Lazer Creek Apiary · Soap

Happy Holidays!

Happy Holidays to all of you, and, of course, wishing everyone a healthy and happy new year.

What a year it’s been! Just the fact that I haven’t blogged since September says a lot, but we consider ourselves very lucky to have been employed and able to pay our bills during this time of COVID 19. We’ve stayed healthy but the steady stream of COVID news intermingled with negative political adds have given me writer’s block. I have, however, become somewhat addicted to making soap!

We have not bought a bar of soap since our schools switched to virtual classes in March. I used melt-and-pour base for my first attempt, and overcame my nervousness about using lye soon after. Like many other things, one can never be careless around lye, but I have my work flow in place and know how to stay safe. Part of being safe is being cognizant of my ability to focus, and I don’t make soap on days when I’m tired, distracted, or irritated. Irritated and sweating into my glasses is a bad mix, and wearing a mask and googles isn’t even comfortable in cool weather. To reduce the time I’m suited up, I now measure all my oils and any additives before I put my protective gear on. Hubby also bought me a face shield, which eliminates much of the foggy glasses problem. It’s hard to read the scale to weigh lye when I can’t see!

I have been using pretty silicone molds since March, and people like the designs. However, I used my new soap loaf mold yesterday and am sold on the simplicity and lack of mess! One batch of soap from my current favorite book fills the mold, and the mold has a silicone lining. That’s something I’ve come to see as essential.

I had a wooden mold that needed to be lined with parchment paper, and I used it once to form a block of soap that I’d reconstituted. The original soap just didn’t smell good, so I dissolved it in distilled water, cooked it as a hot process soap in the crockpot, added some scent that came with soap making set, and poured it into individual molds and the wooden mold. The soap had a high water content, but I figured it would dry out eventually. I wasn’t confident in my parchment cutting ability, so I lined the mold with plastic wrap and parchment paper. Pretty soon, I noticed a small amount of soap leaking from the bottom, so I put the mold into the sink for safe keeping. Never, ever do that! The next day I had semi-solidified soap in the drain and both sides of the sink were completely blocked. Hot water, baking soda, elbow grease, and the kind of persistence that comes from not want to tell Hubby what I’d done this time solved the problem. As an added bonus, the RV’s sinks, bathtub, and toilet were all sparkling clean from all the soapy water I bailed out of the sink and into buckets before pouring it into everything that had a drain. If you ever want a great tricep workout, plunge a kitchen sink over the course of a couple of hours.

Soap making has now led to an interest in essential oils. People want scented soaps, and I don’t want to use chemical scents, so essential oils are the way to go. However, essential oils are expensive. I made one batch of soap using a strong basil-leaf tea and lemongrass oil. It smelled good, but maybe not strong enough for customers, so I’m now dehydrating herbs from the garden and putting them aside to make infused oils as I need them. As we work our way through the fund-raiser box of oranges we bought, I’m dehydrating the peels and will make orange oil once I have a jar full. Because we’re so limited on space, we purchased a small dehydrator for now. It’s working well, although I will probably buy a larger one with a timer once we the honey-house is built.

I’ll save blogging about the bees for another day, but I will say that the health of our hives is one more thing that we have been blessed with this year. Honey harvests were down in general across Georgia, but the bees packed a lot of honey in during the fall flow and and set up well for winter.

In addition to all our other blessings, I can currently see a beautiful sunset from the office window, giving me one more reason to be glad I came in here to update the blog. It’s going to be a cold night, and cold all day day tomorrow, but this sunset almost makes that worthwhile. I used up 4 more oranges on a fantastic new chicken recipe this evening (only 20++ more to go), and we get to live on our beautiful farm. Life remains good on the farm.


Gardening Made Easy with Chicken Power

I weeded and tilled (by hand) one end of the vegetable garden and planted some fall crops last Saturday. On Sunday, Hubby and I made a small mobile chicken pen out of some left-over cattle panels and chicken wire. We placed this over the other end of the vegetable garden (after first removing tomato and pepper plants) and put two of the chickens in it. They had a great time eating fresh basil and all the bugs they could find until Houdini (the kitten that adopted us) dug under one of the panels in an effort to join her friends!

