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!

 

Backyard Healing Salve Recipe with Plantain, Chickweed, and Ground Ivy November 20, 2015

One of the great things about fall is that so many of our spring ephemeral plants, those who dominate the springtime, come back to us again before the snows set in. This is the case this year with chickweed, one of my favorite plants for making a healing salve.  I have been seeking her out for medicine making and most of the summer she was a bit elusive. Finally, she is abundant again! So its time to make some green healing salve for gifts for Yule for friends and loved ones–I thought I’d bring you along for the journey.

 

Healing Salve in Tins (tins purchased from Mountain Rose Herbs)

Healing Salve in Tins (tins purchased from Mountain Rose Herbs)

This post will provide the recipe for my healing salve as well as insight into three plants used in the healing salve, all of which can be found abundant in most lawns and mowed areas (see these two posts for information about ethical harvesting, avoiding toxins, etc). For quite a while, I sold these salves at a farmer’s market booth. The salves were a big hit–people reported back that they used them for all kinds of ailments: bee stings, bug bites, small burns, scratches, scraps, rug burns, sore and inflamed skin of all kinds, and so on–everyone who bought one loved them very much! Even after I moved to PA and obviously wasn’t selling the salves any longer, I had people contacting me wanting more salve. The plants in this salve can be 100% locally sourced and you can locally source the beeswax.

 

Salves can be made from any herbal ingredient that can be used topically.  Because salves are oil-based, they are particularly good for cuts, minor burns, bug bites, skin irritations, dry and chapped skin, scrapes, bee stings, brush burns, and so on.  Salves typically should not be used for puncture wounds (they can lock in contaminants), on anything that is wet or pussy (for the same reason, a fresh poultice or honey preparation would work better), nor should any oil-based salve be used for poison ivy (it is an oil-based issue, so an oil-based salve can spread poison ivy, use lineaments or fresh poultice). You can use this same recipe for other kinds of infused oils and salves, like goldenrod, St. Johns Wort, black birch, and so on.

 

The Healing Salve as Plant Ambassador

My choice of using three plants–chickweed, plaintain, and ground ivy–commonly found in the lawn is a careful one.  For one, they make a fantastic healing salve.  But for two, their work as healing agents can help begin to shift people’s minds and practices towards the lawn. If you had a splinter or cuts that could be easily–and more effectively–healed by plants in the lawn, the plant gives you relief and that healing changes your relationship to the plants and to the lawn. If people know that there are healing plants they might gather from the lawn, its easier for them to stop spraying it. Its for this reason that I believe these little salves like these are wonderful ways of being a plant ambassador and doing the work of building awareness about nature’s great gifts. And without further delay, let’s meet the three plant allies that go into this delightful salve!

 

The Plant Allies for Healing Salve

Botanical Illustration of Broad-Leaf Plantain

Botanical Illustration of Broad-Leaf Plantain

Plantain (Plantago Regalia, Plantago Major)

Plantain is the gateway herb!  Its an easy herb to identify and find and can be used for a VERY wide variety of issues and conditions. If you only made this salve with one ingredient, make it with plantain.

            Identification: Two kinds of plantain typically can be found in a lawn: broad leaf (see picture, left) and narrow leaf plantain. They are used interchangeably.  See the botanical illustration for a detailed look at plantain.

Actions: Demulcent, Astringent

            Medicinal Uses:  Plantain has a host of uses, both internally and externally.  The best way to think about plantain is that it works on the mucus membranes. Plantain is very mild yet effective as a mild demulcent (it wets tissues) and mild astringent (it also helps tone tissues). It functions as a fantastic drawing agent, where it works to draw things out (like splinters, drawing out infections, drawing out debris from a dirty wound, puncture wounds). For these uses, fresh plantain poultice is the best, but the healing salve is a close second! Plantain (poultice, fresh) works very well on poisonous snake bits and spider bites. Plantain can be safely used with animals (so for cuts and scrapes from a cat fight). A plantain infusion can be used as an eye wash for goopy eyes (conjunctivitis) if you add a little salt to it (1 teaspoon of salt to 1 cup plantain tea). Plantain is very effective for inflamed tonsils, bleeding gums (just keep it in the mouth and chew it).  We are using plantain in this salve for for its drawing action, astringent action, and demulcent action.

Preparation:  Oil infusion/salve; dried for tea; tinctured; fresh poultice or chew.


Chickweed (Stellaria Media, spp.)

Chickweed Botanical Illustration

Chickweed Botanical Illustration

Identification: Chickweed is a small, succulent plant that has a smooth stem with a line of hair running along it like a horse’s mane. It has a tiny white flower with 10 petals (in five directions). It is a spring ephemeral plant; it can be harvested in abundance in the spring and again in the fall. You could also make this salve just with chickweed.

Actions:  Demulcent, Tonic

Features:  Chickweed is used in several ways, and in all, it is a very mild yet effective plant. Chickweed is particularly good for any dry and inflamed skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, or the may minor bites, cuts, scrapes, brush burns, bee stings and so on.  It should not be used for pussy/mucus laden/wet/damp skin conditions. A fresh poultice of chickweed is good for poison ivy (use similar to Jewelweed).  Another way that Chickweed is used is that it is an alterative, metabolic tonic (it is thought to work on underactive thyroids, drying and causing the release of fluids). Chickweed can be eaten as a nutritive, healing food.  It is very rich in nutrients and nourishing.

Preparation:  Fresh plant in food, poultice, healing salve, tincture, dried for tea.

