We have just returned our house-cow, Meg, to our own 1 acre property after 3 months agistment on our friend's farm where the ground was not so wet and there was plenty of feed. She currently has a five month old calf, Pompey, and we have decided to wean him. So he has been left behind in company with the rest of the herd where he will be well looked after. As can be well appreciated, Meg is a little disconsolate at not having her calf with her. Normally, cows take a couple of days to adjust. To alleviate the physical symptoms Sara milks Meg twice a day. The milk of a Dexter is not as creamy as that of a Jersey cow; it is closer to that of 2% milk that one buys from the supermarket. We prefer our milk that way and enjoyed having our home-made muesli this morning with milk from Meg and honey from my bees.
We have been keeping honeybees for the past five or so years, primarily for their pollination of the plants at Blackmore House (both ornamental and productive). And we have indeed seen increased bee activity on sunny days in Spring and Summer, and even Winter, as the various flowers and blossoms come out, with the attendent increased productivity of several of our vegetable plants and fruit trees (while recognizing that there are several important pollinators other than honeybees - wind, hover flies, native bees, birds etc).
An attendant and very exciting benefit in keeping honeybees is, of course, harvesting honey. In the past year, for the first time, we have made mead from our honey (a fermented honey wine) and this, I must say, is a revelation. Mead must be dry and this takes time, at least a year and preferably two. If you taste mead less than a year old then it would likely be sickly sweet or saccharine. I think that most people who have tasted mead have gone for the under-matured stuff and are understandably turned off as a result. But dry mead is divine. As a matter of fact, I am drinking a glass of my mead as I am writing this post. Don't tell anyone!
A third benefit, very close in importance to the second, and the subject of this post, is the wax you get by rendering down honey comb and cappings. Wax is an incredibly useful substance and we are rapidly learning more and more daily uses for it (I think that I will make the subject of another post). I am convinced that wax is so important that it is worthwhile, as a recreational beekeeper, to recycle the comb, both brood- and honeycomb, periodically every two or three years. This uber-hygienic approach also helps to combat chalk brood, if your colonies suffer from that. It does mean that your bees have to build comb on a more regular basis but I don't think that this slows them down that much. For a hobbyist beekeeper like myself there is no perceptible disadvantage.
The process of rendering wax is very simple and it is safe provided that you follow one cardinal rule. Never, ever, melt wax on the stove unless it there is plenty of water in the saucepan (or that you use a bain-marie which is essentially the same principle)! Beeswax has a flashpoint of 204 degrees Celsius. (If you need to convert that to Fahrenheit then do it yourself; your country ought to have converted to metric by now). A flashpoint is when the substance gives off sufficient vapour to ignite in air. If you melt wax in water, or in a bain-marie with water, then you can be guaranteed that the temperature will not exceed 100 degrees Celsius. With that caveat let's go through the process which is roughly co-ordinated with the images above.
Step 1: Break off the brood- and honeycomb and capping from your frames and place in a big pot. It doesn't matter if you have grubs and dead bees as they will be filtered out in time. If you have broodcomb (the dark cells) then it is worthwhile to soak overnight in water to separate the discarded coccoon material from the cells. This will yield more wax. (Thank you, Fiona Marantelli, for this insight).
Step 2: Fill around 1/3 of the pot with hot water and place on a hot stove. You can stir the wax mixture with a wooden spoon until it is all melted. Make sure that you boil the wax mixture for at least seven minutes. This will kill off any bacteria. Also make sure that the water does not totally evaporate (remember the flashpoint caveat above).
Step 3: You will notice that there is lot of detritus - discarded coccoon skins, dead bees etc - floating on the top. You can get rid of most of this by pouring all the hot mixture into another container (plastic is fine) through a colander, or some other large particle strainer. Discard the detritus left in your colander into your compost heap.
Step 4: Leave the dirty brown liquid to cool down over night. You will notice that a yellowish wax disc will develop at the top, underneath which there will be some propolis and crud and dirty water.
Step 5: If you are sure that everything has cooled down sufficiently loosen the disc of wax and pour out the dirty water. Scrape off and discard the propolis and crud from underneath the wax disc. You can use the propolis for other purposes. I am not at that stage yet.
Step 6: Repeat steps 2-5 with the wax disc, with fresh water, and filter with a fine mesh like pantyhose rather than a colander. We find that we have to do this 3 or 4 times. Usually, I do the first cycle in several batches before combining the discs and doing the extra refining cycles. It saves a lot of time and effort and gives me one large disc.
And there it is. You should end up with a fairly pure wax disc. It doesn't have to be pure white; often it will be a very beautiful yellow or orange and attractive aroma. The colour will depend on other factors such as the flowers that the bees were foraging while they were making the wax.
Living sustainably means making the most of the free seasonal bounties that nature offers whether it be rabbits in the Spring and Summer, blackberries in the Autumn, or pine mushrooms in Late Autumn - Early Winter. Here Sara is off-loading her loot (2kg of pine mushrooms) after a brief walk with our dog this morning. She will quickly sautee the mushrooms in butter and then freeze them. They can then be used during Winter and the food dearth period of Spring in risottos, pies, and on pizzas.
An important part of our philosophy in trying to live as self-sufficiently as is reasonable is to raise and provide our own meat. Sara and I are in a fortunate position to have friends who have a bit of property and are crazy enough to allow us to agist some of our cows, sheep, and pigs in a co-operative, mutually beneficial way. As we always say, self-sufficiency is best achieved within a community of friends, and not by isolation.
Typically we slaughter and butcher the smaller animals - sheep, chickens, pigs - on our own but cows are on another scale and so we bring in Jamie Thompson, a mobile butcher (Paddock to plate, 0400 859 898) who operates from Bendigo, to do the heavy and skilled work and to ensure that the cow does not suffer at all in the process. We do name our animals and, of course, we become very fond of them, but we do eat them and sometimes refer to them when we eat them. We are not vegetarians but we do reverence the animal and respect it by ensuring that there is no waste and that the animal is able to live a life where it is able to express its own nature - cows grazing in the paddocks and nursing their calves, chooks scratching the ground and having dust baths, pigs rooting in the ground and eating acorns etc.
Thanks to Pauline and Chloe who helped with the packing of the meat on the day, and to Colin for allowing us to agist our animals on his property.
David and Sara