The Science of Sugaring with Tap My Trees

When we first started homeschooling, we did a lot of unit studies. Often, our studies revolved around a book I was reading aloud to the kids.

One of our fondest memories of homeschooling revolves around Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  We had recently read about the Ingalls’ family sugaring time and a few days later, while enjoying pancakes with real maple syrup, Geneva inquired, “How do you make maple syrup again, Mom?”

I have long been intrigued with the notion of tapping trees to make syrup. I quickly took her question to heart and we launched into an integrated unit on maple sugaring.

Read more of our early experiences here, Sugaring Time: Making Our Own Maple Syrup

While Oregon does not typically come to mind when one thinks of maple sugar, I can attest that we do in fact have maple trees. Come along with me as I share the science of sugaring.

reading up on sugaring In preparation for this post, I received a maple sugaring starter kit for free and was compensated for my time in writing it. All the opinions below are mine and I was not required to write a positive review.

The Science of Sugaring

Products derived from Sugar Maple trees are common in house holds throughout the country, particularly the maple syrup and sugar industry in the Northeast. The earliest written accounts of maple sugaring were made in the early 1600s by European explorers who observed American Indians gathering maple sap.

I love real maple syrup. Growing up, even when times were tight, my dad always insisted we had real maple syrup. When I was in middle school, my dad became intrigued with the notion of tapping trees to make syrup. “Couldn’t you also tap other trees?” he would ask. “We have a lot of Big Leaf Maple? Can you make Alder syrup? What would it taste like? What about Willow and Oak? Certainly their sap would be sweet as well.”

The next thing I knew, my dad had ordered a spiles kit and we were hiking into Oregon’s coast range to tap trees. After numerous attempts and modifications to his collecting devices, we were successful.

We managed to collect enough sap from several trees to process into syrup – essentially the sap is filtered and the excess water is boiled from the sap. You would be surprised just how much maple sap is required to make just one quart of syrup … 10 gallons (though this varies by species)!

Our research revealed the most commonly tapped maple trees are Sugar, Black, Red, and Silver Maples. My father’s inquiry experiments proved that while other trees can be tapped to collect sap, including Birch, Walnut, and other maple species like Big Leaf and Boxelder; tapping a Sugar or Black Maple yields the best results.

Tap My Trees

Today, Sugar Maple stands and roadside trees provide private landowners with an annual cash crop as well as a rewarding hobby. I am excited to discover and share with you the #1 supplier of maple sugaring supplies for the hobbyist, Tap My Trees. They are the leading site for home based maple sugaring – the process of sap collection and making maple syrup.

Collecting maple sap is a green, environmentally sustainable process that can be enjoyed by anyone with a healthy, mature maple tree. The Tap My Trees website provides you with step-by-step instructions on how to tap your maple trees and turn that sap into maple syrup.

The process is actually quite simple. It does, however, take some time and a willingness to get outdoors and experience this miracle of nature – Charlotte Mason would be so proud!

sugaringkitThe Tap My Trees kit is a wonderful way to jump into the sugaring hobby. Here’s a peak of what is included in the kit:

  • Maple Sugaring Lesson Plan: Lesson plan for the maple sugaring process. Can be adapted for third grade through high school.
  • Maple Sugaring at Home book: This guide provides step-by-step instructions (complete with pictures) to tap maple trees. Includes information on how to identify maple trees, how to tap trees, collection and storage of sap, uses for maple sap including how to make maple syrup, and frequently asked questions.
  • 1 Aluminum Bucket: 2 gallon aluminum bucket is used to collect the sap as it drips from the spile.
  • 1 Metal Lid: Lids prevent rain, snow, and foreign material from entering the bucket.
  • 1 Spile with Hook: Stainless steel spile (tap) is inserted into drilled hole to transfer sap into the bucket. Hook is used to hold the bucket.
  • 1 Drill Bit: 7/16 drill bit with 3/8 shank used to drill tap hole into your maple tree.
  • Cheesecloth: Used to filter any solids (such as pieces of bark) when transferring sap from the collection bucket to a storage container.
  • Filter: 24″ X 30″ filter sheet to filter sediment from finished syrup. Durapure grade filter.
  • 1 Bottle with Lid: Empty 12 oz. maple syrup bottle used to store finished syrup.
  • Thermometer: Candy thermometer for making maple syrup. Instrument Range: 100 to 400°F / 40 to 200°C. Stainless steel housing with mounting clip

Join me next month for a maple trees nature study post and again this spring as I share with you our own experiences in tapping trees.