 

Ground Ivy Botanical Illustration

Ground Ivy Botanical Illustration

Ground Ivy (Glechoma Hederacea)

Identification: This plant will uptake any heavy metals in the soil—so make sure you are harvesting it from a safe area.

Actions:  Aromatic, Astringent

            Medicinal uses:  Ground ivy is an aromatic herb in the mint family with a very wide range of uses—it is generally a very safe plant to use for many different issues.  It has an astringent property, specifically for the kidneys and urethra (can be made as a tea for urinary tract infections).  It can be used for a sore throat, especially if the inflammation is making its way up your throat and into your ears or if you have a dry, scratchy throat. Its good for ear issues in general, like fluid congestion or vertigo or ear pressure from a head cold. Its also used for digestive issues where there is laxity or mucus in the stool and gassiness (again, it is used as a tea in this fashion). One of the traditional uses of this plant is to treat lead poisoning – a ground ivy tea increase the removal of lead from the body (and some herbalists are currently experimenting with its ability to remove other toxins from the body).  The whole plant (above ground) can be used.  Finally, ground ivy can be used as a drawing agent and used to help treat, according to Culpepper, “old green wounds.”

Preparation:  Oil infusion/salve; dried for tea (note-it loses its aromatic quality fairly quickly); tinctured.  Please note that ground ivy does not have a long shelf life–I’d say 4-5 months at most.

Healing Salve Ingredient List

  • Good quality olive oil (2-3 cups, depending on the amount of salve you want to make)
  • Good quality beeswax (get it from a local beekeeper if possible); it should smell amazing if its a high quality wax
  • Good amounts of your three plant allies (I like to use 40% plantain; 40% chickweed, and 20% ground ivy); you can use 100% plantain or 100% chickweed; or you can use 50/50 plantain and chickweed.
  • Skin-safe essential oils of your choice (optional, consider: lavender, tea tree, sweet orange, and lemongrass)
  • Jars or tins
  • Labels for your salves

You’ll also need some equipment: a double-boiler; a grater for the wax; a spoon or ladle for pouring salve into tin and mixing salve; and wax paper for protecting work surface.

Making the Healing Salve: Part 1 – Infused Oil

The first thing to do to make a healing salve is to make an infused oil, that is, an oil infused with plant matter.

Pouring salve on herbs (these are a little too fresh, but I was in a hurry!)

Pouring olive oil on herbs (these are a little too fresh, but I was in a hurry!)

I typically use olive oil for this recipe because it is both very shelf stable and readily available in organic oil. You can also use other oils (like coconut oil) but most herbalists use olive oil.  Coconut oil has a very low melt temperature, which can be a problem with a healing salve meant to travel with you (say, in your pocket, or in your car on a hot day, etc).

 

Wilt Your Herbs (if using fresh): All herbs, but chickweed in particular, should be wilted 1-2 days prior because of their high water content. Wilting just means to pick the plant matter and let them sit out somewhere for a few days while they slowly dry out. You can also use dried ingredients. Failure to account for the water content means that the oil you infuse may have a bit of water on the bottom–you need to avoid this or you’ll end up with a salve that goes rancid quickly.  But you can just pour off your salve and leave the water in the bottom (see photo below).

Double Boiler for Salve Making with Herbs

Double Boiler for Salve Making with Herbs

Use Heat or Time to Infuse: You can infuse oil in a lot of different ways, but the way I like to infuse oils is by using a double boiler over low heat for 12 hours (don’t boil the herbs), and then letting the herbs sit in the oil with the heat off for another 12 hours.  After this time, the herbs can be strained and the oil ready to use.  If you are using fresh plants, beware of any water content in the oil—it will be sitting on the bottom of your pot and look like little dark bubbles.  You do not want ANY water in your oil or it will spoil quickly.  You can store your infused oil in a cool, dark place for 1-2 years.

 

Herbs just starting to infuse

Herbs just starting to infuse

The Healing Salve, Part II: Making the Salve

My Backyard Green Healing Salve Recipe:

My favorite backyard healing salve is made with 40% plantain, 40% chickweed, and 20% ground ivy; handfuls of each infused in olive oil (enough olive oil to cover the herbs).  Another plant that can be used in this salve is Jewelweed (but it is a wet forest plant, not a yard plant!) or comfrey (a cultivated plant in most areas).

 

1. Once your oil is done infusing, strain it. I prefer to strain it through a cheesecloth or fine strainer overnight. The gravity will do nearly all of the work for you if you wait.  Also, if you try squeezing the plant material and you are using fresh plants, you could end up with more water in the bottom.  Again, an overnight straining prevents the need to squeeze.

 

2. Put your oil back in your (clean) double boiler. To make the salve, start with your filtered infused oil and return it tot your double boiler.  Make sure the oil is 100% free of plant mater or water (which will look like little bubbles on the bottom) – either of these will make it go rancid.  See photo below for example of water at the bottom:

Example of water at bottom to avoid

Example of water at bottom to avoid

3. Heat your infused oil up till its hot enough to melt beeswax (but no hotter).

 

4. Add shaved or chunked beeswax (about 2 tbsp per cup of oil) stir it to melt the beeswax fully. Your oil needs to be thickened into a salve that will hold its shape and have some body–and for that, we add beeswax. After adding your beeswax and melting it in, test the consistency by dropping a tiny bit of oil onto an ice cube and see how hard it gets. If its too hard, add a bit more oil. If its too soft, add a bit more beeswax.  You can get it as hard as you’d like, but I recommend keeping this salve fairly soft since it will need to be spread upon a lot of sore, tender spots.

