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The Bee and the Machine: Moving Beyond Efficiency and towards Nature-Centeredness

Animals have spirit!

Over the course of the last four centuries, the Western World has created a set of “unshakable” principles concerning the natural world: that nature is just another machine, that animals don’t feel and do not have souls, that plants and animals aren’t sentient. Descartes, writing in the 1600s during the early rise of mechanization, was one of the first to make this claim. He posited that animals are mechanical automata, that is, they are beings without souls, feelings, or pain. These same ideas were not limited to non-human life; we see the same kind of thinking being applied to justify slavery, genocide, colonialization, and a list of other atrocities. When we combine this kind of thinking with the economic ideas of “growth at all costs” and “efficiency”, we end up in the dystopian fiction we find ourselves living in right now. I want to take some time to explore these concepts today and how we might think through them, and move beyond them, as part of our own nature-centered spiritual practices.

 

Perhaps we think ourselves evolved beyond such ideas in the 21st century, but a look at basic industrialized animal husbandry and farming practices tells a different tale. These same underlying ideas that allowed Descartes and his contemporaries to strip the enchantment from the world and encourage the mechanized reality we live in are still very much pervasive in our society. Efficiency and “savings” allow most people to tolerate factory farms and look the other way over animal testing. Everything moves very fast.  If we can simply say animals have no souls, no pain, and are essentially living automatons, it makes it easier to operate mechanized systems surrounding their raising, slaughter, and/or harvest (meat, eggs, honey, fur, leather etc). Unfortunately, I see this mentality strongly even among my neighbors here in rural Western PA. It is hard to see how “farm animals” are treated and conceived as simply objects that are meant to serve a purpose and be discarded. For example, earlier this year we were planning on getting some fiber goats as pets and companions and to help us clear areas of our land that were full of brush. After hearing that some of the plants on our land might be toxic to goats, I had called and talked with a PA state extension officer to learn more, and he told me that many of the plants on our land (Wild Cherry, bracken fern, pokeberry) were indeed deadly. He suggested that rather than buy “nice goats”,  I go to the local livestock auction and buy “junk goats” which could clear the land for a few months before getting sick and dying of the poisonous plants. I told him that it was abhorrent to think of doing such a thing, and he said people did it here all the time. Needless to say, we opted for geese and ducks as pets over the goats.

 

One of the best examples of this disastrous thinking–and people’s sheer excitement about it–can be found in the 2017 invention of the “flow hive” that touts mechanization and efficiency. I wasn’t even going to write about this, thinking that the craze about it had finally died down. But the darned thing just won’t go away. A video of an advertisement for a “Flow Hive” keeps appearing on my social media feed, shared eagerly by non-beekeeping friends who think that I’ll be so excited about it because they know I keep bees. It just happened again last week and my friend was quite surprised by my response. I am not in love with the flow hive. As a druid and someone practicing sacred beekeeping, the flow hive saddens me and hurts my heart.  I’ve been hesitant to write about it, because good analyses of why the Flow Hive is a bad idea have circulated from various beekeeping sites, and I didn’t think I had a lot to add to this conversation. But upon reflection, I do have something to add from a spiritual and relationship-building perspective, and certainly, from the perspective of this broader conversation about cultivating a relationship to the living earth.

 

A good thing!

A good thing!

The flow hive, and many other things like it, represent the mechanization and industrialization of nature in the name of efficiency and productivity. What do I mean by mechanization? Common definitions of mechanization are simple: the process of converting work done by hand or with animals to doing work using machinery. A textbook definition of the machine is, simply, an apparatus that has several interconnecting parts and that use mechanical power to complete a task. Words surrounding machines often have to do with efficiency; in its entry under mechanization, for example, Wikipedia shares some delightful statistics about the inefficiency of humans (1-5% efficient) compared to internal combustion engines (20%), diesel engines (60%) or other methods (up to 90%). Here, these definitions suggest that the goal of doing work is to get it done as efficiently, that is, as easily and without additional labor, as possible. Efficiency, or getting something done quickly and with minimal effort, is an idea that Wendell Berry also takes to task in his Unsettling of America. The language of efficiency pervades our thinking, clouds or judgment, and ties us even more directly to the machine.

 

The assumption underlying the flow hive is simple: a more efficient beehive is a better one because it requires less effort and doesn’t require as much interaction with the bees. An efficient beehive will save us time and effort. If I can simply flip a switch and get the honey to flow out, that is such a better experience than having to pull frames. Uh, yeah, sure it is. When I argue against the flow hive, I’m attacked on several angles: I’m a Luddite and hate technology and progress; I am resistant to change, or I’m old fashioned.  My response is that I’m a druid.  There is something abhorrent about flipping a switch and turning my bees into a factory.

 

To understand why this whole idea is so abhorrent to me as a druid, we have to get to the goals and purposes for beekeeping, or any other practice that we do as human beings. What is the point of beekeeping, or doing any other work? Is it just to have an end product (honey) or is it also about the journey? The incredible smell of the hive as you open it, the observation of the bees in their work, the relationship that you can create with the bees, seeing bees in all stages of life, seeing the queen laying her eggs, watching the workers take care of larvae and pupae, seeing the wax exuding from the backs of the workers–these are all experiences that I treasure. Interaction and connection are two of the main reasons I keep bees–these things that have no price tag and they require only my time, expertise, and effort to experience. None of these experiences have to do with efficiency, productivity, or getting honey. These experiences have to do with the sacred relationship that a beekeeper develops with her beehive and the joy at studying and learning from the bees, who are true alchemists.

 

The flow hive, by its very mechanistic nature, not only disrupts the sacred interaction between the beekeeper and the bee, it does so at the name of efficiency. I see it no different from the other kinds of disruptions that humans often face when using machines to tame nature: you can’t really appreciate the beautiful spring day outside if 30 of your neighbors are running gas-guzzling machines all across their lawns. Its simply not the same to take a drive through the woods as opposed to a walk–the machine limits that interaction. Machines may be more efficient, but that’s the only thing they offer us, and efficiency is over-rated.

