Sweet sap season has arrived

Kelly Heidbreder
Kelly Heidbreder

This has been a long winter for us and for our trees. We are finally getting some bright days ahead and the trees are starting to wake out of their slumber. That means it is time to tap the maples.

A grouping of maple trees or trees that produce sap is called a sugar bush and Native Americans tapped into those trees and figured out how to extract their sweetness.


Bouncing temperatures

According to the University of Cincinnati Clermont College, you are looking sunshine, daytime high temps in the 40s and overnight lows in the 20s. The college has been tapping trees since 1974 and noted that Ohio is second only to Vermont in production of maple syrup.

Not all trees will get the sugar flowing. Look for sugar, silver, and red maples and even box elder trees. Walnut, hickory sycamore, and sweet birch will also be good trees to tap. According to the UCCC website, sugar maple sap contains the highest concentration of sugar, up to 2 percent or higher according to weather conditions and the health of the tree.


Takes a lot for a little

According to the University of Vermont, one tree can dump up to 30 gallons of sap during the heaviest flow months of late February, March, and early April. That’s the good news. Once you boil all of that down, you will get about a third of a gallon of syrup. That’s the bad news.


Tap away

Pick a tree that is at least a foot and a half in diameter. It has to be old enough and healthy enough to get the sap flowing from its roots to its leaves at the crown. The sap flows in the outer layers of the bark called the sapwood. The sugar in the sap is produced by the leaves. If you think back to your high school science class, this process is called photosynthesis. It is stored in the bark during the winter and goes down to the roots when it warms up. Bouncing temperatures causes the sap to flow inside the sapwood.

The tools you will need are pretty simple: a tree tap, also called a spile, that has a sharp end that is pounded into the tree and a spout on the other end to allow the sap to drip into a bucket. The tap also includes a hook to hold a bucket underneath. Five gallon buckets are perfect to hang on the spiles, or you can also use a smaller three-gallon bucket or a plastic gallon milk jug. If you have a lot of sap flowing, you will also want to have a new plastic garbage can to use as a dumping reservoir over the next few weeks.

Pick a spot on the sunny side of the tree about three feet from the ground. Drill a hole in the tree about one and a half to two inches deep using a three-eighths-inch drill bit. Point the drill up slightly so the sap will easily flow into your bucket.


Ready set flow

If temperatures stay below freezing during the day, the sap will stop moving. It also stops if the night time temperatures don’t go below freezing. You need the bounce of temperatures above and below freezing to keep the sap moving. The best time to collect your sap is in the late afternoon. If the sap has stopped flowing for a couple days, you may have to redrill the hole.

Once you collect gallons of sap, it will take a while to boil it down. Since you will have a lot of steam coming off for such a long period of time, boil it down outside or in a well-ventilated area.

In the syrup world, there’s a “Rule of 86.” Here’s how it works, according to U of V. Let’s say you have maple trees that produce sap with 2 percent sugar. You would need to boil down 43 gallons of that sap with two percent sugar to make just one gallon of syrup. Can you follow the math?

If you have a sugar bush on your property, check out the Ohio State University North American Maple Syrup Producers Manual for a composition of maple syrup .

Contact Kelly Heidbreder at