So if you are not from the Pacific Northwest you might think that because we are so far north that snow would be a common occurrence in winter here. But because we are so close to the ocean the modifying effects of the maritime climate keep us mostly mild and wet for most of the winter, well for most of the year actually. But a few times a season we are blessed with a gentle frosted blanket that drapes our towering cedar and fir trees in fleecy splendor. And it usually doesn’t last for long which can be good or bad depending on your perspective or which day of the week it happens to occur. This time it happened conveniently on a Sunday morning and was mostly gone by the time real responsibilities resumed. Here are some shots of the beauty I managed to capture before the sun was truly up. As I tread upon the unspoiled beauty I felt slightly guilty but noticed that if I looked closely, others had been there before me. All the other creatures that share this space. Enjoy.
“Let food be thy medicine and let medicine be thy food”. Our ancient friend Hippocrates said this a few thousand years ago and it is just as salient today as it was in ancient Greece. In fact in most parts of the world folks still use food and herbs to heal themselves including Europe where they certainly have access to modern pharmaceuticals. So why would modern folks opt for such an old school option for healing? Simple. The cures often work better and they are probably not going to kill you. Works for me.
There are so many herbs you can grow right out your back door or forage for in the woods that can be made into very effective treatments. I’ll discuss some of them in future blogs posts but since cold and flu season is heavily upon us right now I would like to concentrate on a simple Elderberry Syrup.
Elderberries have been used for centuries for cold and flu relief and although few studies are done on the efficacy of herbal preparations, the ones that are available show what our ancestors knew about elderberries was spot on. They decrease the symptoms and length of episodes of these illnesses.
A few basic things before we get to the easy recipe for this delicious medicine. Only use black Elderberries. The red ones are quite common here in the Pacific Northwest and some experts say they are poisonous or at the very least will make you wish you hadn’t tried them. If you forage for black Elderberries in the wild make sure you take a good field guide or someone who is familiar with native plants with you.
If this amazing plant doesn’t grow near you or you don’t feel comfortable foraging you can always buy the dried berries from a reputable online source such as.Mountain Rose Herbs an amazing environmentally responsible company out in Oregon. If you want to cultivate your own supply of elderberries, growing this plant is very easy but it needs ample water to do well. It is a beautiful landscape plant and the berries are abundant enough for both you and the wildlife who will devour them as well.
Once you have obtained your Black Elderberries you can use them either dried or fresh. Boil 1/2 cup of dried or 1 cup of fresh Elderberries in three cups of water at a low simmer for about 20 minutes. You can add spices to the berries while boiling such as cinnamon, cloves and ginger if you like. Crush what remains of the berries and then strain through a fine mesh strainer and allow to cool.
Add one cup of local raw honey then stir and bottle. Store in the fridge for 2-3 months or you can freeze for up to a year and thaw it out when you feel an illness coming on. However remember the medicine and food quote? This syrup is powerful medicine but it is also a syrup. As in pancake and waffles. It’s delicious and what better way to keep your family healthy this winter?
Here in the northern hemisphere our calendar may indicate that it’s the First Day of Winter but I like to use a more accurate and uplifting appellation and call it the Winter Solstice. Not only does it sound beautifully spiritual but it more accurately describes this specific day and what is going on in the planetary sphere. As any amateur astronomer knows the earth rotates about its axis, and the axis is tilted in relationship with the sun. The winter solstice occurs when the earth’s axis is tilted the farthest away from the sun so that at noon on or around December 21st the sun is at its lowest position in the sky for the year. In the northern hemisphere this is the day with the least amount of daylight and the longest night.
For the next six months, the days progressively lengthen and the nights get shorter until the Summer Solstice marking the longest day of the year. These planetary observations were well-known by man in ancient times and the Winter Solstice was the starting point of many traditions honoring the rebirth of the sun which then assured abundance during the growing season and survival of humans and livestock alike. Many ancient monuments were oriented to carefully align on a sight-line pointing to the winter solstice sunrise (Newgrange in Ireland) and the winter solstice sunset (Stonehenge in England).
