Braving freezing temperatures, Yale students headed to West Campus to set up maple sap collection buckets in preparation for 2018’s Maplefest, an annual event held by the Yale Landscape Lab.

Organized by the Landscape Lab, the outing drew interest from roughly 20 Yale undergraduates as well as graduate students. Participants spent a few minutes learning the basics of sugar maple identification and tapping, then got to work.

“Growing up in New England, this is something you know exists but you might not get to experience hands-on,” Andrew Greaves SOM ’18 said.

Greaves decided to attend after reading about the event in the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies newsletter. He described himself as a “fan of pancakes and maple byproducts.” With guidance from the two Landscape Lab members present, Greaves and other attendees had the opportunity to tap a tree on their own.

The mechanics of setting up a collection bucket for sap are fairly simple, said Frank Cervo FES ’19, co-forest manager at the Yale Landscape Lab. First, you drill a small, relatively shallow hole in a tree. Then, you hammer in a spile at an upward angle, which acts as a pipeline between the stored sap and the bucket. Finally, you hang the bucket on the end of the spile and cover it with a lid. Every few days, the bucket will fill up, at which point you retrieve the sap and replace the bucket. For the remainder of the maple tapping season, the buckets will collect sap, which will be boiled down into maple syrup, said Rosa Goldman FES ’19, co-forest manager at the Yale Landscape Lab.

A group of deans visiting from Ivy Plus undergraduate and professional schools dropped by to tap a few trees themselves, temporarily commandeering one of the two drills in use. After setting up a few buckets and posing for some photos, the deans — who hailed from Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, Stanford and Yale — returned to their other scheduled activities.

The maple syrup will be the star of the 2018 Maplefest, an annual event held by the Landscape Lab. This year’s Maplefest, held on April 27, will feature a wide assortment of maple-flavored snacks and beverages, Cervo said.

Participants were dressed in thick jackets, scarves and heavy gloves as they struggled to stay warm. Some attendees brought their dogs, which spent the afternoon rough-housing and gallivanting about, undeterred by the 25-degree weather.

Usually, the Landscape Lab holds off on tapping the trees until around mid-February or early-March, when it is warmer. The ideal time for sap collection is when temperatures are below freezing at night and above freezing during the day, Goldman said. The freeze-thaw cycle creates the pressure that allows the sap to flow out of the tree, she added.

However, a spot of unusually nice weather in January prompted the team to set Feb. 2 as the official date of the tapping event. Cervo referred to the decision about when to set the taps as “kind of a gamble.” Set the taps too early, and the holes close up before you can collect any sap. Set them too late, and you get far less sap than you otherwise would have. Climate change has played an important role in determining when to set the taps as well, Goldman said, as it has caused tap season to move progressively earlier in the year.

Gathering maple syrup is a great way for students to interact with the forest in a sustainable manner, Cervo said.

“Maple syrup is a forest product that is not in any way destructive,” he said. “You don’t have to kill the tree to get it.”

The organizers agreed the event is a great opportunity to share the forest with students who may not even be aware that it is a resource available to them. Elise Gubbins ’18, said that simply seeing the forest in the wintertime was reason enough to come to the event, though she had also been pleasantly surprised by how fun and easy tapping the trees proved to be.

The United States produced 4.27 million gallons of maple syrup in 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Maya Chandra | maya.chandra@yale.edu