5. Remove the oil from the heat.

 

6. Add any essential oils you like to the salve for smell.  The salve has a pretty “green” smell without the oils; its not unpleasant but isn’t really pleasant either, so I like to add the oils. My favorites for this blend are a few drops of tea tree oil, lemongrass oil, lavender oil, or orange oil.  (Lavender-lemongrass is a great combination, as is tea-tree orange).  For 1 cup of salve, I add 20 drops of essential oil.

 

7. Prepare your workspace for pouring the salves. At this point, I will set wax paper down and set out my tins or jars.  The wax paper prevents salve from getting all over my counter when I’m pouring.

 

8. Pour off your salve into the small jars or tins and let cool. You can use mason jars, little Altoids tins, whatever you have around that will hold a solid salve.  I also like to make a harder version of this salve (with a higher beeswax content) and then fill lip balm containers with it for hiking, backpacking, etc! Make sure you fill them slightly fuller than you want them to be, as the salve sinks and contracts a bit as it cools.

Filling jars and tins with salve

Filling jars and tins with salve

 

8.  Label your salves with a fun label!  Here’s an example of my salves at the farmer’s market with their cute labels (I was nearly sold out that day!)

Healing Salve at Farmer's market booth

Healing Salve at Farmer’s market booth

I hope you enjoy this wonderful backyard healing salve!

 

The Silence of the Hive October 1, 2015

A full hive with bees working

A full hive with bees working

What you quickly learn as a beekeeper is that the sound of the hive matters.  When you first get into a hive, if the hive is in good health and has all of its needs met, the hive is generally pretty quiet (I talk about the hive as a single organism, because that’s really what bees are: a single super organism.)  Sometimes, a hive is louder when you arrive–the bees are fanning the hive with their wings to keep it cool, or they are beating their wings to generate heat in the winter to keep it warm (you don’t open the hive under 50 degrees). But in the absence of extreme hot or cold, a happy and healthy hive emits only a very soft sound, discernible only up close when you open it. Beehives always have some buzzing in them–the bees move around, beat their wings, and go about tending their young and storing away pollen and honey. You can sense the happiness and contentment of the bees in a quiet hive a going about their work. As you begin doing whatever it is you need to do and disrupt the bees, like pulling out frames or moving around hive boxes, they escalate to a louder buzzing sound, where the hive is on alert. The louder the buzzing, generally, the less happy of a hive you have on your hands. They get extremely loud and start flying at you and trying to sting when they think their hive is in danger–this is usually after you do something stupid, like kill bees, bang on the hive box, drop something, etc.. I used to think that this loud buzzing was the worst sound you could hear. Now, I realize there is a much worse sound you can hear–and that is the sound of silence.

 

This past weekend was supposed to be an exciting time for me as a beekeeper–my two hives each had 30 or so pounds of excess honey in the honey supers from the last big nectar flow of the season, and it was time to go harvest. The honey this time of year is the stuff of legends, the nectar of the gods, the honey that can drive away seasonal allergies and warm the soul for the many long months of winter. Its made of plants that heal–goldenrod and aster.  Its dark and rich, extremely flavorful, and highly medicinal. I had been looking forward to this weekend for many months, excited that we had such a good harvest in the second year of beekeeping. It was especially gratifying after getting through the regulatory red tape of moving my hives from Michigan to Pennsylvania this summer and finding a new home for the hives.

 

This is what you expect to see....

This is what you expect to see….

My father joined me to help harvest the honey, and we laughed and smiled as we put on our suits, prepared our tools, and got ready to do the harvest. When we opened the first hive, I noted that the bees weren’t on the honey super–this isn’t necessarily abnormal; the colony is quickly shrinking in size as the weather cools and you don’t always find a lot of bees up in the honey super. But something felt just wrong. We were able to pull off the frames one by one, not even needing the escape board I had planned on using.  Then it struck me–there was no buzzing; the hive was silent. As I leaned into the hive and looked down through all the frames and into the brood box where the bees should still be, I could see straight to the bottom. No bees. I realized that the absence of sound was one of the worst kinds of sounds a beekeeper can hear–the silence of a dead or abandoned hive.

 

Six months ago on this blog, I wrote about the sound of silence and the music of the world–how one researcher found that as species died off and dwindled, as less and less habitats remained, a silence was coming over the world in ways not previously recorded or experienced. This, of course, is decades after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, who documented the effects of pesticide use on bird populations–and who created a national conversation on conservation. And, as I stood there looking at my empty, dead hive, pulling frame after frame, the full weight of the silence was upon me.

 

There are lots of ways that hives can die these days, but the name for what I found in my hive this past weekend is one you’ll probably recognize: colony collapse disorder (CCD). This is when the workers in a healthy hive up and abandon it leaving their young, their queen, and all of their food behind. Its not that the whole hive moves on, but rather, just the workforce of the hive disappears. Its kind of like if every healthy adult who keeps your town functioning were to walk out of town permanently and head who knows where without any food, water, even a change of clothes, leaving their children, elders, and pets behind, and just disappear, never to be seen again. The worker bees have no chance of survival without the honey (especially as it gets colder and colder), the safety of their hive, and the queen for reproduction–especially this late in a season. Even if they somehow made it to spring, without a queen, the bees cannot reproduce and the colony would die. In a careful inspection of the dead hive, I found bees that had just hatched, half out their cells, dead. Many others never had a chance to hatch and died before they were even born. We’ve had some very cold nights, and I’m guessing they froze to death. Without any adult worker bees tending them or keeping them warm, they had no chance. It was awful.

