In the bee’s midwinter

In the bee’s midwinter frosty winds made moan,

Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.

Snow was falling, snow on snow, snow on snow

In the bee’s midwinter not so long ago.

beesmidwinter2

Ok, so I changed a couple of words.

After a morning fussing with the tractor, he identified the problem as the ignition switch.  But he got the job done!

After a morning fussing with the tractor, he identified the problem as the ignition switch. But he got the job done!

Winter has hit hard with the New Year.  Six  inches of fresh snow blanket Maywood.  My car remains halfway down the driveway where I abandoned it last night for fear of sliding right into the house.  (I had already inched my way down the Wicked Curve on Miller Lane as another car tried to make its way up the Wicked Curve, neither of us able to back up.) As I click at the keyboard this morning in blinding snowlight, Maywood Man is outside trying to get the tractor to start so that he can begin plowing.

It is 11 degrees with 25 mph winds. The snow dazzles under cloudless blue skies.  Gusts of wind blow through snow-laden branches and send the powdery flakes whirling like smoke. It is stunningly beautiful from my indoor perspective near a cozy wood stove.   Homemade butternut squash awaits my frozen plowman when he comes in from clearing the road.

Judging from the dip in the snow on top, the hive is warm enough to melt it.  Icicles are on the outside of the hive.

Judging from the dip in the snow on top, the hive is warm enough to melt it. Icicles are on the outside of the hive.

I’m guessing the perspective inside the bee hives is less spectacular.  It is the bleak midwinter  for them.  Too cold to leave the hive, they huddle in a  ball to maintain the hive temperature.  They eat the honey they stored last summer.  They also have grease patties that Mr. Beekeeper/Plowman made for them, a combination of sugar and Crisco.  If they have sufficient numbers, they can keep the hive warm enough to move around to the honey.  If not, they eat what is nearby and hopefully don’t starve before the weather warms up.

At Winter Solstice, bees were busy, but  still had plenty of grease patties.

At Winter Solstice, bees were busy, but still had plenty of grease patties.

Two weeks ago, on a balmy almost 70 degree day, we took a peek in the hives to assess their strength and to offer more grease patties.  The hives were all active with plenty of bees coming and going.  Although the bees have no plants to pollinate in winter, they use the warm winter days for cleansing flights.  Yes, the ladies must keep the hive clean!   Some bees were nibbling at the grease patties,  but they had still had plenty from the last gift– good sign, I think, that they had plenty else to eat.

A week later, Mr. Beekeeper took another quick peek.  Hive B was low in numbers.  So now he has reason to worry.  Should he have removed the grease patties and replaced them with easier to digest fondant?  Is there enough air circulation to keep moisture from building up and freezing into tiny stalactites in the hives?  Should he sweep the snow from around the hives?  Or leave it to act as a blanket?  If he could put tiny little blankets on each of his bees, I think he would do it.

A couple of dead  bees at the entrance to Hive C.

A couple of dead bees at the entrance to Hive C.

Last winter we lost all four hives before Christmas.  It hadn’t even gotten really cold yet, but their numbers were too low to keep themselves warm.  This year, the hives are wrapped for solar heat in tar paper and they have plenty to eat.  They just need to stay warm.  Weather like today’s does not make it easy.  As my son-in-law commented, we went to bed in Maryland but woke up in Siberia.

Ah, but that’s the thing about Maryland.  The weather is always changing.  If the bees can get through this week’s projected snow, rain, ice, and minus two degrees, by next Friday it is supposed to reach 40.

Minus two?

Hang in there, little bees!  We’ve passed the Winter Solstice.  The days are getting longer.CIMG8068

Plodding and Stomping Toward Spring

The clocks are set forward and my sleep schedule is skewed.  The delight of coming home to hours of sunlight will not have me springing forward into my day.  I will be staying up too late for the next week and then feeling morose when the sunbeam that had finally started coming in my window to wake me delays its entrance until I’ve left the house.  Sigh.

But springtime is a time of optimism.  After the week of the no show snow-quester, the balmy weather this weekend was exhilarating.  It was a good weekend for getting outside.  If I hadn’t been conserving energy for an overnighter with our toddler granddaughter, I would have attacked the yard. Still, even with little Emily en route to our house, I couldn’t resist pulling out the rake and at least poking around the gardens.

