The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

Healing from the Hive: Honey, Propolis, Beeswax, and Herbal Practices March 5, 2016

The last time I wrote about bees on my blog, I wrote about the loss of my hives from Colony Collapse Disorder back in October.  The loss of both of the colonies of bees caused a great deal of sadness and questioning on my part, but, in the months since, I’ve done a lot of reflection on the bees themselves.  I think the long-term lessons from this experience led me to a deeper understanding of the delicacy of a hive, the delicate balance we, as humans, need to strive to protect, and reaffirmed my commitment to beekeeping as a sacred and spiritual practice.  And so, its time for another honeybee post!  In this post, I will discuss honeybees as healing agents and the benefits bees can have as partners in healing.  This post will look primarily at how we can heal people using harvests from the hive, but I’ll do a follow-up post looking at the other kinds of healing that bees do.  (FYI, I’m taking a week or more off from my ongoing “Druid’s Primer for Land Healing” series; this is because the next set of posts in that series is taking a bit longer to draft than one week! With my upcoming welcoming of a new colony of bees to the hive, I thought it would be a great post for this week!)

 

Sunflower and bee!

Sunflower and bee!

The timing of this post aligns with my first beekeeping work of 2016–this weekend, I’m moving my hives to a much closer location to where I’m renting (a friend’s house about five miles away), cleaning and preparing my hives for new bees.  In a very fortuitous set of circumstances, a friend and fellow beekeeper contacted me earlier this week to tell me he’s rescuing two colonies of bees from a building that is being torn down; the weather next week will be nice enough to move them. He’s offered one of the colonies to me, as he knows that I lost my bees last fall. And so, with the preparation work underway, we can explore the magical healing of the bees!

 

Healing Within and Without

 

As I mentioned at the start of this post, the last time that I wrote about bees on this blog, I was devastated by the loss of my two hives. The truth is, its really hard to keep bees today with the many chemicals, pesticides, mites and diseases that the bees face. In talking to a man who had been keeping bees longer than I’ve been alive, he shared with me that his hives in the 1970’s and 1980’s were 10x stronger than the hives today, that there really is no comparison. And it is during this time that we see an enormous increase in pesticide use, in chemicals, in destruction of habitat, and more. And so I think as we consider the role of the bee in healing our own lives, we also have to recognize the importance of cultivating that sacred relationship not just with the bee, but with the land that she lives upon. The truth is, I feel that the bees and their plight is very representative of the challenges facing the entire ecosystem—the bee might be more visibly damaged by pesticides and chemicals, but all aspects of the land suffer–including the humans that inhabit the land.

 

Inside the hive

Inside the hive

So part of the reason that I am sharing this material today, is that this kind of knowledge can help us cultivate a better relationship with our land.  As we use harvests from the hive to heal our bodies, we can also think about other ecosystem healing work that there is to do, and that my recent series of posts has described in depth.

 

And of course, there are important connections between our inner and outer worlds.  By working with the bees to produce healing medicine for humans, we create a powerful connection to the land, and encourage many humans to work to heal it as well.  Its a cycle that’s important to recognize, and promote–the mutual healing and benefit of humans, the land, and all of the land’s inhabitants.  This is why permaculture’s ethical system is as much about people care as it is about earth care–because the two are fuzed together, and healing one helps heal the other for the mutual greater healing of both.

 

Healing from the Hive: An Herbalist’s Perspective

Herbalism is the traditional use of plants for healing—and one of the ways we can use plants in a concentrated manner is using transformed plant material from domesticated honeybees. As master alchemists, honeybees transform plant matter–primarily plant resins and plant nectars–into incredible healing agents.  There are four things that we can harvest from their hives, all of which are extremely useful in herbalism practice (and can be used in place of other herbs that are endangered, like Goldenseal).  The material I’m presenting here comes from four places–a book called The Honey Prescription, material from Jim McDonald’s Four Season Herbal Intensive, and material from older herbal books, as well as my own direct experiences.

  • Honey: Honey is created from nectar from flowers. Bees convert the nectar into flowers by removing the water and curing the honey until it reaches below 20% water content. At 20% water content, it preserves indefinitely.
  • Propolis: Concentrated plant resin from flowers, trees, etc. Bees use it as a “glue” in their hive, but we can tincture it and use it as medicine (note that propolis must be tinctured in 95% alcohol because it is not water soluble. Whatever you tincture it in will forever have propolis on it!)
  • Beeswax: Bees can eat their honey and excrete wax from special wax glands on their abdomens. This, of course, we can use in many medicinal preparations (such as a salve).
  • Pollen: Pollen is also collected by bees from flowers. Bees keep it and use it as their protein source. Pollen use for humans is currently a bit controversial, with a lot of claims but not necessarily any science to back it up.  I haven’t used this at all, although it does seem to be one of those new fads.

 

This post will explore the first three: honey, beeswax, and propolis, and the healing that they bring.

 

Moving beehives to a new location!

Moving beehives to a new location!

Honey as a Healing Agent

Honey has been used as a healing agent for millennia. However, its important to understand that many modern honeys that you buy at the store do not have these healing properties.  This is because nearly everything that is good about honey as a healing agent is only good when it is raw. Exposing honey to heat above 100 degrees or too much light means its not nearly as effective (especially in its anti-bacterial action). Note that most beekeepers, especially larger-scale beekeepers, use heat to process honey because it flows better.  Given this, only honeys labeled as raw honey have the medicinal actions described here.

