Although spurts of snow and freezing night temperatures persist, signs of spring are starting to appear. Besides the robins that engulf the yard en masse, one of my favorite signs is the buzzing of bees around their hive, beginning to explore for open flowers and fresh pollen. Although a bit early yet, it’s almost time to start feeding them with spring syrup to ignite their drive to make comb, brood, and honey.
With a sharp knife, I ran across the tops of the honeycomb, uncapping the cells to release the honey. I simply let it drain overnight into a colander, catching any large pieces of comb. With a final strain through a fine-mesh strainer, I had a beautiful quart of unfiltered raw honey.
And you can only imagine the first taste. The flavor was not only rich and complex, but I felt so triumphant having been patient for these past three seasons of loss, splitting colonies, and keeping these two hives protected and nourished.
With just two small frames as payment, the return was far more rewarding than I expected. While it’s amazing on toast, my preferred way to enjoy it is simply with a spoon. Here’s to the upcoming season and more honey!
One of my favorite things about living in Virginia is the deeply rooted connection to equestrian sports. You can drive down most any country road and find horses and a rich culture of working, showing, and fox hunting.
I recently visited the Caroline Hunt in Caroline County, Virginia, for its Opening Hunt, the season’s first formal day of fox hunting. Originating in Virginia during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, fox hunting has deep roots in the Commonwealth, continuing today through many active hunts. According to the Masters of Foxhound Association, the oldest continuing hunt in the United States is the Piedmont Hunt of Virginia, established in 1840. As the MFHA points out, fox hunting in North America has evolved to focus on the chase, rather than the kill. Most hunts are no-kill hunts, ultimately trying to ensure safe passage for the fox.
With most hunts starting early in the day, you often wake up before the sun has even considered getting out of bed. Although you have likely bathed, groomed, and prepped your horse the day before, you will still need to get everything together, being sure you haven’t forgotten something important (like boots, cap, or flask!).
Arriving at the day’s fixture, or location of the meet, can be a social affair, seeing old friends and tacking up your horse for the day’s ride. Stirrup cup, or a nip of something to warm the bones on a cold morning, is a fun way to loosen up those tight muscles – and nerves! Depending on the day, stirrup cup can be more or less formal.
Above: An informal stirrup cup and snacks from an earlier fall hunt. Photo by Paige Riordan.
The group then convenes for a blessing of the hounds that is performed each year at Opening Hunt. It is also an opportunity to thank the landowners for their contributions and generosity of allowing passage through their land and along their fields.
Now the group and hounds are ready to hunt. Riders in the field follow a leader as part of a flight. First flight is fastest, includes jumps, and is for experienced riders, while second flight is for those wishing a somewhat slower pace and no, or less, jumping. In Virginia, the terrain can be a mix of hills, wooded lands, open spaces, and jumps such as logs and fences. It’s very common to pass through working farms and planted fields.
Above: Riders at the Caroline Hunt. Photo credit unknown. Above: Riders in the field follow through the woods. Photo by Patrick Heffernan.
While it’s a very social event, there is a technical side that drives the day. The hounds are well equipped and trained to identify the scent and track the fox long distances across the varied terrain. The Huntsman and hounds maintain the trail while hunt staff hold perimeters to ensure safety of the hounds. In a modern landscape, roads, railroad tracks, and other potential dangers are never too far away. When the hounds are gone “away” on a trail, the route can be a fun and exciting journey for riders in the field.
Above: The Hounds are working hard. Photo by Patrick Heffernan.
Above: Tony Gammell, former Huntsman at Keswick, after Opening Hunt in Caroline County. Photo by Patrick Heffernan.
After a long day in the field, there is nothing better than coming back for the Hunt Breakfast, a time to share delicious food and drink with members and guests. The nourishing power of a home-cooked meal and a welcoming community of people committed to the land and nature warms even the coldest of winter days. Thank you to the Caroline Hunt for always being welcoming and hospitable.
When we moved to the farm in 2013, the grounds had been overgrown for many years. With an elderly owner, much of the accumulating brush and fallen trees were simply piled high by volunteers to be dealt with in the future. One such pile was a monster, with approximately 900 square feet of huge logs, brush, and overgrowth. Adding our own rubbish to the pile, it just kept growing.