Do Dissections Make You Queasy? I’ve Got You Covered

Dissections are a traditional component of most advanced biology courses beginning at the high school level. Dissections provide a way for students to learn about the internal and external anatomical structures of animals. By taking a hands-on learning approach, students can get a real sense of the relationships between organismal structures.

dissectionsFor many students however, dissections can be very disturbing. Online dissections provide an opportunity to experience animal dissections in a unique manner without all of the mess. Some online dissections provide visual images along with step-by-step instructions on how to dissect a particular animal. Others provide diagrams and pictures that display certain anatomical structures.

The good news is that there are many amazing virtual dissections available for free online. From earthworms to human cadavers, the web has remarkable learning options available at the click of a mouse.

Note: These images are often understandably graphic and may be upsetting to some kids. You may want to preview these sites to see which ones are best suited for your children.

Online Dissection Links

Mammals

Birds

Fish

Invertebrates

 

 

Foraging for Mushrooms: A Wild Edibles Nature Study

Foraging for Mushrooms: A Wild Edibles Nature Study @EvaVarga.netOne of the things I just love about the Oregon coast is the plethora of fungi. This past week, my daughter and I attended a Fall Mushrooms class at the interpretive center. It was a fabulous class whereby we learned to not only identify many of the local species but we also learned which are edible.

We spent the first couple of hours in the classroom engaged in a lecture format whereby the instructor began with an introduction to basic mycology. He walked through the life cycle of mushrooms and as well as the anatomy of a mature mushroom.

He also shared a slide presentation of the species we were likely to see. With each photograph, he discussed the species’ habitat preferences (in other words, where they were most likely to be found) and the typical time of year they were most prominent.

fungilifecycle

We then took a short break and proceeded down the trail for our foraging excursion. We didn’t find too many in the first half mile or so of the trail. Those we did find had begun to decay so we were beginning to get a little discouraged. Perhaps we were too late in the season?

We didn’t give in however, and our perseverance paid off. The group had begun to spread out and cheerful exclamations of “I found Chantrelles!” or “Wow! Look at the size of these!” could be heard in the near distance.

velvetbolete

Here is a list of just a few of the species we found:

  • Hawk Wing
  • Chantrelle (illustrated above)
  • Velvet Bolete (illustrated above)
  • Beef Steak (pictured at top)
  • Pine Spike (illustrated above)
  • Oysters
  • False Chantrelle
  • Lobsters
  • Slippery Jack
  • Blue Polyphore
  • Coral
  • Toadstool (toxic)

Without doubt, the best mushroom text available is Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora. Published in 1986, it is an encyclopedia of mushroom facts and lore, lavishly illustrated with full-color photographs, literally everything you need to know about mushrooms, edible or not. Any botanical field guide should have is a good dichotomous key and Arora provides a very good key. The photos are excellent and the color plates are spectacular. This is a hefty volume, however, it is not the best for field identification.

The author has thereby released a field companion All That the Rain Promises and More: A Hip Pocket Guide to Western Mushrooms. This pocket-size book allows for quick and easy identification of common mushrooms. It also provides delicious recipes and stories of friends and funny anecdotes are sprinkled among hard facts.

Another favorite resource is the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms. Organized visually, this book groups all mushrooms by color and shape to make identification simple and accurate in the field. With more than 700 mushrooms detailed with color photographs and text, this is a great guide for identification in the field.

~ ~ ~

We’ve always enjoyed taking part in the monthly challenges at Handbook of Nature Study. This month, our selected challenge was Make a List.

The Raven: A Mini Unit for Middle School

I have been fascinated with ravens since I was a child. I recall my mother reading aloud Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven at Halloween. Poe was one of her favorite authors and she delighted in reading this glorious poem in narrative voice.