Much the same way our ancient Pagan ancestors viewed the winter solstice as a sign of rebirth and fertility renewed so the honey bee understands the concept and observes the solstice in a similar way. Like many plants and animals, bees are highly affected by changes in day length and immediately after the solstice, when the hours of daily sunlight start to increase, the colony begins to respond. Up until this date the primary function of the hive was survival and the hardest part of that task was keeping the colony and the queen from freezing
But amazingly within a few days of the solstice the focus changes from self-preservation of the current generation to procreation of the next. The worker bees slowly begin to raise the temperature of the brood nest using up more of their precious honey stores from a cool resting temperature of 70-75° F to the brood rearing temperature of about 95°F. This increase in warmth spurs the queen to lay eggs. She will build a small brood nest and gradually, over the course of many weeks, increase the size further. If all goes well the hive population will explode with the first warm weather of the new year.
So the honey bee reassures us that even though the days seem dark, dreary and cold with creation frozen in time much is going on behind the scenes and under the ground. Rest assured that all the plants and creatures, including ourselves if we are tuned into the deep knowledge of our not so distant past are beginning to stir and reawaken to the promise and coming abundance that the lengthening day brings. Summer will come, the bees will fly and the earth will again bless us with her bounty.
Fall is always bittersweet for me. Once all the crops are harvested and stored and jams, pickles and vegetables canned I can exhale deeply and just enjoy the quiet and coolness and meditate on a job well done. As I put the garden and the bees to bed for the winter I am already planning for next year and how I might live lighter on the land and further nurture the life that shares my small piece of the planet. I’ve made amazing progress in one year but there is still so much I want to do. As my sacred space falls into slumber I know the plants are also gaining their strength and planning their rebirth in the glorious spring to come. So the plants and I rest together knowing that we will both be rejuvenated with this much deserved respite. So grab a cup of tea and enjoy the beauty that surround you this time of year. Here is what I nurture in my space. Enjoy.
To my mind, most of the problems the bees are now facing can be traced to a change in beekeeping philosophy. Now I know this idea will make me very unpopular with some of my fellow beekeepers but there it is. This is not to say that external factors are not also at work and I will talk about them later but I feel the bulk of the problem is a catastrophe of our own making created by those of us who claim to want the best for the bees. Over the last fifty years or so we have developed a very interventionist method of beekeeping thinking that we knew best and inadvertently we have driven our bees to the edge of extermination. Some of these practices were born out of the good intentions but some of them were and are driven by pure greed to maximize profit over bee health and welfare. Bee exploitation pure and simple. Let’s talk about some of these practices and the reason they were instituted in the first place.
So when I think of the problems that the beekeeping community has inflicted upon our innocent insect charges several things come to mind. Migratory practices, maximizing honey production and treating with myriad chemicals to ‘help the bees survive’ are chief among the culprits aiding the decline in honey bee health and vitality. So let’s explore each of these and I think by the time we’re done, you will see the problem and how we may begin to fix it and in the process assure the continuation of our food supply and the beautiful amazing honeybee and her pollinator friends.
So most of you have probably heard of the local food movement or ‘locavores’ those folks who try to eat food from within one hundred miles of where they live. This sounds like a very radical idea to some folks until we realize that until the advent of refrigerated train cars and the discovery of cheap fossil fuels, all food was local. Most food with the exception of dry staples that had a longer shelf life and could be shipped was grown and consumed in the same fifty mile radius. People did not eat strawberries in December and very few folks had even tasted a banana and certainly not a mango. In fact, the modern-day supermarket as we know it has only been around for about 70 years. But when they did become widespread these mega stores had to be stocked with food and lots of it. And you just can’t produce that amount and variety of foods locally so when food started being produced by the millions of tons in warm places like California and Florida, all of those crops packed together acre upon acre needed to be pollinated. Enter the migratory beekeeper.
So migratory beekeepers started out by filling a much-needed gap in the bee-food production chain but it has morphed into a billion dollar industry and is now an integral part of what we call ‘Big Ag’ short for big agriculture. It has become a nightmare for bee health and for that matter our health as well. Bees now are trucked back and forth across the country following crop blooming schedules rather than their own rhythms honed by thousands of years of evolution. They are often fed high fructose corn syrup (HCS) after their natural food, honey is taken from them to be sold. HCS has none of the vitamins and minerals that the bees need to remain healthy and virtually all HCS is made from genetically modified corn, which is a huge problem all by itself. As they are moved thousands of miles in a single season their normal rhythms are disrupted leaving them susceptible to many diseases and pests. So, when you consider that according to the American Beekeeping Federation nearly two-thirds of the hives in America are used for migratory pollination purposes, is it any wonder that the bee population is declining? We can not continue to exploit these creatures in such a way and expect anything but catastrophe as a result.
