Come visit us at the farm for food and fun! Bring your sturdy shoes and join us for a farm tour, and bring some food to pass around. Starts at 5 pm at the farm: 11845 Orban Rd, Grass Lake MI 49240
Author Archives: Steph
Splitting Hives – by Stephanie
As I drove up to the driveway of Tom’s house at Oak Hill Farm, I saw him loading bee hives onto a truck. He was parked in front of a large barn, and when I peeked inside, I saw it was full of the wooden boxes that make up the traditional langstroff hive. “Did you bring any equipment?” he asked. I proudly whipped out my beekeeping face net and hat that my friend Scooter had lent me for the occasion. “Oh no, those won’t do,” declared Tom. He went into the barn and reappeared with a full body white suit, which I slipped into even though it was twelve sizes too big for me. The finishing flourish was a hat and face net that actually zipped onto the suit at the collar, so once I had the outfit on I was completely impermeable. Now we were ready.
Tom, Tom’s son, my boyfriend Taik, and I all piled into the truck with the hives and set off down the long Manchester country road, pulling into a well-kept apple orchard. After kicking the truck into full wheel drive, we made our way to the back of the orchard, where a line of hives stood against the forest tree line, facing south toward the sun. Behind the orchard is all conservation land that in the summer will provide alternative wild flower pollen for the bees when the orchard blossoms have passed. Tom rents his hives out to fruit growers in the area, who use the bees to pollinate their trees. He told me how last year, they had to call in a crew to thin the fruit because too many of the blossoms had become pollinated and there was too much fruit. It was weighing down the trees and stopping the apples from growing as large as they otherwise would mature.
I have heard that in some villages in China, they have used so many pesticides on their orchards that all the bees have died. Now, these villagers employ humans to do the work that bees once did, pollinating the flowers by hand with a paint brush. Tom told us that for this orchard, his bees had done the job in three days.
Today we were “splitting” the hives, a process of taking apart an overly full hive and removing some of the bees to make a second colony. If the hives get too large, they will swarm and you will lose your colony. I gingerly approached the first one as Tom removed the top. Suddenly, what had been a quiet hive exploded with angry bees that flew out of the newly opened top. His son quickly stepped forward and sprayed smoke to calm the bees. I then saw the tops of twelve or so square frames, which slide into the hive side by side to define the area on which the honey bees build their comb. Looking down, I could only see the top bar of each square, and all of them lined up next to each other created a striped pattern. They were covered in a flurry of activity as the bees went about their business.
Tom used a chisel to pry the boards loose and removed one of the frames near the center. Actually, he explained that it’s important to be careful which frame you remove first. An outside frame may not have any bees at all, while the center frame has the most bees and may even contain the queen, which you should avoid at first so as not to hurt her. If you could see inside the hive, the range of bee activity would look something like the shape of a basketball. The comb that we had just pulled out had some capped cells and some open ones with small white dots inside, which Tom explained were eggs. The bees would soon cap them as well to protect the larvae until they emerge as full grown adults, ready to take on full adult responsibilities. Bees instinctively assume different jobs in the colony throughout their lives. These include cleaning, feeding larvae, manipulating wax, processing honey, guard duty and air conditioning the hive by fanning their wings. Only the last twenty days of their lives are spent gathering pollen and food for the hive.
Since the frame we had just pulled contained eggs and bees, we wanted it for our new hive. It would give a strong start to the building of another colony. On the next frame we pulled, Taik pointed to a bee with a longer body and asked if it was the queen. You can tell because it’s much bigger than the workers and has a ring of attendants about it at all times, which feed her, clear away her waste, and groom her. Her job is to simply lay eggs. In each cell she will lay one egg that will become a female worker bee. Males, or drones, are uncommon and are only useful for fertilizing the queen. If a hives senses that more drones are needed, the queen will lay male eggs which are fed differently and take a different amount of time to develop. In fact, if her abdomen touches the sides of the comb, she will lay a worker bee, but if it doesn’t touch the sides, she will know to lay a drone. Males are larger and need larger cells in which to develop.
We kept the frame with the queen inside the original hive, but removed two more that had ample amounts of eggs and bees for our new one. We replaced the frames we had taken with ones of empty comb. Then, we moved on to the next hive and repeated the process.
Surprisingly, I hadn’t yet been stung. Some of the hives had only a few bees, and we left these alone. Colonies can become diminished for many reasons, and it’s not good to take from a weakened hive. To prevent some common diseases, Tom uses fumagillin in the fall, a powder that is designed to cure nosema, a kind of bee diarrhea. In the spring, he places two strips of Apistan inside, which are designed to rid the hive of mites. If a hive is empty, sometimes he will leave it so the living colonies will have an extra source of honey.
Finally, we had collected all the bees we could and had created starts for nine new hives. None of them had queens, yet. I was so excited when Tom gave me the job of getting the new queen ready for her colony. There are experts who breed queens, and bee keepers like Tom order them each year from special companies. I was given a bunch of small boxes, each with a single queen bee inside. A hive may only have one queen. If there is more than one, they will fight until one dies, and the survivor becomes the one and only queen. Actually, each queen bee has her own unique pheromone, or scent, which she gives of, that all bees identify with her particular hive. A different hive, and a different queen, will have a different scent.
The boxes I had been given had a tube emerging from the box, which was stuffed with wax and a kind of bee food. It was my job to push a nail through the tube to make a hole to the inside of the box, giving the queen a more easy way out. Tom called for a queen, and I brought the box over to him. He put it inside the hive, between the frames. Then we placed the lid on top and moved on to the next. Easy as pie. If all goes well, she will start laying soon and we will have a new colony.
