Tapping Maple Trees? Must Be Springtime

Apr 5, 2018

There are many different signals that spring has arrived. In today’s episode of Wildlife Matters, the Masked Biologist talks about a regional favorite—sugaring.

Tapping maple trees, or sugaring, is a popular pastime for many folks, an important way of life or means of income for others. Humans are not the only woodland creatures that crave the sugars in the sap. Squirrels, porcupines, and a kind of woodpecker known as a sapsucker are all known to carve bark off of maple trees to access the sap underneath. Humans have very little patience for these sap-nabbers who do their own sugaring but think nothing of people collecting sap to cook up and put on pancakes. After a long hard winter of eating whatever frozen food you can find, who can fault an animal or bird for helping themselves to a sweet treat?

I am not an expert on the sugaring process; on the surface, it seems pretty straightforward. Basically, when the weather conditions are just right, you hammer a spout (called a spile) into a maple tree. As the weather warms in the daytime and cools at night, sap travels up and down between the tree’s roots and crown inside the innermost layers of bark. The spile directs a portion of that sap into a pail or jug. The sap has high water content, but also contains sugars and nutrients. You cook the sap to evaporate the water out, and the remaining product is your syrup. It takes a lot of sap; often 40 gallons of sap is necessary to make a single gallon of syrup. Maple trees, especially sugar maples, are definitely the preferred tree species for making syrup, although black, red, and silver maples and box elder also could be tapped. The paper birch is also a maple relative and can be tapped; although it produces very little sap, what sap it does produce is very sweet.

The sap collection process, when done properly, does not harm the tree, nor does the volume of sap removed during the sugaring season. It is my understanding that only 10% of the tree’s reserves are removed in the process, which is less than what drops to the ground in colorful leaves in autumn.

This period of time, when the sap moves in high quantity up and down the tree, is generally limited to springtime when temperatures move above and below freezing in a 24 hour period. Each spring, sugaring is completely dependent on the weather. In recent years we have had record breaking good and bad years. I like to visit the sugar shacks of friends when I can, but sometimes the cooking period is so brief before I know it the opportunity has passed. Still, there’s something about lingering around a sugar house this time of year, sipping a cup of maple sap coffee, and watching sap boil. Until you see it in action, it is difficult to understand and appreciate the importance of sugaring. Sure, it gives you delicious syrup. It also gets you outside, and it makes you pay attention to the growing season in relation to the weather, what we refer to as phenology. You have to know what the weather is doing, and how the trees are going to respond. Like hunting, fishing, rice collecting, trapping, gathering mushrooms, and other Northwoods activities, sugaring is a way to connect with nature and participate in the changing of the seasons.

Striving to make new things familiar and familiar things new, this is the masked biologist coming to you from the heart of Wisconsin’s great Northwoods.