 

Honey as a Healing Food

Honey is an incredible healing food.  The best honey is raw honey, unfiltered, from a local beekeeper.  A few other tips on honey:

  • Darker honeys have higher amounts of minerals compared to lighter varieties
  • Honey is more nutrient rich than sugar or corn syrup; trace amounts of many nutrients (thiamin, riboflavin, nacin, calcium, copper, magnesium, iron, manganese, zinc)
  • Honey has prebiotic and probiotic properties to facilitate good digestion
  • Honey contains flavonoids and phenolic acids which act as antioxidants
  • Honey can aid with calcium absorption, which helps with osteoporosis, etc.

I eat honey almost every day, and try to have it in various ways.  You can cook with it, but if you do, be aware that heat zaps some of its medicinal power.  Given this, when I cook with it or add it to tea, I do it as a last step after the tea has cooled or the food is baked and I can just drizzle some honey on it!

 

Honey as Medicine: Wound and Ulcer Healing

Honey is an extremely potent and powerful medicine–I have used it firsthand in a number of ways, and it is regarded highly by herbalists in their practices. These are some of its amazing benefits:

  • Anti-bacterial activity: All honeys that have not been exposed to light or heat are anti-bacterial and sterile. Darker honeys have a stronger anti-bacterial activity; Anti-bacterial action (the anti-bacterial activity is caused by minute amounts of hydrogen peroxide).
  • Kinds of wounds: Honey can be used extremely effectively in wounds, including festering wounds, food ulcers, large septic wounds, etc. (it kills the infecting bacteria in the wound). It is extremely effective on open wounds, even deep cuts (skin gashes, ulcers, gaping wounds)
  • Honey also sucks up excess water in a wound; because of this it needs to be reapplied fairly often on serious wounds
  • Honey draws out foreign matter and removes dead tissue
  • Honey reduces wound scarring and encourages new growth
  • Honey reduces inflammation
  • Honey also deodorizes an infected wound (it kills the anaerobic bacteria which cause infections)
  • Can kill “superbugs” like MRSA, Anthrax, TB, Septicemia (see Honey Prescription, Pg 73 for more info)

To use honey in the above ways, you can directly apply it to wounds using sterile bandages with honey, under a band-aid, etc.  Depending on the nature of the wound or burn, it might require many applications of honey per day.

 

Harvesting honey

Harvesting honey

Honey as Medicine: Many other Healing Benefits

The following are some more ways we can use honey in a medicinal preparation:

  • Honey is extremely effective on burns, especially on serious (2nd and 3rd degree) burns. I have found that you can apply honey to a burn even before heading to the hospital in the case of serious burns. Honey will reduce inflammation and create a moist healing environment, stimulating new skin growth.  So many times I have used honey to heal burns!
  • Sore/Scratchy Throat + Cough: use for alleviating nocturnal coughs and upper respiratory infections (functions as a demulcent on the throat)
  • Intestinal Disorders: Gastritis can be helped by honey. It even helps soothe salmonella (I have firsthand experience on this issue, unfortunately)!
  • Hemorrhoids: Honey significantly reduces the symptoms (use a mix of beeswax, honey, and olive oil to create a salve)
  • Tooth Decay: Honey stops the growth of bacteria found in dental plaque and reduces the amount of acid reduced (can promote health if used in place of refined sugar)
  • Gingivitis: Use directly on the gums to reduce symptoms and promote healing.
  • Enhancing Immune Systems: Boost immune system and white blood cell effectiveness

 

Propolis

Propolis is the concentrated plant resins that the bees collect.  They use it as a “glue” in their hives–its very sticky at first, and then slowly dries out and becomes brittle.  It smells amazing, like the inside of the beehive on a warm summer day!  Propolis can be used similar to how goldenseal is used in many cases, and since goldenseal is so endangered and rare, its a wonderful alternative.  Its primary function is that it is a contact anti-microbial, meaning it has anti-microbial action when coming in direct contact with the tissues.  Due to its resinous nature, it also seals up wounds effectively!  Here are some more details:

  • Anti-microbial action. Propolis is very effective as a remedy for cold sores and herpes virus manifesting on the face or other parts not to be named. It has very strong contact anti-microbial properties and can function as a “seal” over wounds and sores.
  • Burn Healing: Can help heal (and seal up) minor burns.
  • Dental Cavities: Propolis can effectively be used as a mouth disinfectant, especially to limit bacterial plaque.
  • Wart Removal: Propolis can heal plantars and common warts with repeated application (one study suggested a 75% success rate)

 

Its really an incredible addition to the herbal medicine chest!  I would suggest reading The Honey Prescription for more information on this amazing healing agent!

 

Cutting comb honey!

Cutting comb honey!

Beeswax

I’m not going to write too much about beeswax here, as it deserves a longer treatment on its own, but it is widely used in herbal applications. Its especially useful for making salves and creams (like my backyard healing salve or jewelweed salve).  Its also wonderful for making candles, and shining a light in the dark places. One of the family traditions my family has done our whole lives is making Ukranian eggs (called Psyanka) where you use beeswax to mask certain colors of the egg as it goes through successive dye baths to create beautiful and colorful patterns.  These eggs could be used for protection, fertility, and more–and the beeswax is a key part of that process.

 

Herb Infused Honey

You can combine the healing properties of honey with the healing properties of other herbs for added effect.  My elderberry infused honey is a daily addition to my tea in the winter months!