 

Another aspect of mechanization, which John Michael Greer writes about is the myth of power. In his “Myth of the Machine” post on the former Archdruid Report, he explores the relationship between machines and power, and suggests that part of the allure of machines in modern industrialized society is the allure of power. There is something, for modern humans, inherently appealing about the modern gizmos and gadgets that “do so much.” New products are sold on this basis: the new iPhone does more than the old iPhone, so of course, you want one so that you can do more with it.  Perhaps a more accurate advertisement would be that the new iPhone allows you as a human being to do less; that with each new device, the quest for efficiency becomes more complete.

 

Doing things the old way….at the North American Bushcraft School

By turning a simple switch of this flow hive, the beekeeper gains an immense amount of power over the bees. While honey harvesting used to be a careful dance between bee and beekeeper, allowing the beekeeper not only to check on the health of the hive and its honey reserves, honey harvesting is now a simplified mechanistic process. The dance of the honey harvest, the careful interactions, and care, are replaced by the machine. Who knows what is happening in the hive? The flow hive way tells you all that matters is what comes out–the honey itself.

 

But also by turning a simple switch, the beekeeper doesn’t need to have the skill to engage in that careful dance. The machine itself does the work, and the knowledge necessary to successfully harvest honey from a hive is rendered obsolete. By flipping the honey switch, we’ve traded our skilled labor, which involves paying attention to the hive’s disposition, engaging in multiple kinds of hand-eye coordination, and using wisdom just to gain a product that flows out of the hive and into your jar.  All of the sense of craft, skill, and knowledge is lost. Yes, doing it the old way takes more time–but the trade to efficiency doesn’t seem worth it. This is especially true because mechanization and efficiency, ultimately, means a loss of care and a loss of connection. When we stop opening up the beehive, we fail to see the magic and beauty and sacredness of the work of the bees. When we just turn a switch and pour out honey, an essential quality–care and interaction–has been stripped from the process. We have traded ease-of-use for care.

 

We can use this same kind of argument in all sorts of ways: when we stop producing our own food, we lose the magic of it, but also the connection to the earth by producing it.  The more that machines do for us, the more efficient our lives become, the less whole they really are.  We trade our ability to engage fully as people with the world and instead, become dependent on the machine–in the same way a new beekeeper is dependent on the switch in the flow hive for their honey.  In “Tool-Users vs. Homo Sapiens and the Megamachine” Louis Mumford writes of the end result of this process, “the beleaguered– even ‘obsolete’–individual would be entirely de-skilled, reduced to a passive, inert, trivial accessory to the machine.” Sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it?  Isn’t this what is happening in today’s society? If we let machines and technology do everything for us, we are left with nothing but the ability to consume. No sets of core skills, and no connection to the living earth, all is done for us in the name of efficiency.

 

Its actually pretty entertaining to see news article after news article claiming things that anyone who spends time meditating in nature already knows: that all living beings have soul, methods of communication, and spirit. It doesn’t take science to tell me as a druid that trees communicate when they communicate with me daily.  It doesn’t take science to tell me that my chickens and guineas have their own unique communication styles and are deeply aware of their surroundings.  The myth that Decorate and so many others have propagated–that nature is a machine–is simply a smokescreen to take advantage of nature in the most abhorrent ways possible.

 

Beauty and mystery of nature

I write all of this because I think that these are some of the underlying ideas that we have to tackle–as druids–to really begin a paradigm shift.  Some technologies are really helpful to humanity (like say, basic refrigeration and washing machines.  I really appreciate the work that both do).  But many technologies and mechanizations take us further and further away from our ability to connect deeply with nature both by disconnecting us from the source of life (food, shelter, etc) and deskilling us. And at some point, we have to face the fact that we are likely better without a lot of these things and find ways of balancing our lives with useful technologies vs. those that actively harm us and our planet.

 

Since this has been mostly an opinion piece, I’ll end with a few takeaways that are useful practices to start these shifts:

  • Take one aspect of your life that you depend on industrialization or consumerism to fulfill and learn how to produce it yourself. As a few examples, I declared tomato independence many years ago, and make it a point to grow and preserve the tomato needs of my family for the year.  I also have recently been taking up fire-starting technologies using material from my land and also learning how to make my own paints.  While these may seem like small steps, they are highly fulfilling and empowering.
  • Look for industries that have the most egregious issues (like clothing, food) and try to make better choices, informed choices, choices that are rooted in care rather than efficiency and cost. You can’t often make every good choice due to the costs, but you can choose one or two areas to focus on.
  • Attend an earth skills gathering, like Mountaincraft or find a local Bushcraft school.  You can find a list here.  I attended my first gathering (Mountaincraft) earlier this year and was amazed by the number of skills and friendship offered at these places.  Since then, I’ve returned to the North American Bushcraft School for other classes (I was just there yesterday making leather bags!)  The Earth Skills community is teaching and modeling a more healthy paradigm and relationship with the living earth–and this kind of thing is a great deal of fun.
  • Examine your own assumptions and start checking those assumptions in your interaction with regards to things like growth, efficiency, etc.  As I shared before on this blog, mindset shifts are the keys to everything else: if we shift our mindsets, we can change the world.  These are insidious things that are rooted deeply in our subconscious.  Bringing them to a conscious place, examining them, and ridding oneself of them takes effort–but it is so worth it.  Surrounding yourself with people who are doing this same work really helps.
  • Have technology-free days where you embrace the darkness, spend time in nature, learn to make things slowly and by hand, and generally disconnect and allow yourself to simply be, un-impeded, with nature.  You’ll be glad you did!

This planet is being eradicated by the kinds of thinking and actions I’ve examined in this post.  I’m growing tired of inaction and tired of watching the thing that I hold sacred, and that I love, be under such threat.  If we change mindsets, we change the world.