The daffodils are popping up so I was sure I’d unrake some Spring.  I was on a search for chives.  Even though I need to replenish them this year, I’m still on the lookout for the first sprigs for my eggs.  Nothing yet.  They really don’t peek until St. Patrick’s Day, another week from now.  I raked their bed anyway.

Crocus.  If the daffodils are popping, shouldn’t the crocus be hiding under the leaves?   I raked the crocus/black-eyed susan bed and found nothing but dirt and some mole trails.  ACK!  Moles!!!  I thought that bed was safe because it is surrounded  by sidewalk.  Errrrgg.  Now I don’t know if they have totally destroyed the bed or if I’m just peeking early than usual because of the early daylight savings time and a balmy weekend.  It’s not officially spring yet.  The susans should not be up yet anyway, but have the moles destroyed the crocus?

In the fall, a colleague of mine gave me a mole “device.”  If I call it a mole killer, someone will get weepy over the poor little critters.  So I won’t call it a mole killer.  It’s a “device” for dealing with moles.  I will say, though, that the “device” looks like it was invented by Edward Scissorhands.  When I brought it home from school (It never entered the school, by the way.  We transferred the “device” to my car in the parking lot, although it could have been a very effective class management tool.)…anyway, I gave it very carefully to my husband who was ready to nonchalantly toss it into the outer mudroom.

Some people don’t know we have an “outer mudroom.”  They’ve seen the mudroom and thought that was bad enough.  The “outer mudroom” is the room beyond the mudroom door.  It is supposed to be the place to put the stuff that people who have garages store where the car is supposed to go.  Are you with me?  Because I’m getting lost–which is what happens to anything that goes into the “outer mudroom.”

John was about to toss the mole “device” into the outer mudroom when I started “talking” to him:

“You can’t throw that thing in there!!! It will cut someone’s hand off!”

So he put it in a  box.  And tossed the box into the outer mudroom.  I would not be able to find it today if my life depended on it.  He will claim that he knows exactly where it is.  But in case he doesn’t and something should happen to my husband and me, I’m hereby alerting dear grown children who would have to go through our possessions that there is a mole “device” in a box in the mudroom.  Somewhere.

We have another ten days until the official start of Spring.  Ten days for the crocus and chives to present themselves.  While I wait, I’ll stomp on mole trails and try to get Someone to activate a critter management plan.

March mudness

Unless you’re into basketball, is there anything to like about March?  St. Patrick’s Day, perhaps.  You  have to wonder, though, if St. Patrick’s day was really originally in March or if the Irish just wanted to bless us all with an official drinking holiday in this most dreary of months.

Many people hate the month of January.  It represents diets and Christmas bills.  But January isn’t so bad–by the time we wake up to fact that we’re in it, we’re through it.  February gives us Valentine’s Day and a 3-day Presidents Day weekend. But March. Ugh.  Overcome with sunlight deprivation, we’re desperate for spring to come.  We can almost feel the sunbeams of spring vacation.  The garden is thinking about waking up.  And then what happens?  A snow forecast.

I’m not in the mood for snow anymore.  I’m in the mood for green. I want to peek into the herb garden and see little shoots of chives volunteering themselves to flavor my scrambled egg.  I want to rake away some leaves and discover happy little crocus.  Actually, this year I’d be happy just to see some sunshine.

It will snow this week.  I’m sure of it.  I took my car through the car wash.  It is shiny and clean; therefore,  it’s all ready for road salt. (It has already been baptized with bird-poop, but the windshield wipers took care of that.)

My aversion to March snows goes back to our early days at Maywood.  We had a couple of brutal winters in the 90’s.  Snow and ice in February was difficult, but snow in March was maddening.  Snow in March melts faster than snow in February.  This is not a problem unless you live on a dirt road.  Dirt roads turn to mud in March.

When we first moved out here to the Hereford Zone, to a property that had been used only as a summer retreat, all signs of asphalt stopped almost half a mile from the house.  At a certain point along the road, the county stopped paving or maintaining it.  The road continued as a  dirt road past our nearest neighbor’s house, and gravel began at the Maywood property line.