So if the great majority of the hives in America are migratory and kept in a perpetual weakened state of health it is quite natural to assume that they will be getting sick at a much greater rate than their counter parts who are raised by more ‘natural’ means in other words, raised in one climate zone and allowed to store and eat their natural food. Indeed it has been found according to a study by the University of Massachusetts that “The migratory bees were more consistently infected and had a significantly higher prevalence of triple infections. This may be due to the differences in both exposure to pathogens that migratory and local bees experience and overall fitness of the hives as related to stress.” And this becomes a problem for local bees as well because as the weakened migratory bees are exposed to strange pathogens from all over the world in their tens of thousands of miles traveled, they then bring these back to our local hives and expose them as well. Some of the most potent bee pests and diseases have been imported and it’s a huge problem.
So let’s talk briefly about how bee pests and diseases were dealt with in the recent past and how that philosophy has changed in the last fifty years. There are many diseases and parasites that affect honey bees and they have been a minor problem for many years. My guess it that most of them have been around for as long as the honey bee has and they didn’t create a huge problem as a healthy hive can usually fight them off if left to their own devices. But as we have mentioned our hives are no longer considered healthy and herein lies the problem. Fifty year ago your average beekeeper probably had less than 50 hives and his livelihood was not based solely on how much honey he could pump out of a hive. He cared for his bees in a poly culture treating them like his other livestock paying close attention to living conditions and that appropriate food and water was available to them. They were allowed adequate forage to assure their health and long-term survival. Hives rarely got sick but if they did they were allowed to expire naturally and were replaced with healthier stock that were more hardy. Quick chemical fixes were not available then so the beekeeper used his intimate knowledge of the bees and their needs to fix the problems that he could and let the rest go.
But as apiaries got bigger and bigger now numbering in the thousands of hives, the bees were fighting for nectar and pollen sources often being fed unnatural alternatives. Beekeeper had become a sole occupation for some folks and so they were heavily invested in turning a profit from their hives and willing to go to radical steps to do so. And this is where the chemical companies came to the rescue proffering new drugs and ‘cides’ to kill every pest or disease that reared its ugly head. And as one pest was brought under control with powerful chemicals, it seemed in a few years another one would take its place. So for the last forty years or so beekeepers, even small recreational ones, have been playing a game of chase, pulling out bigger and more potent weapons to win the microscopic war within the hive. And the bees have suffered for it becoming weaker and taking heavier losses each year despite the claims of the big agricultural pharmaceutical companies that their latest and greatest will help save our hives. Clearly this has now been exposed as a huge fallacy.
So what can be done to get ourselves out of this disaster of our own making? How do we clean up our hives and make this sacred creature whole again? It’s not a moot point because as I’ve mentioned we need honeybees to assure our continued food supply and the biodiversity on the planet. In Part 3 I will discuss what I and many other beekeepers are doing to turn this train wreck around. Stay tuned.
When I first started keeping bees eight years ago I did it sort of under the radar as did most of my beekeeping colleagues. We didn’t get a lot of press coverage because there was really nothing to say that the average person would care about. We moved blissfully along in our own little world and the worst thing my bees had to face were mites and the occasional skunk raiding their honey stores. I called myself a bee keeper then but my main concern really was how much honey my hives would produce and thus how much honey I could collect and sell. And even though I kept my bees ‘naturally’ meaning I didn’t put chemicals in the hive to kill the many tiny pests that can be a problem for the bees, I didn’t give too much thought to the long term survival of the species in general. I was keeping bees but I wasn’t really caring for them.
If my hives died or got weak surely I could get replacements and start over. We’ve had honey bees on this continent since the early 1600’s. They would always be around no matter what the beekeepers did or didn’t do, right? Well,it’s becoming increasing clear that that was blissful ignorance. Turn on any television or radio station and you can hear the sad stories about our honeybee population. They are facing a dire situation and very soon we may be reminiscing about the good ole days when the bees did our pollinating and gave up their sweet nectar in return. This fact has caused me to rethink my relationship with my hives and change my whole philosophy. I now consider myself a bee guardian and this article will explain why this may be the only way out of our current crisis.
When most people find out I am a beekeeper they ask me, So what’s going on with the beehives? Why are they dying? It’s usually in the spring when many beekeepers are reporting huge winter die offs and the media jumps on it hard. And then the colonies that managed to survive the winter begin to increase their populations, create swarms and multiply themselves and the crisis of the honeybee is shunted to the back burner and we don’t hear anything else until next Spring when the same scenario unfolds. This is unfortunate because the survival rate has been trending down for almost a decade now and at some point the bees ability to recover from such devastating winter losses will cease. If we don’t all take responsibility for the dire state of pollinator health, very soon it may be too late.
