Sunday, February 26, 2012

Thinking about Bees

I recently watched a movie that's had me thinking about bees all day.
The movie is Queen of the Sun and I recommend anybody interested in eating healthy or the health of the natural world watch it.
I've heard it said both in the movie and elsewhere that 40% of the food we eat depends directly on the honey bee for pollination. That sounds impresive but it's a little hard to picture until you consider the foods on your plate. Take for instance my breakfast today: 3 eggs scrambled, 2 pieces of Wheat Montana toast with plum jam, and 2 California mandarins. Now consider what would be missing without the honey bee. The mandarins are gone, as are the plums for the jam. So, now we're down to toast and eggs, but wait a minute. The eggs came from our hens which are fed a mix of layer crumble and cracked corn. The first two ingredients of the crumble are corn and soybeans both of which require pollination. Better cancel the eggs. So what am I left with? Dry toast. Since grains do not require pollination from insects, they are one of the only foods that would be available without honey bees. Pretty sad looking breakfast, not to mention diet.
But wait. What makes the Honey Bee so special? I've read there are 4000+ varieties of native bees on this continent. Here's the deal. Agriculture today is done on a huge scale. In order to feed the millions, farmers must get the most from the land in the most efficient manner possible. So to accomplish this, they plant one crop at a time, in fields that may be hundreds or thousands of acres. That way when it's time to harvest, it's all ready at the same time, streamlining the process to save time and money. Now consider this: in order to develop fruit, each and every bloom on that crop plant must be visited by a pollinator. But can't the local bugs take care of it? Not when you have hundreds or thousands of acres of one crop that all mature at the same time. There is no way for the native pollinators to survive when that one plant is not in bloom. So we bring in the honey bees to get the job done. The greatest example of this in the entire world is occurring right now in central California. Every year in mid-February an estimated 750,000 acres of almonds bloom for three weeks. An estimated 1.5 million honey bee colonies from this country (roughly 3/4 of the bees in the US) and bees from other places are trucked in to pollinate the almond crop. This is bee keeping on a mass scale. These migratory beekeepers log over 100,000 miles a year pollinating crops, following the blooming season. From California to Washington, from Florida to Maine and all places in between migratory beekeepers make modern agriculture possible.
So is there a problem with all this mass pollination? The problem is this: bees are social critters that interact with each other for survival. When bees from across the country and places beyond, all come together in one place like the Central Valley of California to pollinate the almond crop, they bring with them every little virus and parasite that occurs in their local environment. The problem gets worse when there are not enough bees in the US, so beekeepers import bee hives from other countries. Now you've got bees from Australia mingling with bees from North Dakota. Can you say Colony Collapse Disorder? (CCD). US honey bees today are hounded by a rash of diseases and parasites that were unheard of just 10 - 15 years ago because of this shift towards mass pollination. It is this mix of threats that make up what is known as CCD.
I read once that beekeeping is simply the act of keeping bees. And that may have been true years ago, but today that's not enough. Today beekeeping is much more about keeping bees healthy and and alive. But the amazing part is, it is actually the bees that are keeping us alive.
Thanks for reading. KJ

