Saturday, July 26, 2014

Six Weeks of Kittens: Week one, entry one

Here's a nice picture of me losing my mind.

When—if—you ever come across ‘property’ to call your own, there is something to anticipate.
     People will think of you and your property a lot.
     Especially when they have to get rid of animals.
   When we first moved to the farm, our neighbor was talking to us about her cats: “I have so many cats,” she said, “and for some reason people think that means I want more! A few weeks ago some ‘friends’ of mine thought it was okay to just drop off kittens at my house—no shots, not spayed. Just you wait; now that you have property, you’ll just become a dumping ground for animals.”
     For a while we seemed to be doing well. Granted, we kept our home open when someone was in need of a place for a homeless animal. We took in a dog that would have been put down, boarded a very sweet horse as a return favor for a friend, adopted some chickens from a hatching project. It was such a no-brainer to help our friends that we didn't even worry. We were fine and still had plenty of space.
      Then my dad got a horse for my mom. Soon after me and my family begged my reluctant mother for an adorable blue heeler. My sister took in a barn cat, my mom purchased some more chickens after all ours had died. Once we started getting animals just because we wanted them, we started to notice how crowded our place was getting. Not to mention how long and expensive it was to feed these animals on a daily basis. It was then that we all nodded our heads and agreed: we are at max capacity. No more animals.
                 Then…the kittens.
     My sister and I had been looking for a kitten to give my brother for a long time. We were searching for an orange tabby to replace his that had died last November. So when we enlisted the help of a friend, who knows so many people that she herself is her own networking system, it wasn’t long before we were presented with a litter of stray kittens to choose from. The next step was to convince Mama. After begging, pleading, bargaining, and groveling, she just looked at us solemnly and said, “One.” So we said, “Of course! One.” My brother chose a small gray striped kitten and named him Stormageddon, Dark Lord of All. But Stormageddon was incredibly close to his brother, an adorable black kitten with white paws and whiskers and big green eyes. He had no brother and no home now. Our friends that were fostering the kittens encouraged me, “Take the kitten! He’s so cute!”
    I gently refused. Although he was absolutely adorable, we just couldn’t take any more.
     Then Big Mike held him. Secretly, I think my dad is a cat person in disguise. We didn’t have cats until he let our first cat, Cheese, into the house on a cold night when none of us were home. Cheese went on to reveal she was actually a girl by delivering six kittens on my mom’s Maryland Terapins sweatshirt.  Needless to say, something in me knew that once Big Mike held the second kitten, he was coming home with us. With a grim exchange of glances, my parents, with the same solemn tone with which they had insisted ‘only one,’ said, “Put them in the car.”
    I was confused. “Both?”
    My dad nodded with a look like he had pulled the trigger on his whole family. In a moment of weakness, we had given into cuteness and reached the animal tipping point. We were officially suckers.
         Unfortunately, it wasn’t over.
    The foster family of the kittens couldn’t take care of them any longer because of allergies. So within a week we had five kittens crowded in our bathroom, and in the process I discovered something.
I. Hate. Litter boxes.
All of our other cats live outside, so I was blessed to never have to touch or clean a litter box. Let me just say something about litter boxes: if cats are known to be so clean, then why do they do their business inside? Can’t they learn to whine at the door like dogs and do their stuff outside? No matter how much deodorizer and brand name litter you buy, litter boxes still stink.
 So imagine with me five small kittens with large appetites and fast metabolisms all stuffed inside one bathroom with dangerously low ventilation. Let me just say that bad things happened. Very, very bad things. In the days following, the smell of litter box permeated the whole house. The back bedroom smelled better than the kitchen and the kitchen smelled only a little better than just outside the bathroom door. The bathroom door was a hint to what the bathroom smelled like, which smelled better than the litter box. The litter box? It just reeked.
 The only two things that kept me going with these kittens was:
1.                They would go outside once they were old enough to be vaccinated
2.                They were great cuddlers

