Stung! On our blueberrying trip, my tall girl’s little hand scared a stinging creature in a berry bush. Ouch. Whatever do you do?
Why, put a copper penny on it, of course. It works a charm. (Now, I’m sure I needn’t tell you it is best to clean both hand and penny, after checking to remove a stinger, and if you are allergic, disregard this entirely. Tongue swelling up? Get help!)
Seeing as this country is phasing out the copper penny, one might not find this remedy easily to hand in future. In that case, whip up some sodium bicarbonate or epsom salt with a bit of water to make a paste to apply; take a dose of homeopathic Apis Mellifica; chew the wild herb plantain, some basil, parsley or bee balm (oh right! obviously!) and apply; slice some garlic or onion and rub on the sting; splash on a bit of apple cider vinegar or a drop of lavender oil; you might even try prepared mustard, meat tenderiser, or toothpaste. Still, if you’re out in a field of blueberry bushes and nowhere near a kitchen, a penny might be just the bee sting remedy you need.
Thanks to my great friend Kimberly for this tip. It isn’t necessary to bring a wise woman with you on all adventures but it does make things easier.
Have you escaped the springtime sore throat going around? Each of us caught it, one after the other. You might like to keep this quick traditional medicinal recipe mixed up nearby, just in case. Seeing as we were just talking about honey! Raw honey is a fine remedy for sore throats. Sometimes I mix it with lemon, or submerge elderflowers in it. This time, I gingered it.
Extraordinarily basic, this. Chop ginger root roughly, small enough to fit into whatever sterile jar or bottle you have available. Pour raw honey to cover it. Now and then you might give it a turn. I just leave it out, securely capped, for my children to enjoy turning, they’ll accomplish the same work of infusing ginger throughout the honey.
I like a dollop of gingered honey in a cupful of water hot from the kettle, perhaps with a squeeze of lemon. Woolly socks, a good book, a long rest, and I’m ready for spring days out. Do you have a favourite medicinal that you make and use each year?
Lessons, lectures on beekeeping are just what I’ve been longing for, since admiring natural beekeeping in Sussex last spring and observing my dear friend’s hive in Vancouver last autumn. Lucky us, to hear of a talk on keeping bees, from our local beekeeper, at our local ecology center! Our tall girl accompanied me, and is equally enthralled and eager to host a hive. I’ve just got to tell you everything.
We had a look at the ubiquitous Langstroth hive, a beehive built with removable frames and ‘bee-space’ between each frame. The worker bees have ‘drawn out’ honeycomb on this frame, and capped off the cells with more wax. This frame was extraordinarily heavy, it was so laden with honey. The scent is entirely intoxicating.
I was amazed to hear that a honeybee queen begins life no differently from a worker bee (80-90% of the hive, and female) or a drone (male), but is placed in a larger cell and fed royal jelly, a high-protein superfood that enables her to develop ovaries. She goes out to find where the local drones are hanging out, mates with them, and is ready to lay 1500 eggs a day for the rest of her life. Her life should be about 5 years, but our ecologically stressed state has shortened most queen’s lives to about 2.
I’m not sure how I’ve lived so long without knowing the lifecycle of a bee. The babies are born, tucked into cells and fed jelly by nurse bees, and cocoon there for just over a week. They emerge, clean their cells for the next generation, and begin to work as nurse bees. They’ve not yet developed stingers or enzymes for creating all the amazing beeproducts they’ll make later. They might get promoted to be an attendant to the queen, to feed her, care for her complete toilette; or become a fanner bee, whose wings fan the nectar til it is less than 18% moisture, and ready to be capped off and stored as honey. As the bees develop they might become a water carrier or a guard bee at the entrance to the hive. From there the bees take little practice flights, have you seen them doing this? Circling back to the hive til they are ready to begin foraging, which they might do for two weeks of their little two-month lives.
You can see a bit of the nursery, which would surround the queen, and the cells where the young are capped off. Around it the bees store pollen, fermenting with an enzyme they mix with it – their high protein food, preserved in honey; around bee pollen they store more honey. In a wild hive, this is formed in that familiar winnie-the-pooh egg shape; in the framed hive a similar structure can be encouraged. The hive is built with a cover and a roof, with ventilation, and the frames can be built with a ‘comb’ already on it, or the bees can form their own from scratch. This takes a lot of work, particularly if a hive is started from scratch rather than from a nucleas colony. The honey may even provide some of the insulation needed for winter, and I was pleased to hear our master beekeeper’s opinion that in the first year, no honey ought to be removed from the hive, to help the bees overwinter in their best possible health and nutrition; and in future years, to take outer frames cautiously. The idea of giving bees sugar water seems counterintuitive on so many levels, particularly given the crisis bees currently face.