Speedy lives up to her name and refuses to be picked up, so she doesn’t get to play in the garden. She’s not happy being alone in the chicken run either, so we get to hear a whole range of chicken sounds from her on garden-vacation days. Still, all three chickens must have read my last blog because they started laying eggs the day after I posted it and we have three eggs most days.

I moved the pen over four feet today (again after removing plants chickens shouldn’t eat) and weeded and seeded. It was so much easier this time! The chickens had loosened up the top 8 inches of soil and eradicated most of the weeds and other plants. It’s hard to get “fluffy” Georgia soil with all our clay, but the that’s the best description I can give for that little piece of garden today. The chickens have now tilled another 6 x 6 square for me, and I’ll plant some more carrots, spinach, and lettuce next weekend.

Another thing that is making gardening easier is a tool called the Hooke ‘n Crooke. My brother-in-law told Hubby about it, so Hubby bought one for me. I was skeptical about it at first because BIL has neat, weed-free rows and I underplanted my tomatoes and peppers with basil to control weeds. Now that I’ve removed the tomatoes, I’ve really had the space to try the Hooke ‘n Crooke and love the multiple ways in which I can use it. I dug out plant roots, broke up the soil that the chickens couldn’t get to, trenched rows for my seeds and then covered the seeds — all with one tool and without bending over.

We’ve really enjoyed all the fresh vegetables this summer and are looking forward to our first attempt at growing a fall/winter crop. We are considering adding a hoop house and an hydroponic system eventually, but I know I can grow carrots in the garden and everything else is a bonus if it works out!

Canning · Cooking · Gardening · Lazer Creek Apiary

At least the chickens are happy…..

Tomato Soup

This seems like an awfully small amount of soup for all the deseeding, chopping, cooking, pureeing, and dirty dishes, but the chickens are ecstatic about the bowl of seeds they received this morning. Now the soup does taste good and nowhere near as sweet as canned soup (how much sugar do they add anyway?), and it’s made from tomatoes and basil from my garden, but it’s barely enough for me, never mind both of us! I guess I’ll need at least 6 pounds of tomatoes next time — and I need a better mixture of tomato plants next year so that I have some large tomatoes!

Last week’s batches of butternut squash soup and leek-and-potato soup were much more satisfying with about the same amount of time yielding multiple jars of each. The squash is from my brother-on-law’s garden and the leeks from the grocery store. I also have canned and frozen squash for winter, so we’ll have some healthy options for quite some time.

The summer garden seems to be fading, and my thoughts are turning to fall and winter crops. Carrots worked well last year, and I’m going to add spinach and lettuce. I remember spiders crawling our of spinach that a friend in Germany gave me, and I remember small slugs on the lettuce on school lunches, but I’m trying hard to not let my mind go there! We’re setting up an outside sink to wash veggies before they come inside, so that should solve some of the problems.

We did finally get to harvest honey in late July. We have a lot less than last year, but that seems to be a problem across Georgia and even my friend’s hives in England. We strained our honey into three buckets and each tasted very different: one was similar to last year’s, one had a spicy undertone, and the other was a little lemony. They are all mixed together in the keg right now and we’ll start bottling soon. The pollen and nectar dearths are definitely on, but the bees are still doing well. We are supplemental feeding to build their strength up before the fall nectar flow and hope to go into winter with strong hives full of natural resources.

The chickens may be happy with all the tomato, squash, and melon seeds they are getting, but they are not happy enough to give us any eggs yet! They are checking out the nesting boxes and have started kicking the fake eggs out, so I guess that’s progress. Their combs and wattles are red, and they are making even more noise than usual, so all the signs are there, just no eggs….. As they are hiding the fake eggs from me, I don’t even have the millisecond of excitement from seeing them twice a day before realizing what they are. At least I no longer get excited over seeing the golf balls!

Houdini, the kitten that adopted us and escapes cages, is finally letting us touch her so long as food is involved. She happily plays with both dogs, but keeps her distance from the other cats. The dogs love playing together, but remain a little jealous when it comes to sharing their people with each other. Belle is learning the house rules, but still just has to chew on a wooden spoon or something to remind us that puppies are impulsive.

