had packed up and left in the fall – popped into my head.   Not shown in the photo (below), all the larger hive entrance holes had been covered with duct tape; we are hoping it keeps the mice out until we get bees installed.

_DSC7162We have had bees on order for while – from one supplier in Iowa of Russian bees, we have had our name on their order list since February of last year.  We also put an order in in January with a place near Baldwin, Wisconsin; those bees will be available for pick in mid-April.   We will also have to wash down the hive equipment prior to installing bees – I’ll want to make sure the urine from the mice is washed out; it will also give us a chance to jettison any frames that are showing signs of mold.  This will happen in early April.

Product Review: Cozy Hen Waterer


Outer Pail with Insulation


A reader in Minneapolis, MN, asked me if it would be possible to give a bit more feedback on the Cozy Hen Waterer.  I thought that I could spin that into a more complete review of the product.

The waterer, manufactured and sold by Neora Inventors, LLC, consists of two nested buckets.  Lining the outer bucket is a couple layers double reflective bubble insulation; at the bottom of the pail are two strips of styrofoam insulation to position the inner pail and the chicken nipple correctly.  There is also a piece of reflective bubble insulation that is placed on the lid of the inner pail.

The chicken nipple assembly hangs about 1.½” out the bottom.   There is also a length of light-gauge chain on the bucket’s handle; chicken nipple to the length of chain, the unit is around 21″.


Inner pail with rubber grommet and heater suction cups on bottom

The outer bucket measures about 10″ tall and, at the lid, about 9″ in diameter.  The inner pail measures 7.½” tall, and at the lid, 7.½”.  The inner pail also holds around ¾ of a gallon; there is a length of shoelace attached to the pail that forms a sort of crude handle, as well.

More Details.  The basic concept of the waterer is to isolate the water from the elements.  It does this with the use of insulation and the clever encapsulation of the nipple with an aluminum pipe.

Neora Inventors’ website states that, when using the 15W aquarium heater in the pail, the nipple temperature will only be 8° cooler than the bulk of the water.


All the parts (minus the pails)

Review.  We haven’t verified the temperature measurement claims, but during our coldest stretches over the last month – around -9° F – the nipple stayed ice free; when tapped, liquid water was released.

For the most part, the waterer in conjunction with the 15W heater does what it Neora claims: it uses less electricity than a conventional fount, as well as keeping water ice-free and free-flowing.  Minimizing electricity consumption, for us, was actually nearly as important as providing the chickens with liquid water.  This might not be a huge concern for those with a coop with electricity from the grid.  This was discussed in a bit more depth in the previous post.


Chicken Nipple

There are a couple minor design-related items that could be unnecessary or simply in need of another iteration.  First, the inner lid contains two holes; one for the power cord of the heater to exit, and the other hole appears to be for refilling the pail.  In the picture, above, the inner lid is in the lower right corner.  The heater cord hole is on the right side.  The hole on the left, in my opinion, could be eliminated and a single hole be used for cord exiting and refilling.  Second, the hole in the inner lid insulation, because of evaporation, ice forms on the underside of the outer lid.  Eliminating this hole in the insulation would remove a place for heat to escape.

We had questions about how quickly the chickens would pickup the using the nipple – having only used a more traditional fount since we received them as day-old chicks.  The hens turned out to be quick studies and realized soon after the new waterer was placed in the coop that this was now the dispenser of water.

As to the long-term, post-winter use of the waterer, it is still an unknown.  I really like how wood chips and poop do not end up in the water as with a normal waterer that is placed near the ground; at the same time, the water requirements for the chickens will increase once we are into the summer months, as well as when we add more birds this spring.

_DSC7054Verdict. Small flocks (below a count of 8 to 10) in a coop with minimal ambient temperature control (such as our coop) could benefit from a Cozy Hen Waterer.  Assuming the aquarium heater can last several seasons, the cost savings on reduced electrical consumption compared to a high-wattage heated waterer, may allow for the unit to pay its own way (to an extent).

Aside from the two design comments, above, about extra holes, the only remaining point that should be mentioned is the cost: $75.00 (includes heater).  It maybe reasonable to think that with the possible research and development that went into their current/final design, that $75 is likely a good deal.  But, if you ignore any cost savings on electricity (the heater was $12.50), paying $62.50 for a ¾ gallon insulated pail might be a tough sell for some people.



Cold Weather, The Coop and Heat Transfer

_DSC6863-2A few weeks ago, we bought a new waterer for the coop.  There was nothing wrong with the current waterer other than being an energy hog.  Throughout December, we struggled with keeping the coop’s battery charged enough power the waterer.  The waterer’s 100 watt heating element was just too much. Think of it like this: the waterer’s draw (outflow) on the battery is greater than the solar panel’s ability to recharge (inflow) the battery.