Nearly every night when we settled down, we would get out the kittens and cuddle them. For me and Big Macintosh, it was great to be able to bond with our cats. For Farmer’s Daughter, it was dangerous.
One fateful night, Farmer’s Daughter was cradling the meanest cat in the litter when he did something unexpected: he started purring. Now my sister is the competitive kind of person—her whole life revolves around the feeling of ‘Veni. Vidi. Vici.’ So this purring cat in her arms was not just a kitten; it was a trophy. She and she alone had won over the heart of a cold-blooded feral animal. So, of course, she said it.
 “I think I’ll keep this one.”
Three kittens.
Six cats total.
We are dog people and our cats outnumber our dogs three to two! This should have never, never happened. I’m pretty sure people only ever have cats because they were once sweet kittens. Cats aren’t even that nice! But here we are, with six cats, with two more that need homes.
Luckily, we found a home for one of them, and my granny agreed to take the remaining cat if no home was found. Then we were down to four cats in our bathroom and their time to get shots was just around the corner. Which was good, because I was done with the litter box thing.
 Alas, it was too good to be true. My sister came home the other day with some bad news. The kitten vaccinations come in three rounds separated by three weeks each, and the cats would not be protected until they had received all their shots.
They would be inside six more weeks.
Six more weeks of litter boxes.
I have six. More. Weeks. Of litter boxes.
So with that, I promise to keep all of you posted. I’ll give you updates on the kittens, litter box horror stories, and reports on my sanity. And I want to hear from you! What’s the worst animal project you have ever taken on? Answer in the comments below!

I just want my bathroom back, folks.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Monday, July 14: Honey Time!

     Today we did something that is one of my all-time favorite farm activities. We harvested honey!
          Honey harvesting happens about twice a year and it is when we remove the honey stores from the beehives (boxes called honey supers) and remove the honey for bottling and, eventually, selling. There are three big reasons why I think honey extraction is one of the best things in the world:
                1) The Smell
                     Since we are still a small apiary and don't have our own building for our honey operations, we extract in our house. So, imagine spending all day long with the smell of warm honey and beeswax wafting through your home, accompanied by scents of warm baking bread. It's awesome. If you don't really know what fresh beeswax really smells like, let me just say this: the scent of your Burt's Bees lip balm doesn't even hold a candle to it.
                2) Fresh honey all day
                     You can imagine that if we are sitting around giant vats full of honey, smelling it in the whole house and watching it pour in streams of literal liquid gold from one container to another, obviously we're gonna have to taste it. My mom baked fresh apple bread today and we would take honey by the (clean!) spoonful and smother it over everything: the apple bread, our lunch, or just straight into our mouths. On honey days everything you eat is sweet!
                 3) Friends and family all day
                     Although honey harvesting is loads of fun, it's a lot--a LOT-- of work. It takes a lot of people and all of the day. But that means that it's a perfect time to have your whole family gather around for a nice day together. Occasionally on honey days we will invite friends over to help us and my dad's beekeeping mentor, Bill the Bee Man, gives an incredible presentation on the lives of bees. I learn something new every time. Today, however, it was just me, my family, and the French Extension of our family.
                For these reasons I honestly wish each and every one of you could actually have been here to harvest honey with us, but for now, I'll just write about it and show you the sights. One day, hopefully, I can find a way to send you all the smells.

               Harvesting Honey 101
     The honey supers are removed from the hives when they are full, using one of a few methods to safely evacuate the bees from the boxes. Honey supers are only one part of a bee hive, and so removing the supers does not render the bees homeless. My dad had removed the honey supers a day or two before, so this morning we were ready to begin the harvesting process!
                        The first step in honey extraction is to uncap the honey. When bees fill the little hexagonal cells in their hive with honey, they seal them off with a wax capping. This capping keeps out moisture and bacteria to preserve the honey. Honey kept in its capped cells can literally last forever: the capped honey found in Egyptian tombs is still perfectly edible today!
               To uncap the honey, we use a heated, dull knife called an uncapping knife. This knife smoothly removes only the capping and leaves the rest of the cell to be reused by the bees. The perfect racks to uncap would be ones where the capping is built up past the frame of the rack, so it is sticking out and the knife can cut it off in one quick sweep.

Above would be the perfect rack to uncap. See how all the cappings seem to roll right off? We actually stopped everything when we saw this one and made my dad uncap it as we took pictures.

Gorgeous, gorgeous honey.
   If we come across a rack that can't be totally uncapped with the knife, we use a small pick to pry off patches that are still capped. This method is not as good as the uncapping knife because it takes much longer and can tear up the honey cells that the bees worked so hard to build. 

My dad uncapping with a pick. See how the rack looks so much messier?

    The uncapping takes place in a special box uncapping box. The lingo is pretty straightforward in the bee business. The wax and honey drippings are kept in the box until the end of the day.

  Once we have six racks uncapped on both sides, they are ready to go into the extractor.
          The extractor is a big monster of a machine that removes the honey from the racks using centripetal force. The racks are placed in the holder on the inside of the extractor, which spins by turning the crank on the top of the machine. The force of the spinning slings the honey from the racks in droplets to the wall of the extractor, where it drips down to the bottom. The spinning also makes the house smell like heaven.                