 

Its not just the loss of the hive, a dear friend and companion on my journey, that is so painful. Its the representation of what this loss means. Its seeing the headlines about bee declines and deaths and thinking that you can somehow do better, that your organic beekeeping and the love you pour into your hives will make your bees immune to what’s going on. That CCD will never happen to your hives. That your practices, and faith, and love, can create a protective bubble to keep the harsh reality of what we are doing to this planet out.  I am again reminded of what declines in bee, bird, and other wildlife populations mean for the health of our lands. I’ve been speaking so much of regeneration on this blog in recent months, and the loss of my hive really has weighed on me the importance of this ongoing conversation.

 

In the last 10 years, there’s been a lot of press coverage about Colony Collapse Disorder–what it is, why it happens, what causes it. The truth is, scientists are still figuring it out, but it seems to focus on three areas: pesticides, disease/mites, and the loss of of foraging areas. But it doesn’t take a scientist to recognize the massive changes happening in our lands: all ones needs to do is open his or her eyes and see through the bee’s perspective. Bees need the same things the rest of us do: healthy living spaces free of poison, health and disease free living, no toxins, and adequate food supplies. Those are increasingly under threat, and unfortunately, the situation is not improving at present time.

 

Less than 1/2 mile from the hives, I noted someone in the yard with his small pack sprayer of chemicals, hitting the dandelions and other plants he didn’t want growing there.  After leaving the hives very saddened, I noted on the same road a “lawn care professional” whom I might more aptly name a “poisoner” spraying an entire lawn down with his toxic brew. Some countries in Europe have outright banned the offending pesticides to help bee populations recover, but in the great US of A, the opposite seems to happen. Instead, we get the “Best Recommendations for the Public” from the USDA in the form of the following:

“The best action the public can take to improve honey bee survival is not to use pesticides indiscriminately. In particular, the public should avoid applying pesticides during mid-day hours, when honey bees are most likely to be out foraging for nectar and pollen on flowering plants.”

Indiscriminate use of pesticides? Being mindful of pesticides? Are you serious? The first step to addressing a problem is recognizing that we have one, and clearly, as a culture we still aren’t at that point. We have extensive amounts of greenwashing on the part of actual chemical companies and a government entity that panders to them. I think, personally, its time we really start getting louder about these chemicals and frame them for what they are and do: the systematic poisoning of our lands. Seeing that guy spraying the lawn as I was leaving my dead hive was just too much for me.

 

Lawn: be gone!

Lawn: be gone!

Of course, the other big issue with CCD is that the lawn itself is a food desert to bees and many other beneficial insects and wildlife, food desert. We have many, many kinds of food deserts in the USA today: places where people can’t get access to fresh food, and places where wildlife or insects also lack access. Part of the decline in bee populations is due to the lack of food availability for the bees: those chemically-ridden, manicured lawns provide no food or forage for wildlife, and they poison all who are near them. Less food means less abundance and a harder life for the bees and for everything else–the loss of food and habitat, of course, is driving the growing silence in the world. I’m not sure if this was an issue for my hive as they definitely seemed well fed this summer, but its a contributing factor in bee health more generally.

 

When I got into beekeeping, I did so because I wanted to help understand the bees, help tend them and bring them to the landscape; I wanted to help the land heal. And this weekend, I learned a very important lesson about beekeeping–it doesn’t matter how organic and clean your practices are in the hive.  If the people around you are spraying, even out to two miles, it will make it into your hive. And it will make it into your body, and into your children, and your pets, and your trees, your organic vegetable garden, and everything else. I’m not the first person I know to lose a colony of bees to this stuff, and I certainly won’t be the last. The bees are like our canary in the coalmine–the land isn’t safe and the bees die. My question is: how long are we going to turn our heads and close our doors when our neighbors, governments, friends, family, or farmers are literally poisoning the land we hold sacred? When the canary is clearly suffering or already dead?  That’s the question I think that we all have before us.

 

Regenerative and sustainable living isn’t all whimsical and happy. We don’t homestead, harvest herbs, and tend the land just because it allows us to sit with fluffy bunnies, milk happy goats chewing on burdock, and drink oodles of lemon balm tea sweetened with raw organic honey. Maybe there’s that image out there–that of idyllic farm life, perfect and content. That if we can simply build enough of an oasis for ourselves and our families, for our gardens and our animals, that everything that is out there won’t get in. The reality is far from it. We do this because the alternative, for us, and for the life on this planet is, death. Its silence. The emptiness of a beehive, the quiet of the birds that once lived and are no more, the shrinking patches of forest–this is why we do this work. We do this because we have to do something, and doing something, however small, is better than sitting around with our faces in our phones pretending nothing is happening. There are days when, as joyful as this path may be, the reality of the challenges we face in the world come right in our faces in a way that we can’t ignore.  This past Saturday, for me, was one of those days.

 

The Wisdom of the Elder: Recipes for Infused Elderflower Honey, Elderflower Cordial, and Elder-Lemon Tea June 24, 2015

Elderflowers!

Elderflowers!

Elderflowers (flowers from the Sambucus nigra plant) are in bloom right around the Summer Solstice (at least where I live), and this is a perfect time to create delightful healing recipes. One of these recipes uses raw honey (from my hives, of course) to gain the added benefits!  If you are looking for recipes for elderberry available later in the season, I posted a delicious recipe for elderberry elixir last year!