\(Outflow > Inflow\)

_DSC6854-2The new waterer, branded as Cozy Hen Waterer, is from Neora Inventors, LLC. From a cost perspective, it was expensive.  Around $70 for the waterer, a hanging chain, and a heater.  The waterer consists of two buckets – one ¾ gallon bucket nested within a larger pail. Inside the larger pail, there is a layer of thin insulation.  The outer pail is only used as a convenient way to capsulate the inner pail in insulation.  The water, contained in the inner pail, is able to get out to the chickens byway of a chicken nipple (pictured to the right).  The other interesting bit of engineering is the encasement of the chicken nipple in an aluminum pipe.  The pipe extends into the water pail by several inches.  This is subsequently encased in a bit of insulation with an outer shell made of a PVC plumbing part.  Finally, inside the water pail, there is a 15 watt aquarium heater.  It will keep the water at around 77°F.

The aluminum pipe is clever because of what it allows: heat transfer.  Although not entirely analogous (it is a pipe and not a rod), you could get a sense of the heat transfer by using a partial differential equation (Partial Differential Equations for Scientists and Engineers is also a good place to look).  There are actually several energy-flows going on in these coop-systems if you think about it.

The heat is transferred from near the center of the water pail down to the chicken nipple byway of the aluminum pipe.  This allows for the nipple to stay mostly ice-free on those -20°F days.

A bit of welding - the new waterer needed a bracket to hang on.

A bit of welding – the new waterer needed a bracket to hang on; rebar scraps that I had laying around.

If you recall from a previous post, the first-replacement waterer had a thermostatic switch that kept the water at 35°F.  In my mind, that seems like a valid temperature for water – it would minimize the energy consumption.  The new waterer with the aquarium heater and its 77°F temperature seems, on the surface, like it will use too much energy.

But, there are a few things that make the new waterer-system much easier on the consumption of electricity.  First, the larger waterer has 1.⅔ times the surface area as that of the new, insulated waterer.  More surface area results in faster transfer of energy from the warm water to the cold air.  Second, and this is likely the most important factor, the new waterer is insulated.  Top, bottom and sides – it is all insulated.  The one direct exception is the chicken nipple area, but that has the aluminum pipe to assist with heat loss (with the assumption that the heat transfer from the water + pipe is greater than the heat transfer from the end of the nipple to the air).

The more I have thought about the larger waterer and how it appears to be inefficient, the more I kept thinking of its design in comparison to the new waterer.  The larger waterer has the heating element on the bottom – the three gallons of water sit on top of the element.  This means that only one side of the element in contact with a surface that has water touching it.  That other side is hanging out in the air; sometimes, well-below-zero air.  What is the likelihood that the thermostatic switch actually switches off for any significant length of time?

A better design would be have the heating element have more contact surface with the water.  Perhaps, instead of being encased in a disc in the base of the waterer, the element would be a more rod-shaped protrusion from the base into the center of the water  reservoir.  Secondly, insulate, insulate, insulate.  The choice of insulation material is possibly debatable – the new waterer uses foil covered bubble insulation – this might be sufficient; it would certainly be better than nothing.

Solar Coop – Update II

_DSC6362 - 2015-01-25 at 16-14-33 - Version 2Since writing the first update on the solar panels on the chicken coop, we had quite the cold snap.  Along with the persistent cold, there was persistent cloud cover and strong winds.  The combination of cold weather meant the battery for the coop had diminished capacity and the cloud cover meant that there would not be enough solar irradiation to fill that reduced capacity.

Each night, I would disconnect the battery from the system and lug into the garage; connecting it to a battery charger for the night.  We also brought the chicken’s waterer into the house to prevent the need in the morning of having to thaw the water. In addition to the routine changes, I removed two things from the electrical-mix: the electric timer and the ammeter. With the battery’s stored energy being consumed so quickly and the water and battery being brought in at night, it did not seem like the timer was needed at all. The ammeter was removed because it stopped working in the sub-zero cold.  Subsequent tests, while it has been warmer outside, show that the meter still works; it just does not like the cold.

We have since made it through that cold spell, and have been in a pleasant middle ground of nice amounts of sun, above freezing day-time temperatures – several days in a row, and light amounts of wind.

With the warmer stint of weather, the battery has been under lighter duty. Even when the solar charge controller has been indicating that the battery is not strong enough to power the inverter, the next day’s sun will be more than enough to give the battery a good charge.