Honoring the Predators: A Story of Reconnection

My last beekeeping post told a the tale of my two bee colonies destroyed by colony collapse disorder. I had hoped to have better news to share about my beekeeping endeavors this year. And things started well enough: a friend removed some bees from a house that was to be torn down and gave them to me; I moved my hive to a new location and setup the hive in a friend’s yard, and then I was able to setup an empty hive with the hopes of catching a second swarm. But, unfortunately, this tale has a different end, and a different lesson. The bees were doing great, I had just added honey supers a few weeks ago, and I was expecting a ton of honey from such a strong colony and then–the bear came. I have read about bears taking out beehives, but I have never talked with anyone that had this happen. My friend had never seen a bear, and there were no reports of them in the area, but clearly, one was nearby! The bear ripped open the hive, and, in the middle of a rainstorm, flung the colony all over the place as he had his meal. Bears go for honey, but especially, for the brood: the bees’ young larvae and pupae are very protein rich. And so, this was the scene that greeted my friend when she woke up, and the scene that greeted me when I arrived to see what could be salvaged.

Destroyed Beehives

Destroyed Beehives

Two of us worked for most of the day to salvage what we could. The bees that remained were soaking and, since it was only about 50 that day, very cold. The equipment was soaked, and I had no idea if the queen had survived. I thought it likely the bear would return, so I spoke to various friends in a desperate effort to move the hives before dark. I wasn’t able to secure a location, and since it is illegal to have bees inside of town limits, we instead drove many pieces of rebar around the hive, wired it up, strapped it shut, and hoped for the best. I wish now I had just stuck them on my porch for a day or two until I could figure out where to move them and risked the citation. Unfortunately, the bear came back, and while we made it harder for him to get inside, he still did, demolishing what was left of the hive.

 

The end of this tale is a bit better–although there weren’t many bees left after the second bear visit, we salvaged what was left: the queen and about 5000 of her workers. We borrowed a travel box from a friend, and we saved every bee we could, gently helping them into the hive box. A fellow beekeeping friend has a number of hives, so he had brood and resources to help them get back to health. They are now back on their way to a strong colony again, and they are protected from bears. All the beekeepers in the  area are on alert now about bears, thanks to my hive. This whole event has given me much to think about and meditate upon, and a variety of lessons  to consider–and today, the lesson is honoring the predators.

 

It’s ironic that this the lesson I am exploring, because the the hives were torn apart on the early morning hours of May 2nd. The day before was May 1st – Beltane. I met with a new friend, a woman who had dedicated her life to the work of the goddesses, and we got together to do a Beltane ceremony. As part of our first ceremony, each of us brought some things from our respective traditions to share with each other. One of the things she brought were offerings, including an offering honoring the predators. She made her offering and spoke beautifully about the predators, their role, the goddesses connected to them. In my mind, I was certainly not honoring the predators. All of my experiences with predators as a homesteader were negative: the hawk that swooped down to kill many of my dear chickens, including taking a peep right from in front of me. The dead chicken bodies I found as the hawk flew off after eating a meal. I remember the evidence of the badger that ripped my coop open one night and drug off my beloved rooster (an event I still haven’t written about), the snakes by the pond swallowing frogs whole, their peeping and screeching noises going on for over an hour till the snake finally finished its meal.

 

As my friend spoke so beautifully about the predators, I was instead filled with these images of predators and how I spent so much of my own time over the last few years keeping them away from things I loved. And then, that next morning–the largest predator of all in this area–the bear–came and feasted upon my beehive.

 

I have reminisced in the weeks that have passed since the hive was eaten that I really do have a problem honoring the predators–and that’s a problem with me, not a problem with the predators. And the predators, in their own way, will make themselves known and continue to show up in my life until I am able to honor them. And so, to help myself come to terms with the loss, I thought I’d write about the predators and, finally, begin to do the work of honoring them.

 

Cultural Problems with Predators

We learn about predators in school in really scientific ways: predators sit at the top of the food chain; they are carnivorous, eating only the flesh of other creatures; they may be solitary or run in packs. We learn about predators from the local news: a hiker was mauled by a bear, a swimmer was eaten by a shark, a pack of coyotes killed a number of neighborhood dogs. We learn about human predators, who we view as the worst kind of people: those who stalk, kill, harm and maim others. This, term perhaps shows us the cultural view of the predator, that we take this term and we attach it to heinous actions that are in no way comparable to a bear or a fox taking a meal. I think I was viewing the predators that had eaten the bees, the chickens, and so forth in the same way: you, predator, have taken something I value, you have taken a life. You have done me wrong and have done wrong to others.  But this is not the lesson of the predator, not the lesson at all.

 

Nature’s Wisdom

Sometimes, those of us, especially those in nature-based spiritual paths, want to see nature as all roses, all pretty trees, all little birds signing. But roses have thorns, the trees compete for light, and the birds sometimes knock each other’s eggs out of nests. Like everything else, they are working to survive by any means possible. A forest is full of both competition for resources and cooperation. I’m reminded here of the lesson of the many medicinal mushrooms of the woods (and you can read some of this in Tradd Cotter’s book; he gave a fascinating talk on this subject last year at the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, PA.) The medicinal qualities–particularly the anti-cancer, anti-microbial qualities–of mushrooms like birch polypore, turkey tail, or reishi are based on their growth in natural environments, where mushrooms have to compete to survive. Tradd gave an example in his talk of a petri dish that he was working on that had birch polypore in it–he had dropped something nasty into it (e-coli, I think) and was amazed to see how the birch polypore exuded an anti-fungal agent to combat it, and surround it, and eventually subdue it using what was essentially chemical warfare. That same chemical constituent, when taken within, helps us fight a number of diseases. If the mushrooms are grown in a lab or in a controlled setting, their medicinal value drops significantly–because they don’t have the natural competition of all of the other bacteria and others in the fungal kingdom. These mushrooms aren’t predators in the traditional (animalistic) sense, but they certainly  have similar qualities and offer similar lessons.

