Honey Haul 2014

Honey Haul 2014

Well.  My goodness.  Fifty-six pounds of honey.

IMG_2566The mega extractor that we borrowed which spins nine frames at a time.  We also got to borrow a hot uncapping knife (cuts the wax off of the comb, exposing the honey), an uncapping tank (where all that waxy goodness is drained of honey), and a comb scratcher (used to scratch open comb that the knife doesn’t hit).  Fun!IMG_2567 Ten of the twenty-five frames we extracted.IMG_2575Tired, sweaty pregnant me with a lovely capped frame of honey. IMG_2581Cappings removed, ready to be extracted. IMG_2577IMG_2578IMG_2579 And this is why we have kids.  😉 IMG_2585 Bottling time!  Look at that lake of honey! IMG_2588IMG_2591IMG_2592 After the uncapping tank honey was added in, the total was 56 pounds of honey, and I think around 2 pounds of beeswax that, yes you guessed it, will go into my soap :).

As my husband and I stared at all those filled jars, I said the obvious, “The Lord has been very merciful to us.”

The Strangest Mercy

I was glad for the bagginess of my bee suit.  Not only that it gives a buffer zone between my tender skin and the stabbing dagger-like stingers of thousands of honeybees, but because at six months pregnant, I still fit into it.  Now, I may look like an astronaut trying to shoplift a basketball, but I’m relatively safe and comfortable.

I waited until Henrik ceased his happy pre-nap shenanigans (i.e. throwing his blankets out of his pack and play, belly-flopping delightedly, and grinning at me over the top of the sides in a most awake-and-knows-it way).  When he finally succumbed to the nap, I prayed in a whisper that God would protect me as I went to rob tens of thousands of honeybees of their hard-earned honey (not all of it, mind you, just their spare pantry).

I got my smoker going strong on the most tailor-made-honey-collecting day ever (mild temperatures, little wind, and undiluted sunshine).  I don’t normally even inspect my hives without another adult at home, because I’d like to have some back-up if I get stung and have a reaction, but a string of cloudy days and conflicting schedules and a limited time frame in which to borrow an extractor meant that on this one sunny day, I was going in Lone Ranger.

I did Les Abeilles hive first (which is French for “the bees”), which is my older colony and quite a robust one.  This hive alone swarmed twice last May, forming two new colonies of sizable populations, while still leaving behind a great multitude.  I’d be harvesting twenty frames of honey off of them. It’s an intimidating thing to approach the home of thousands of stinging insects.  Worse yet to attempt to plunder their reserves.  I steeled myself for the worst, though I’ve yet to be stung in my two years as a beekeeper, I could just imagine that today would be my initiation rite into true beekeeping.  “Stung forty times, huh?  Well, you’re a true beekeeper now”, I imagined some seasoned beekeeper saying, while slapping me on the back.

I puffed the smoke into their front door and breathed the pent-up nerves out.  Let’s do this. I worked my way through, frame by frame, puffing with smoke (which tells the bees, ‘Hey, there’s a forest fire going on, you should probably chow down on honey because your home is going to be burnt up.’ or ‘Was that an alarm pheromone I just smelled?  No….I just smell smoke….I’m so happy now.  Nom nom nom.’).

I took each frame and gave a few swift shakes over top the hive, harmlessly dislodging the bulk of the feasting bees right back into their home.  Some get understandably irritated.  Wouldn’t you be?  There you are at the fridge, grazing on some cheese and reaching for the milk when all of a sudden someone picks up your kitchen and shakes you out the door.  And if you don’t fall out of the doorway, well then you are swept out with a giant broom. I hustled the bee-less heavy frame of honey to my wagon awaiting downhill, where I put it into a box and swiftly covered it with a sheet so the bees didn’t try to claim it again.  Repeat twenty times while sweating profusely from every pore on your body and keeping your smoker going, and hoping against hope that they don’t smell through the smoke haze the scented alarm that the guard bees are emitting, and you too could harvest honey!

Amazingly, no stings.  Not even more than a handful of fly-bys (when the guard bees attempt to kamikaze my veil in indignation).  I put the hive back together and said, “Thank you, ladies!” and carefully navigated the heavy wagon back down to the house.  I then repeated this with The Bee-Bee Boomers (my first swarm catch colony), and they too amicably allowed me to plunder their pantry.