One soggy March, an 8-inch snow storm melted in one day.  Fifty years of hand-shoveled gravel sank in mud beneath the tires of our minivan.  The dirt road section was even worse.  The sled run of iceruts where we had aimed the car wheels in February turned into a sloppy mud pit.  The mud was so deep it threw the tires off balance.

I took the car to a Mr. Tire for a balancing and alignment.  They put the minivan up on the lift with mud dripping from it.

“Where on earth have you been?” they asked.

“Home,” I replied.

So it’s been twenty years and I really should get over it.  The county has paved all the way to the Maywood property line.  We added asphalt millings on top of the fifty years of gravel, and we paved our driveway.  It’s really ok to drive here in March.   But March, with the gray-brown woods and green-ish brown grass, is still the color of mud.  I’d be in favor of using next week’s time change to leap right into April.

That said, I’m a teacher and will never say no to a snow day.  So if we’re to have snow, bring it on.  If it’s to be a sloppy, gloppy wintry-mix of snowy rain, students beware.  The Ides of March can make teachers crazy.

Hey, Murphy, pass the hydraulic fluid

Q: What does one do the Sunday between football play-offs and the Super Bowl?

A: The things that didn’t get done while lolling on the sofa quaffing beers every Sunday since August.

One could watch TV–there’s a Barry Manilow themed ice-skating show on.  That’ll get a man outside doing manly things quicker than you can say, well, Barry Manilow.  It’s bad enough getting sucked into Downton Abbey, but ice-skating?  One has to draw the line somewhere.  And this is why Maywood Man is outside with his vintage Maywood equipment doing Maywood tasks.

Best alternate source of heat is the woodstove.

Best alternate source of heat is the woodstove.

It’s good timing for a by-week from football.  Last week, just as the arctic chill sent Maryland temperatures into the teens, the furnace conked out.  The new furnace is being installed tomorrow, as the temperatures begin to climb this week toward the 50’s.  It hasn’t been too painful, though.  Like NASA, we have engineered redundancy around here.  We have two furnaces.  Bedroom doors stayed open while the downstairs furnace worked to heat the whole house.  The wood stove supplemented the downstairs furnace.  At night, we shut bedroom doors and kept quite comfortably warm with space heaters.

Murphy's Law #658--If you buy an extra heater for the classroom so that your assistant principal doesn't have to give up hers, your room will become too hot to need a heater.

Murphy’s Law #658–If you buy an extra heater for the classroom so that your assistant principal doesn’t have to give up hers, your classroom will be too hot to need a heater.

But we are now out of firewood.  Well, not out of wood.  We’re just out of pre-cut pieces ready to toss in the wood-stove. This afternoon, I type to the soothing buzz of the chain-saw in the “lumber yard.”  Tonight, I look forward to watching Downton Abbey in real time by a roaring fire.  Maywood Man will probably fall asleep from this afternoon’s exertions.  Maybe–just to get a rise out of him– I’ll jump up periodically and scream, “Come on, Flacco!” like our toddler grandson John.

It's a fuzzy picture because I took it through a screen.   You think I'm going out in the  cold to take a picture of a tractor?

It’s a fuzzy picture because I took it through a screen. You think I’m going out in the cold to take a picture of a tractor?

Big John would have cut firewood yesterday, but he was wrapped up with tractor repairs.  Well, of course.  Or as the French say, Mais oui.  Murphy’s Law #342:  The furnace will conk out when the temperature nose dives into the teens.  Murphy’s Law #572: The tractor will break down if it snows.

It snowed.

Not a lot.  I got a two-hour school delay for snow on Thursday.  Friday I got a two-hour early dismissal.  Mere dustings…just enough to cause massive traffic delays around the Baltimore-D.C area.  Just enough to tell the tractor to break down.

What this time?  Points and capacitor.  Don’t ask me what that is; I thought it was related to spark plugs.  According to John, they work together to provide spark to the spark plugs.  (I knew the spark plugs were connected somehow.  I’m learning bee-lingo; I have not mastered tractor mechanics.)  I suggested that he call before heading up to Shrewsbury–to avoid Murphy’s Law #690:  If you drive to Shrewsbury, they won’t have the part you need.  Ah, sure enough, he ended up driving to Hanover to get the part he needed.  While in Hanover, he looked at hydraulic fluid and thought, “Nah, I’ve got enough.”