Friday, February 10, 2012

Honey Dreams

Today, I am home nursing a cold. As I sit here by the fire with my hot lemon and honey, I am dreaming of a day this fall when we will extract and bottle our own raw honey. I am optimistic that each of our hives will produce 50 LBS or more. That will likely be a sticky unruly learning process, and I'm sure you'll hear all about it! Until then though, I thought I'd share a few cool tid-bits about honey with you all.
Raw honey is the bee's food. The only reason bees store honey is to survive the winter. The honey bees travel the country side collecting nectar from flowers and bringing it back to the hive. They also collect pollen and water according to the needs of the hive. The water is later extracted from the honey by the bees before the honey is capped with wax. The pollen remains in the honey and aids in filling the nutritional needs of the hive. Pollen is a source of protein, this is important since bees are the descendants of wasps which are carnivores.
Raw honey is not only a natural sweetener but is also considered a super food because it is a powerful antioxidant full of rich nutrients. Also it is a a natural antiseptic, an antibacterial and is used in many places as a healing salve for burns and wounds.  Raw honey is good for soothing sore throats and helps calm a cough, like I have today. Also raw honey contains B complex vitamins, which include riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, thiamine, pyridoxine, biotin and B12. It also contains vitamins A, C, D, E and K, as well as traces of minerals like iron, calcium, copper, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and zinc. It also contains enzymes and amino acids.Source:
So why do I keep repeating raw honey and not just honey? Pasteurized honey has been heated to 140 degrees F for at least 20 minutes which kills all the living organisms in the honey, leaving mostly sugar. While you'll still get the sweet, that's about all. So make sure when you buy honey is says on the label raw or un-pasteurized.
Raw honey will never spoil, and can be kept indefinitely, as long as it is clean. Never put a dirty spoon in the honey jar! The food particles from the spoon will interact with the bacteria in raw honey and mold. I said raw honey will never spoil but it will crystallize. In fact, only raw honey will crystallize. So, if the honey in your cabinet is crystallizing, you can be sure its raw. Crystallizing is a natural process that ocures with all raw honey, and the rate of the process is determined by the type of flower nectar that created the honey. What do you do with crystallized honey? Just heat it slowly on low heat, a sauce pan half filled with water on the stove works well to put honey back into solution. As long as you don't get it over heated there is no change in the honey. Or, just eat it that way. Evidently many people prefer crystallized or whipped honey.
I have read that in her life a honey bee will produce 1/12 of one teaspoon of honey. The 60,000 or so bees in a beehive may collectively travel as much as 55,000 miles and visit more than two million flowers to gather enough nectar to make just a pound of honey!
So enjoy honey with respect of all that went into it, the honey bee litterally worked her self to death making it! With that I'll sign off. It's time to stoke the fire and refill my mug!
Cheers. KJ

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Time to Grind

With the holidays behind us and a foot of snow outside, it was a good time to turn the trimmed venison in the freezer into something usable. We butchered three deer this fall ( Blog post: filling freezer), and had fifty pounds of trim to work with, so we decided to make burger, brats and snack sticks.

Like most things, there are many ways to do this; this is just how we do it.
To start, all the trim gets run through a coarse grind. This is 100% trimmed venison.

The next step is to measure out the meat by weight and add the proper amount of fat for the product you are making. We used tallow (beef fat) because that's what we had, but more often pork fat is used for sausage. Beef fat is perfect for burger. 
If you are making burger, then all that's left is to mix the fat and the meet and put it through a fine grind. If you are making sausage, it's time to measure your seasoning and mix it into the meat and fat. To make things easier, we used packaged mixes that come with seasonings and sausage casings.

Once it's all well mixed, it goes through a fine grind and gets stuffed into the prepared casings.

Folks that are well practiced at this can do it with one or two people but for us, three worked well. One to feed the hopper, one to regulated the grinder and one to stuff and twist the casings.

Whitney turned out to be very good at making bratwursts, and stuffed these dogs right as they came out of the grinder. 
We decided to try snack sticks for the first time this year. This was different because these are done without casings. All the steps up this point are the same as the other meats, but from the grinder
we ground the meat onto a wire rack and then baked it in the oven on low heat for a couple hours.

This could have been done with a smoker too, if you have one. This is the first round fresh from the oven.

Finally, all that's left is to bag up the meats for the freezer. Again there are many ways to do this, but for the burger, we've had really good luck using these common ground meat bags. Filled right off the grinder, it makes the process of bagging really easy and clean.  
For the brats and snack sticks, food saver bags work perfect. Here is the first load all bagged, dated and ready for the freezer. Makes me want to BBQ just looking at it! A big thanks to Alyssa and Mac for all the help getting this done, and thanks to everybody else for stopping by.
Until next time,