Ravens Mini Unit @EvaVarga.netNew research has found that ravens remember prior interactions with people and even communicate these interactions with others of their kind. I’ve read stories of ravens leaving trinkets and gifts for those who have shown them kindness. My father has a pair of ravens that visit him regularly and when we visit, they can always be seen perched nearby keeping an eye on things.

Raven Mini Unit

Yesterday, I stumbled upon an Audubon post, How to Tell a Raven From a Crow on Facebook and the wheels in my head immediately started spinning. Would not this make a wonderful Halloween themed mini unit? Yes! I must put something together …

Science

The Audubon link I shared above is the perfect place to begin. While ravens and crows may look similar in some ways, there are several distinctive traits that help set them apart.

You probably know that ravens are larger, the size of a red-tailed hawk. Ravens often travel in pairs, while crows are seen in larger groups. Also, watch the bird’s tail as it flies overhead. The crow’s tail feathers are basically the same length, so when the bird spreads its tail, it opens like a fan. Ravens, however, have longer middle feathers in their tails, so their tail appears wedge-shaped when open.

Go outside and watch them. Bring along your nature journal and record your observations. How many do you see? How do they interact? What are they eating? Do they scratch at the soil with their feet? What sounds do they make?

Consider adding several quick sketches in your journal or taking photographs. When you return indoors, take more time to illustrate the birds you observed. Feel free to use a field guide or photograph to help you.

Literature

Ravens are perhaps the most common bird symbol in the mythologies and religions of ancient cultures. They assume a variety of roles, ranging from messengers of deities and sages to oracles and tricksters. They play a central part in many creation myths and are typically associated with the supernatural realms lying beyond the ordinary experience.

The Raven: Mini Unit for Middle School @EvaVarga.netThe history of ravens as mythical birds can be traced as far as the 1000-year-old Norse mythology. Odin, the chief god in Norse mythology, had a pair ravens called Hugin and Munin perching on his shoulders. Each morning they were sent out into the world to observe what was happening and question everybody. They would come back by sunrise and whisper to Odin what they had learned. Sometimes Odin himself would turn into a raven.

Hugin and Munin
Fly every day
Over all the world;
I worry for Hugin
That he might not return,
But I worry more for Munin.

Huginn ok Muninn
fljúga hverjan dag
Jörmungrund yfir;
óumk ek of Hugin,
at hann aftr né komi-t,
þó sjámk meir of Munin.

I encourage you to research the symbolism of ravens in a culture of your choice. Here are two of my favorites:

The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe

How Raven Stole the Sun (Native American Myth)

Art

Ravens have appeared in the mythology of many ancient people. It is no surprise, therefore, that ravens are also popular subjects in art.

I have often been inspired by children’s books. My kids and I will periodically try to recreate the illustrations we enjoy in picture books. I am not alone.

Ravens Mini Unit @EvaVarga.netOn the website, Native American Art Projects and Lesson Plans, I found two lesson plans centered around children’s books featuring ravens:

A Man Called Raven (Oil Pastel)

How the Raven Stole the Sun (Crayon Batik)

 

A Look at Insect Galls

Have you ever seen weird bumps growing on stems, leaves, buds, or flowers? You might be surprised to learn that these odd growths are not the plant’s idea at all but are caused by a fly, wasp, midge, or other insect.

How Are Galls Formed?

The goldenrod gall, for example, is formed by one kind of gall fly. The female picks out a tender spot on a growing tip of the plant where she deposits an egg and flies off. When the larva hatches out of the egg, it will bore into the plant. As it does so, it excretes a chemical which causes this part of the plant to enlarge into the swelling that we call a gall. Soon the larva is surrounded by this enlarged tissue, essentially its gall house.

Through the summer months, the larva will eat away at the inside of the house. In autumn, the plan dies and the gall turns brown and hard. At this time, the larva digs a tunnel out to the skin of the gall, but does not break through. Instead, it curls up to await spring at which point it will pupate and eventually emerge as an adult gall fly.Insect Galls: A Nature Study @EvaVarga.net

Galls Are Diverse

There are many kinds of galls and each is formed in a different way. In my earlier post, Galls: A Nature Study, I shared the small variety of galls we’ve encountered in our nature studies.

In North America, more types of galls are found on Oaks than on any other kind of plant. They can turn up on many different kinds of plants, however. Including flowers, ferns, and even mushrooms.