Hubby is already back at work, albeit closer to home, and I will soon have to adjust to not spending all my days on the farm. Equal parts of me look forward to seeing my students again and long to just stay home with the critters and the garden. My body has been getting plenty of exercise, but it will be good for my brain to start doing some mental gymnastics again! Life is good on the farm, but I do love my job….

Chickens · Honey · Lazer Creek Apiary · Pests - Bees · Supplemental Feeding

Honey Refractometer

This year has been odd in regards to honey production. We would normally harvest wildflower honey early June and sourwood honey in July, but June was a bust. We ended up with one medium plastic frame that wouldn’t seat in the extractor and one large frame that fell apart and dumped all the comb in the bottom. While we were able to extract about five pounds over about two hours, the time spent was not worth the output.

However, the bees packed the frames when the sourwood trees were blooming, so we have honey coming — we’re just waiting for the girls to cap the honey! Just in case the honey was actually ready to harvest, Hubby bought a honey refractometer. The last remaining bit of honey we have from last year contains 16% moisture. What is in the hives was still at 20% a week ago. Below 17.8%, the honey will not spoil , but until it gets there, we and our customers are waiting.

Our biggest problem with that right now is the increase is small hive beetles and the decrease in available resources for the bees. Small hive beetle larva can ruin a frame on uncapped honey very quickly if the hive population is low, so we’re keeping an eye on that. We’re also holding off on supplemental feeding as we don’t want any sugar syrup making its way into our honey supers. Once we’ve pulled honey, we’ll split strong hives, feed them well, and try to build up strength before the fall nectar flow starts.

In early spring, we had an abandoned hive that was rife with small hive and wax moth larvae — the chicks loved it! A not-so-nice part of me already feels intense satisfaction feed Japanese beetles to the chickens, but I’m still hoping to not have any chicken treats in our hives — especially as the chickens have not yet started to repay our kindness with eggs!

Hopefully we’ll get to pull honey this weekend. If not, I will attempt my first hot-process soap. Life is good on the farm, and we never run out of things to do!

Lazer Creek Apiary

Multi-oil honey soap

Beekeeper Soap – this one solidified quickly , making molding the last tray a challenge.

The first multi-oil honey soap I made didn’t cure well, so I was a little worried about buying even more ingredients to try another complex recipe. Still, it’s a great moisturizing soap, even if we go through a bar in two days because it’s so soft even after 2 months of cure time. This time, I used a recipe from another book, The Beeswax Workshop, and the soap already looks better from a soap perspective, but you can clearly see that I need to make an adjustment to my process!

The soap on the right is one of the first I poured. At that point, the soap was the consistency of banana pudding and easy to get into the corners of the mold and smooth out the top. The soap on the left is from the last tray poured. In the five minutes between starting to mold the soap and molding the final batch, the soap became more like tofu! I squished the soap down with my spatula. I thumped the mold down onto the counter. I pushed down with the plastic ruler I use level the tops/bottoms, but it just didn’t let itself be manipulated.

This recipe produced about twice as much soap as the other recipes I’ve made, so I think the easiest solution will be to reduce the recipe. I am waiting until tomorrow to unmold all of the soaps and I’m hoping that the first two trays (12 bars) all look like the good one above. If they do, cutting the recipe in half would probably work well. My other option is to use my wooden soap mold for half of the recipe and cut that into bars. I have time to think about that as I will let this soap cure before making a second batch. I do like my soap molds, but making twice as much soap and only cleaning up once is good too!

The failed recipe will probably be the next one I retry. The ingredients were very similar, but the process was different. Soaps that include honey become very hot, very quickly and prolonged high heat can damage some of the ingredients. Many of my resources recommend preventing honey and beeswax soaps from entering gel phase by refrigerating or freezing them. Yesterday’s soap recipe said to place the soap in the freezer for 24 hours. The other soap recipe recommended insulating the soap to hold the heat in. I’m going to try that recipe again, but not insulate it and maybe even freeze it.

Just like any other imperfect attempts, the tofu-look soaps won’t go to waste, especially as this is a new recipe and we’ll use it for a couple of weeks before giving some to friends and family to try. Only after that will we put it on sale. While no-one has had a negative reaction to anything we make, we’ll keep testing every batch of soap and doing our multi-step testing of new recipes.