Tradd Cotter teaching us about mushrooms

Tradd Cotter teaching us about mushrooms

Predator Patterns and Restoration Agriculture

The truth is, predators are a key part of nature, and without them, we lose a greater part of the whole and the entire ecosystem suffers. Recently, farmers and activists in permaculture design and in sustainable agriculture have been reintroducing predator-driven graze patterns to help regenerate agricultural lands. These patterns, set by millions of years of evolution, are now mimicked by humans on farms to move herd animals through various terrain. This work is perhaps best illustrated by the work of Joel Salatin at Polyface farm (see Polyfaces) and Mark Sheppard at New Forest Farm (see his book Restoration Agriculture or the film Inhabit). The principle of understanding why traditional graze patterns is simple: if you’ve ever visited a chicken run or petting zoo, you see what happens when animals are fenced in the same area for a long period of time. They first eat their favorite food, then nibble down to the less desirable greenery, and finally, eat whatever is left, leaving bare soil.  This is what happens in a stationary system, rather than one driven by predators.

 

Rather than fencing animals in the same spot, folks like Salatin and Sheppard carefully rotate their herd animals  among large tracts of land in traditional grazing patterns. Mark Sheppard has his system so effectively designed that every different animal (cows, pigs, geese, chickens) move through a patch and quickly out of it in only a few days time. As the herds are rotated, each animal gets it’s own best “first bite.” This technique encourages the grass to stay alive, and to shed carbon (as the grass is bitten down, it sheds roots to accommodate it’s smaller size, and that sinks carbon into the topsoil, enriching it). This, friends, is why prior to the settling of the USA by Europeans, the prairies had soil horizons that were 12 feet deep of rich topsoil: it was millennia of herds moving quickly through areas, driven by predators. Predators, then, are responsible for herd movements that can literally sequester carbon and stop climate change. Farmers interested in regenerative agriculture are using these same methods to sequester tens of thousands of pounds of carbon each year.  Salatin has compelling evidence tha  if every US farmer who raises any grazing animal used these techniques, we could sink all of the carbon the USA has ever emitted in less than 10 years.

 

This is the power of the predator, and this one of many reasons that they are deserving of our respect.

 

There are other examples of this as well. I’m sure that many of you saw the video about Yellowstone Park, where it was shown that the re-introduction of wolves changed the whole ecosystem because of the movement of herds.  The wolves were able, as the video suggests, change the movement of herds, which changed rivers, and helped regenerate the entire ecosystem. (There are some new articles that suggest that this video exaggerates the claims a bit, but I am still inclined to believe that a whole ecosystem, with it’s predators intact, is a more robust and healthy ecosystem). Without predators as a part of the ecosystem, all suffer.

 

Predators and Inner Lessons

The outer lessons, above, are clearer the more I write and think about them, but I would also like to spend a few moments on the inner lessons that the predators offer. I, like many, saw predators as a nuisance, as something to keep away, as something you don’t want to see flying above the skies or slinking through the grass.  But predators have another message–they are awareness medicine.

 

The hawks flying overhead made me better protect my chickens, and sent me a powerful message about defenses, about being vigilant, and about not letting my guard down. If my chickens were the tastiest plump morsels around (and they are, they are made of chicken), then I had to change my own relationship with the predators and protect my chickens better. If I lose a chicken to a hawk, this is not the fault of the predator, this is my own lack of vigilance.

 

The badger who broke into my coop, and dragged my beloved rooster off never to be seen again, sent me the message that I was to return to PA to my beloved mountains, a message I have since enacted in my life. The magic of my homestead worked because of my rooster, Anasazi, and without him, I knew it wasn’t going to work in the same way. That powerful message was the last thing I needed to truly move forward in my life.

 

And the bear, who easily took out the beehive during the first evening, and even more skillfully worked his way through wire, rebar, straps, and more, teaches me the lesson that the predators need to be honored. To be respected. They are there, they are present, and there is no getting around their message.  They are there whether or not we want them to be. And it is me, not them, who needs to change my own thoughts and actions .

 

The lessons of the predator are many: power, strength, vigilance, loss, opportunity, precision, healing, defenses, paying attention, cultivating awareness and openness to your surroundings. Friends, readers, what are your experiences with the predators? Do you have any additional lessons to share?

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

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!

The Silence of the Hive

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.

Permaculture in Action – Five Year Regeneration Model Site (My 3 Acre Homestead)

Last week, I shared some inspiring words about permaculture design, and how it can give us a path forward and an active, regenerative response to the many challenges we face. I wanted to take some time this week to share a more extended example that is near and dear to my heart—and this will likely be the last post on my Michigan homestead, a “celebratory” post of the good work that was able to be done there on the land in terms of regeneration.  I’ve already written about the energetic healing work on the land earlier–this is about the physical space. My homestead in Michigan was recently sold to an incredible human being who will continue her own regenerative work on the land—and for that I’m grateful!

When I came to my homestead, the need for regeneration of the landscape–and myself–was obvious to me in some ways, and not so obvious in others. So here’s a look at my homestead and the healing work through permaculture design that was done there.  So this post is an example of what one determined person (with help from dear friends and her community) can do over a five-year period to regenerate soil and bring abundance and fertility to the land.

 

Site Analysis and Assessment: The Challenges

Zones and Sectors, Analysis - 5 year mark

Zones and Sectors, Ongoing Challenges after 5 Years

When I purchased my homestead in Michigan in 2010, much healing and regeneration needed to be done. Its no surprise that permaculturists often select sites that are in the most need of healing—the tools work, and they work well, and we like a challenge. This land was no exception. The landscape was just covered in trash, chemicals, and more. Here’s what I found when I purchased the property:

 

The Lawn and Mowing: First, there was the typical damage of the lawn: no water retention, chemically poisoned, extremely compacted soil, very low-nutrient soil, shallow root mass, lack of biological diversity, no habitat or food in the grass for just about anything. A full 2 acres were being constantly mowed—pretty much anything that could be mowed was being mowed. The grass wasn’t healthy, the soil was so hard you couldn’t even get a shovel into it.