 

Herbs you can use include:  Cinnamon (sticks); vanilla beans; sage, lavender, rosemary, thyme, lemon verbena, lemon balm, elder flower, rose petal, chamomile, star anise, dried lemon slices or dried lemon zest, dried ginger, mint, bee balm, and more. For this recipe, use 2-3 teaspoons of dried herbs per 1 cup of honey.

 

You will also need a mason jar, some raw honey, and a spoon or stick for stirring.

 

Here are the directions for your infused honey:

  1. Ensure your herbs are chopped up. The more chopped the herb is, the better it infuses, but the harder it is to get out.
  2. Add wax paper to the top so the honey doesn’t touch the lid (there is BPA in the lid). Or use a plastic lid.
  3. Infuse at least 1 week, turning the jar every day. Don’t sit it in a warm windowsill in direct sunlight (unlike some online instructions suggest), as this will remove some of the honey’s antimicrobial actions.
  4. IF you want, you can strain the honey, and store in a cool, dry place. (Alternatively, don’t strain it and enjoy it with the dried herbs inside–that’s what I do with my elderberry honey!)
  5. If you do strain it, you can use the leftover herbs in a tea.

*Note, you can use fresh herbs for this as well. Seep them about 2-3 weeks. Keep your infused honey in the fridge and use within 2-3 weeks. Fresh herbs add water content to the honey, which makes it no longer shelf stable. A wonderful thing to do, however, is to add the herbs, then just take a spoonful of the mixture and make it into tea! It won’t last long!
**Safety note: Honey is safe for infusing because it is very acidic (Botulism grows in a low acid, low oxygen environment; honey is not a low acid environment)

 

I hope you’ve enjoyed this small dip into the healing magic of the beehives–speaking of which, I have some beehives calling to me, so I best get to the work at hand!

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The Sound of Silence: Mass Extinction and the Music of the World February 2, 2015

I recently came across an article from The Guardian in 2012 detailing the work of scientist Bernie Krause, who has spent his life recording sounds of nature. Krause’s major finding is simple: the loss of biodiversity, from the depths of the reefs to the rain forests, can be clearly tracked by listening to audio recordings over a 40-year period. He reports that he now hears deafening silence in so many ecosystems that once teemed with life. The article detailed his book, The Great Animal Orchestra. I bought the book, compelled to read more, the cryptic words of Simon and Garfunkle’s Sound of Silence echoing in my ears. This blog post is a bit different than some of my others, in that it is simply a response, a real and human response, to the growing sound of silence upon our landscape.

 

In restless dreams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
‘Neath the halo of a street lamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence

When I was a child and teen, I embraced dystopian science fiction. Authors like Ursula K. LeGuin, E.M. Forrester, Aldus Huxley, Marge Piercy, Suzette Hagen Elgin, and George Orwell enthralled me and horrified me with their tales of dark futures, where humanity was oppressed and the land stripped bare. But these were just stories, I’d think to myself. And growing up in the late 80’s and early 90’s, they really did seem to be stories–we had plenty of resources, this was America’s heyday, when everything was booming. Of course we were were protecting the land as we grew and prospered, there were no costs to our progress…at least, that’s what we keep being told.  But these tales often made me wonder–what was the cost? And how quickly were we headed to a future, say, like what Marge Piercy describes in Oryx and Crake?  Perhaps faster than I realized.

When I was 14, I witnessed firsthand of the destruction of the ecosystem of my own beloved forest in the name of profit. I remember the deafening roar of the loggers’ machines as they pillaged that forest. I remember the eerie silence in the weeks following their departure, and the devastated landscape they left in their wake. Where a once-vibrant forest stood–and chirped, buzzed, skittered, and slithered–only silence remained.

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence

The silence of the forest after it has been logged, or the silence of the reef after it has been bleached, is only one kind of silence–there is another, just as tragic, in our own conversations as a culture and as a species. The silence that pervades us is a silence of fact, of truth, and of reality. We hear people talking without saying anything–the nightly news and national media do their best to continually report on nothing of substance, all day and all night long. When they attempt to address an issue of real substance, it is reported is a shallow husk of reality. The narrative we hear from those who speak loudly is that everything is fine and will continue to be fine, that mass extinctions don’t matter, that we can continue to pillage and plunder. Chris Hedges does a brilliant job in identifying these issues in his Empire of Illusion.

When people do hear about the work of scientists like Bernie Krause, they do not listen. They make excuses. They close off their ability to comprehend what is actually being said, or attack the credibility of science or or a scientist’s character in order to protect and preserve that their own internal mythologies. I think about the final comments of the authors of The Limits to Growth when they say that, despite the massive amount of evidence they compiled and presented, they weren’t heard at a regional, national, or international level. They, too, could not have conversations because the conversations were not able to be had. But they could talk and work locally, and that gave them hope. Still, so many others, also silenced.

And the silence is becoming institutionalized. And now, parts of the legislative branch in the USA are working to silence science. North Carolina passed a law in 2012 that effectively bans the use of scientific data in making predictions about sea level rise. Congress just this past year made it illegal for the Pentagon to address climate change and told them to ignore that it was occurring. Our very governments, those that are supposed to protect the people, are instead, protecting their own silence. And its not just our government–we, too, often turn away from the things we don’t want to hear, from the realities we face. We, too, offer silence.

“Fools”, said I, “You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you”
But my words, like silent raindrops fell
And echoed
In the wells of silence

Even as someone who has a Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition, who teaches effective writing as my profession, I am at a loss about how to address the silence, how to engage in conversations that enact real change. I’ve certainly taken my best step at some analysis of the tools we could use to address humanity’s current predicament on my little corner of the web. Still, I don’t know how we can break the silence of a larger system where power and privilege control nearly all dialogue and discussion. I, too, like so many of you, feel silenced.