 

Medicinal Benefits of Elderflower

Elder – both the berry and the flower– is a first-rate medicinal plant that is unmatched in its ability to bolster the immune system and fight off illness.  I really enjoy having elderflower around in the winter months, especially when flu season comes around.  The flowers of elder come into bloom anywhere from late May till early June depending on the season and where you live–but for me, usually they are a premiere summer solstice plant.  Traditionally, elder has a very wide range of herbal uses–Grieve’s herbal details some of them. In more modern herbal practices, the flowers, specifically, are taken internally as an anti-inflammatory herb, especially for conditions in the respiratory system (like the flu, bronchitis, pleurisy and so on). It has a diaphoretic action that can be help to manage fevers–and this is how I use it, most often. If you get the flu, you want elderflower nearby! Baths of the elder flower (you can make them from dried or fresh flowers) for itchy skin also work well.

Dana gathers elder as the sun rises on the summer solstice!

Dana gathers elder as the sun rises on the summer solstice!

Harvesting and Preparing Elderflowers

Elder are super-easy to spot when they are in bloom–look for low to medium-sized shrubs with bunches of beautiful white flowers. They usually are margin plants, meaning they like to grow on the edges and the margins–like on the edge of a forest. You may also find them out in the middle of a field or in part shade.  I’ve never found any deep in the forest. Remember that, as tempting as it may be, don’t pick elder by the side of busy roadsides as these plants are likely contaminated with exhaust (see my general suggestions for wildcrafting and foraging and avoiding toxins here.)

Elder bush in full flower

Elder bush in full flower

Once you find your elderflower, I suggest harvesting them with scissors or a knife. You can harvest them without either of these, but it does make it easier. A basket with a tight weave, a bucket, or even a cloth bag works very well to place your harvested flowers inside. I suggest giving the flowers a very good shake before placing them in–the elder are home to a number of small bugs, bees, and other creatures that you don’t want to take home with you.  You want to harvest the flowers that are near full bloom or in full bloom.  You also want to pay attention to the smell–different elders have different smells, and you want one that smells nice and aromatic (some of them can get a little stinky).

Elder harvesting basket with very tight weave

Elder harvesting basket with very tight weave

Once you have your elderflower safely at home, you can keep them in the fridge up to 24 hours without them going too limp, and since it does take time to harvest and process, I sometimes will harvest on one day and then process the following day.

 

When you are ready to process them, I suggest taking your elder outside, because the hardest part of processing elderflower is making sure none of the little bugs are still in the flowers!  What I like to do (for either of these recipes) is to cut the stems off the flowers (only the flowers and berries are edible).  I do this while I inspect the flowers for bugs, worms, or other critters, and gently shake or knock them off.  You’ll be surprised how many there are in your flowers.

 

Pay attention for elders that have a really big bud–there is likely some little bug living in there (so I cut those out and leave them in a shady spot).  Make sure you remove most, if not all, of the stem.

See those two big buds? Critters live inside.

See those two big buds? Critters live inside.

You’ll be left with a pile of lovely elder flowers ready to make delicious and medicinal concoctions!

Ready to take inside!

Ready to take inside!

 

Elderflower Infused Honey

One of the easiest ways of preserving fresh elderflowers is in raw, local honey. You get both the benefit of the honey as well as the elder flower–making this an AMAZING remedy.  Infusing elderflower into honey couldn’t be easier.

Freshly harvseted honey for infusing!

Freshly harvested honey for infusing!

Loosely pack fresh elderflowers into a mason jar and pour your honey over the flowers.  Fresh honey works best for this–if your honey doesn’t pour well, you can stick it in the sun for 30 min and that will warm it up (or stick it in a bowl of hot water).  If your honey is crystallized, you can stick it in a double boiler for a time and it will liquify (but don’t get it too hot or you will kill the good enzymes present in raw honey).

Pouring honey

Pouring honey

Once you’ve poured in the honey, take a knife or chopstick and gently stir the honey and elderflower together.

Stirring and pouring

Stirring and pouring

Let it sit in a warm place for 1 week, then strain the elderflower out of the honey and enjoy.  Keep an eye on the honey–honey keeps because it has a low water content.  The elder shouldn’t bring it above that level, but if it does, you’ll want to keep it in the fridge to prevent spoiling.  I’ve never had a problem with any of my infused honeys, however, especially from herbs, but there is always that possibility.

Elder infusing next to some hawthorn flowers

Elder infusing next to a hawthorn flower glycerate

Now you can eat this honey just like any other honey–but it has the added benefit–and flavor–of elderflower!

 

Elderflower Cordial

Another amazing thing to do with elderflower is to make a cordial–this recipe is for a syrup that you can add to any fizzy thing, like soda water, seltzer water, or even champagne or vodka.  You can drizzle it over ice cream or enjoy it on pancakes.  It also goes nicely in a tea. And the best part is that every time you take it, you are boosting the immune system!

The cordial recipe depends on if you want it to keep for a long period of time or if you are going to drink it right away.  If you want to drink it quickly or freeze it, you can omit the citric acid and lemons in the recipe below.  If you are going to can it (like I do) or just bottle it up and keep it in the fridge make sure you include the citric acid. If you bottle it in sterilized bottles or jars, it will keep for several months in there.

 

Here’s my recipe (makes about 8 cups):

2 quarts of water (8 cups)
2 quarts sugar (3 lbs sugar; I use raw sugar for this–you could also use honey or maple syrup)
8 heaping cups elder flowers, stems removed (about 30-40 heads, depending on the size of the head)
2 tsp citric acid (necessary if you are canning, otherwise, you can omit)
3 lemons, sliced and zested, pith removed (lemons are also necessary if you are canning to increase acid content, but gives it a really nice flavor)

 

Start by preparing your elderflowers as above. You might even dip them in water to make sure all the critters are gone, but I prefer more humane methods.