Murphy’s Law # 691: If you think you have enough hydraulic fluid at home, you will discover that you do not.

This is where I find myself not believing that I’m actually saying what I’m saying:

“Dear, maybe we should just always keep a supply of hydraulic fluid on hand.”

Today, before bonding with his chain saw, Maywood Man took a ride to Shewsbury for hydraulic fluid.  The tractor is now ready to go.   Tomorrow the furnace will be purring and the firewood will be stacked high on the porch.

Pottery Barn wickless candles--great for ambience but useless as a heat source.

Pottery Barn wickless candles–great for ambience but useless as a heat source.

Dare I predict balmy weather in Baltimore for the Super Bowl?  I’m not going to get cocky.   A quick check at weather tells me that the furnace could be delayed by ice tomorrow.

Murphy’s Law #343: Ice storms will hit the day you schedule a furnace installation.

Now I have a real dilemma.  Do I wish for a day off school due to weather?  Or do I wish for clear weather and a furnace?

What I wish for is to watch the Raven’s win the Super Bowl in a nice warm house.  And Murphy is not invited.202380576976815018_hG09CAUH_b[1]

The busy beekeeper tries to tuck the bees in for winter

Fondant for the bees

A twenty-five pound bag of sugar is empty in the kitchen.  Dinner was delayed because the stock pot of bubbling sugar water was taking up most of the stove space.  All of my pyrex casseroles are filled with sweets that we won’t be eating.  A five gallon bucket and a paint stirrer are coated with sugar syrup.  And there are splatters of syrup everywhere–on the counters, on the (freshly mopped) floor, on the floor mats,  even on my bee hat.

All the evidence points to John.  He’s been making fondant for the bees.

We did nothing to prepare the bees for a hurricane.  And nothing happened to them.  That’s partly because they are on a sheltered hillside and mainly because the storm pounded north of us.  Winter, however, has often hit the bees hard, so it is important to tuck them in for the season.

A nice day for playing with bees or just wandering around the yard

Today’s goal was to winterize the bees with insulation and to stock the hive with a store of fondant to eat throughout the barren winter months.  Only half the task got done.  Ironically, this November day was so warm that the bees were too active for John to wrap the hives.  At least the floor and ceiling of the hives got winterized and the fondant placed in the feeder box.

A piece of insulation board is fitted to the bottom hive box.  This will help protect the bees from cold air coming in underneath the hive.

Feeder boxes fitted with insulation

On top of the hive, John puts a feeder box.  It usually has a tray for sugar water, but for winter John removes the tray and fits the box with a piece of insulation.  This will protect the top of the hive from cold air.

John  places a big piece of fondant on top of the honey frames.  The insulated lid sits on top of it.

Fondant sits on top of the honey frames

Insulated lid goes on top

Later, when it’s colder and the bees are staying inside, John will insulate the outside of the hive too.

Alas, insulating the bees is akin to having the tractor in working order—it’s one of Murphy’s Laws that if we are prepared for winter, we won’t get one.

The tractor is running great at the moment.

Last week I got my first dose of winter on a day trip to New York City.  I can wait for snow.  For now, there’s plenty of autumn left to enjoy.  Apparently the bees think so, too.

In another month, I’ll be decorating with evergreens.

Arrrrrrrrrrrr is for Oysters

Indian Summer has finally given way to crisp chill of oyster weather.  It’s November, the third month from September through April containing an “R,” and we are well into oyster season, but it took a monster late season hurrricane/nor’easter/winter weather event to usher in the appropriate chill.  Which raises some questions:  how do oysters fare during such an extreme weather event?  Are they safely snuggled in their oysters beds while a storm rages overhead? Or are they, too, in need of disaster relief?  Will there be Blue Points for Thanksgiving?  And if not, will it be because of a lack of oysters or because the oystermen are are still pumping out their homes?