 

Truthfully, in reading and reflecting upon the research of Bernie Krause and others like him, I am struck by the enormity of the loss of life that is occurring, of the silence that remains behind. I think about the little things I am doing in my life, the things I talk about on this blog, and I know they aren’t enough. But the really truly difficult things, like better options for transportation and housing, are still out of my reach at this point, partially because of lack of resources and partially because of the laws themselves. I make excuses, like I just did, and wonder what the best way to actually move forward is. I question how I can even be part of the system at all. I get upset, and angry, and frustrated with myself for my lack of real response. I engage in internal dialogue with myself….and get tripped up at this point…because I’ve just written two paragraphs that say, I don’t know, and I have nothing more to offer. From the outside, all one would hear is my silence. Meanwhile, the broader echoes reverberate in Bernie Krause’s recordings and the silence grows with each extinction and tree felled.

And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls”
And whispered in the sounds of silence

All the while, we worship the the neon gods, bowing to them and honoring them with our time, energy, and passion. But the neon gods cannot grow our food; the neon gods cannot provide us with water, or shelter, or warmth. In fact, the neon gods provide us with nothing that we actually need to survive. But they can certainly fill our minds with distractions so that we can’t hear the growing silence. Perhaps its time we turn away from the neon gods long enough to start to listen and to understand, on multiple levels. Perhaps its time to break that silence.

 

Creating Sacred Spaces: Bee and Butterfly Sancturaries January 7, 2015

Yard full of dandelions!

Yard full of dandelions!

In the depths of the winter, I like to do my planning for next year’s garden, organize my seeds, and start seeds for the coming season. This year, I’m thinking a lot about perennial spaces and planning more bee and butterfly plants to attract butterflies and give my bees more forage.  In this post, I’ll talk about the process of developing a bee and butterfly garden as a sacred sanctuary.  I currently have two small ones near my house, but I’m ready to expand it into much more of the landscape, especially into my front yard.

 

I’ve been interested in bees and butterflies for a long time, but it wasn’t until the township took issue with my front lawn and I started keeping bees that I started to really understand the nature of the issue.  The nature of the issue, as I see it, is this: Americans keep lawns and those lawns are like deserts to a pollinator–there is literally nothing for the bees and butterflies to eat in a typical lawn.  Dandelions might pop up, which is a great early pollen source for bees.  But as quickly as the dandelions pop up, they are mowed or treated with chemicals.  Monocrops are also a problem–where there are crops, they are often GMO with chemicals and insecticides bred into their DNA.  A third problem is in the greenhouse industry–a lot of flowers that you buy in the spring for planting come out of greenhouses covered in insecticides–if you plant those flowers, you are exposing the pollinators to poison and harming the bees even more.  All in all, its a sorry state of affairs for our pollinators and butterflies, and part of the reason why we are seeing such declines in bee populations (wild and domesticated) and in butterfly populations.

 

Bee and Butterfly Gardens as a Sacred Space

Native bee

Native bee

Given these rather dire circumstances, I want to turn our attention once more to the idea of the sacred space and sacred site, and I’d like to suggest that bee and butterfly sanctuaries might be another kind of sacred space we can create.  Because I think that sacred spaces for function for more than just humans–a sacred space, especially one created in an earth-centered tradition, hopefully will serve for many different kinds of life.  I’ve already discussed creating sacred spaces in this blog pretty extensively–from Understanding and Developing Sacred Sites in the US to how to create various kinds of sacred spaces such as stone circles, stone cairns, and other projects. I’ve also explored the garden as a sacred sanctuary.

There are a few ways to create a sacred space for pollinators, one that provides them with what they need in a chemical-free environment but also one that honors them in other ways. The best part about this is that a bee and butterfly garden is beautiful, functional, and, if you plan it right, always blooming and full of tasty treats and medicinal herbs.

 

Basic Needs for Pollinator Sanctuaries

The basic needs for a bee and butterfly sanctuary are:

 

1) A wide range of flowering plants, trees, and bushes that are flowering at different times to ensure a consistent nectar flow and pollen throughout the season.  Fruit trees provide early blossoms, goldenrod provides some of the last pollen of the year, and the host of wild flowers and bushes in between get them through the summer.  There is typically a “summer dearth” of nectar, so its also useful to plan for that and have flowers blooming during that time.

 

2) Pollinators need shelter. Its useful to study how different bees and butterflies in your region live so that you can provide what they need. Shelters for wild and domestic bees can be built, such as hives or shelters for mason bees. Bumblebees, another wild bee who is declining in population, live in colonies of 50-60 bees underground (the queen alone overwinters, also underground), so you want to make sure there are plenty of places for them to burrow where they won’t be disturbed.

 

Me in front of one of the butterfly gardens!

Me in front of one of the butterfly gardens!

3) Pollinators need water.  You might think about shallow dishes where the water is easily accessible and bees and butterflies can’t drown.  Many beekeepers keep a little bee fountain going–I have a large pond, so I put rocks along the edge near the beehives where they can land easily and get at the water easily without drowning.

 

4) Pollinators need host plants. Another thing that pollinators need, especially butterflies, are host plants.  These are plants, like milkweed, where they can lay eggs and where young will find the nutrients they need to grow.  These plants are things like milkweed (Monarch), spicebush (Spicebush swallowtail, below), clover, snapdragon, alfalfa, fennel (other swallowtails), sunflower, and marshmallow.