Flowers ready to go into cordial!

Flowers ready to go into cordial!

Put your sugar and water in a large stockpot and heat it up till the sugar is dissolved.  While this is heating, prepare your lemons by zesting them and then cutting off the pith, and slicing the insides in small slices.  Many recipes don’t remove the pith, but I know from winemaking that the pith can cause wine to go bitter, so I also remove them for this recipe.

Sugar dissolved into water (I'm using raw cane organic sugar, so its a darker color)

Sugar dissolved into water (I’m using raw cane organic sugar, so its a darker color)

Once the sugar water has cooled down so that you can stick your finger in it, stir in the elder flower, lemon zest, and lemon slices.

Added lemons and zest

Added lemons and zest

Mixed in elderflower!

Mixed in elderflower!

Put a lid on it and wait 24 hours.

Infusing elderflower....

Infusing elderflower….

Put a clean teatowel or fine cheesecloth in a strainer and strain the mixture.  The mixture is now complete and can be enjoyed.  You can pour it into sterile jars and it will keep in the fridge for 1-3 months (you’ll know when it goes bad–it usually will grow mold on it!)

Straining Elder Cordial

Straining Elder Cordial

At this stage, I will reheat the mixture to a slow boil, then ladle it into canning jars, and process it in a hot water bath for 10 minutes (for half-pint jars, 20 min for pints) to ensure that it will keep for several years.  Not every year is a good year for elderflower, and so I will make extra in good years. I like to make this on the summer solstice and open it up at Samhuinn and the Winter Solstice to begin enjoying (and to begin bolstering my immune system for the upcoming flu season!)

 

Honeyed Elderflower and Lemon Tea

You didn’t think I’d let all those infused flowers go to waste after straining the honey or the cordial did you? Heck no! “Produce no waste” is a permaculture design principle that I abide by. From the honey infusion, when I strain it, I will keep the strained flowers with their bits of honey in the fridge and use them for tea within a week or two (since Grieve talks about elder being a good blood purifier and tonic, I think its great to take this tea semi-regularly anyways). Or, I will freeze it into an ice cube tray to use later.

 

The flowers and lemon from the cordial can likewise be dried for a tea (I do this in my dehydrator on the “herb” setting at 95 degrees, cause elderflowers are very delicate and can turn brown quickly). When its dry, I put it in a mason jar, which is good for the next year or so. Either tea will have its own sweetness already present and is delicious on its own, or mixed with other herbs.  So save your flowers, brew them up, and enjoy!

 

Sacred Lessons from the Bees, Honey Flows, and Honey Harvesting June 13, 2015

I’ve been making the transition to Pennsylvania and to my new life here (I spoke of this transition in an earlier blog post). Sorry for the delay in a regular weekly post–I’m back on track now, and have many wonderful things to share with you in the coming weeks.  Today I’m going to talk about bees and share photos of my first honey harvest.

Bees moving to their new home

Bees moving to their new home in early May!

I’ve now been a beekeeper for over a year, and I have begun to deeply resonate with the honeybee. Honeybees are the most amazing, gentle creatures–they make everything from the plants, are extremely hard working, and extremely fascinating.

 

One of the decisions I made, in my transition from my 3 acre homestead to small-town renting (renting until I find my new land) was to keep my two beehives. Moving two beehives across three states is no easy feat–it requires state inspections, paperwork, and a good friend with a truck willing to drive you there. It also requires overcoming some of your own fears.  So in early May, a dear friend and I moved the bees–we move about 50,000 of them in two hives. They were moved to a friend’s farm in PA–an ideal spot, 70 acres, full of clover, flowers, and so much more. I’ve been regularly checking on them, and have been thrilled with their progress in their second year. Most new beekeepers don’t get any honey their first year, and certainly, my hives were no exception. But now in their second year, despite their 450 mile trip to their new home, the hives are strong and the nectar flow is steady. So in this post, I’ll talk a bit about my thoughts after a year of beekeeping and my experiences with the first honey harvest.

 

Beekeeping Ethically

I’ve become very vigilant about the protection of bees. After seeing the magic of the hive, and visiting other hives who have not survived for various reasons, I’ve begun working to educate others about the bees–knowledge is power. So you can think about this in two ways: the choices that the beekeepers make and the choices that everyone else makes.  Let’s start with the beekeepers.

 

Beekeeping class I gave recently!

Beekeeping class I gave recently!

Beekeepers are faced with a lot of choices and the “standard” approach advocated in many books is not the best–its very similar to the choices one faces with other kinds of farming or animal husbandry. You can farm industrially on a large scale with chemicals and destructive practices, or you can farm organically and holistically.  You can keep chickens locked up in a building suffering, or you can let them free range to eat bugs.  This is all a matter of choice. Beekeeping is the same way–you can engage in industrial beekeeping with plastic foundations (which the bees do not like) and add tons of chemicals to the hive to prevent various diseases and cart them all over the country to pollinate monocrops, or you can work in partnership with the bees using organic approaches and holistic systems design. Similarly, you can choose to harvest ALL the honey from a hive prior to the winter, letting your bees starve and installing a new package of bees in the spring–which brings you a ton of profit. Or, you can harvest only the excess honey and ensure that the bees make it through the winter unharmed. You can choose to kill the queen and put a new one in there the bees are not familiar with at the first sign of trouble (called re-queening) or you can let the bees raise their own queens. The list goes on and on.

