Tag Archives: sacred beekeeping

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!

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!