February is a good month for cravings, especially sugar. Flocks of robins and cedar waxwings descend on trees and vines that still hold fruit. Acrobatic bluebirds snag berries on the wing. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers leave rows of holes to do what their name implies.
Jemicy kids follow suit. Sugar maples are uncommon at school, so instead we pay a visit to the red maples (Acer rubrum) and box elders (Acer negundo) that are plentiful on our campus. Maryland’s sap flow is unpredictable and often brief; a stretch of temperatures below freezing at night and above freezing during the day rarely lasts long enough to deliver much sap unless you can collect from large numbers of trees. Last year, we arrived in mid-February with our spiles and buckets only to find that the trees were already beginning to flower. This year, we watched the forecasts closely. Well in advance of the proper temperatures, we had prepared our repurposed yogurt buckets and fashioned bamboo spiles.
On Valentine’s Day, we were delighted to find most buckets filled, and before the temperatures soared into the mid-70’s we had managed to get about 4 gallons of sap. While this would not result in more than a half cup of syrup, the entire tapping and evaporating process was well worth it. Every child claimed to be able to taste the sugar in the liquid dripping from the tree, and as we boiled the collected sap in the classroom, we naturally had to sample it periodically as the sugar became more concentrated.
By the end of the sugaring week, several box elder trees in the recess area started seeping sap from splits and broken limbs caused by winter ice damage. The sap fermented as it accumulated on the bark, attracting numerous insects: ants, flies, beetles, and even butterflies.
The butterflies were eastern commas (Polygonia comma), the first of our spring butterflies, and the earliest I had ever seen. The attraction to fermented sap reminded me of a similar phenomenon that I had seen in New Zealand, where red and yellow admiral butterflies would cluster and feed on oozing tree trunks. In fact, red admirals apparently preferred fermented tree sap or fruit to flower nectar. Honeybees, (an introduced species in New Zealand as they are in the US) often joined them.
During the sap flow, I was also taking a weekend beekeeping class. My winter insect deficit had induced a craving that was slightly appeased by listening to Steve, our instructor, talk for hours about social insect behavior and biology, and about early spring nectar sources.
During the second class, he demonstrated how to extract honey, pausing every so often as he slid his knife over the drawn comb to lick a drip from his fingers.
A stray bee appeared from somewhere in Steve’s equipment and flew around him. He chuckled and assured us that the bee would surely be accompanying its honey back home. That urge to collect sugar, whether to feed a colony or one’s own sweet tooth, is hard to deny.