 

Options for Structuring Sacred Bee and Butterfly Gardens

Truly, any space will do for a bee and butterfly garden–I’d like to provide a range of ideas for different living circumstances.

 

1) The Pollinator Porch.  Even if all that you have is a small porch, you can make it a place of sacred activity, of reflection and introspection, and welcome the energy of the pollinators to your doorstep.  Pollinators are a joy to watch, and are not aggressive or mean (hornets can be, but they are not what you are attracting with flowering plants).  Even if its just a few pots of flowers and herbs that bloom at different times sitting on your porch, a pollinator porch can be a quiet place for you to relax, meditate, and enjoy the bee and butterfly show.

 

Butterfly on Spotted Knapweed (yes, knapweed too has medicinal qualities!)

Butterfly on Spotted Knapweed

2) Pollinator Hedge.  In older European traditions, the “hedge” was an important part of any property–the hedgerows often had closely planted shrubs, trees, and a vibrant understory of medicinal plants and flowers–and a pollinator paradise.  Pollinators need places to rest and avoid the heat of the summer during the day–a hedge can provide that.  You can create a pollinator hedge around the edges of a property (this is what I have) as well as the edges  of a garden.  My hedge along the edge of my property works pretty much like this:  Inside on the property line: trees (including flowering hawthorn), edged by elder, blackberry, wild rose, and black raspberry (also that flower, and produce fruit and medicine for me and other wildlife); amongst this, various flowering plants are included, many of which sprung up wild: sweet clover (some would argue its invasive; I argue its the best food source my bees have at certain points of the year), golderod (medicinal, great late-season feed source), wild bergamot, boneset, and much more.  The hedge also provides me with a good deal of privacy, which I certainly value and makes the whole property encircled and protected.

 

Me running in robes along the hedge!

Me running in robes along the hedge!

3) Pollinator Garden Edges. Gardens are already magical and sacred places, and all the more so if we build spaces for pollinators. I got this idea from a friend who runs our campus student organic farm who planted ever-flowering plants, like calendula and blue queen sage, at the edge of each garden row.  This gives pollinators a place to come to within garden whether or not the other crops are blooming. You can add small shrines, stone cairns, and much more to garden spaces.  I think it adds more magic to an existing garden, and certainly creates space not just for food for people but also for the pollinators.  The alternative is to dedicate a pollinator row or two in the garden that is a permanent feature (or make a pollinator hedge around the outside).

 

4) Wildflower Fields.  A field of wildflowers, especially native wildflowers, is a wonderful way to dedicate space to for pollinators.  I generally just let my back field (about 1/2 an acre) left unmowed and it has been a wonderful experience to see what has taken up residence there.  The only thing I’ve done is I’ve to plant lots of different flowers in my field (when I arrived, it was primarily dominated by ox-eye daisy).  I’ve gotten St. Johns Wort, New England Aster, Milkweed, Boneset, and Goldenrod to grow there, and am trying for some other flowering and nectar plants this year.

 

Butterfly garden near garage

Butterfly garden near garage

5) Pollinator-friendly lawn. I’ve mentioned this before, but another way to help the pollinators out is to replace the grass with something that doesn’t require mowing and that is friendly to pollinators.  I’ve been working on planting large patches white dutch clover–the honey bees just love it.  I would place a blanket on the edge of the clover patch, read books, mediate, and watch the bees enjoy the clover–which bloomed for almost a month.

 

6) Pollinator gardens. I have dedicated gardens for pollenators, little nooks and crannies tucked in places where the herbs and flowers are abundant and blooming all season long!

 

Plants to Consider (Zone 5-7 suggestions)

There are a lot of opinions out there on what plants to plant (native, non-native, etc). I take a permaculture design perspective, which is to use groupings of plants that all produce different benefits, and form “guilds” that grow in the same areas as other plants.  In other words, I like to plant things that will create a natural ecosytem, encourage pollinator visits, and also enrich and nourish the soil.  One of the things you’ll notice about many of these plants is that they aren’t just good for the bees and butterflies–but many of them are also good for us (either as medicine or as an edible). Here are some of the ones I’m planning for my expanded gardens:

Butterfly Weed!

Butterfly Weed!

  • Sweet clover: I’ve never needed to plant sweet clover; it grows wild everywhere where one mows (you can see it growing boldly along the edges of paths, but not where the ground hasn’t been disturbed).  It also makes a great smudge herb and is an excellent medicinal herb.
  • Butterfly Bush: I’ve had a few butterfly bushes growing in my butterfly garden, and they are truly like nothing else.  They bloom late in the season when there is usually nectar dearth.  They are visited by more butterflies and bees (and even hummingbirds) than anything else growing in my yard.  Truely a beautiful and amazing plant.  They don’t take the cold winters well, however, and the deep freeze of last winter killed my bushes.
  • Butterfly Weed/ Pleurisy Root. A great medicinal plant, late bloomer, brilliant orange.
  • Milkweed. Many species of this exist; you’ll want some common milkweed for the monarchs. This is also a tasty wild edible!
  • Bee Balm / Wild Bergamot.  Another fantastic medicinal; this blooms and blooms and is wonderful for the bees.
  • Orageno.  Another long-blooming, medicinal, and culinary plant.
  • Anise Hyssop.  Delicious for teas, long-blooming, and very medicinal!
  • Blue Vervain. Medicinal, long-blooming, beautiful and tall!
  • Fruit trees. Fruit trees of all kinds provide very early blooms.  This includes hawthorns, apples, pears, peaches, plums, and apricots.
  • New England Aster.  This plant is a stunning purple in the fall, and blooms to give a last source of pollen and nectar.  Did I mention I pretty much cured my asthma with this plant?
  • Goldenrod. A lot of people think they are allergic to goldenrod, but its ragweed, which blooms at the same time as Goldenrod.  Goldenrod is a wonderful medicinal plant and is beautiful in the fields!
  • Purple Coneflower. Medicinal? Check.  Beautiful? Check!
  • St. Johns Wort. Mid-summer blooming plant, this is another one my bees love.  And its highly medicinal.
  • Joe Pye Weed.  A type of milkweed; medicinal and wonderful!
  • Most herbs. Most garden herbs have something the bees like–mints, lavender, sages, thymes, chives, etc!