 

I see beekeeping as a partnership–I wouldn’t do anything to them that I wouldn’t do for myself or to my land. This means no plastic in the hive, no chemicals in the hive, and ensuring that the hive health is the top priority (rather than my own desire for honey). I mainly use an approach advocated by Ross Conrad in his book called Natural Beekeeping: Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture. I use this approach with a few modifications, including letting bees build their own comb for their hive bodies rather than giving them pre-stamped wax foundation–this allows them to build cells to fit their needs rather than build cells to fit a beekeeper’s desires. (This is why I take issue with the “flow hive” that everyone is talking about–its very beekeeper centric and not good for the bees themselves). The way that we treat the bees has energetic outcomes: as I’ve argued elsewhere about food, the better we can treat the land and those animals or insects helping to produce our food, the better we feel when we eat it. But more than that, the bees are such a wonderful blessing to the land–its important we treat them as sacred partners.

 

Protecting Bees more Broadly

The problems don’t just reside with the beekeeping practices. Bees, and other pollinating insects like Monarch Butterflies, are in serious trouble on a larger scale. Modern land use–from industrialized farming to maintenance of the lawn–are destroying habitats and exposing bees to destructive chemicals. At some point, I’ll break down these practices in more detail, but for now, suffice to say that pesticides (especially neonicatonids), chemicals, GMOs, all the nasty things so many of us who have a spiritual relationship with the land are trying to avoid–are destructive to the bee. When bees go out into the world foraging, they bring back to the hive whatever they pickup. Pesticides and chemicals build up in the hive over time, weakening the hive and eventually leading to a crash. I’ve seen this firsthand–dead hives of dead bees because of “mosquito spraying” in Michigan. Its a horrible sight. To add insult to injury, companies producing and marketing these pesticides have “greenwashing” sites that make it sound like they care about the bees: no Bayer and Monsanto, I’m not buying it.

 

There are so many things we could be doing differently with regards to our land use. I look at all the places unnecessarily mowed–I look at the swaths of green lawns and the chemicals used. Those could be instead planted with wildflowers and kept without chemicals (or fossil fuels). Keep the dandelions in the ground, plant other kinds of flowers and trees that produce abundance for all–there is a better way! Of course, companies who sell flowers are going to have to stop spraying them with neonicatonoid pesticides first :(.  Its going to require a paradigm shift, but believe me, the bees–and everything else–are worth it!

 

Bees drawing their own comb!

Bees drawing their own comb!

Bees as Alchemists

Even with the challenges that we face regarding land use, beekeeping practices, and bee safety–there is so much to learn from the hive. Bees are truly spagyric alchemists, beginning with materials from plants: netcar, pollen, and resin, and making amazing things: beeswax, propolis, and honey. Bees begin making honey by foraging for nectar from whatever plants are blooming–they drink up the nectar and it goes into a special stomach where they add enzymes to begin to break down the complex sugars into simple ones. They bring this back to the hive, where it is further cured to reduce the water content and eventually capped into honey. One pound of honey requires approximately 100,000 visits to plants on the part of bees.

 

The wax comes forth literally from their own bodies. They have wax producing glands that create small wax flakes that they use to build comb. Since the wax also derives from honey, it has the same awesome smell. Even in my first year, I was surprised about how much wax I got from the hive–a lot of it was when they built comb somewhere that they shouldn’t have, or had built cross comb that I had to remove.  I’m excited to process this wax and make candles, creams, soaps, and salves with it!

 

Propolis is “bee glue” and is collected by the bees from plants. Its essentially plant resins, and forms a sticky glue where the bees need to seal something up.  It has incredible medicinal qualities, including as a contact antimicrobial and great for surface issues, like burns.  I took a whole class just on the medicinal uses of propolis–its incredible stuff.

 

Bees are also masters of sacred geometry, producing a lattice of hexagrams.  The Beelore blog has a nice discussion of some of the other geometric connections to bees.

 

Visiting the Hive

When you up the hive, the first thing that greets you is the amazing smell–its hard to explain what it smells like, but its kind of a combination of propolis, beeswax, honey, and something else–maybe the bees themselves.  Its rich. Then you hear the hive– hive has a very low buzzing as the bees go about their work; if you disturb them too much the buzzing increases in volume as the bees buzz louder to sound the alarm. They also buzz louder to fan the hive on a hot day and help regulate the temperature.

 

I am amazed by how gentle the bees are. If you are a careful beekeeper, you can open up the hive and look at the bees and they are quite calm and happy. I don’t smoke my bees, even though most books suggest to do so–I find it just fires them up and I’d rather work with a calm hive. I still have yet to be stung–and if I’m stung, its not due to aggression on the part of the hive but due to my own stupidity.

 

My First Honey Harvest

A visit to the two hives yesterday revealed that the hives are doing tremendously well. They have a full hive of honey and brood, and the “supers,” which are the excess honey stores that we can harvest from, are about half full of honey and wax. While much of the honey not yet ready to harvest (it is not yet cured, which is necessary for long-term storage), we were able to harvest a few frames from the early spring nectar flows.  These frames were a beautiful, light colored and flavored spring honey consisting mostly of autumn olive and honeysuckle. Here we are at the hives:

Getting ready to harvest honey

Getting ready to harvest honey

A full beehive!

A full beehive!

We gently brushed the bees off the comb and replaced it with new frames for them to build.