Being a curious, amateur scientist, I wanted to know a bit more about why a lead-acid battery appears to be quite poor at being able to provide energy when the ambient temperature is very low.  This inability to provide energy is quite noticeable and prevalent in colder regions during the winter.  For those who are familiar with starting a car while in the depths of a cold winter – think of how the car’s starter seems to struggle to turn the engine over.  It’s a battle between cold lubricants with a higher than normal viscosity and a lead acid starter battery with diminished capacity.  But, why does cold cause this diminished capacity.

With my day-job being at a university, and I am surrounded by academics and researchers, my first thought was to look into published research on batteries or modeling batteries.

The first paper I found was A mathematical model for lead-acid batteries co-authored by Dr. Ziyad Salameh – Dept. of Electrical Engineering, UMass Lowell, Margaret A. Casacca (student), and William A. Lynch (student).  The paper was published in the IEEE Transactions on Energy Conversion, Vol. 7, No.I, March 1992.

Aside from equations and a mention of a BASIC program that was developed (but this program is nowhere to be found in the paper), the main take aways from the paper are list of five factors that effect a battery’s ability to store energy; for the most part, the list of things is obvious.  (1) State of charge, (2) battery storage capacity, (3) rate of discharge, (4) environment temperature, and (5) shelf-life or age.

(This list is originally from the Complete Battery Book.)

We can say that our battery is fully charged (state of charge is 100% at the on set), has a capacity of 110 amp-hours, the waterer has a draw of at most 10 amps (this is likely not constant as the waterer will turn on when the water is below 35 degrees, and turn off when it reaches a temperature above this), the shelf-life or age is basically “brand new”.  Temperature is likely the deciding factor.

Looking at how temperature effects capacity, you can see that as the temperature drops, the capacity drops, as well.

Capacity vs Temperature

Assuming this graph is true (there is no documentation or available analysis), at our coldest, the battery is likely to be running at a bit over 60% capacity; meaning, we’ll only get about 66ah from it.  The inverter will shut off when the voltage drops below about 12.10V; according to another battery university article, this likely means the battery has about 50% capacity remaining.  This could roughly be translated into a capacity of 33ah at our coldest, and about 55ah at optimal temperature (which we won’t have until sometime in late May).

Now that I have some numbers that better explain the observation of why didn’t the battery last more than 8 hours on the coldest day, I still want to know why does this happen.  Why does ambient cold have such an effect on lead-acid batteries?

The short answer is internal resistance.  To understand this, you first need to know a bit about how lead-acid batteries work.

A course offered at the University of Colorado Boulder‘s Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering department has a great set of lecture slides (or here) explaining how lead-acid batteries work.

The gist of how lead-acid batteries work are electrons drifting or flowing from the negative terminal – most often made of lead (\(\ce{Pb}\)) – to the positive terminal – most often made of lead dioxide (\(\ce{PbO2}\)).  The two terminals are submerged in an electrolyte solution.  This is usually in the form of sulfuric acid (\(\ce{H2SO4}\), where, in solution, it takes the form of aqueous ions \(\ce{{H^{+}}+{SO4^{-2}}}\)).  As you draw electricity from the battery via the positive terminal, electrons flow from the negative terminal to the positive terminal.  How easily or difficult the electrons can move from negative to positive terminals in the internal resistance.

I think of what happens with the electrolyte solution and effect of cold temperatures on it is sort of like what happens to honey when it is chilled.  It is not quite analogous but I think it gets the point across.  If little droplets of honey are running down a piece of glass and you suddenly cool the glass, the honey will begin to run much slower.

Similarly, as the electrolyte solution cools, the ability for electrons to drift efficiently to the positive terminal decreases.  The decrease in electron flow results in less power to be consumed – in our case, by the inverter and waterer.

So, what can be done be to keep batteries from losing their capacity in the cold?  Some of the documentation that I read suggested gently warming the battery to keep it from getting too cold.  This might be possible if we added another electricity generator – like a wind turbine.  We would have to build a better storage place for the battery, too.  We can’t really put the battery into the coop (where it is noticeably warmer because of sheltering from the wind as well as the use of deep-litter) because lead-acid batteries generally need venting (there is a small amount of oxygen and hydrogen released from batteries).  In addition to the idea of keeping the batteries slightly warmer (which, I will admit, I’m likely not going to do), adding capacity seems like a more viable option.  This is done by simply adding additional batteries in parallel.  With the idea of adding in a wind turbine, I have already been thinking of adding additional batteries.

To wrap things up, I just hope that the recent temperature bounce-near-and-around-freezing continues.  The battery likes not being choked by the cold; nice amount of sun – the adequate sun light we have been receiving has had two benefits: the battery is able to be recharged successfully, and, equally important, the chickens have begun laying eggs once again.


For a better look at the specifics of the chemical reactions that occur within a lead-acid battery, check out this page.