Ode to the Bee, Blue and Otherwise

Bees were, in a sense, my entry point into becoming a part of Blue Bee Cider. During my master’s program, I observed both traditional and modern forms of beekeeping across different cultures, including visiting apiaries in Calabria, Italy and Texel Island, Holland and attending courses taught by beekeepers from Venice, Italy and Bulgaria. In these circles of whole food and slow living, the bee is lauded, regal even. Happily, bees are understood in our culture for their essential importance to pollinate the majority of our foodstuffs. Documentaries like “Queen of the Sun” and “More Than Honey” are gaining ground and helping to bring the bee further into the American public eye.

The connection between bees and beverage goes back quite some time and, according to Kenneth F. Kiple, may even be the origin source of modern beekeeping. In his book, A Movable Feast: Ten Millennia of Food Globalization, Kiple writes, “A taste for alcohol was doubtless also a reason for honeybee domestication. These natives of the Mediterranean region and the Middle East were making honey for millions of years before human hunter-gatherers were around to steal it from them. […] Mead, which can be as simple as fermented honey and water, was almost assuredly humankind’s first alcoholic beverage.”

However, all of these experiences and discussions have been focused around the honey bee and honey production. It wasn’t until I arrived at Blue Bee Cider that I started giving more thought to that other purpose of bees – pollination – and learning about those species that, while not producing honey as an edible food source, are just as important.

The Bee & the Apple Tree

Blue Bee Cider was named after the Orchard Mason or Blue Orchard Bee, known in scientific circles as Osmia lignaria.  (Check out some photos here.) This solitary, wild bee is native to North America (one of 4000 native species, in fact) and is crucial for pollinating early blooming fruit trees throughout the U.S. and Canada. Though originating in the Pacific Northwest, the blue orchard mason bee can be found across the continent and its eastern subspecies (Osmia lignaria lignaria Say) is particularly important for helping our Virginia apple trees thrive.

While honeybees have some part in supporting pollination of fruit trees, the blue bee has been found to be up to 70% more effective, which has led to it becoming the most managed solitary bee. (Learn more about managing blue bees here.) This efficiency is due to the way that blue orchard bees collect pollen – it sticks to the hairs on the underside of their bellies and is more easily transferred to flowers’ stamen in its dry form than the sticky nectar and pollen balls created by honeybees. Blue bees also show a natural preference for foraging among mid-sized fruit trees, making them the perfect choice for pollinating orchards.

Much research is being done, particularly in light of the widespread impacts of colony collapse, into how native pollinators like the blue bee can help supplement the work of honeybees and take some of the stress off at-risk species. Each female blue bee is a queen that looks after her own small brood rather than hiving in a community structure like honeybees with a queen and worker bees. This solitary characteristic, and the blue bees’ nature to build nests in small holes in wood, reeds, straw, or similar material, means they are not subject to colony collapse like their hive-minded relatives.

Once they’ve found the appropriate location for their nest, the female blue bee will take sticky nectar, mix it with pollen, and lay her egg on top of this concoction at the back of the hole or tube. She then collects mud and uses it to create a partition, repeating the process until she reaches the front opening, thus having formed a series of cells. In early spring, males emerge first and wait for the females in order to mate, an occurrence that usually takes place around the time of blooming for redbuds, one of the blue bees’ favorites to pollinate and a crucial tree for attracting and keeping blue bees in a particular area.  

In On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, food chemistry expert Harold McGee reports that, “It appears from the fossil record that bees have been around for some 50 million years, their social organization for half that time.” With some luck, cultivation, and education, they’ll be around for much longer.

-Nicole Martorana

Watercolor by Val Littlewood of http://pencilandleaf.blogspot.com

USDA Forest Service: http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/pollinator-of-the-month/mason_bees.shtml
University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences “Featured Creatures”:  http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/MISC/BEES/blue_orchard_bee.htm
Virginia State University Department of Agriculture:  http://www.agriculture.vsu.edu/files/docs/native-bees-as-alternative-pollinators


Mulberry Collective, Assemble!

Virginians, we need your help.

