Thursday, March 20, 2014

Building Unity Farm - Signs of Spring

Today is the vernal equinox and many people in New England are suffering from seasonal affective disorder after the coldest, snowiest, most relentless winter on record.

The 100 animals of Unity Farm are relishing the first 24 hours since November with temperatures above freezing.

Around the farm, signs of early spring are upon us.    When I walked the Marsh trail this morning I saw skunk cabbage poking through the icy ground.   Skunk cabbage is biologically warm and is generally the first plant to leaf out in the wetlands.   Our bees are likely to fly today and bring skunk cabbage pollen back to the hives.

I borrowed a friend’s motion sensing camera and attached it to a tree on the Woodland trail.   It captured the spring mating dance of wild turkeys - in the picture above you can see the male shaking his snood and the disinterested female looking for breakfast.

Our ducks laid the first eggs in the lives (they where born last year).  Like guinea fowl, ducks are not the best parents and they left the eggs in the frozen mud of their pen.   As we plan for the Farmer’s market sales of Summer, we’ll include duck eggs along with the chicken eggs, fresh mushrooms, garlic, and alpaca yarn we planned to sell.

Since we’ll have three to four days of weather above freezing, my wife and I prepared to bottle our mead and cyser (half honey/half cider).   We fermented the mead from October to March from a specific gravity of 1.090 to 1.000, yielding 12% alcohol by volume.    Since we prefer a hydromel, a lighter mead, we’ll bottle it diluted with spring water to 6% alcohol in 187ml (6 ounce) champagne bottles.   Last night we racked the mead and cyser off the bed of yeast into sterilized gallon jugs, where all remaining sediment from fermentation will settle until we bottle this weekend.  Since the mead was an experiment based on our first year harvesting honey, we’ll only have 100 bottles of our 2013 vintage.   So far, so good.   I prefer the taste of Unity Farm mead to most of the commercial meads I have tried.

The thaw will enable us to install the new bee infrastructure we’ve been building over the winter.   My wife painted (with low volatility primer) enough deep boxes, medium boxes, outer covers, and hive top feeders to build 10 new hives.   I created hive stands using 4x4s, 2x6s and carriage bolts.   We have learned a great deal during our winter nighttime Bee School program and designed the new bee yard to maximize warmth, minimize moisture, and support the bees through whatever malady they encounter (colony collapse, nosema, varroa mites, food shortages, hive beetles etc).    This weekend, I’ll begin to place the new hives on a south facing corner of the orchard, using 2x2 foot bluestone to create level building pads.   The picture below illustrates what the standard setup for each hive will look like.   We’ll add three types of bees this year.  In April, we’re getting four packages of 10000 bees+queens that overwintered in Vermont.      In June, we’re getting two packages of 10000 bees+queens from Wilbanks in Georgia.   We’re also getting two “nucs” from New Hampshire in May.

A five frame bee nucleus (nuc) consists of:
a "laying" queen that has already been accepted by the hive
3 inner frames containing brood in all stages
2 outer frames containing honey, pollen, and adhering bees.

We’ll move our existing bees into the new bee infrastructure, so we’ll have 10 completely updated hives ready for the explosion of flowers in our orchard during May.   I’m confident that our intensive preparation of the new bee yard will give the bees a better overwintering environment next year.

Last night, as I walked through the orchard listening to the coyotes howl at the moon, with my feet slipping in the first mud of Spring, I realized that winter is finally waning.  The weekends ahead will be filled with planting, mushroom log inoculation, and awaiting the birth of baby Alpaca.   I can’t wait to work the unfrozen earth.

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