 

Straining the Honey

We were left with five beautiful frames of honey, the best we had ever tasted:

Honeycomb

Honeycomb

Because honey extractor equipment can run upwards of $700 or more (and depends primarily on plastic foundation we would rather avoid in our hives), we opted for the “crush and strain” approach, which is an old and effective method that yields wax and honey. To do this, we used Joe Lydeck’s instructions on Youtube for a simple crush and strain bucket (the second version in his video). This cost about $30 total and was super easy to construct.

Buckets for straining

Our honey straining system- two buckets, a honey gate, and a nylon strainer from the hardware store.

Here we begin by cutting the comb off of the frames.  The smell is amazing, the sticky and gooey honey comes right off the comb.

Cutting the comb off the frame

Cutting the comb off the frame

Next, we cut some of it up for comb honey. We also added some comb honey to the jars for our strained honey so that the jar would have a bit of honeycomb in the middle–I saw this kind of presentation in an upscale shop, and thought that we could do it with our own honey.

Cutting comb honey!

Cutting comb honey!

After cutting up the comb, the fun part begins–crushing! You can use different methods for crushing (most use a potato masher, which we couldn’t find).  So we opted for crushing it with our clean hands. This was a lot of sticky, gooey fun!

Crushing up the honey!

Crushing up the honey!

After crushing it up and keeping what comb we wanted, we put the bucket out in the sun for a few hours. This helped warm the honey up so that it would extract from the crushed up comb a bit more easily. After we put it out in the sun for a while, I lifted up the bucket to see what was going on–here is the honey dripping out freely into the lower bottling bucket!

Honey coming through holes!

Honey coming through holes in upper bucket!

After the wait, we strained the last of the honey and ended up with about 20 lbs of honey–which was incredible given we only had five frames. At this point, we began to bottle. We used sterilized mason jars and other assorted fun jars for the honey. As I mentioned before, we added honeycomb to the center of some jars, and other jars just were straight honey–you can see this in the photo below.

Pouring the honey into a jar

Pouring the honey into a jar with honeycomb

We bottled up the honey and were so pleased with the harvest!  I have to make some nice labels for the jars still, but look at all that honey!

Bottled honey!

Bottled honey!

The best part about all of this work is that the equipment needs to be licked clean!

Licking the pan clean!

Licking the pan clean!

 

Wild Food Recipes: Maple Candied Violets and Honeyed Violets May 11, 2015

Once again, the beautiful, purple-blue sweet violets are dotting the landscape.  Where I live, they are in full bloom and will remain that way for the next few weeks. Last year I shared a traditional candied violet recipe with egg white as well as instructions for harvesting….this year, I wanted to share two recipes for violets both using sustainable, local ingredients: honey and maple syrup.  As a reminder, with any wild food foraging, please abide by ethical and safety guidelines (see my two-part series of posts on wild food foraging here and here).

Violets!

Violets!

Honeyed Violets

Honeyed violets are so simple to make and so wonderful. They also make a great gift! All that you do is gather up a bunch of violets, wash them, and then dry them and stick them in a jar full of local honey (maybe even from your own beehives!) To make the violets, stuff them in the jar and add honey. The violets will all float to the surface and stay that way (which is fine as long as they are fully coated in honey). They will also slowly fade their color over time, but that’s just more violety goodness going into the honey. I have found that violets preserved this way last six months or more!

 

The alternative recipe is to dry out the violets first then add them to the honey–I have a jar of dried honeyed violets that is over a year old and still good. I enjoy having honeyed violets with my tea–I add a teaspoon of honeyed violets to a cup of warm tea!

Honeyed violets from last year!

Honeyed violets from last year!

 

Candied Violets with Maple Syrup

I decided to take the traditional “candied violets” recipe that uses sugar water or egg white and sugar and give it a locally-produced spin.  Enter: maple-sugar coated violets!  For this recipe, you can start with either maple syrup or maple sugar (again, you can produce this yourself in the early spring!)

For either version, start by picking some lovely fresh violets.

Bowl of violets

Bowl of violets

Wash your violets….

Washing your violets (gently!)

Washing your violets (gently!)

….and then let them dry.

Violets drying out on a paper towel

Violets drying out on a paper towel

Now, get a small saucepan. Either add maple syrup to the saucepan OR dissolve a few tablespoons of maple sugar in the saucepan with hot water (I did the second, but either works as effectively).  For maple sugar, I added 3 tbsp of maple sugar and 2 tbsp of water and dissolved it.

Maple sugar!

Maple sugar!

Syrup or sugar syrup!

Syrup or sugar syrup ready for violets.

Then, add your violets.

Violets in syrup

Violets in syrup

After they are coated, you can pull them out one by one, laying them on some waxed paper or parchment paper to dry.

Using a fork to get violets out one by one

Using a fork to get violets out one by one

The less maple they have on them, the longer they take to dry.  I also chose to sprinkle my violets with a little extra maple sugar.

Violets on parchment

Violets on parchment – some of these had too much sugar (see the pools of it?)  That much sugar takes longer to dry.

Place your violets somewhere where they can spend the next two to three days drying.  Once they are dry, they will shrivel up a bit, but otherwise retain their color wonderfully.

Dried violets

Dried violets

I like to sit these on the table during meals as a little additional treat.

Violets in bowl!

Violets in bowl!

You can also grind them up and use them as sustainable sprinkles on cookies, cakes, and ice cream.

 

I love how sustainable these two violet recipes are–I made both with honey and maple sugar produced right here on my homestead.

 

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