January 20, 2018

Archives for July 2011

The Velvet At Wolgast Tree Farm

The largest mammals that are regularly seen here at Wolgast Tree Farm are White-tailed deer.  At this time of year, virtually all of the male deer that we see (called bucks) that are at least a year of age are growing antlers.

Buck in Velvet by Norway Spruce

Unlike horns, which are permanent features of an animal’s head (like on a sheep) and are made of dead tissue just like our hair and fingernails,  antlers grow each year from a special place at the base of the deer’s skull called a pedicle, and are eventually cast off in late winter, and then regrow later in the springWhile they are growing, antlers are living tissue (true bone) covered with a special skin called velvet.  Velvet has both nerves and blood vessels that supply the growing antlers with nutrients and oxygen.  It is called velvet because it is covered with numerous fine hairs that give the skin a velvet-like feel.

 When the antlers become fully developed, the velvet dies and is rubbed off by the buck on to surrounding vegetation.  This usually happens sometime in early September before the fall equinox.

Right now though, they are growing.  Just how big they’ll get depends on the interaction of at least three factors: the buck’s age, genetics and access to nutrition.  (For the record, you can’t tell how old a deer is by counting the number of points on its antlers.  Instead, wildlife biologists will examine their teeth to determine a deer’s age).

Late Summer Buck in Velvet at Wolgast Tree Farm.

We’ve enjoyed watching the antler development on some of the deer we’ve seen around the area, even though the antlers can be used by bucks to cause problems with our trees later in the fall.   More on that in the future.

Regardless, humankind has had a fascination with antlers for eons and then some, and we are no exception here at Wolgast Tree Farm.

Monarch Magic At Wolgast Tree Farm

We’ve been seeing Monarch butterflies flying among our Christmas trees here at Wolgast Tree Farm.  The Christmas trees probably aren’t of much interest to the Monarchs, but what we have growing in between the rows of trees is: Common Milkweed.

A Monarch butterfly goes through four life stages: egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, and butterfly.  Monarchs lay their eggs on the leaves of milkweed because when the eggs hatch that’s what Monarch caterpillars will feed on.  Special chemicals in milkweed are absorbed by the caterpillar when  it eats the leaves which makes the Monarch poisonous or taste very bad to birds and mammals.  It is thought that the bright orange color of Monarch butterflies serves as a warning to predators that they are poisonous and taste bad, and that it would probably be a good idea to find their next meal elsewhere.

Milkweeds are a key feature of Monarch butterfly habitat, so we like to do our part to help make our farm a place that Monarchs would like to visit as part of our wildlife-friendly, sustainable farming practices.

Earlier this spring we marked the locations of milkweed plants with bamboo stakes and flagging so we wouldn’t accidentally cut them down when we mowed between our trees. 

It’s definitely less convenient to mow around milkweed, but we enjoy the trade-off.  Having Monarch caterpillars and butterflies be part of Wolgast Tree Farm’s wildlife menagerie is one of the things that makes our farm special and we’re very proud of that fact.

Bee Cool At Wolgast Tree Farm

Like the rest of New Jersey, the weather has been extra hot and muggy the last few days at Wolgast Tree Farm.  The searing heat and humidity has not only altered our behavior (we’ve been getting up at 4:45 am to work on our Christmas trees until 8:30 am), but also the behavior of our honeybees.

The temperature and humidity within a honeybee hive influences the development of bee brood (baby bees still in the comb) and the making of honey.  Beehives aren’t outfitted with electric fans or air conditioners, but they have other ways of controlling the temperature and humidity within their home.

When it’s hot and humid, bees can be seen outside the hive facing the entrance and fanning their wings.   Positioned in this way honeybees are able to use their wings to draw warm air out of the hive.  Usually there are bees on the inside of the hive on the bottom board that are also fanning, but they are out of sight unless you were able to kneel down in front of the entrance and used a flashlight to look inside.

Circulating the air inside the hive by fanning keeps the level of carbon dioxide and other harmful gases from building up, and keeps the hive’s humidity at 50%.  It also helps prevent beeswax from melting and removes excess water from nectar that was collected by the bees to help make honey.

Fanning also causes water that honeybees have gathered and placed in  empty cells within the comb to evaporate which will cool and ventilate the hive.  When it gets extremely hot honeybees collect more water than they do pollen or nectar from flowers.  This is to prevent temperatures in the hive from getting so high that it would kill bee brood.  The average lifespan of a worker honeybee during the summer is six weeks.  Dead brood means no adult bees are coming along to replace those that die after six weeks.  This would eventually lead to the death of the entire colony, so the bees do whatever it takes to keep the brood alive.  This is a picture of a frame from one of our hives that contains different stages of brood development.   There is capped brood (the tan covering over the round cells that is mostly to the right of the picture), bee larva (white “C” shaped, grub-like brood in the uncovered cells mostly in the center of the picture) and to the left of the larva are honeybee eggs, which look like very tiny white grains of rice at the bottom of the cells (click on the photo to enlarge it).  Having different ages of brood and eggs means an ongoing supply of adult bees for the future.

Another way that honeybees try to control the temperature inside the hive is by “bearding”.  This is when bees gather on the outside of the hive in order to reduce the hive’s temperature and congestion.  This activity is usually seen during late afternoon.

We are constantly amazed at how the 30,000 honeybees that live in a hive are able to work together and do what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, in order for the hive to survive.  Whether they are foraging among numerous flower sources in search of different types of nectar and pollen, or gathering water and fanning their wings to control the temperature within their hive, honeybees are wonders of nature and a special part of Wolgast Tree Farm.

On The Grow at Wolgast Tree Farm

It’s been a banner growing season so far this year here at Wolgast Tree Farm.  All the rain we’ve had coupled with just enough sun has really helped to bolster the growth of the 800 seedlings we planted this past spring. 

Usually during the first year after a seedling is planted, most of its energies are directed towards establishing a strong root system with very little growth in the branches.  But this year has been different.  We’ve noticed lots of new growth along the branches, which means that the seedlings not only have strong root systems, but that they have extra energy to devote to green growth as well.  This bodes well for seedling vigor in future years.   Here, Len is admiring all the new, light green growth on a Canaan fir that was planted this past April. 

We grow nine species of Christmas trees and each one has special needs in order for it to grow healthy.  Some seedlings, like white pines, can grow well on wet sites.  Others need to be on a site that is high and dry.  We plant each individual seedling according to the microsite conditions where it will grow best.  Healthy seedlings are better able to fight off insect pests and other environmental stresses (like drought), which is part of our Intergrated Pest Management program (IPM).   

We can’t predict what the future holds, but if we continue to have favorable weather during the growing seasons, coupled with being on the proper soil site, this Canaan fir seedling could be ready to be someone’s special Christmas tree in six or seven years.  Things are really “On The Grow” at Wolgast Tree Farm!