The Druid's Garden

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

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

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

Bees moving to their new home

Bees moving to their new home in early May!

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

 

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

 

Beekeeping Ethically

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

 

Beekeeping class I gave recently!

Beekeeping class I gave recently!

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

 

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

 

Protecting Bees more Broadly

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

 

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

 

Bees drawing their own comb!

Bees drawing their own comb!

Bees as Alchemists

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Visiting the Hive

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

 

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

 

My First Honey Harvest

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

Getting ready to harvest honey

Getting ready to harvest honey

A full beehive!

A full beehive!

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

 

Straining the Honey

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

Honeycomb

Honeycomb

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

Buckets for straining

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

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

Cutting the comb off the frame

Cutting the comb off the frame

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

Cutting comb honey!

Cutting comb honey!

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

Crushing up the honey!

Crushing up the honey!

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

Honey coming through holes!

Honey coming through holes in upper bucket!

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

Pouring the honey into a jar

Pouring the honey into a jar with honeycomb

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

Bottled honey!

Bottled honey!

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

Licking the pan clean!

Licking the pan clean!

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Sacred Beekeeping at the Summer Solstice June 20, 2014

Bees on honeycomb

Bees on honeycomb

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

 

Inspiration for keeping bees

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Outside the hive!

Outside the hive!

 

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

 

Preparing for the Bees’ Arrival

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

Here are our magical hives, ready for bees!

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

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

Hive setup

Hive setup

 

The Bees Arrive

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

Bees in their travel boxes

Bees in their travel boxes; Paul and grimalkin look on

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

Paul adds bees to the hive

Paul adds bees to the hive

 

Growth of the Hives

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

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

New Comb With Eggs and Brood

New Comb With Eggs and Brood

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

Bees on comb they built

Bees on new comb they just built

 

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