Gardening · Lazer Creek Apiary · Products and Vendors

Stihl Garden Pruner

Hubby finally found a “chainsaw” that is just right for me – a Stihl GTA 26 garden pruner! It’s a light-weight, battery-operated hand pruner that is capable of cutting down saplings and trimming tree limbs. I cleared part of the view of the creek with it yesterday afternoon, and we’ve been using a variety of tools to selectively cut trees between our planned house and the creek today.

Not only do we have a better view of the creek, we’ve unearthed another three sourwood trees. Sourwoods need adequate sunshine to bloom, so trimming non-nectar trees that are shading them will help us with our honey production next year. Our guide is that if we can put our thumb and forefinger around a sapling, it needs to go because it’s simply taking resources from the trees around it without much of a chance of ever being a strong tree in its own right. Of course, we’re also battling muscadine vine and blackberry briars while keeping a close watch for snakes, so it’s not exactly fun. It is, however, very satisfying to see instant progress.

After yesterday’s workout with the mini-saw, I decided to rest my muscles this morning and made a new batch of itch-soother salve. I ran out of salve last week, but had to wait for the oil-herb infusion to be ready for a new batch. It’s fairly quick and easy to make. Some of my first batch was a little grainy in texture, so I used the immersion blender this time once the beeswax melted. Now I just have to wait for my next bee sting to see if it’s as effective as the first batch! I also need to figure out how much each jar costs me to make as I originally spent $40 for the herbs that go in it.

Once I finished the salve and the clean-up, I couldn’t resist heading back out into the woods where I could hear Hubby with his chainsaw! Right now, I’m taking a break from the heat and waiting for the pruner’s battery to recharge, but I anticipate being back at work in just a few minutes.

Time to hydrate and head back outside before the afternoon thunderstorms move in!

Honey · Lazer Creek Apiary · Natural Food Sources

Sourwood Trees and Honey

Sourwood Tree

Sourwood trees put on quite a show at this time of the year with their feathery white fronds of flowers, especially when the sunlight hits them just right. I spent much of last year wandering through our woods trying to find one that I can see from my desk late afternoons but never did find it from the ground! Now that we’ve pushed back even more brush, we’ve found more sourwoods than we ever imagined, including that one. These trees are probably the reason our honey was so very popular last year.

Sourwood Blooms

Sourwood honey is prized for its color, texture and taste. The bloom time is relatively short, so pure sourwood honey can be hard to find, especially after dry summers when the trees produce less nectar. The weather this year has been close to perfect for nectar production of all kinds, and we’re hoping for a good honey harvest.

We place our honey supers when the blackberries are in full bloom, but our bees also have access to plenty of nectar from trees, wild flowers, and clover. As we push back brush, we plant more clover to provide as much nectar close to the hives as possible. Up to this year, long grass has choked out the clover, but our zero-turn mower has solved that problem this year and the clover is still going strong. The sourwoods have just started blooming, and we’ll leave the honey supers in place until both they stop. We use no pesticides or insecticides (other than fire-ant granules) on our land, so we know our honey is high quality. Still, last year’s honey was the best we’ve ever produced, and we credit the sourwoods for that.

May honey, 2019

Last year’s honey was the color of champagne and delicious. Many of our repeat customers found it helped with their allergies and sore throats, and they are waiting for us to have a new batch to sell. We used plastic bottles with caps that seal for the first time last year as the bottles are sterilized when manufactured and we’ve had some leaky mason jars in previous years. Filling the bottles from the new honey keg was much faster and less messy than our old method of ladling honey into jars on a scale in the kitchen sink! We’ll be finished with the construction of the honey house by next year’s harvest, and the job will be even easier from start to finish.

I’m also looking forward to the honey harvest so I can immediately process the wax cappings for use in salves, lotion bars, and soap. While all the wax we use is filtered many times, I prefer the best wax for anything I’m going to use on my skin! I have started an itch-soother infusion for salve and a lavender infusion for soap and both will be ready by the time I have the fresh wax.

But right now, I hear thunder and need to go harvest zucchini and blueberries before it starts raining!