After our first encounter with the King George Fire Department, which didn’t go as planned, we determined it would be best to include them at the beginning this time. With the volunteer fire department on our side, we started the day with a water truck and Ray, the team’s finest, to keep the flames under control.
With the very first ignition, the pile of dry, aged wood took off with no problem. It burned fast and hot for most of the day. Chris and Ray successfully managed the fire, even saving a few black snakes along the way.
Check out the video below to hear the crackle of the hot burn. Can you feel the heat?
When it was all over at the end of the day, this was the sight I found – burnt and exhausted! I don’t think those clothes will ever come clean.
With the fire smoldering well into the night, it was the perfect excuse to enjoy its warmth with a beautiful fall sunset and cold beer.
We cannot thank Ray and the King George Volunteer Fire Department enough for their help controlling the burn and helping us remove this enormous pile from the field!
If there’s one thing people remember about the farm and this blog, it’s the bees. People love the bees, and it’s often one of the first questions I get. I often answer with something like, “Oh, they’re great!” But deep down inside, I know I’ve been neglecting my hive duties for one-too-many months.
One of my last attempts to manage the hives left me with countless stings covering my legs, even through my canvas pants, and on my hands, through my gloves. It was a painful experience because I’m slightly allergic to them, and frustrating because it occurred due to my poor choices. I wasn’t careful about the time of day, air temperature, and adequate smoking.
After a few weeks of sulking and walking the long way around the bee yard so I didn’t have to face them, I finally tried again. With no stings this time, I realized how much I needed an experienced beekeeper to walk me through hive management after many weeks of neglect. It was time to get them ready for winter.
Help Is on the Way!
I called Mike Church, King George County’s resident bee expert to help me out. Mike taught the beekeeping class through the Gateway Beekeepers Association that got me inspired and trained to take on my first hives. In fact, my first hives came from Mike. Now, he would help me gets things back to a manageable level.
Can you find the queen? Click on the picture above to zoom in.
As we dug into the first hive, we found a vibrant colony with lots of brood but little honey. This will be the first one to boost, giving them as much opportunity and food stores to survive winter. The second, and largest, hive was a bit more challenging. It contained a lot of honey, good brood patterns, and then something unusual… evidence of two queens! As we got to the bottom of the hive, we realized that the second queen had to be in the last box, but she was no where to be found.
As we lifted the bottom box, there it was, a beautiful “underground” hive built beneath the larger bee city. There’s something so beautiful about free-form comb that reminds you how both scientific and creative bees are. Complex structures with no template other than the innate blueprints with which each is born.
Mike and I decided to give each hive a chance to survive. Working with a little ingenuity, we fashioned a structure that would allow the lower hive to move into one of the boxes. The upper hive would still remain above, with its own queen.
Thanks to Mike for helping me get reacquainted with my hives and for teaching me countless new things along the way. If you’re ever interested in keeping bees, I highly recommend taking a class through your local beekeepers association.
As we roll into fall, I’m already lamenting the loss of summer. Thankfully, there is one dozen ears of sweet corn left from Locustville Plantation Farm, after a pass through Ottoman, Virginia. If you’re in the area, check out the old house from 1855 and the little farm store with interesting local goods. You won’t leave without a story or two!
Spring has landed and it’s hard to miss around here. Despite the weather roller coaster that we’ve been on in Virginia, we are finally back to “normal” spring weather with beautiful sunny days, chilly nights, and colorful blooms taking shape.
There are still a few daffodils ready to open but many of them blossomed early under warm temperatures, only to be swept away during the past two storms and hard freezes.
Blue Grape Hyacinth cover the roots of the ash tree
Thankfully, the grass is starting to fill in all of the patches created from ongoing construction last year, and the peonies are just starting to poke their heads out of the ground. It’s definitely one of my favorite times of year.