 

Burn piles, trash piles, and garbage everywhere. The previous owners had decided not to pay for garbage service but continued to produce a copious amounts of garbage, so their solution for years was to burn it each week, spread it in random places in the yard, and dump it in the back of the property. In these burn piles, I found everything from nail polish bottles exploded by the heat to lumps of melted plastic, metal coils, and chunks of rubber. The land beneath these piles, of course, had all the chemicals leeching in. All along the edges of the property was a ring of trash—from old bedsprings to plastic containers, for YEARS I found more and more trash along the edges where the trees stood! There was also a full metal bus, which my neighbor was willing to remove and scrap.

 

Scary fluids in metal bins. There were several scary metal drums, stored about 20 feet above the pond in the brush. I looked at them for a good month, trying to decide what to do about them. Finally, my neighbor helped me sort it out—it was hydraulic fluid, and he offered to take it from me since he could use it. Luckily there didn’t appear to be any leakage into the pond.

 

Deforestation. A one-acre section of cedar and white pine trees had been cut about two years prior to my moving in—the google map view still had the trees, but they were all found in the back of the property. A neighbor told me the owners “didn’t like the trees” so they had them cut and dumped. The wood was not used and the land still bore the scars of that event.

 

Ox-eye daisy my first year

Ox-eye daisy my first year at the homestead

Alkali and degraded soil. Early soil tests from around the property revealed soil somewhere between PH 8.1 – 8.3 with almost no potassium to speak of and little to no organic matter. This kind of soil is a challenge—the high PH means that iron, phosphorus, and manganese are less available and may get locked up. I was, like many in my area, living on what had been old potato fields and the soil had been abused quite a bit in those days. You can learn a lot from the soil by the plants that were growing there—one of the few plants I had in the back of the property growing was Ox-Eye daisy; these are indicator species that grows in very poor soil conditions when little else can grow.

 

Water runoff issues. Additionally, the water runoff issues, especially down the driveway, put all the driveway runoff into a shallow ditch that went across the road and into the wetland.

 

Buried shingles everywhere. Someone thought it was a good idea to suppress weeds with toxic asphalt shingles—I found great layers of them under pine trees, down a pathway, in the barn.

 

Massive Garbage/Wood piles in back of property. When the previous owners had cut down all of the cedars and pines in the center of the property, they dumped them in the back, in the woods, and piled garbage on top.

 

Energetic issues. I wrote pretty extensively about energetic healing in my “about the land” page—I’m not going to be talking much about this here, but this is also a critically important issue. When something is mistreated, it closes off and curls up in a ball—that’s essentially what was happening to this land.

 

Site Analysis and Assessment: The Opportunities

Salvaged Cedar Logs for garden beds

Salvaged Cedar Logs for garden beds

Despite the degradation present, the site presented a host of wonderful opportunities to enact permaculture design—“the problem is the solution” as Bill Mollison would say. The site included:

 

  • Nearly 1/3 acre of full sun, including a north-facing line of trees that created a heat trap
  • ¾ acre pond (not well placed from a permaculture standpoint for regeneration, but in healthy condition minus the garbage floating in it). Indicator species, like spotted leopard frog, suggested the pond was ecologically healthy.
  • A pole barn and detached garage
  • A variety of microclimates: full shade, full sun, part shade, protected, high ground, slopes, and so on.
  • A lot of established hardwood and nut trees: maples (for tapping, 3 tapable maples on property); several hickories, many oaks, wild cherry for medicine
  • Protective, biodiverse hedges of trees, shrubs, and berry bushes surrounding the property on three sides where neighbors and the road were (these helped deflect noise, protect from pollution, offer food and forage to all life, and provide privacy)
  • A big pile of logs dumped in the back of the property ready to be used
  • A bunch of other supplies, like posts and fencing, dumped into the sides of the property ready to be used
  • Land energetically ready for healing!

 

The Design and Restoration:

In the first year, I spent most of my time doing the physical clean up of the land and observing the site. The trash cleanup took up most of my time on the land: picking up the burn piles, picking up the trash, fishing more trash out of the pond, picking up pieces of glass, dealing with scary materials in metal bins, and so on. I also sheet mulched three 4’ x 20’ beds in the area that I had the most solar gain and sheet mulched a rocky, gravelly area to turn that into soil. The winter came, and I began researching plants and thinking about the overall site design.

Looking back, I think the project evolved as my knowledge of permauclture design and organic farming grew. I wanted to regenerate the soil, to grow a wide variety of annuals and perennials (with a special emphasis on fruit trees, herbs, and biodiversity), to encourage pollinators, and to create a sacred space. My goals evolved as I learned more!

 

Soil Regeneration. Because of the state of the soil, my big goals for the property was soil regeneration using multiple strategies. As I mentioned above, ox-eye daisy was growing abundantly all through the property, and I was told when speaking to some people from our state extension office that I needed to chemically manage it—advice I chose wisely to ignore.

 

Red clover seeds

Red clover seeds

In my first year on the land, I sowed quite a bit of red and white clover in all the areas of the lawn that I knew I wasn’t going to do anything with for a period of time. Dandelion and burdock also popped up in those areas, breaking up compacted soil. I spread these as much as I could around the property (much to the dismay of my neighbors, I’m sure!) Dandelion and Burdock have deep tap roots and are dynamic accumulators of nutrients, so they are breaking up compacted soil and healing the land with their very presence.

 

Rather than mowing the whole thing and further compacting the soil, I chose to mow paths in the back 2/3 of the property and continued to mow the front lawn (especially after some legal troubles when I stopped one summer). The clover and dandelions (and other plants I later added, like boneset and new England aster) also provided valuable forage for pollinators. Looking back, being more intentional about this and sowing native grasses with deep root masses would have helped to build soil as well!

 

A second strategy for soil regeneration was bringing in chickens. A good number of permaculturists are using animals and specified grazing techniques to build better soil—my goal was similar. These grazing techniques basically suggest that we can sequester carbon by allowing grasses to get tall, then in allowing an intensive foraging by animals to reduce them to the roots. The roots get smaller when the leafy mass is gone, shedding carbon and building organic matter. As the plants regrow, new roots form and the cycle can begin again. My chickens ate bugs, pooped, and built nitrogen with their good work on the land. I also used them when they were in their run to compost materials rapidly and I was able to spread that compost into the soil. I spread manure from a friend’s alpaca farm, then let the chickens come in and scratch it up looking for bugs.