Fanfare is one of our most challenging creations each year. Infused with wild mulberries foraged in the Richmond area, this cider is wholly dependent on the whims of Mother Nature. April’s late freeze and May’s perpetual rainfall did nothing to help the cause this year. Some trees prematurely dropped all of their mulberries; others have set a light crop, delayed by the wet weather.

But we’re getting close. Over the next month, keep an eye open for plump, purple mulberries on trees. A telltale sign of a mulberry tree location: fallen berries on the sidewalk or ground under a tree. Pluck only the ripest berries (which look like miniature blackberries), or place a tarp beneath the branches and shake – the ripe berries will fall from the tree on to the tarp.

After getting off the tree, place the berries in plastic bags/containers and FREEZE them. It can take several trips to the tree over several days/weeks before you have a full harvest. Freezing keeps them all ripe and wonderful until you can get them to our tasting room, where we will weigh the crop and add you to our list of donors/trade partners. As with previous years, there will most certainly be a reward once the finished product is released.

I emphasize that mulberry trees are wild. As such, there are no orchards to make it easy on us. Team Blue Bee Cider can also assist with messy grunt work if you are aware of a massive mulberry tree nearby – just let us know at 804-231-0280 or brian@bluebeecider.com. And please, no trespassing as you commence your treasure hunt.

Last year, we collected about 200 pounds of mulberries. Let’s see how we (Fan)fare this time around!

-Brian Ahnmark

Secondary Bloom

Since the earliest days of Blue Bee Cider, we have had challenges and hard luck. The longer you work here, the more you share in our common memories of bad weather, equipment failures, human errors, and all the fallout. But almost every time we come out on the other side with a new relationship, a technical solution, or a product idea that really makes us better off. I used to call these our silver linings.

If you have been watching the local news the past two weeks, you may have heard about the devastating freezes in Virginia orchards and vineyards. As fruit tree buds and blossoms develop, they are increasingly less tolerant of cold temperatures. Here is a guide to put things in context. Our warm Easter  was cut short by two freeze events, unlike anything the older growers have seen since 1976. The second freeze on April 10, down to 19 degrees in some places, left us with a full crop of dead flowers on just about every block and the general mood has been grim.

Throughout the spring, Virginia Cooperative Extension organizes Fruit School meetings to bring Virginia fruit tree growers together to learn from each other. Yesterday was the first Fruit School since the freezes. Attendance was high. Everyone was ready to pull together to support each other and find answers in friendship and science, but we also found some serendipity.

Dr. Jim Schupp of Penn State came down to share his knowledge of and experiences dealing with freeze recovery. We hung on his every word. My key takeaway is that the freeze did our thinning for us. Fruit trees tend to produce 800% more blossoms than they can carry to fruition. In normal years this means that we thin off lots of excess fruit to improve the survival and size of the remaining fruit. This year even with 80% blossom loss, if the remaining 20% are all pollinated, it might still be too much for a tree to carry to fruition. His words, based in scientific research, helped to change our outlook, “Focus on what is living, not what is dead.”

Now it just so happened that the morning of Fruit School, there was an outbreak of late blooms in the country orchard. These secondary blooms usually don’t make it very far. They are usually outcompeted by early bloomers. But this year, they will be the crop and a potentially decent one at that, pending pollination and weather for the next three weeks. The picture above was the fresh batch of new blossoms that emerged that morning – the first sign of a new beginning in over a week.

While I certainly don’t want this level of drama to be the norm for us, it does drive home powerful lessons about those silver linings, our secondary blooms. New friendships, new solutions, new ciders, new hope; they are new every morning, every day.

-Courtney Mailey

Black History in Cider

In 2015, Blue Bee Cider and our distributor, Virginia Winery Distribution Company, co-hosted our first seminar about the roles of African Americans in our cider history. There are a few stories directly linking African Americans and cider, but for the most part we have to dig deeper to make the connections. Professor Sarah Meacham at VCU is a tremendous resource for this. Her book Every Home a Distillery is on our recommended reading list.

From Sarah’s research we know that alcohol production was often a side gig for enslaved people, one which paid well. Learning to make cider and spirits could become the means to earn enough money to buy one’s freedom. From Monticello’s records, we know that Jupiter Evans, one of Jefferson’s most trusted, yet still enslaved, servants was the only person Jefferson really trusted with the annual cidermaking production. One of Albemarle CiderWorks’ most treasured ciders, Jupiter’s Legacy, is named for him. By piecing together records from Appomattox Plantation, just south of Richmond, we are also able to follow the story of James Madison Ruffin. Madison, as he was known, was an emancipated slave who managed many agricultural projects before and after the Civil War, including the planting and maintenance of Appomattox Plantation’s apple orchards and its cider fruit.