The Peonies beginning to rise above ground through the periwinkle
About five weeks ago, we put over two dozen eggs into the incubator, thanks to my friend Dave. Las year, I traded him four guineas pullets for four of his buff Orpington chicks. Unfortunately, we ended up losing all but one to a fox. The late winter weeks were particularly hard as predators, primarily fox and coyote, roamed the area looking for any available food. Our flock seemed to be their all-you-can-eat buffet! Dave was kind enough to save two dozen fertilized eggs for me to try again this season. With better predator guards in place, I’m hopeful for this round.
The egg colors were stunning and I couldn’t wait to see what would pop out. There were sure to be a few Orpingtons, some Sex-links of black Australorp, Copper Maran, and Easter Egger. My primary goal this season is to have some hearty layers to keep my kitchen well-stocked all year. Having only bought one dozen store-bought eggs last year, I got spoiled with a steady supply of the very best, richest farm eggs.
After just 21 days, we saw our first pip. It didn’t take long before a few had sprung free, running around the incubator like little dinosaurs, bumping into other eggs and each other. We ended up with twelve chicks of different colors and varieties, two requiring a bit of assistance to break out of their shell walls. It’s a very difficult thing knowing when to assist their hatch and when to let Mother Nature know best. There’s no doubt that had we not assisted in the last two cases, they certainly wouldn’t have made it.
The chickens aren’t the only ones with eggs this year! After much observation and deliberating, we have finally decided that our two geese are indeed a happy couple. Mother Goose now has about 10 eggs in her clutch and we hope they are viable for hatching, assuming she gets broody along the way.
They are definitely impressive, rich-tasting eggs, each equalling about a half-cup of liquid. I equate their texture and taste more to a chicken egg. One of our favorite recent recipes was from our friend Lolli who placed an over-easy goose egg on top of a bed of corned beef and potato hash. Can you say perfect? Although I have loved baking and cooking with them, I plan to see how she will treat her current clutch considering they are only good layers for a few months out of the year.
As the season progresses, I have a lot of work to do in my garden (I’m really behind this season). When I’m not working to pay the bills, other moments have been dedicated to sitting by the fire, eating oysters, and enjoying good company. I hope you are able to enjoy the same this spring.
Although a pleasant surprise this morning, the snow left an eerie blanket of grey across the farm. Each branch and leaf had just enough layered snow to create a sharp contrast in the dim, early morning light. With no enhancements necessary, the photos give a usually hidden glimpse at the wildness of the old trees. These are my favorite days here.
The old linden tree and swing
The eighteenth-century garden terraces overlooking the spring
Roaming the woods searching for the perfect Christmas tree is easier said than done. My fourteen year-old black lab, Miss Bit, ran along beside us, keeping a keen eye out for stray rabbits that might require a good chase.
A quick stop along the way for much-needed pets
Remembering scale is the toughest part of the job; an eighteen-foot tree simply will not fit under a ten-foot ceiling no matter how many twists and turns you attempt – and no matter how perfect it might look in the middle of a field. With a resolved sense of reality, we found the perfect eastern red cedar. My newest toy, a Ryobi battery-powered chainsaw, took care of the job with no problem. I got the tree loaded up on the small trailer and headed for the house.
I cut down the tree with my new favorite toy, a Ryobi battery-powered chainsaw that goes anywhere!
With a little trimming, the tree fits perfectly in the living room at about nine feet tall, and there was just enough greenery left to fill the mantles. The wonderful smell of freshly cut evergreen quickly filled the house. Each whiff makes me wonder why we can’t have fresh greenery all year-long.
For the past three years of holiday seasons, we have been under renovation and I simply couldn’t muster the holiday spirit. The energy and motivation required were hidden amongst the daily reminders of a wrecked house. There was no room for holiday cheer.
This year is different. Many projects were checked off the list, and our spare time, although still limited, has been partly spent doing things we enjoy. After much baking, broiling, and roasting in the new kitchen, I have spent many evenings and mornings resting by the lit Christmas tree.
The dining room lit and decorated for the season
Christmas dinner of fresh Mobjack Bay oysters roasted with Iberico ham and Pecorino
Although we aren’t rushing the season, we are already looking toward our next projects. First will be to complete the cosmetic work on the upstairs guest bathroom so that we can host overnight and weekend guests more frequently. We hope that you will all come and join us for a night in 2017.