There are twenty-seven frames of honey on my back porch under sheets awaiting extraction tomorrow.  And no painful stings on my body.  And the baby is still napping.  Mercy.

And that’s what it is.

It’s not because I’m some wonderfully intuitive bee-whisperer.  It’s not because of me.  It’s one of God’s strange mercies for me, for this day and the other days past of hive inspections and honey harvests.  It implies nothing about tomorrow, or the next day, the next harvest.  No promises for a sting-free future.  But a mercy for today. I’ll take it.  I’ll give thanks and thanks again. For every strange mercy, giving thanks.

What I Can, While I Can

The afternoon was warming and the elderberries were darkening crimson and I’d gone out to collect some ahead of the birds.  If you wait too long, the ripe berries, just the size of peppercorns, cascade to the ground with a stiff breeze.  Near half of them feed the birds and I can’t begrudge that.  So you have to go out, see, when half the cyme is still green and harvest what you can, when you can.

Sirens were in the distance and the sun beat down and the mulch was damp under my feet from the morning rain.  The sirens neared.  Police cars came up our street, lights flashing, officers huffing up the street counting down house numbers, looking for a particular place, across the way, a few houses down.  A man opened his door and waved them in.  More sirens pierced the air from far off.

The man paced in the front yard as the officers brought bags in from their cars, a yard brimming with flowers and bushes.  Arms waving hopelessly I heard him tell another neighbor what was going on.  I heard snatches of his words.  My sister.  Unresponsive.  Heart attack.  Gave her mouth-to-mouth.  Just nothing.

I had laid the bowl of elderberries aside and joined a knot of neighbors on the hot sidewalk.  I watched a man’s heart being broken on a sunny afternoon.

The fire truck came and after an eternity of minutes, the ambulance.  Grim-faced paramedics sped in with more bags and a plastic gurney.  When they didn’t rush her out with speed, when the pace of it all slowed way down, when the fire truck pulled away, and the officer escorted the brother to a side yard to write down details, I knew.

I didn’t know the woman; all I know is that she was in her sixties and that they didn’t know how long she’d been in the state her brother found her in.  We all walked back to our homes; death is too sacred to be a spectator event.

The grapes are ripening next to the elderberries.  They’re a small variety, sweet with an edge of bitter.  Tougher skins than grocery store grapes that are bred to uniform perfection.  I slip some into my hands and chew them in the hot sun on a day that that man won’t forget.

Life; we don’t all get a hundred years of it and it can end swift and on a sunny day no less.  We don’t get uniform lives, predictable ones.  They’re full of sweet bits and bitter ones and the whole deal looks nothing like what’s advertised, does it?  But it’s good.

So, I can’t farm, I can’t have chickens, I can’t breathe life into our dwindling accounts, and I can’t just run back to South America where life had so much life and color and purpose.  But I can make soap.  Stay with me now.

What can I do while I can do something?

I have a hundred dreams, so I pulled one out of storage.  Making soap.  I love good soap, but unless I find a screaming deal on some goat milk or triple-milled french stuff, we can’t buy it.  I knew it would cost some money to get some equipment, but not much.  So I sold a hutch I’d refinished (that I’d picked up from a curb for free) and an antique ice crusher on craigslist.  I had ninety-five dollars to make a dream come true.

Thirty-five went for a good quality digital scale, the only precision instrument needed.  I weaseled my husband into agreeing to build me some soap molds out of scrap wood.  I plundered my cooking supplies for extra pots and measuring containers that could be dedicated to soap-making.  I watched YouTube videos and checked books out of the library.  Long gloves from the dollar store.  Safety glasses left over from fireworks.  And fifty-nine dollars left over to buy fats and lye and essential oils.

It truly is something to be able to do something.

Now it’s just a matter of deciding what kind to do first…lemon-lime-coconut shampoo bar?  Honey-oatmeal body bar?  Tea Tree-Sweet Almond?  Peppermint-Goat Milk for Christmas gifts?  Should I open an Etsy shop?  Try to sell locally?  Just make for ourselves and friends?  Or maybe slow down and see how my first batch turns out, crazy self??