These stories are our launching pad. We need more of them. As our seminar discussion opened up in 2015, we came to learn about an 80-plus year-old African American woman who has been making cider in Richmond since she was a child. She is the original urban cidermaking woman in our town, not me! I was delighted to learn more about her and her traditions.

Cider as an industry is just beginning to have these conversations about where our craft comes from and where it is going. Having conversations with a wide circle of people who love it now and have loved it in the past enriches the experience of our traditional and shared foodways. I hope that you join us in our next cider conversation!

-Courtney Mailey

Photo: The Winter White Pearmain was one of the apple varieties grown at Appomattox Plantation.

Urban Orchard 101: Scionwood

Every apple seed is a unique individual. Sowing seeds from apples that you like, more often than not, will give you a tree that bears fruit unlike its parent. So just about every cultivated apple that you have likely eaten comes from an ancient practice known as grafting.

At Blue Bee Cider, we conduct bench grafting workshops in early spring. One of the key ingredients to a successful bench graft is a young branch, or scionwood, from the apple tree that you want, which is grafted onto the root system of another apple tree. The first time I heard Charlotte Shelton at Albemarle CiderWorks mention the word, the context was one that made scionwood sound mystical and important all at once. This was a word whose meaning every cidermaker must know.

Charlotte’s brother, Bill, taught me how to spot scionwood, collect it, store it, and ultimately how to it graft with it. I like to collect scionwood in our urban orchard a day or two after a big snowfall. It is a good excuse to get out in the snow with a purpose, when all the world is quiet. If you have an apple tree at home, go out right now (mid-winter) and look for scions. In a nutshell, they tend to be narrow and reddish in appearance compared with older branches on the tree. Be careful to avoid water sprouts which share these characteristics but grow perpendicular on a horizontal limb.

Even though our urban orchard is quite small, Blue Bee Cider generates quite a bit of scionwood. I organize bunches of little twigs into our empty cider bottle boxes, writing the name of the apple on each carton section as I go. Another option is to just tape them together and label the tape before reorganizing and storing them later. I try to avoid taping the scions so that I don’t injure them. Every inch is precious! Either way, the branches are brought inside then sorted, bagged, and labeled before storing in the crisper of the fridge for a couple of months.

If you already have apple trees, go out there and get your scions! A posting on grafting will follow later on. In the meantime, this is my punchlist for scionwood collecting:

  • ·   Orchard map to know which trees are which
  • ·   Newly sharpened pruners
  • ·   Marker
  • ·   Freezer tape for bundling branches (optional)
  • ·   Empty cider bottle boxes
  • ·   Wagon to hold it all together
  • ·   Large plastic storage bags without ziptop closures to avoid injuring the scions
  • ·   Masking tape for closing storage bags
  • ·   Digital camera to remind me of concerns for major pruning later


-Courtney Mailey

Urban Orchard 101: Which Apples to Grow

Choosing which heirloom apples trees to grow is an ongoing dialogue of trial and error, even for highly experienced growers. We talk to each other, we talk to our customers, we ferment things, watch how the trees survive pests and diseases and revise our plantings over and over again.

I am now planning the varieties for Blue Bee Cider’s second urban orchard in Richmond, Virginia. Like the first one, there will be a total of about 15 trees surrounded by hotspots (concrete and asphalt). If I don’t have a serious think about rootstocks, my default is M-111 or a semi-standard sized tree which is big enough to stand on its own but small enough to start bearing after about four years.