This calls for some research.  Hmm…high winds, heavy rains, and storm surge all cause problems for oyster beds.  Pounding waves can physically damage their beds; storm surge can bring damaging sedimentation; and heavy rains or ocean surge can bring about extreme changes in salinity.  Ocean surge can dramatically increase the salinity of bay oysters; storm run-off can dilute the salinity of ocean bivalves.  This does not bode well for the Blue Points this year.  Or the incredibly tasty Cape May Salts.  The Chincoteagues were spared the violent brunt of the storm, but it remains to be seen if the huge rainfall and storm water run-off impacted them.  The Susquehanna watershed is pretty big.

I partook of my first oysters of this season last month in Cape May.  The local Cape May Salts are a good briny oyster, and I thoroughly enjoyed slurping the tender, slippery, seasalty bivalves.  A couple of weeks ago we were dining in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, and enjoyed some salty Chincoteagues.  Now our mouths are primed for oysters, and we’re pining for more, especially the Blue Points that we traditionally have on Turkey Day.

Friday night, John stopped at Gibby’s to buy oysters on his way home from work.  Being way too tired to want to shuck them himself, he bought them in a plastic container.  Normally, we prefer to eat the oyster from its own shell, but pre-shucked oysters are better than no oysters at all.  I’ve even figured out how to serve them—on deviled egg plates.  Seriously, how often do I make deviled eggs?  Once a year on Easter.  But those egg plates, shaped not-unlike an oyster shell, have twelve little scoopy spots that are just perfect for serving shell-less oysters.  I plop twelve oysters into each of the two plates and serve one to John and one to me, ideally topped with my mignonette or a bit of cocktail sauce.  Ta dah.  It sure looks nicer than a little bowl of gray oyster loogies.

(Personal note to this year’s Thanksgiving oyster initiate:  you did not just hear me compare oysters to loogies.  If you can eat tough, chewy clams, you most certainly can eat delicate oysters.)

Friday night’s oysters were fine, but they weren’t salty.  Alas, the seafood store could not attest to their origin.  They did not shuck those oysters themselves; they just accepted delivery of oyster-filled containers.  For all we know they came from the Gulf of Mexico.  They would have tasted better with a good mignonette, but I was too worn out by my Hurricane Sandy induced one-day work week to chop up the ingredients.  Anyway, by Saturday night they were destined for oyster stew, a worthy culinary fate.

John’s Oyster Stew

Here’s the recipe for John’s Oyster Stew.  The one he made Saturday was perhaps the best ever, so, even if don’t rave over a raw oyster, that does not mean I won’t rave over it in a stew.

John’s Oyster Stew

  • 1 quart shucked oysters, strained with  1 cup oyster liquid saved
  • 4 cups milk
  • 2/3  of a half-pint of heavy cream (Yeah, it’s  a weird amount but that’s what he used. I think I’d dump the whole container in, but, hey, it’s not my recipe.)
  • 6 tablespoons butter, divided
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • worcestershire to taste
  • tabasco to taste
  • fresh parsley for garnish
  • oyster crackers

Saute the strained oysters in large soup pot with the 4 T of butter until oyster edges curl and liquid has started to boil.  Add the milk, 1 cup oyster liquids (the “liquor”), and the cream.  Add the remaining butter.  Heat the stew until hot–the butter should melt, the soup should be steamy but must not boil.  Add salt, pepper, worcestershire, and tabasco to taste.  When steamy hot, remove from heat.  Serve garnished with fresh parsley and oyster crackers.

I like my stew to have a little zip to it.  John does not want to actually taste the worcestershire or the tabasco.  He wants the oyster flavor to shine, but the worcestershire and tabasco are still necessary to add interest and complexity to the milk based broth.

So support the oyster industry–go buy some (preferably local) oysters.  Or, if you really can’t swallow an oyster, show your solidarity by drinking a Flying Dog “Pearl Necklace” Oyster Stout.  I don’t know how they make beer with oysters, but this is a nice one.  Really.  And it doesn’t taste like oysters at all.  Here’s hoping–and praying– that the East Coast oystermen and their oysters make a speedy recovery from Hurricane Sandy.

Yeah, it’s made with oysters. And proceeds benefit Chesapeake Bay Oyster Restoration.

Preparing for Frankenstorm…how scared should I be?