 

Symbiotic Relationships

Not all galls are started by insects. Some are caused by mites or nematodes (tiny worms). Fungi and bacteria can also cause galls to form.

Nitrogen-fixing bacteria are microorganisms capable of transforming atmospheric nitrogen into fixed nitrogen (inorganic compounds usable by plants). More than 90 percent of all nitrogen fixation is effected by these organisms, which thus play an important role in the nitrogen cycle.

Even though the galls may deform the plant, they usually don’t do serious harm. Galls also provide a food source for many animals – including woodpeckers and many other insects.

Some galls are even useful to humans. The Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert in Africa make a powerful poison for their arrow tips from crushed gall wasps. In the states, galls that fall from Oak trees are sometimes used by farmers to feed their livestock.Insect Galls: A Nature Study @EvaVarga.net

Bring it Home

Undertaking the activities described below provide students with an opportunity to begin to examine the affect of environmental conditions on galls and insect growth. Students also develop an appreciation and understanding of the complex interactions among plants and animals.

Materials

  • collection jars
  • glue
  • old nylon stockings
  • an intact gall (one without an exit hole)
  • dissecting knife
  • rubber band

Gall Dissection

The larva lies at the center of the gall. Use a dissecting knife or other sharp tool to make an incision in the gall parallel to the stem, but off center. Create a small window so the larva is clearly visible.

Put a little glue around the perimeter of the window and press it against the inside wall of a jar. You will now be able to observe the larva as it develops. Keep track of your observations in your notebook.

Larval Development

Place the gall inside a collection container with nylon stretched over the opening and secured with the rubber band. Make observations of the changes that take place as the insect develops and emerges from the gall.

Most specimens should emerge in approximately 3 weeks.

Inquiry Activities

Design an experiment to explore the effect of different environmental factors such as light, temperature, or moisture. For example, does the amount of light affect the development of the larva?

Once you start looking, you’ll likely find lots of galls. Insect galls are fascinating.

Parasitism in Caterpillars

While investigating leaf rollers and leaf miners as a part of our ongoing nature studies, we came upon a video on YouTube that perplexed me.  Ten years ago (eeek, has it really been that long?) I had the remarkable opportunity to take part in an Earthwatch expedition to Ecuador, Rainforest Caterpillars.  The focus of our assignment was on parasitism in caterpillars and while I am by no means an expert, I consider myself an insect enthusiast and can identify which insect order most specimens belong.

[ Edited :: This video has since been removed and I have been unable to find it – or a substitute.]

This video intrigued me because one of the things we did while in the field was ‘torment’ the caterpillars we found.  Essentially, we would do this by gently petting them with a small paint brush and pinching them carefully with a pair of tweezers (enough to get a reaction but not to harm).  We would then record their behavior or reaction to the stimuli.  We did this to get a general idea of how the different species would defend themselves and observed a wide variety of behaviors including thrashing about, rearing up and attempting to bite the attacker (that would be us), as well as and most amusing,kicking frass at us.

The premise, as you’ll see when you watch the video, is that the caterpillars behave this way because they have been parasitized by a wasp and their behavior is not altered or controlled by the wasp.  I didn’t think this was exactly the case.  I thereby contacted the lead scientist with whom I worked and inquired about the validity of the video.  His response confirmed my suspicion:

“This braconid genus, Glyptapanteles, is one that we rear a lot in Ecuador from geometrids.  The video that you saw, and the paper in PLOS one about this is not necessarily that common.  More generally, parasites do change the behavior of their hosts to the benefit of the parasites, but thrashing is still a very effective defense for most caterpillars against a broad array of predators and parasitoids.”  ~ Lee Dyer


For your educational entertainment, I include this video showing a Tobacco Hornworm, Manduca sexta, caterpillar infested with parasitoids.  The  Braconid wasp, Cotesia congregate, lays its eggs in the body of the caterpillar, also depositing a virus which is thought to prolong the larval stages and prevent molting to the pupal stage. When the wasp larvae are mature, they burrow out through the caterpillar’s skin and make white silken cocoons on the surface. In this video, two newly emerged wasp larvae are spinning their cocoons.