 

Chickens as regenerators of soil!

Chickens as regenerators of soil!

I also used soil amendments when I had the opportunity—I made compost teas and spread them in all perennial and annual beds as well as my field. Because of the high alkali soil, wood ash was out (which was a shame, since I had so much of it), but I did spread chicken compost as well as sourced some free seaweed and spread that. A friend had some leftover granite dust, so I used that as well as rock phosphate.

 

The field started out all in ox-eye daisy, heavily compacted soil. In a period of 5 years, few ox-eye daisies remain, and now there are a host of beneficial plants, berry bushes, and more. Where Autumn Olives grew up, I cut them back in the early spring before they leafed out, forcing them to deposit a lot of their nitrogen and carbon in the roots into the soil. This created a more fertile, less alkali soil, which eventually allowed me to create other things.

 

The last technique, one that I did only a little before moving, was to make and bury biochar to help fix carbon and build soil quality. My garden (covered below) received many more amendments (copious amounts of chicken-composted leaves, organic matter, etc).

 

Now a lot of these techniques were initially focused just in my garden—and that was a mistake. My garden was about people care—but the whole landscape needed to be cared for. Later in my time at the homestead, I started building soil not just for the garden and perennial gardens but throughout the whole property.

 

Serviceberry - first harvest!

Serviceberry – first harvest!

Biodiversity and Perennial Plants and Trees. I really wanted to showcase perennial fruit and nut crops as well as perennial herbs for medicine. To do this, I created different small perennial beds: an traditional medicine wheel herb bed in the front, a small orchard of fruit trees with mini-swales behind the barn, a second row of fruit trees with guilds of beneficial plants along the driveway, a butterfly garden, and a mini food forest (there weren’t trees, but there were trellises and large bushes). These spaces were designed and implemented individually.

 

In permaculture, we think about “stacking functions” where a single plant has many uses – the cover, for example, fixes nitrogen, provides good groundcover that doesn’t require mowing, and creates a fantastic nectar source for bees. Many herbs and perennials have these kinds of multiple functions.

 

Butterfly garden, year 2

Butterfly garden, year 2

Pollinator Haven. In my third year, I really focused on pollinators. I added many more milkweeds, spreading them throughout the property. I planted and managed two perennial pollenator gardens with long-blooming plants. I added other blooming plants, especially mid-to-late season blooming plants like oregano, bee balm, boneset, joe pye weed, New England aster, and goldenrod. The goal here was to provide nectar sources well beyond the spring flows. I had my property certified as a wildlife sanctuary and monarch waystation.

 

And, of course, I added the two beehives. I paid close attention to what the honeybees vs. bumble bees and other native bees liked, and I made sure that all of those things were present on the landscape. Clovers, ground ivy, brambles, so many things the bees like!

 

Certification and Signage

As I mentioned above, after some difficulty with my township about my rather wild front yard, I registered the site as a Certified Monarch Waystation and Certified Wildlife Habitat. I did this mainly for education of those driving by my house—the signage showed people that something different, something regenerative, was happening here.

 

Pond regrown - beneficial bushes and groundcover

Pond regrown – beneficial bushes and groundcover

 Education, Outreach, and Healing

A final piece of the design of this site was using the site as a place for others to come, to grow, to learn, and to heal. This took on a lot of different forms: I had 9 other people, at various times, with plots in my garden. Many others learned about various garden techniques like sheet mulching, front-lawn conversion, beekeeping, perennial plants, herbalism, and more. Throughout my time at the site, over 150 people, many through our Permaculture meetup, came through and saw what was going on, and learned about it. I hosted many monthly meetups as well as hosted three permablitzes so that people could come and learn.

 

Others came, when they were in need, to use the land as a quiet retreat for healing or integrative work.   Still others came to celebrate the wheel of the seasons in the druid tradition. These spiritual and healing aspects were as important to the regeneration of the land as the physical ones!

 

Here’s a final map of everything that was planted and where! Thanks for reading :).

 

Full Landscape Map when I left (click to see larger version)

Full Landscape Map when I left (click to see larger version)

Sacred Lessons from the Bees, Honey Flows, and Honey Harvesting

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!

Creating Sacred Spaces: Bee and Butterfly Sancturaries

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

Reclaiming Our Heritage and Connection With The Land: Herbs, Plants, and Harvests

Path through the woods

Path through the woods: how many ancestors walked here?

As you might have noticed, my posts on this blog slow down considerably in the months of August – October.  This is because as a single homesteader, I’m quite busy bringing in the harvest canning, drying, and freezing;  preparing my garden for next year’s season; planting garlic and other fall crops; jumping in leaves; drying herbs; and generally enjoying fall, my very favorite of the seasons.  My posts will become more frequent as winter approaches!

 

I’ve been taking a lot of time to reflect this year, because this is the end of my 5th year as a homesteader and I’m coming up on 9 years as a druid–through these experiences, I’m really starting to feel that I am living the wheel of the year much more intimately and that I’m regaining something that my generation (and several generations before me) lost. Today I’d like to posit that many of the activities that I discuss on this blog, from finding wild foods to medicine making and growing and preserving the harvest is as much about reclaiming our human heritage and reconnecting to the land as it is about foraging a sustainable path in an increasingly unsustainable world.  In other words, these activities give us a window both into the work of our ancestors and also to the future.  To do this, I’m going to talk a bit about heritage, and the process of feeling like I am regaining some of mine with these practices.

Grandmothers and Grandfathers: What They Knew and What Went With Them

When I think about the kinds of things that were passed down to me as a child, I think about the time I spent with my grandfather Custer in the forest; where he showed me several edible and medicinal plants, where he taught me to see the tracks in the snow; where we would laugh and play in the forest. I only remember fragments, but I hold onto those dearly. I think about the lessons of my grandmother Driscoll, who would find a shiny penny face up on the road and bring it home and bury it beneath the front paving stones.  Grandmother Driscoll, who made dandelion wine she never drank, who trash picked and made many things from nothing at all–these lessons are all part of my heritage.  But there wasn’t a lot that they passed down; they were all too busy working multiple jobs, raising families, making steel in the mills.