The spinning is super fast. You wouldn't want to stick your hand in this mean machine.

See the drops of honey flying from the rack? There is so much force from the spinning that some of the honey atomizes and would coat the room if it weren't for the cover on the extractor.

 The process of uncapping and extracting goes on until you've collected a nice pool of honey at the bottom of the extractor. Then, it's time to filter the honey.

                Honey is considered raw if it is not heated over 130 degrees Fahrenheit. But raw honey can be either filtered by straining through mesh materials, or it can be completely unfiltered, leaving small granules and pollen. You can usually tell if your raw honey has been filtered by its clarity. A milky-colored honey is honey in its most original form, while clear, glassy honey has been filtered at least once. Our family prefers to filter it in three stages to produce and nice and clear raw honey. 
 The Spout Master 

 From the spout at the base of the extractor, the honey is poured into a large filter to sift out the excess wax and other rough debris. Under the big filter is a fine cloth, and once the honey goes through the fine filter it is poured into an even tighter filter, where all the tiny particles are filtered out. From the last filter it drips into a clean five-gallon bucket.                                              
 Sweet virgin mary, look how beautiful it is!!!!

We repeat this process all day until we have extracted honey from all of the supers. The racks will go from being stuffed full of honey to being spun clean.

 Farmer's Daughter and Big Mackintosh giving the empty racks one last go to get out every drop of honey.

              Once the racks are all clean, we will scoop up the cappings from the capping box and put them in a special netted bag. This bag can be put into the extractor like a regular honey rack and we will clean the honey off of the wax cappings so we can use the wax for candles, cosmetics, and the like. The excess honey in the capping box will also be filtered for bottling. The cool part in honey harvesting is that nothing goes to waste.
          With the honey all extracted and filtered, we are ready to bottle our honey. Using a special lid with a spout for the five-gallon bucket, we can pour the honey and funnel it into honey jars. In the lid of the honey jars is an adhesive seal, which seals off the jar once the lid is screwed on.

Today we also had the opportunity to package some honeycomb to sell as a novelty item

Stealing a spoonful of honey for a spot of tea

One of the best parts about extracting honey is the cleanup. With tools and big pieces of machinery covered in honey, it would seem like the cleanup would be long and agonizing, right?
    The way you clean used extraction equipment is really simple. Once you are done, you place the tools outside and let the bees do the rest. Within minutes there will be busy bees all over the equipment, licking the honey and taking it back to their hives. Despite it being a rainy afternoon, within and hour of putting out he bee supplies our front porch was swarming with bees!

See his little red tongue???

After three hours, thanks to the networking miracle that is social media, we sold every bottle of honey we had! All in all, it was a perfect honey day that came to a perfect close.

Thursday, July 3, 2014


the sky...hashtagnofilter :P

       Summer in Florida is full of amazing things (including amazing heat), but one of the most breathtaking things is the rain. Ask any Florida native, and they will chuckle when you mention 'The Sunshine State.'
                   Because when it rains here, it pours.
       While during most days in June, July, and August Florida is beaming with radiant, sweaty sunshine, the month of July brings afternoon thunderstorms as sure as the fish in the ocean. This takes most tourists off guard. One moment they're enjoying a sweltering, shining day at Disney World and then the next the whole sky opens up and they are huddled in a tiny gift shop buying eight dollar ponchos wondering, 'where did that come from?'
                  Since I live on a farm, I can tell you where it comes from.
        Most of the area around us is completely flat and dense with trees, so the view of the sky is appallingly narrow at any given spot, excluding maybe the freeway. This is most unfortunate for everyone, because the way a summer rain rolls in is absolutely gorgeous. Storms gather off the East coast and blow in around four in the evening on most days. The sky seems perfectly blue and sunny on one side, but on the other, rolling into sight, it is formidably black. Just as you notice the darkness floating towards you, a mysterious breeze picks up.

          The stronger the winds gets, the quicker the mood changes in the sky. Soon, what was once a sunny afternoon looks like the beginnings of a hurricane, with trees bending and the sun ducking behind heavy clouds. Off in the distance, the space between the sky and horizon is streaked with blue where you can see the rain falling.

       The the wind picks up at an alarming pace and it starts to look like this. Lighting flashes dryly and what was once a faint rumble becomes a heavy crack!

        No photos can do justice to the next part. From across the field, you can see and hear a wall of rain coming down. The sound swells as the rain comes near you. The only thing left to do is to run for your life or soak it in. Either way, it is magic.