But, I CAN DO SOMETHING!  That’s the joy and the hope of it.  I’m not trapped by our fences, but free to create within them.

And I realize that in the past year’s time I’ve seen many dreams come true…I am now an amateur beekeeper and supplied our household with a year’s worth of honey with extra to give away.  I got to take a pottery class and feel all that slippery clay yield to my shaping hands.  I taught myself candle dipping and have now both white and deep yellow beeswax tapers aplenty to light our way through winter.  I wrote a short story that I love; the first story I’ve ever exposed to public view without cringing.  I started this small corner for writing, for spilling words and exercising my writing muscles.

All of this happened as many of my dreams came crashing down about my ears.  Oh the irony.  Oh the grace.

So I will do what I am able, as long as I am able, and I’ll count it as joy.  Because it really doesn’t matter how wide our fences are, but how we live within them.


The Birds and the Bees, the Literal Ones

Reuben came in rambling at a full-tilt high pitch, “MOM-I-FOUND-A-BABY-BIRD-ON-THE-SIDEWALK…(takes breath and goes on in like manner).”  He must reason that unusual circumstances call for unusual speech rapidity and volume.  I was expecting one of those shriveled, prune-like baby birds that I’d see slowly drying out on sidewalks in my childhood, always evoking tears and a sense of injustice at this cruel heartless world where such things could happen.  I never understood how adults would just shrug and mutter something about “letting Mother nature take her course” or “that happens”.  I was, on the other hand, quite at the mercy of my boundless mercy.

There was the time I brought in a bat with a broken wing.  Even I could admit that it was an ugly creature, but my benevolence was unwavering.  My parents, who had suffered the admittance of broken-winged birds in shoeboxes and a baby mouse who’d been attacked by another mouse, drew the line at the bat.  I remember the reasons, disease, nothing to be done anyways.  I remember carrying the bat back outside and gently placing him on the boughs of a small pine tree, cradled above the predators below, to die in dignity and peace.  I wept for him and for the stray kitten at a gas station.  It was my first exposure to the helplessness one feels in the face of another’s suffering.  I was not immune, I wanted to respond.  A commercial about children starving in an African country compelled me at a young age to call the toll free number and volunteer that surely my parents would pay to help those poor swollen-bellied children.  Mom did donate, and then had a long talk with me about spending other people’s money without asking them.  Oh.

So as Reuben sped ahead on the sidewalk, I wondered how much of me was still that tender-hearted little girl and how much of me had steeled-up after the things I’ve seen in this world; the things I learned actually happened every day to people, over in Africa and down the block.

There sat the baby bird, most of the adult feathers were in, but with some downy fluff here and there.  Knowing that the neighborhood cats roamed all about, we needed to get the bird to a better location.  I scouted the nearby trees for where the nest was, but couldn’t find anything.  Gently I scooped the frightened bird up into my hands, cupping it and to my surprise, it shut it’s eyes and nestled in.  I placed it into a vacated robin’s nest in our nectarine tree and had the boys go dig some worms.

As I placed each wriggling worm into the bird’s gaping, peeping mouth I realized how very much of the wide-hearted girl still existed within my world-weary, suffering-battered adult heart.  How much I yearn to see God’s shalom blooming everywhere, right in the middle of tragedies and hurts and embittered souls.  Right in this borrowed nest with this hungry bird.  Right in my own wounds.


When I become passionate about something, it’s as though I start whirling into a vortex, trying to pull all my loved ones into my excitement and delight.  So when my fellow urban-farmer Andrea expressed interest in seeing inside my hives, I was near beside myself to get her up close and personal with my dear bees.  I should have been a bit wiser though.  The skies were overcast and the cardinal rule is to only check the ladies when the sun is high, otherwise they get cranky and there’s too many of them at home.  Well, sure enough.  We were fine going through the honey supers, no ominous irritated buzzing, but once we started pulling brood frames, the ladies got testy.

They stung Andrea!  What the world, ladies?!?  I was the one pulling their house apart and smoking them and poking about, but they were all over her like she’d been dipped in honey.  One stung her leg and two more worked themselves into her bee jacket and veil!  It was quite a scene peeling her out of the suit without prompting more stings.  I felt the vortex losing it’s strength; how could I ever convince her to enjoy beekeeping if my ladies scared her off on the first try?