 

My grandmother Custer taught me many songs, songs that her grandmother had taught her. One song she taught me was called “a froggy would a wooin go”;  I didn’t know it when I was a child, but I recently discovered that this song has roots as back as 1558….all those grandmothers passing down the song to their grandchildren. I think about that kind of history–500+ years of grandmothers passing on the song so that I was able to learn it as a child. And I’m glad for that tiny bit of heritage. But I also wonder what my great-great-great-great-great grandmothers knew and how they lived, I wonder what they knew about the kinds of things I’m trying to relearn–knowledge of root and stem and seed.  We have almost no family records, I have no idea of knowing what they knew, how they lived, who they were. Most of all, since I lost all of my grandparents before the age of 15, I wonder what I would have learned if they were still alive, or if I had had a chance to know my great grandparents, or their great grandparents. I wonder what they knew but did not think it relevant to teach in a quickly changing world. I wish, knowing where I am heading now, that I could have conversations with them, learn from them these skills, these ways of living.

 

I will also say, however, that my parents lived quite simply and, while I wouldn’t say they actively passed it down by teaching me the principles, we lived those principles growing up.  Canning and gardening were regular activities in our house. My uncle hunted and brought us venison and turkey.  We ate lots of zucchini from the garden.   I kinda just saw them as hobbies, not realizing their significance till later in my own path.  But I was grateful to have grown up with this framework as I began my own druidic and sustainable practice.

The Ancestral Lands of Western PA

The Ancestral Lands of Western PA

Living Without A Heritage

I remember one day, sometime in the late 1980’s, my Grandmother Driscoll sat with tears in her eyes on the stoop where she buried so many shiny new pennies and she said to me, “Things were different when I was a child, Dana. Even during the depression, things were different.  People needed each other then.  We got on with very little.  We were a lot happier. There is so much I know that we don’t need anymore.”  Then we went inside and ate her homemade mushroom soup and made tiny doll clothes from repurposed fabric.

 

I remember looking back on this memory long after Grandmother had died, after they had all died (many due to the illnesses associated with steel mills and coal mines), thinking that I had literally no heritage. That the traditions and knowledge of my ancestors (primarily Irish, Native American, and German) were completely lost to me.  And truthfully, they pretty much were. Much of my family had come to America at least four or five generations prior to my birth; those who were Native had long since been forced to lose much of their own history or died trying to retain it.  Those that were Irish changed their names and eradicated their cultural practices due to discrimination.  The Germans had fared the best, and in my home region, we still had remnants of “Pennsylvania Dutch” folklore, cooking, and even, as I discovered only recently, a magical tradition called “Braucherei.” For all of my 20’s, however, I felt that I had literally no traditions to keep, no heritage to pass on.  This was, of course, compounded by the fact that I had rejected the religion of my parents (Christianity) and most of their holidays, and while I had tidbits of knowledge and songs from my grandparents, I felt like I was a person living with nothing.

Building New Traditions: Honoring the Land and Living Close to it

Dana and Dad cutting up Chicken of the Woods!

Dana and Dad cutting up Chicken of the Woods Mushrooms!

In the Tarot, the “tower” card represents a crashing down, a clearing of the way, with the opportunity to build anew once the dust settles.  In some ways, I kinda see this whole situation in a generational way: me as the 21st century product of the crumbling dust of the tower. I live in the remnants and shadows of the lost ancestral knowledge about how to live from the land, about how to build communities, about how to interact with each other; I live with the fragments of  traditions that hadn’t been passed on because of a rapidly changing world.

 

Through the work of the last five years, I realized rather recently that I was building something anew where I had perceived this empty wasteland of family heritage and tradition.  I became, thanks to two of my close friends and mentors, obsessed with reading old books full of old knowledge (the 1970’s has much to offer, but previous decades and centuries even more so).  I attended workshops, classes, learned by doing, talked to old wisened elders, learned everything I could (a process that shows no sign of ending anytime soon).  I also looked to my parents and their practices and saw their lifestyle with new appreciation.

 

I realized that I was building a new heritage that I could pass on by rediscovering the past, how others had lived, by studying the plants, by learning to grow and forage for my own food, but also melding those practices with druidry.  Druidry gave me the spiritual framework to understand the work I was doing and to understand and refect upon my practice it in useful and productive ways.  Druidry, with its own spiritual heritage paralleling the rise of the industrial revolution (and in many ways, responding to it) provided me with grounding and daily practices that helped me further understand myself and gave me tools to walk the tightrope between the worlds.

 

The other thing druidry and my sustainable practice was doing for me was helping me pull away from the heavy consumerist haze which had dominated the lives of so many of us growing up in the 80’s, falling into video game addictions in the 90’s and 2000’s (and yes…I was deep in fantasy land for way too long).  It helped me regain my footing, my connection to the land, my sense of self.

 

And now, I am starting to understand the power in returning to the land in whatever way one can–by enjoying the fruits of one’s labor and cultivating close relationships with plants.  By making one’s own medicine to heal oneself.  By being happy that one has built up the calluses needed to do a few hours’ work in the garden.  By not only celebrating the wheel of the year, but understanding from a growth standpoint what happens to the plants after the Fall Equinox comes and joyously waiting the return of the Spring Equinox.  By learning the secrets of the soil.  By just practicing being happy and quiet and not running around like crazy all the time.  There is something so powerful about being even a little independent and self-sufficient.  Its a ton of hard work, yes, but it gives you something meaningful.