Our job done for the day, we happily rode down the bumpy road out of the orchard and back to Tom’s house. His wife had made lunch and we ate on the porch, Tom and his son comparing stories of their worst stings and reminiscing about past bee experiences. As I was leaving Tom, ever giving, pulled an old hive box from his barn and passed it to me to take back to my own farm. Now I was to take my new knowledge and put it to use.
Taik and I have ordered bees for one hive this summer. I wanted to order more but am waiting to see how this one goes. After all, Tom started out with only one hive, and all the ones he has now came from splits off his original. Funny how some things work out.
Last Friday (March 1) we had the honor of featuring our pork at SELMA! Selma is an informal breakfast gathering in Ann Arbor that serves local food and hosts different chefs each Friday. It’s fun and a great place to gather.
Our very own Taik was the cook for that morning’s breakfast, along with the Tantre team who pulled together an amazing breakfast of Two Tracks peach and sage sausage, egg in a basket toast with sundried tomato pesto, purple potatoes, and baby spinach. Yum!
We are here to stay! Thanks to your help and the support of our community, we’ve been able to purchase a farm in Grass Lake. The new Two Tracks Acres has a barn, a house, and 10 acres of pasture for our animals. Already we have welcomed six little pigs and two roosters, Cheech and Chong, to the farm. We are working quickly to find the roosters a flock of lady egg laying hens.
The farmhouse is from the late 1800’s and needs a lot of work. Our first tasks are to fix the leaking roof and then to prop up the beams in the basement, which still have bark on them from when they were installed over a hundred years ago.
We hope to practice sustainable subsistence living by growing as much of our own food as possible and processing it as well: canning, making cheese and butter, and freezing our food. This winter will be a mad dash of construction projects and preparation for the spring. Meanwhile, the animals are most definitely happy that there is still grass in November and already have access to the field.
by James Patrick Kelly
I recently heard about a Brit whose cookbook has been an underground sensation among meat aficionados for years, garnering accolades from the likes of Anthony Bourdain, and whose name is mad English. He is the reigning Viscount of Charcuterie, Fergus Henderson.
An adherent of the waste-not-want-not axiom, Henderson runs things at St. John Bar & Restaurant in London and his book, The Whole Beast: Nose To Tail Eating, was republished in 2004 by ecco, an imprint of Harper Collins. I picked up a copy of TWB and read it cover to cover in one sitting, my own jowls stretched in disbelief at Henderson’s vision, ready to implement some of Henderson’s more innovative ideas to my cooking. When I came back to Tantre, I found a second copy sitting, spine corrugated, already on one of the farm’s many bookshelves. It’s the kind of book you need multiple copies lying around the house.
I reread it the other day, incredulous at the depth and deftness with witch Henderson approaches cooking in general and the snout-to-tail methods in particular. And how he could make dishes involving pig tails appealing. He is a modern day Escoffier.
His book looks at a meal much like the Beatles would approach an album—as a cohesive unit with a beginning, middle, and an end, where disparate elements complement one another and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The book brings to the readers’ attention the range of flavors encompassed in a single animal. Henderson is sure to balance a carnivorous recipe with meat-free dishes.
Read the titles of his dishes and you might be repulsed (Stuffed Lamb’s Hearts anyone?). Read the descriptions and you might find your mouth water. Go ahead, I dare you. Fergus Henderson proves there’s more to a name than meets the eye. Even if it’s a mad English name.
by James Patrick Kelly
Six years ago, I stopped eating meat; now I’m a meat man.
I took my vow of abstinence for a number of reasons, chief among them was a concern with my health as well as the health and well-being of the planet. I became an environmentalist while in college and vegetarianism played a small role in a larger worldview. I swore off driving in favor of public transportation as a means of getting around; I bought all of my clothes from secondhand stores; I worked as the college recycling coordinator, standing shin high in a cocktail of soda, beer and sometimes urine, all to sorting the campus’s recycling bins and separate the bottle caps (non-recyclable) from the bottles (recyclable).
I was also dismayed by the modern meat industry. I had heard the stories of muckraking journalists of the Gilded Age reporting on harsh working conditions in the morass of the industrial meat industries, but blanched when more modern yet equally eye-opening reports on the state of my contemporary processors came to my attention. I once thought regulations would do away with harsh conditions, unsafe and unsanitary practices and ensure a clean industry, but the unfortunate reality of the situation reminded me of the rhetorical question from an ancient Greek satire, restated in a favorite modern graphic novel: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
After I started farming, I realized the importance of participation, and the flaw in my rationale. I wanted to be a vegetarian, but that just left me on the sidelines as an observer. Now, as I’ve realized the importance of dietary health–not just for one person, but for a community–I have also come to value the worth of participation in affecting positive change. I believe the way to change a flawed system is not to step back and remove oneself, but instead to insert oneself and work to change those flaws in a direct and engaging way.
Today the pigs went out on pasture. It is the next step in a dynamic and evolving process of participation. In all of the literature that has inspired me to make the change from passive observer to active participant, a common theme threaded throughout is the power of being a part of your own diet. The power of having a role in planting, cultivating and harvesting; washing, cutting and cooking; sharing, teaching and eating your own food. Participation, I have learned through the very act of participating itself, is transcendent, and today, we put our pigs on pasture and take the participatory act to a whole new level. We are ensuring the health and fecundity of our soil by giving back vital nutrients too often neglected in the process of farming. As we are active now, the long-term vitality of our soil continues. We don’t just farm for today, we farm for tomorrow’s meals.