I scolded the bees.  What inhospitality.  They buzzed back angrily that what should I expect on a cranky overcast day and that it really was my fault.  The guard bees bounced off my veil in a huff.  They were right.  I thought we could do a fast inspection and that they’d give grace about the weather, but no.

As they roared about me I realized that I wouldn’t be able to show Andrea the egg frames, the baby bees chewing their way out of their cells, the larvae, and all that fascinating jazz.  I called across the yard where Andrea was at a safe distance that “Wisdom tells me to close the hive”.  Of course it had whispered to me earlier that the hive should have remained shut to begin with, but I had a vortex to whirl.

Ah, timing.  There’s a good time for birds to leave their nests and a very vulnerable, too-early time.  There’s a good time to check a beehive, when the sun is high and the wind is low, and a very bad time indeed.  Screw-ups happen, but as the Athonite monks would say, even these can be worked to our spiritual benefit, if we humbly see our folly and let God use the mistake to teach us wisdom and discernment.

And I discern that I shan’t be bothering my ladies on overcast days anytime soon.


It’s the Sound of Slicing Celery, and Other Reasons I Love My Work

IMG_1323  Perfectly ripe avocados in a simple lemon juice/salt/cilantro dressing.IMG_1597  Working venison together with pork and bacon for deer sausage.IMG_1283  Cooking over dead-fallen branches for lunch on an old oven grate._MG_5079  Putting up garden bounty._MG_5067 IMG_1050  Honey harvest from our bees, twenty-five pounds our first year.IMG_0966  Salsa and more salsa from our prolific tomato harvest.IMG_0444 Strawberry shortcake, need I say more?

“Why on earth would you want that?”, puzzled my husband with bewilderment in his face as I oohed and aahed over a manual washing machine.  “Do you know how much work that would be?”

“Ah yes, dear, but it’s the sort of work I like best.  And imagine the arm muscles I’d have.  No gym needed, and we wouldn’t need to depend on electric!”

Can you hear him sighing?

We were at Lehman’s, a store specializing in all things old-timey and non-electric (though they do offer electric items too, like a kick-butt dehydrator that I covet).  Dustin had surprised me on our way home from Montana with a trip to the store that I’d only encountered online before.  I danced around the aisles of wood-burning cookstoves and kerosene lamps in utter glee.  Everything in there is useful and well-made.  I was in pioneer-wannabe heaven.

I settled on 5 yards of cheesecloth, a butter paddle (for removing buttermilk from homemade butter), and a rapid laundry washer (which is like a metal plunger that washes clothes, sucking the dirt up and out, very useful when my kids come in covered in mud!).  My mother-in-law smiled as I happily showed her my washer.  “I tell people all the time that you were born in the wrong century.”  Yes and amen.

Dipping candles, working with my bees, gardening, canning, drying, sewing, and pinning out the laundry in the breeze; how do I have time for it?  I get asked this now and then, usually by someone who is shaking their head at me.  I turn the question around, “How do people have time to run their kids to five activities a week or keep up with a television show or work out in a gym or serve on committees and such?  We all make time for life-giving work, whatever type that might be, work that feeds our souls and nurtures our families and communities, we apply our hands to those tasks.”

It is far from drudgery for me to pull weeds for hours.  As my hands work my mind is free, free to think and dream and ponder and wander.  Then there are the tactile delights, like digging my finger into honeycomb and feeling the wax give way and how the warm honey and waxy bits feel on my tongue.  The feel of dough under my hands when it reaches that magic elasticity that means it’s done.  The way cold water seems to permeate to my very bones on a hot day of garden work.  Don’t laugh at me, but even the feel of the water slipping over my hands in sudsy glory while washing dishes holds a delight for me.  It is the work I like best.

Today the cucumbers needed attention.  So four quarts of refrigerator pickles are sitting on the counter cooling down on a folded tea towel while a 5-gallon crock of diced cucumbers, peppers, and celery sits in a salt brine for canning sweet relish.  I love the sound the knife makes when slicing through the crisp, cold celery.  I love the fresh scent of the cucumbers.  I like this work.  I am grateful that these tasks are mine to do, mine to teach to my children in time.

