It’s always a big relief to finish tapping and know we are ready for the first run of sap. Winter seems to be staying with us for another week or so and it may be a late start to the season. All we can do is wait patiently for that first taste of fresh syrup.
Tapping looks easy until you have spent a day in the sugar bush on snowshoes moving from tree to tree and drilling several hundred holes in hard maple. We now have battery powered electric drills and special tapping drill bits that make the task much easier. In the very early days the pioneers did as the natives were doing and simply cut a gash in the tree with an axe and used a sliver of wood to direct the sap into a bucket on the ground. Effective but very hard on the tree. The next evolution was to use a two handed auger to bore a hole in the tree and a hand whittled hollow spile to direct the sap to a bucket on the ground.
The spiles were often made of sumac which has a soft central pith easy to remove to create a hollow spile. The augers handmade at the local blacksmith shop were an inch or so in diameter and also quite damaging to the tree. So smaller spiles were tried and 7/16” became an industry standard. Cast metal or rolled sheet metal in many specialized shapes were developed with much promotion that a particular shape enhanced sap flow. Hooks were added to hang the bucket and hold a bucket lid.Tapping bits were also improved and the brace and bit replaced the two hand auger. Things stayed this way until the 1960’s when the first plastic tubes and spiles were introduced.
Plastic tubing is now so common that it is hard to believe that it took 30 years or so for the switch to tubing to become popular. Early tubing became brittle due to ultraviolet damage. It was prone to sag and required a lot of maintenance. Also syrup producers were reluctant to change from the way their family had made syrup for generations. However, with tubing that will now last 20 years or so and much better fittings and spiles, it is now the new standard.
About the same time that plastic tubing was introduced concern was growing about damage to the maple tree due to tapping and often overtapping. It takes 4 or 5 years for a tree to grow new wood to fully seal the hole of a 7/16” spile. Experiments were conducted on smaller hole sizes and a new size 5/16” has been adopted as the industry standard. A 5/16” hole will seal in two years on a healthy tree. Some producers are experimenting with 3/16” spiles and tubing but results are mixed. Vacuum assist is now used extensively on tubing systems to stimulate and increase sap flow. High vacuum, over 25” of mercury, will draw sap horizontally around the tree as well as vertically. This means the number of taps in a multi-tap tree can be reduced with no loss of sap flow. Another step forward in protecting our trees.
The most commonly asked question by first time visitors to our sugarbush is. “Do you have to put a new hole in the tree each year?”. We are surprised by this question but it appears that even people with no maple experience are concerned about the damage to the tree. And that is a welcome thought.
The next time you are in a sugar bush, take a look at the trees that have been tapped for several years. You will see old tapholes and have a better appreciation as to why we are putting time and effort into better tapping equipment and methods.