 

Finally, here’s a shot of before and after with my butterfly garden.  I had friends help me put in the stone pathway from stones found here on the property.

"Before" area for butterfly garden

“Before” area for butterfly garden

"After" area for butterfly garden

“After” area for butterfly garden – year 1

Butterfly Garden

Butterfly Garden from a distance (with arch, year 2); the area in the front is now a clover patch and doesn’t require mowing

 

Sacred Beekeeping at the Summer Solstice June 20, 2014

Bees on honeycomb

Bees on honeycomb

As I’ve alluded to on this blog before, I started beekeeping this year.  I wanted to tell the story of that journey thus far, seeing as it is the Summer Solstice today, and share some insights on my process of sacred beekeeping!

 

Inspiration for keeping bees

Sometimes the most amazing things arise out of regular meditative and magical practice.  Take, for example, one of my daily spiritual practices, which started the journey of beekeping for me. The Ancient Order of Druids in America’s sphere of protection ritual is a general protective ritual that those of us in the order do daily. At the end of the ritual, one circulates a sphere of light around oneself or a space one wishes to protect.  I’ve been doing the sphere of protection here at my homestead each day since I moved in five years ago–I envisioned the protective sphere reaching out to the edges of my property, protecting all life within.  About a year into the process of doing this, things began to get interesting.  Instead of the rainbow light circling around, the protective sphere I put up around the property took on a life of its own.  First it grew vines, then the vines flowered.  It continued to grow in strength and beauty with each passing year.  Then, last summer, I helped a friend rescue some hives and work with his bees….and the next day,  bees showed up in my sphere of protection to pollinate the flowers.  The whole thing was so incredible, so magical, that upon reflection and meditation, I decided that I needed to take up beekeeping.

 

The other reason I wanted to take up beekeeping was that I’m very interested in long-term solutions and moving towards a sustainable future.  Bees are critical partners in our continued survival as a species and as a planet.  And, today, bees are under terrible duress in our lands.  I wanted to cultivate a personal relationship with the bees and learn how to help them survive.  So many pesticides, approved by the EPA, cause death to bees.  Combining this with GMO crops that how have pesticides and insecticides written into their genetic codes, extensive loss of habitat and forage (in favor of the lawn, and you likely know how I feel about lawns), colony collapse, varrora mites, and so on…the bees are in need of some help.  I wanted to contribute to the solutions and partner with the bees for my own land, and to help others in my community do the same.

 

Beekeeping, of course, also has substantial benefits for a homesteader!  Beeswax can be made into soaps, balms, salves, and candles.  Honey is one of the the greatest delights known to humanity, and having it from my own hives and own land was certainly something I was interested in!  If I get a harvest this year, you can be sure that I’ll be posting about what I’ve made with the wax and honey!

 

But beekeeping also presented serious challenges–I’ve always been afraid of bees and stings.  I wanted to help overcome that fear, face that fear, and realize just how strong I could be!  I knew this was the right path because of the meditations and magical work I was doing, and I know the bees have important lessons to teach.  But still, the first day, when the bees came, I was terrified.  I’m growing more confident with each visit to the hive, and am realizing that the bees are incredibly gentle, amazing creatures.  They are calm, they are loving, and if you nurture them, they will nurture you in return.

Outside the hive!

Outside the hive!

 

After deciding to move forward and partner with the bees, I needed to educate myself and make some decisions about the kind of hive and bees.  All through the winter, I read books on beekeeping.  I’ve read almost a dozen books at this point, watched videos, read forums and blogs, and talked to as many beekeepers as I could.  I read about Warre hives, Top Bar hives, and finally, Langstroth hives.  All had their benefits and drawbacks, and I wasn’t sold on any approach.  That was until I discovered Ross Conrad’s Natural Beekeeping: Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture.  I loved this book so much, and his approach so much, mainly because Conrad sees beekeeping as a partnership, and he writes in a sacred loving manner.  He argues against common beekeeping practices, like “requeening” in most cases (where you find the queen, kill her, and then replace her with a new queen) and so on.  I decided to use Conrad’s approach and asked around till I found someone who had hives and bees for sale.

 

Preparing for the Bees’ Arrival

Your first year of beekeeping requires a pretty substantial investment as well as a lot of preparation time.  The hives had to be picked up, painted, have some foundation added (I’ll post about my experimental approach to foundation for bees in a different post) and so on.  Here are a few photos of my beekeeping partner and friend, Paul, and I painting our hives (and yes, as druid beekeepers, we totally painted our hives with protection and inspiration in mind!) AODA members might note the colors of the two hives :). Painting the hives, and weaving in protection, was an important part of this work.  While I have many wild lands and natural foraging areas nearby, I also have neighbors who spray chemicals on their lawns–and I wanted to protect my bees from such poison.