 

Dana and Dad after visiting the beehives

Dana and Dad after visiting the beehives

Perhaps the most magical of all is that its not just me that has found this path–my immediate family, too, is transforming and regaining the oak knowledge of our ancestors.  Some of the photos I’ve shared in this post are of us doing various activities that we are discovering together–beekeeping, mushroom hunting, and so on.  My mom was the photographer in all of these images. We have, collectively, worked to rediscover and build a new heritage and tradition for ourselves that allows us to once again live close to the land and all of her inhabitants.  Last year, for example, I taught my parents about mushroom hunting–and they have become serious hunters, and now are teaching me new things.   This year, my sister and I are on parallel paths learning the ancient ways of herbalism and medicine making.  I have seen this same thing occurring in the lives of many other friends’ families–its if we are all waking up to rediscover our relationship to the land and working, as families, to build that knowledge once again.

 

I am so grateful to have found this path–not only does it give me ways of living that help me personally address the larger predicament that we face, but it also reconnects my entire family with the knowledge of our ancestors.  It enriches our lives. Even though the chain of knowledge was broken and many traditions were lost–druidic, sustainable practice can help us build new traditions and “oak knowledge” that we will be able to pass on.

Sacred Beekeeping at the Summer Solstice

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!

Ecological Footprints and the Road Ahead

Ours to protect and preserve.

Ours to protect and preserve.

One of the more simple ways to measure your overall impact on the planet is to use a carbon footprint calculation. There are a number calculators out there; I like the Center For Sustainable Economy’s “Ecological Footprint” calculator/. Your ecological footprint will give you a baseline assessment of how much of our natural world your current lifestyle requires; ecological footprint calculators also will give you suggestions for change.  It takes about 15-20 minutes, and its time well spent.

 

I measured my ecological footprint when I started the path to sustainability six years ago, and my lifestyle was taking up a shocking 6.62 Earths. As someone already on the path of druidry at that point, I was horrified, and realized that simple changes in my life, like bringing my own bags to the grocery store or recycling, was not really getting to the heart of sustainable practice. After six years of dedicated shifts to sustainability, I recently took the calculation again and discovered I was still at 1.6 Earths.  Yes, you heard that–1.6 Earths.  Somehow, I thought I’d do better.  I share this with you, my readers, to show that the challenges towards sustainability face us at a fundamental level of our daily life–work, transportation, housing–and also to show you that I, too, am very much still working towards this goal.

 

 

Retaking the Ecological Footprint quiz taught me two things: first, that I had made substantial progress, progress to be very proud of.  But it also taught me that I still very much was on this journey.  It taught me that my lifestyle was still consumptive beyond where it needed to be for long-term sustainability, and that, perhaps, the biggest challenges were yet to come.  The Ecological Footprint calculator also showed me where my problem areas were. The two great challenges that remain for me are perhaps the most difficult: housing and transportation.  These last two areas are substantial challenges that require serious life shifts that I am still in the process of making.

 

The first challenge for me is that my career (university professor) requires airline travel several times a year and frequent vehicle travel. Even though I offset these costs and drive the most fuel-efficient vehicle I can afford and limit and combine my trips as much as I can, transportation continues to be my biggest waste area. I have been investigating things like Greasecars, but I lack any kind of mechanical skill currently, so I’m debating how to best move forward in this area.

 

Secondly, I have come to realize over the last year that my current home is too large and too consumptive. I love this house, and I love this land, and this realization has been a difficult one.  But every time I hear my natural gas furnace kick on (and know that natural gas is generally produced through fracking, which is extremely harmful to our waters and lands), something inside me shudders. Homes like mine (built in 1940 with numerous additions in the 2000’s) were built for an energy-rich, fossil-fuel abundant time.   They are rooted and function best in our energy-filled past, and simply do not meet the needs of our energy-challenged future. Furthermore, this house has way more space than I need it to have, and great portions of it go unused at present.  My recent set of power outages (one spanning 5 days after a wind storm in late November), and my dependence on electricity and natural gas have also shown me the fragility of my current living situation.  I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about dwelling, and how I would like my outer landscape to match my inner landscape and inner values. I’m not quite sure these thoughts are fully formed, but they are coming along, and when I’m ready, I’ll share them with you.

 

On the housing/land side, I’m also quickly running up against challenges with zoning and regulations in my township that are not easy to overcome.  I had no idea about such things when I bought the house, but then, I’ve evolved so much over the last few years that I wouldn’t have known these would have been an issue. Natural building in any substantive way on this current property is out because of restrictive ordinances, and I’m concerned even with possible smaller projects (like an earth oven or cob chicken coop, two potential projects for next summer). Finally, I have about 1/3 acre of prime farmable land with the best sunlight….as I find myself often in a position of offering small plots of land to friends and neighbors who don’t have any room to grow their own vegetables, I’m limited in what all of us can grow here.

 

One of the things I decided to do in the coming year was to continue find a few projects that “give back” to the earth in substantive ways, in part to offset the 1.6 Earth lifestyle that I’m still living. I’ve decided, for this reason, to learn beekeeping because bees are currently under such risk and I would like to provide safe harbor for them, connect with them spiritually, and learn their lessons.  Reading beekeeping books are certainly intimidating, but I’ve found a beekeeping mentor and a local apiary to purchase bees and beautiful hives, handmade here in Michigan. I also feel that my continued work on this blog and more locally with the Oakland County Permaculture Meetup is doing a lot of good in the community and inspiring others to enact change in their lives.

 

Even with some of my new and ongoing projects, there’s the little voice in my head nagging at me that I’m not doing enough.  When I hear her, I remind her that one of the most important principles of permaculture design is engaging in “small, slow solutions” that are permanent, rather than piling on too many things at once that I can’t maintain.  Still, I feel an increasing urgency with each day to make radical shifts.

 

So, I have a few paths forward. I’m going to take this year to really plan my steps ahead for 1, 3, 5, and 10 years. I’m going to take time to do some goal setting and reflecting on what my needs vs. wants are, examine my finances and consider ways of reducing/eliminating debt, and think about how I can better make my outer life reflect my inner principles.  Looking back six years ago, I realize that I was like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole. How far does the rabbit hole go? Where will this journey lead me next?  I’m not sure, but I’m excited to continue my journey!