This is a rambling bit of gratitude about work.  Of course there are rancorous and irritating things to say about the work of my hands, but those are nothing but common woes, weeds among the flowers.  Will you perhaps think of what you love about the work God has given you?  Will you share some thoughts below?

A smile and a wave from me.

Perfect Toxicity And Healing Rattiness

My whole yard is full of medicine.  Plantain a-plenty, comfrey, violets, chamomile, onions, dandelions, elderberries, rose hips, and such.  Down at the stream the offerings are burdock, dock, black walnut, watercress, jewelweed, and stinging nettle.  Useful herbs for making tinctures, compresses, healthy salads, teas, and salves; they abound everywhere, naturally.  Unless you blast your yard with herbicide that is.

Then you get grass.

Unblemished wide swaths of it.  Oh, and neighbor envy.  And probably a good measure of pride.  I get it; I have this intense urge to roll around on such lawns and enjoy their carpet-like uniformity.  I would much rather play croquet there than on my own weedy turf.  Less chance of getting stung by a bee as there’s no clover about.  Wait…no bees?  No bee food?

My yard is alive.  There is a veritable ant highway across the walkway.  There is the regular helicopter-like thrum of the bumblebees.  The birds adore the wild patches and the plump grubs and worms.  The bees delight in the clover and bee balm and you should see the spiders in the fall (shudder).  The compost bin wreaks of life, earthy organic vitality being slowly wrought into rich soil.  Things grow here like mad.

“You must really have God’s ear”, says Bob, our elderly neighbor as he looks out on our gardens.  I laugh with him.  He’s lived on this block forever and had gotten used to seeing the place looking less, um, lively.  pa

The front lawn was a mat of zoysia grass, which I’ve heard works pretty great in Florida and could see works pretty miserably in Pennsylvania.  It was green for three months out of the year and promptly turned a sad brownish-yellow for the rest of the year.  Apparently a traveling salesman had come through selling a miracle grass and if you look around our town you can see who was duped by their sad, sad lawns.

Being that I’m anti-herbicide, we had to peel that zoysia grass right off with a skid loader; scalped the whole front yard.  The neighbors had a good laugh when I planted two unpromising-looking sticks in the dirt.  Now those elderberries are about fifteen feet high.  Grapes stretch across a trellis beside them, a white nectarine tree just beyond the strawberry patch.  Artichokes mingle with mints, rhubarb with the roses.

Tonight found me popping off chamomile flowers and filling a small glass jar with them.  Every diaper cream had failed poor Henrik’s irritated bottom, and the chamomile that I’d raised from seed over winter was finally ready to harvest.  My bees darted past as I worked and bugs crawled over my feet on their way to somewhere.

In the kitchen I poured olive oil over the flower heads and set it aside.  The chamomile oil wouldn’t be ready for another two weeks, but I was glad to have it started.  Some backyard medicine is fast, some slow.  Comfrey is fast; so fast indeed that if you chew a leaf up and apply it to an open wound, you’d better be sure there’s no debris inside, because it will heal shut right on top of it quickly.  Onions are fast.  As soon as a child complains of ear pain I reach for an onion.  Cutting it from roots to tip, I remove the innermost part, which is the perfect size for inserting into the ear canal without risk of it slipping in altogether.  I heat the onion piece over a burner, nestled in a spoon until I can smell it’s aroma.  Into the offended ear it goes, topped by a damp warm washcloth and a heating pad.  Within minutes they’re fine.

My comfrey patch healed a serious muscle tear in my back within one evening of alternating cold and hot compresses of comfrey tea.  My nerves have been soothed by drinking lemon balm tea which is aggressively trying to take over the tea/herb garden.  Mosquito bites are attended to with a chewed plantain leaf or a dollop of lavender oil.

I’m certain my “medicine cabinet” looks a lot different that most people’s.  There’s charcoal powder, essential oils of all types, homemade salves, witch hazel, glycerine, bentonite clay, a big chunk of beeswax.  But most of the medicine is outside, growing and contributing to the ecosystem.

