The summer solstice is tomorrow, it’s the official start of astronomical summer for the northern hemisphere. Meteorological summer, however, has been in full swing since the beginning of the month. In Minnesota, in Saint Paul, the weather has been remarkably mild with lots of rain. The gardens and yard are progressing nicely. The ample rain has meant little supplemental watering of vegetable garden.
Today, however, I find myself in the central coastal region of North Carolina. I accompanied my mother here to visit my sister. Seasoned readers of this blog may remember that, for a time, my sister had been living in Japan; she returned to the U.S. last year, and now resides in North Carolina. By my upper Midwest standards, it is humid here and it is hot. When leaving indoor places with air conditioning (which is everyplace), my glasses fog over.
Aside of the climate-difference from my usual place of residence, this region of North Carolina is a decent area to visit. While heading out to a state park on the coast, we spotted dolphins in the coastal inner waters. No wild dolphins in Minnesota; no sharks, either. There is quite a different growing season here, too. In the rural area where my sister and her husband now reside, there are several small plots of corn. The corn in these plots has already tasseled; corn, in southern Minnesota, is barely knee high.
Melissa tells me that back in Minnesota, it’s been a bit rainy but otherwise nice. The mom and I head back Monday.
I spent the past weekend on the Range. That’s what those who inhabit the region call it, that’s what I called it when I was growing up there. The Range. While traveling to the Range and to my specific destination of Hibbing, I stopped in Duluth. Compared to an average Saturday morning and the time I would get up, it was very early.
I love arriving in Duluth at this early hour – minutes after sunrise; you get the feeling you have the town to yourself. Maybe there is a jogger or another amateur photographer in the harbor area waiting for that rosy-red-orange sliver of sun to sidle up at the edge of the horizon – out there, where the big lake bends with the curve of the Earth. Battling the wind and heavy spray from the lake, I took several photos, and then headed back to the car to roust the hounds up for a pee-break. My hands were getting a bit numb — two of our hounds were with me. The coonhound and basset just wanted to get their business taken care of and then back into the warm car. The coonhound looked at me with a bit contempt – all while nearly getting his own urine blown back at him; the look was that of seriously? you lived in this area for how long; and you miss this place?
With the hounds packed up, the camera and lens separated and wiped down from the mist, I headed to a cafe in the Lakeside neighborhood. Breakfast with a couple friends. Good coffee, good cafe-food, good company; one of my friends reiterated that I should come to Hawaii in December for his wedding. I said I’d give it serious thought, but at the moment, I needed to get on the road again.
Heading north from Duluth, you pass through Hermantown, and onto Pike Lake; as the highway curves and then flattens – going east/west – you pass the familiar Fisherman’s Corner, then a Dairy Queen on one side and a gas station on the other. You then cross a Midway Road. There is a distinct feeling of crossing into a different region. While living in the Duluth area, and those sporadic travels back to the Range, I noticed this division, this line that Midway Road draws, but never really had noticed it as much as I have the last few times I have headed back home. And heading back to Hibbing is something that I have done more of since moving to the St. Paul area than when I actually lived in Duluth.
The drive to Hibbing was uneventful. The drive was that kind of drive where you are watching and are fully alert, but when you try to recall what was witnessed on the drive, you draw a blank. Maybe I recall seeing the small grouping of white pines just before the juncture of Highway 33 with Highway 53 near the Cloquet River. Maybe I’m just conflating the dozens and dozens of times I have take that exact same road north over the last 15 or so years. Did I actually and actively look at the building in Cotton that was once a Bridgeman’s ice-cream shop, but now is vacant and for sale? Blended memories.
Hibbing is and was Hibbing. Those who have lived in Hibbing, and have lived the majority of their lives there, might be standing too close to discern trees from forest or vice versa. There is nothing wrong with this. My parents likely fall in this category, even though both spent a few years during the 1970s, living elsewhere, I feel that because their span of years in Hibbing since their return is greater than my age, they qualify. There are also the individuals who have never ventured to the northern region of the state; those individuals, too, know little of the string of towns and cities in the state’s rust-region. Then, there is a cohort of individuals who spent an amount of time on the Range – two years, four years, maybe twenty years, but for reasons – whether a conscious, thoughtful decision, or just wandering thru a bit of their life – they left, but have reason to return now and again. I fall into this category, my sister falls into this category, I have a colleague who also falls into this category. As an aside, the picture above is of what you might expect if you looked to the west, down Howard Street in Hibbing; it was taken this past winter – there was no snow this past weekend; the temperature did go below freezing at night while I was visiting, but, during the day, it was remarkably spring-like.
Puttering around Hibbing in my Volkswagen, I often found myself reflecting upon or evening humming a song by Canadian folk singer Nathan Rogers (son of the late Stan Rogers). The song is called Hibbing (lyrics here). The song paints a fairly bleak picture of Hibbing, to an extent, however, it is spot on. It is spot on with the boom and bust of the mining cycle and the rhetorical grind mining. The lyrics, laughing at the tourists in their silly foreign cars, flashed across my mind as I filled up the tank of my car with gas at a station near my parents’ house; a family – I assume family – of locals – I assume locals – just stared at me; they walked and moved but their eyes stayed on me, on my foreign car. I overlaid staring in place of laughing as I ran through Nathan Rogers’ words with my inner monologue.
Internally, I feel like I am one of them. I’m still a Ranger, I’m from Hibbing, aren’t I? That group of individuals does not know that. They do not know that I lived in Hibbing for nearly twenty-one years. They do not know that, as I teenage, I jumped into and swam in that rusty mine pit Nathan Rogers’ sang about. The family just saw my car and saw me; two things they hadn’t seen in town before. Maybe, I’m just self-conscious.
I spent much of time, while in Hibbing, visiting with my mom and bit with my dad. We talked about a bit of this and a bit of that. Some politics; my mom and I watched The McLaughlin Group. It was an enjoyable time.
My mother and I did take a walk-thru her mom’s house. The house that my grandmother occupied for many decades. Clarice, my mom’s mom – my grandmother, passed away just before Thanksgiving, last year. Walking thru the house felt weird. Even though I had stayed at the house since Clarice’s passing, the house, this time, was nearly empty, save for a bit of furniture, which was being used to stage the house for its sale. The front porch did not smell like the front porch of my grandmother’s house. Whatever was the source of that familiar scent had been removed; cleaned out by my mom’s brother or maybe even my mom. Traces of the scent stirred when I moved an empty box. It was quickly replaced with the sharper smell of clean.
Wandering around the small backyard, I remembered several of photos or videos that had been take of people and things in that backyard. Somewhere, I have a photo of my grandfather in a similar lawn chair. But, he has aged quite a bit and he has a nasal cannula hooked into his nose – a plastic tube leading to an oxygen tank; he wore a light green or tan plaid-like lightweight shirt and had a hat. The photo is from the early 1990s. I am now the owner of the light mesh fedora that was perched atop his head. I probably also have the shirt somewhere, too, in the back of a closet; likely pressed up against half a dozen or so of his wool coats. Maybe I’m conflating photos, videos and memories of photos and videos, again.
I videoed a walk-thru of the first floor of the empty house with my phone, and messaged it to my sister. My mom and I locked up the house and left. So many memories of people and gatherings at this house.
I grabbed the dogs from their slumber in my parent’s basement and then headed north. I wanted to get a bit more time to myself in the woods before completely packing up and heading south back to my regular, present day reality of living in St. Paul and working in Minneapolis.
A 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.
Sadly, 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.
This 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.
The 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.
Here 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.
The 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.
Only 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.
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.
Having 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.
We 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.