Here are our magical hives, ready for bees!

Here are our magical hives in a big stack, ready for bees!

We also had to prep the beeyard; we cut back blackberry plants and pulled some additional ones out (saving the roots for medicine).  We leveled the space and sheet mulched around the hives to keep the weeds down and give us a place to work.  The beeyard is in the back of the property, within view of the sacred stone circle (to the upper left in that photo, about 200 feet away).

Hive setup

Hive setup

 

The Bees Arrive

It was a cold day in late April when we went to pickup our bees.  Nothing in bloom due to the cold spring, the temperature hovering somewhere around 45 degrees.  By the time the bees arrived and we returned to my house, it was too late and too cold to put them in the hive that day.  So where did we put them? The only reasonable place to put them and keep them warm–in my house, in a closet :P.   Talk about overcoming one’s fear!  The bees taught me my first important lesson that night–a lesson in trust.  I realized the next day as we transferred them into the hives that even if they would have escaped into my house, they would not have gone far, if at all.  They would have stayed in their cluster surrounding the queen.   I guess in America we grow up with all sorts of assumptions, like how bees would behave if they got into your house.  After working with the bees, I realize that so much of what I thought I knew about them was wrong.  Its gentle lessons, like these, that develop a sacred awareness of their wisdom.

Bees in their travel boxes

Bees in their travel boxes; Paul and grimalkin look on

The next day, the bees finally made it into their hives.  Prior to putting them in the hive, we opened up a sacred grove in which the bees could do their good work and made blessings for the hives.  The bees went into the hive without incident, of course!  Here’s my friend shaking the bees into their hive.  They were flying about, but otherwise, were happy to have their new home.

Paul adds bees to the hive

Paul adds bees to the hive

 

Growth of the Hives

The hives have grown considerably since the initial 3lbs of bees were added (that’s about 3000 bees) two months ago.  We had to feed them sugar syrup (and continue to do so to help give them the nutrients to build up the colony till we can add the “honey supers”). The hives are a joy each day to visit; I sit near the hives and watch the bees come in and out and spend time in meditation and observation at the hives.  The clover patch in my yard and the many medicinal and culinary herbs I grow have also become favorite spots for the bees, another spot to meditate and learn the lessons of the bee.  I am thrilled to see so many bees here now, and they are so joyful in their work.

Opening up the hives was scary at first, but I’ve learned a lot, and am thankful that my beekeeping partner, Paul, has a way with bees–I’ve learned much from his careful patience, diligence, and his ability to intuit the state of the hive.  I brought the book knowledge to the endeavor and am hosting the hives, but it was Paul who taught me how to hear their humming, communicate, and use one’s intuition to work a hive.

New Comb With Eggs and Brood

New Comb With Eggs and Brood

Whether or not we’ll get a honey harvest this year is unclear–the bees have a lot of work to do in building their wax comb and so forth.  To me, the honey is just a bonus.  The real joys have been to learn the lessons of the bees–their alchemical work, transforming pollen and nectar into wax and honey.  To see their dances and communication with each other.  To have one land on my had and lick the sugar syrup off of it.  To smell the hive when you open it–nothing smells quite like it.  To work the hive knowing that the bees know you and put their trust in you.  I hope to share more stories of the bees as we continue through this first year!

Bees on comb they built

Bees on new comb they just built

 

PS: This is my 150th post on the Druid’s Garden!  How exciting!

 

Township Ordinances and Front/Back Lawn Battles – My Own Story July 27, 2013

In my post a few weeks ago about what I called the “Garden Resistance Movement” (where people are converting their yards to gardens, etc.), I alluded to the fact that I was now on the front lines of this particular fight.  I decided to withhold posting more details until I took the time to A) carefully consider my approach; B) educate myself on the issues; and C) consult some experts.  So in this post, I’m going to describe what happened, outline the current ordinances, and describe some steps that I’m taking and have already taken to address the issue. I’m going to start by providing a bit of context and some photos to describe my personal situation at hand, and then I’ll broaden out to discuss the steps I’ve taken and where this whole thing is heading.

 

The Land

Since I moved into this land, I’ve been establishing it as a sacred site, a sacred grove, a place where all life is respected and honored, as a space of growth for visitors and inhabitants, be them human or otherwise. As part of this, I’ve talked about cleaning up and healing the land, establishing gardens, building sacred spaces, and much more!  So this is the context going into my story.

 

My home is situated on a 3 acre parcel in rural Northwestern Oakland County, Michigan, in the township of Independence.  Most of the homes on this particular road are 3 acres or 5 acres; the neighbor across the street has 80 acres.  Directly across the street, a lush wetland exists, to the right, I have a very nice but “conventional” neighbor who sprays for bugs, mosquitoes, weeds, and everything else.  My neighbors behind me and to the left don’t seem as bad, but I haven’t had the opportunity to get to know them.  My property is surrounded on all sides by large oaks, cottonwoods, sassafras, and maple trees, and much of it is quite private, not visible from anyone else’s yard or road.

Fire pit and garden area

Fire pit and garden area

Butterfly Garden

Butterfly Garden

 

This brings me to my road.  The road that I live on is a dirt road, and much of it is what others would call “overgrown” but what I prefer to describe as “lush and lively.” Most people have trees/plants growing wild in their front yards and along the drainage ditch.  All the “noxious weeds” listed in my township’s code or ordinances grow along this road freely.  A lot of people have a portion of yard that they mow behind that section, and this, dear readers, is where we get in trouble.