From Radio 96.1

I’m having a hard time getting freaked out over Frankenstorm.  Oh, I know it’s coming.  That big red swoosh on the weather map is headed right for us.  We’re in the swath of massive rain and heavy winds.   And I’m not in denial.  John spent today cleaning out the French drain by our basement door because the basement has flooded with every heavy thunderstorm this year.  There’s no way we’re ignoring a weather forecast of 6″ of rain.

I survived from inside the warm house. John was outside on the tractor.

I think I’m not freaked because it isn’t a snow storm.  I have survived Snowmageddon in the Hereford Zone.  Days and days of being trapped at home, unable to escape because the roads weren’t plowed.  Survival skills involved feeding the entire clan meal after meal.  It was a party that wouldn’t end.  I came close to death by cabin-fever (that’s when I start killing everyone around me). When Hurricane Isabel came through, it was sort of amazing to realize that, hey, the power might be out, but we can still drive to Hunt Valley and eat at Panera.

I do have a full tank of gas.  We can go places.

If we aren’t blocked by falling trees.  One storm felled a big oak tree across our road.  We were able to drive under the tree (that was a little freaky) until John could cut it down with the chain saw.  Hmmm…I wonder if John has extra gas for the chain saw?  If not, I guess he’ll be siphoning it from my car.

See, we’ve been living at Maywood for nineteen years.  (Whoa.) It’s why I won’t go camping.  Maywood is camping.  Well, camping at a luxury lodge with a king-size Sleep Number bed.  (I love my bed.)  But I have paid my dues.  I’ve gone without water.  I’ve gone without heat and electricity.  I’ve been the last one plowed out in Baltimore County.  I  am perfectly capable of roughing it.  That’s par for the course out here.  Out here, we pay our taxes for county services, but we don’t sit on our duffs waiting for the county to take care of us.  We are pioneers. (Roar.) Maywood life has had me roughing it so long that the entire electrical grid could be destroyed and we’d figure it out.

If I lived at the shore, then I think I would be freaked.  The ocean is pretty daggone big.  And big waves are synonymous with destructive power.  But we don’t have the water issues at Maywood that people on the ocean or bay have.  We don’t even have the wind issues that our neighbors up the road have.  We’re kind of nestled back  here.

We do have trees, though.  They come crashing down whenever they want.  One early morning recently a huge piece of a tree came down next door at the old Maywood house where John’s parents live.  John heard it at our house.  John’s mother did not hear it.  She said she had the radio on.  Hmmm….take your pick:  (a) she doesn’t hear well, (b) the radio was on really loud, or (c) both (a) and (b).  Anyway, my point is this: trees crash down whenever they want.  There is just a higher likelihood of it happening during a Frankenstorm.  Ask any actuary.  Actuaries know risk.  (They don’t take risks; they just study it.)

So, in spite of the risk of being hit by a falling tree, I’m still pretty numb to the reality of Frankenstorm.  I want to blame it on weather hype.  How many storms of the century have we had in the past twenty years?  I don’t think I can count them all.  Even if we re-started the clock on “storms of the century” with the new millennium, I’m still running out of fingers.  I can’t maintain that level of weather angst.  And I can’t ignore it by staying off internet or tv.  Now cellphones beep emergency weather notifications.  Just last week, my sister’s phone alerted us to a tornado warning at our exact location.   Oh, the irony of being late to Wicked because of a tornado warning.  We never did get the tornado.

During the last hurricane, all the weather rope did was get wet.

Frankenstorm is coming, but my preps are not so much geared toward actual survival, as to how to minimize annoyance.  What electrically powered things do I need to do now that I won’t be able to do while the power is out?  And that is why I spent today doing laundry.  It’s why my Pottery Barn wickless candles have fresh batteries and my Yankee candles are strategically placed throughout the house.  It’s why my Nook is fully charged.  We may lose power, but I’ll have clean clothes, the house will look cute and smell nice, and I’ll be able to read in the dark.

On the eve of the storm I will fill the bathtubs and the drinking water containers.  I’ll check internet to see if there are any pro-active school cancellations.  And that is really why I’m not scared.  If I have to simultaneously prepare lessons plans and prepare for the complete shut-down of civilization as we know it, well, I’m pretty sure one of those scenarios is not going to happen.