For apple varieties, I plan to go with eight Hewe’s Crab, three Winter White Pearmain and four wild cards. The first two varieties have proven themselves to be hearty and happy in our climate in the Manchester orchard. Hewe’s Crab has been a no-brainer from day one. It was originally cultivated in James City County, located one hour south (hotter and more humid) from Richmond. Winter White Pearmain was a wild card apple that I loved and wanted to test out four years ago. As luck would have it, just as this little apple tree was proving itself to be a strong performer in our orchard, Virginia Historical Society sent me a 19th-century era orchard planting list from Appomattox Plantation, located 20 minutes south of Richmond along the James River. This planting list prominently features Winter White Pearmains. Thanks to the archivists at VHS we continue to learn about the orchards and ciders of Virginia prior to Prohibition and keep finding new possibilities that will fuel the renaissance of cider here. So which wild cards will we choose? Smith’s Cider? Nickajack? Red Streak? Swaan? Give us and our friends at VHS a couple more months to work that one out.

-Courtney Mailey

Urban Orchard 101: Know Your Microclimate

As I contemplate our new facility location, one of the most important things to work through is siting the trees on the property. All apple trees need sunlight, air, water, and clean-ish well-drained soil.

I have been studying the microclimates of the Stables for a year now. The sunlight patterns are odd, but not unmanageable. The combination of our work flow and the sun pattern dictates that almost all of the apple trees at this site will be planted on south-, southeast- and a handful of west-facing public-oriented spaces. All of these slope slightly southeast. The westward facing trees will face the most risk in the winter for heat splitting and in the summer for wilting. Luckily (?), we have faced similar circumstances at the current urban orchard in Manchester, growing a linear orchard between two industrial sites radiating lots of heat all year long. So this will not be surprising and we have a few tricks for dealing with it.

Access to water at the Stables is excellent with a couple of key spots to connect hoses. I may need to have an irrigation solution in place during the early years as the trees get established and develop their deeper roots. My mom, the horticulturalist, and I will think through this carefully in December so that we can design and install any new plumbing required as part of the total site rehabilitation.

In the New Year, Mom and I will get to the business of deep core soil samples (some of the future panting areas are currently covered in asphalt) and planning any potential soil amendments at the Stables. Our current urban orchard is located between an old aluminum foil factory, an old cardboard paper/coffee warehouse and rail yards all around. Despite over 100 years of industrial activity all around it, the soils at this site were “shockingly normal” and required ZERO amendments beyond compost and mushroom soil. My guess is that, barring something really weird, the new orchard will not need much fuss in the soil department and that we can begin a regimen of organic soil building practices that are normal for our climate.

Watch this space as the new urban orchard takes shape in Scott’s Addition next year.

-Courtney Mailey

The Potager Begins

Once upon a time, Blue Bee Cider was just an idea. One of the first things that I learned while I was apprenticing at Albemarle CiderWorks, was that the kind of apples I would need for cider were not widely grown by commercial orchards. I had always planned to grow apples trees at some point in the future but the Virginia cider fruit shortage brought the agricultural imperative closer to the present.

I earned my stripes and bandaids grafting, a skill I learned from Bill Shelton at Albemarle CiderWorks that spring. With the help of my family (who also had to learn!) the first nursery of about 150 cider apple trees was planted at a plot in Tricycle Gardens‘ Chimborazo Park community garden. Those trees, shown in the lead picture, graduated in 2013 to the urban orchard at Blue Bee Cider and to the country orchard in Nelson County. At our new location in Scott’s Addition, there will be some room to plant trees as well. But there will also be room and opportunity to plant additional fruits, vegetables and flowers for the tasting room. This is the time of year when planning the kitchen garden of the next year begins.

Since summertime, I have been observing the light patterns for the Stables. The vast majority of the potential planting space is in partial sun and partial shade. (My definition of partial sun is morning shade/afternoon sun or morning to mid-afternoon sun and partial shade is morning sun/afternoon shade.) There is a smidgen of full shade next to the entrance to the cellar and there is a tiny strip of full sun right next to the tasting room at the south gate. With this gem of full sun, as in all things Blue Bee Cider, apples will get the highest priority. This space will be for full grown trees and possibly a nursery.

The idea for Blue Bee Cider’s potager, or kitchen garden, at the Stables is to have something edible growing somewhere at all times throughout the year. Ornamentals are a no-no unless they have some other purpose, such as cut flowers for the tasting room.

This is where I could use your help, Zone 7 growers. What kinds of fruits and vegetables have you had luck with in partial sun and partial shade? We would really appreciate your input over the next couple of weeks. So please comment below!

-Courtney Mailey