Road heading north

Road heading north

Road heading south

Road heading south

Now if you remember several months ago, I decided to stop mowing my yard.  I’m in the process of converting it into a wildlife and butterfly sanctuary, and using good permaculture principles including spending a full year in observation, I wanted to do some site observations to see what is currently growing there.  This was hard to do if it was always in a mowed state–I didn’t want to rip out potentially native or beneficial plants, but they are hard to ID if they are only 3″ high. Plus, I was sick of consuming fossil fuels to maintain the space.  I didn’t even realize that anyone would care, seeing how rural I am, nor that there were ordinances against such an approach.

Home from road

Home from road

By mid-June, I had a number of wildflowers, brambles, and grasses growing and was quite proud of the result of just letting things “be.”  I saw some areas where I wanted to reduce grasses and increase flowers and other beneficial plants, and had started formulating a plan for what plants would go where.

 

In June, apparently, multiple someones got angry at the state of affairs in my unmowed (but certainly not untended) front lawn area and complained to the township.  Unbeknownst to me, they sent someone out to assess the site.  The people who complained and the township assessor never approached me or asked me any questions.  This was the same time that the house next to me went up on the market for sale; I have a strong suspicion that the realtor called because it would somehow “look bad.”

The letter

The letter

Just before the 4th of July, I received the following letter from my township. It certainly wasn’t friendly, and frankly, as a new homeowner, it scared me and angered me. I had to wait till after the holiday weekend, and when I called early the next week, the woman on the phone in the township office kindly but firmly explained to me that I had no recourse but to mow it, and if I didn’t mow it, the township would send someone to mow it.  She also said that they would place a lien on my house, and the whole ordeal would cost me somewhere around $1000. I inquired about the process for talking to someone to change the laws, and I was given a host of names, many of whom I left messages for and never heard back from. But I was also given just three days to mow, and that left me little choice and few other options.

 

The Initial Defeat

At this point, I was at my lowest. I’m a single woman, on a single income, and things are tight. I am in the process of refinancing my mortgage, so I can’t have any kind of lien.  I was  seriously terrified and out of the fact that I can’t afford to pay the township $1000, and so, I’m ashamed to say, I capitulated. I remember the day I mowed it all down–I sat on that stupid mower and cried my eyes out as I watched my lovely flowers and grasses get the axe.  I felt the land weeping as I wept, the loss of habitat and the loss of fossil fuel all to achieve some image that I ethically and spiritually disagreed with.

But after the defeat, I realized that the real work still was ahead of me. I straightened my shoulders and set out to learn everything I could about township ordinances and how to change them. I spoke to a friend who is heavily involved in the politics of another township, and he had himself rewritten the laws only 5 years ago concerning lawns.  He ended up being a wealth of knowledge and had lots of suggestions for other people to contact.  About a week after I received the letter, we stood at my farmer’s market booth and spoke of the issues; he followed up with some more suggestions and a number of people to contact.  The following week, again at the farmer’s market, I spoke to a few other concerned citizens, including another person who also received a letter.

 

Task Force Formation

In the last few weeks, this amazing group of people emerged who were knowledgeable about politics, ordinances, native plants, alternatives, and so forth–and so willing to help and lend their support.  The two of us who received letters are  forming a task force, which will meet in late August, to address the issue at the township level and work to educate our local community and work with our politicians to help change the laws to be more earth-friendly.  And despite my initial defeat, I am given hope–hope that there are so many who know more than me about these processes, hope that we can enact better laws to change our relationship with our landscape.

Part of me is disappointed in my own actions, in capitulating so quickly, but when I step back and look at the bigger picture, I realize that this is about more than just my patch of lawn.  Its about working with people, rather than against them, to enact positive change.  If I put myself in an adversarial relationship with the township, I think I would be much less likely to succeed.  This whole process has also given me a unique opportunity to educate myself and help create positive change for our community.  In the least, I plan on documenting our task force’s efforts and compiling resource lists so that other people can learn about what we learned!

 

Other Legitimizing Steps: Certifying the Land

The other thing that was suggested to me, and that I’ve already done, was to officially establish the property as a wildlife and butterfly sanctuary.  The butterfly garden was the first thing I put in when I moved here three years ago, and I’ve been adding more and more beneficial plants and observing how the plants that already are here help the wildlife.  I went through two organizations to register the land and get appropriate signage:

Certified Wildlife Habitat (through the National Wildlife Federation): This program focuses on providing habitat within homes, businesses, and communities for birds, insects, plants, and animals.

Monarch Watch Certified Waystation: This program targets the endangered monarch butterfly, whose numbers have been substantially declining in light of loss of habitat and chemical agriculture.

I spent $50 on the NWF certification and $40 on the Monarch certification–this included the certification and the sign in both cases.  I was also very pleased to note that when I looked online at the requirements for both certifications, i realized that I already exceeded the base requirement due to my previous work.

These programs provide you with a certificate, and, if you want to pay a bit extra, a nice sign for your yard.  The sign, I was told, is incredibly important–it helps people understand what you are doing and educates them on the issues.  I am looking forward to receiving these signs in the mail and creating one of my own explaining my work here.

 

Conclusion

You’ll probably be seeing a lot more posts on this blog in the future about how to navigate complex legal ordinances and ways of building community support.  This story is far from over–so stay tuned!