Let me first start with why we should care about these tiny creatures. It’s often quoted that honeybees are responsible for every third spoonful of food that goes into our mouths. It gets folks attention and I suppose that is why it is so often cited but it isn’t quite true. Indeed one third of our food crops require pollinators but not just honey bees. There are many species of bees, moths, flies and bats that pollinate crops as well so if you add up all this hard work, then yes, it’s about thirty percent. All pollinators are important and are in serious need of our protection because almost without exception what is harmful to honeybees hurts most other pollinators as well. So if we do the right thing to take care of one species, it will invariably help all of them.
So we need honeybees for food production. But we also need them because they are beautiful and amazing and the products they create have the ability to heal and make our lives better. I could write a book and many people have about the genius of the honeybee. How they can build perfect comb in complete darkness and communicate minute details of nectar location miles from the hive just by dancing. How they produce tiny wafers of bees wax from their abdomens and chew and stomp it into perfect hexagons in the hive because that shape is the strongest and can store the most honey. And the fact that they produce not one but four products of the hive that have known health benefits for humans. Honey, propolis, bee venom and bee pollen have been used as medicine for thousands of years. We are only now beginning to rediscover these amazing products and indeed are finding new ways to use them.
So honeybees and their fellow pollinators are important on many levels but are they essential? Can we survive as a species if we let them disappear? Could our planet continue to nurture life as we know it? Nobody really knows the answer to that question but many smart people have serious doubts. My hope is that we will never have to find out.
But the sad reality is that some beekeepers in my area are reporting forty to fifty percent losses over the last winter. Those numbers are staggering and seem to have been getting worse, more or less for the last ten years. The most worrisome part is that no matter how much research we throw at it, there is no smoking gun. That does not mean that there have not been many things implicated but it seems to be a combination of factors at work and therein lies the problem.
When this issue first surfaced almost a decade ago it was called CCD or colony collapse disorder and it got lots of press at the time. The primary symptom was that the bees would leave the hive one day and would not come back leaving beekeepers perplexed and clueless as to the cause. But as the years have gone on the primary symptom is not hive abandonment but just a slow and steady failure to thrive and then a winter die off of up to fifty percent of all colonies. Obviously having sick bees is better than having a colony disappear. But when you don’t know what’s causing the problem and no amount of feeding, medication and hive manipulation can save the hive, it’s heartbreaking. So in part 2 of this blog post we’ll discuss what might be causing the problems and some things that we can all do to protect this unique creature and the intricate web of pollinators that surround it.
I have grown garlic for years so I thought I knew everything pertinent to the task. So I was surprised to walk into the garden last week and find what looked to be seed heads forming on the tops of my garlic plants and since our weather had been warm for a few days I worried that they had been shocked into ‘bolting’ or producing seeds too soon. In all my years of growing this esteemed bulb, I had never had this happen so I was perplexed, Fortunately a trip to the farmer’s market soon ensued and I saw the curly cue looking greens at the organic grower’s stall and ask her what the deal was.
She immediately asked me what kind of garlic I was growing ie, was it hard neck or soft neck garlic. Having procured the bulbs at the local food co-op I wasn’t sure but after answering a few more questions, she deduced that it must be a hard necked variety and that it was standard operating procedure for these to produce seed heads or ‘scapes’ as they are called by those in the know. This made perfect sense. Because I had never grown this variety before I had never seen a garlic scape. So she sent me home with a little advice on what to do and now I can pass that wisdom on to you all.
When I arrived back in the garden I immediately snapped off the scapes just at the top of the plant. They have to be removed so the plant does not redirect its energy into producing ‘bulbettes’ which is what the very top of the scape would morph into if left in place. This would in turn compromise the true mission of the plant, to produce whopping big bulbs of garlicy goodness. So off with their heads and into the kitchen they went. But what the heck was I going to do with these things that at first smell, didn’t even faintly resemble the pungent aroma that wafts through the kitchen when introduced to a saute pan and butter. I thought I’d better at least take a taste and see what I was dealing with before I decided what they should become.