Okay.  I know this won’t make you put away your herbicide/insecticide, nor will it make you forsake Neosporin and Tylenol and such.  Most of you are probably quite happy buying pharmaceuticals at Kmart and keeping your lawn pristinely uniform with neonicotinoids (present in aforementioned sprays, which happen to kill honeybees and other pollinators who are absolutely essential to our very way of life…don’t you like peaches and apples after all?).  Anywho, I realize my lifestyle holds as much appeal to some as eating a shoe.  That said, maybe this could inspire just a few nutty types to see weeds in a new light, to see in the rattiness a bit of healing, to see in the perfection a bit of toxicity?  Maybe?

No?  I need some lemon balm tea…


Swarm Day

I couldn’t see them, but I could hear them.  Tens of thousands of them way up high.  I shielded my eyes with my hand and searched the branches for the tell-tale clump.

” A swarm in May is worth a load of hay; a swarm in June is worth a silver spoon; but a swarm in July is not worth a fly.”  -mid 17th century beekeeper’s proverb

Well it was May and half my bees were twenty-five feet up in a tree.

My neighbor had come over with a startled look in his eyes.  “Um, do you have a bee suit?  Because there’s, like, thousands of bees up in my tree.”  Good golly.

“I’ll suit up.”

Somehow I said it like I capture large rebel clumps of stinging insects all the time.  By the time I’d donned my veil and jacket the bees had absconded.  I could still hear them, but where?

The sky was full of them, buzzing to beat the band; I’d never heard them so chatty.  There was a tornado of them above my head, gradually touching down on a blessedly low holly tree in my yard.  I approached with a box at the ready and a rake.

By now the plumbing company next door was forming a small crowd of tough guys gawking uneasily as I approached the noisy mob.  I had studied swarm collection.  In a book.  Don’t you just love when written words need to be fleshed out in real life movements?

I put the box below them and gently began knocking the clump down into the box.  The air erupted with humming inquietude.  I have never felt so mesmerized in my life, seeing the writhing many-membered mass flowing like water up the sides of the box, coating it like a blanket.  When I had the clump into the box, minus the ones filling the air around me, I taped it shut; a maneuver made quite complex by the fact that I’d brought along heavy duty packing tape which would not rip off.  I had to bite it to break it, meaning I had to leave my bee veil open a bit to access my teeth.  This earned me a very confused bee in my veil!

I lifted the heavy humming box to the other side of the yard and watched the airborne swarm.  They settled on the same spot on the holly tree and formed another sizable mass.  I needed to make sure I got the queen they fled with, so I got another box and repeated the operation again.  Oh how the air hummed.

Meanwhile calls were being made to my beekeeping mentor Tim.  Desperate calls about a used hive or nuc that we could buy tonight.  You see, bees don’t keep long in boxes and they deserved better than that.  Tim had one hive left, Dustin sped off for it, an admiration for my mad swarm-catching skills lighting his eyes.

As soon as the new hive arrived I started up my smoker and headed out to my downsized original hive where the ladies were enjoying a bit more elbow room.  I took three heavy frames of honey/pollen/capped brood out to put into the new hive to make it more enticing for the swarm, swapping in new frames from the new hive for the ladies to fill.

Then it was time to attempt resettlement.  I poured the boxes of bees into the new hive and they looked like so much writhing chocolate frosting blobbed generously atop a cupcake.  “How do we get them all in?”, asked my husband, nervously.  “I…I…I don’t know.  I’ll try brushing them down into the frames.”

I swept the mass up the sides and in, adding a puff of smoke over top to stimulate them to chow down on honey and call the place hive sweet hive.  I got the inner cover and the telescoping roof on, parking the bee-coated boxes right up to the front ramp.

We watched in amazement as they began a slow but steady advancement into the hive.  JOY!  Hundreds of dollars worth of beautiful bees were marching happily into their new home.  We laughed and rode the afterglow of the huge adrenaline rush from shepherding the swarm in.

By nightfall they were all tucked into the hive.  This morning they were taking their bearings, flying in looping circles in front of the hive.  This afternoon they were busy drawing out comb and sipping at the rain water puddled on their front porch.  This evening they were coming home with pollen.  Glory.