At first nibble, I was unimpressed. But, wait for it, in about ten seconds, my mouth was on fire and I was thankful that I would not be having close company in the next three days. This stuff was potent. So potent in fact that I was afraid to cook with it so what to do? Up until a few days before I had never even seen or heard of this oddity and now I had at least a pound of it calling to me from my fridge. And since I consider it a mortal sin to let anything from my garden go to waste I knew there was only one option. So I called my friend Gail who is a amazing gourmand and she suggested garlic scape pesto. Perfect! I love pesto.
So you can really just substitute garlic scapes for the basil in your favorite pesto recipe and if you don’t have a favorite pesto recipe , one is an easy google away. I used a bit of basil in addition to the scapes just to cut the heat a little but if you are a hard core garlic freak you’d be fine using it straight. What ensues is a healthy pungent spread for anything you want to add a little zing to. I put mine on some gluten free pasta and it was so amazing even the twelve year old sucked it down and wanted more….wait he always wants more no matter what it is! Well, you get my meaning, this stuff rocks.
So if you have a farmer’s market in your town, get down there in a hurry and grab some of these goodies. They are only available for a few weeks but once you make the pesto it will freeze for months so you can spread out the goodness. And that may be a good thing considering the intensity of odor that results after consumption. Just make sure those closest to you have a large portion as well and you’ll be fine. Bon Appetite!
I knew it would happen eventually. Living in the area that we do there is no shortage of predators that all want a chicken dinner and allowing our flock to free range on the 3 1/2 acres was taking a risk. And I accepted that risk because I believe chickens need to do what they love and that is wander around and scratch in the earth. So it was with a little angst that I counted them up each evening when I summoned them with what my neighbors have probably dubbed the crazy chicken lady jingle sounding something like chick, chick, chickeeeeennnn! And as they would all come running toward the coop with cracked corn on their minds I would do the quick mental math hoping to come up with the magic number of thirteen. If I came up short more mental gymnastics were required to figure out who was missing and I got pretty good at pegging the absentees in less than 30 seconds. So then of course a search of the offender would ensue with me and Damien beating the bushes and cajoling the wayward hen with the promise of meal worms, cooked grain or their all time favorite, strawberries. Usually the absconder would emerge in a few minutes because chickens are highly motivated by gastronomical delights but sometimes we would have to put all the others away and just wait for nightfall hoping that the threat of darkness would drive the missing hen to the safety of the coop.
So about three weeks ago when Goldilocks went missing we waited till dusk and then called for her, we walked the perimeter making ridiculous chicken noises, we talked to the neighbors to make sure she had not flown into their yard over the four foot fence that separates our properties. But when morning came and there was still no sign of her, we feared the worst. We walked the property again looking for signs of a struggle between a fairly small chicken and a coyote, hawk, owl, raccoon, weasel or fox all of which live in our woods and will readily eat a chicken without a second thought but we found nothing. Not a trace of feathers, blood or other carnage. Whatever had taken her had done it quickly and apparently without a struggle. And because we never found a body I think we were in denial, thinking that possibly she just wandered away and might make it back someday. Of course this was easier to accept and we moved on with twelve chickens.
About a week later we were faced with the grim reality of how nature works and this time there could be no denial. The chickens were free ranging in the back yard, close to the forest which always made me nervous because I had seen what lurks in those woods and was acutely aware that those creatures knew we had a roving chicken buffet laid out daily. I actually heard nothing of the attack but when I called for Damien and got no reply I looked out the back and saw him holding Snowflake one of our smaller hens in his arms and she was limp with an ominous red stain, coating her beautiful white and black plumage. I saw the trail of white feathers extending thirty feet across the emerald green lawn and instantly knew what had happened. And when I got down the stairs to Damien he told me through tears and sobs what he had seen.
He heard the chickens screaming and quickly opened the door to see what was wrong and at that point saw one coyote with Snowflake in its mouth and another one busting out of the forest to assist the first. Damien ran at both of them screaming forcing the beast to drop the chicken and head for the safety of the trees but the damage had been quick and deadly. Damien picked Snowflake up but she died in his arms. It was heartbreaking to see but even more wrenching to watch Damien have to accept the brutality of nature unfold right in his own backyard.
We buried Snowflake under her favorite tree where she loved to sit and take dust baths and bask in the sun and marked the spot with a simple wooden cross made with sticks. Some of her feathers still grace the backyard and the native birds have taken to gathering them for the soft downy parts of their nests. A fitting tribute only another bird could truly understand. The consolation is that Snowflake died doing what chickens live to do, being free and looking for tasty treats to eat.