The propolis, those reddish markings on the frame, is an amazing bee substance, anti-bacterial, medicinal, another superfood. Bees use propolis to seal off any gaps, and will even surround and mummify an intruder with it, to protect themselves from disease. This frame of honeycomb is naturally built – and you can see that a couple of nectar flows are present, probably a darker plant like blackberry, and a lighter plant might have produced the lighter honey. Honeycombs shaped like this always put me in mind of Aganetha Dyck’s amazing sculptural, environmental work with bees.
Liane told us fascinating things about bee communication. The openings in this natural comb are communication holes, built by the bees to allow them to move between frames. Bees dance to create vibrations that echo through the hive, and describe a source of nectar. If a couple of flows appear, the bees will send out scouts to check each source nectar, and listen to scout’s descriptions when they return – then ‘vote’ on which nectar source to pursue! In this way you’ll get dandelion honey, blackberry honey… the bees agree upon where to forage! What’s more, the flight path determines much of what the bees will choose – if there are great flowers behind the hive, the bees might ignore it. They’re more likely to pursue flowers in a u-shape in front of the hive. Liane spoke about positioning the hive so that the flight path isn’t careening right into a busy area; placing the hive to receive strong morning sun to warm the hive; raising the hive to keep creatures from easily getting at the bees – there are good reasons that we think of hives in trees!
Can you see the way a knife sliced the caps off, to extract the honey? I only dream of this. I’m delighted with how much we’ve learned – there’s much more to tell you, but I will save it for our next adventure in beekeeping. We’d like to visit Liane and her hives, and it would be very sweet to daydream over her wonderful supplies over at Homesteader’s Emporium. We’ll be watching for more workshops, too. Look out for your own local beekeeping lessons, club, mentors, suppliers and workshops. Post them in the comments if you like! I shall go daydream about beehives now.
Early in October, when autumn was convinced it was summer, we visited my dear friend Sarah and her children in the city. In her beautiful kitchen I stumbled upon the most beautiful and unexpected object.
A frame from their beehive, thoroughly sculpted with honeycomb, heavy with honey. I had no idea Sarah kept a hive in the garden! I fell over. Such an astonishing, amazing thing. How much would I love to do this! Like keeping chickens, beekeeping takes some studying, a well-designed structure, a good spot in the garden and a bit of bravery – and learning from watching someone else helps so much. Now I have a beekeeping friend to watch, with keen interest.
I’ve admired the hives on Old Plawhatch Farm near our old cottage in Sussex, and listened to a fascinating talk there by the Natural Beekeeping Trust. Sarah and I talked about how she’s caring for the bees, instinctively following principles I’ve become so interested in. What if the hive isn’t opened often, so it stays warmer, the way the bees need it? What if honey is only taken when the hive is particularly heavy, so the bees have their natural food through winter?
The hive strikes me as an unimaginable treasure. The intoxicating scent of beeswax, and so many wonderful uses for the beautiful stuff; the exquisite particularity of flavours of a local honey, and its extraordinary healing benefits; the tremendous contribution a beehive imparts to the health of the neighbourhood’s flora; the utter delight of watching the grace and beauty of bees at work. I love it, I am completely inspired. Thank you, Sarah.
Maybe you remember my sister’s sweetheart who taught me to weld. You might recall that he secretly found someone to teach me an old skill and would only give me a few clues about what I was going to do: something hot, something dusty, after which my arms would hurt. I could not figure this out. Mysterious. One day my sister handed me some of her best grubby clothes and a pair of heavy shoes, and drove me across the city to a workshop.
Al and I were friends in a moment, confirmed by a love of drawing. He draws directly on to his tables and floors, white chalk line drawings, designing his pieces, I was elated to find such an exquisite and simple solution. He showed us round his lovely workshop and started up the forge, and we got down to designing a little blacksmithing project together.
We could’ve spent hours drawing on the floor, looking at examples of scrolls in the shop and books of elegant drawings of old French wrought iron railings, made by the weapons smiths in times of peace. So inspiring, I became a bit dizzy with ideas. After elaborate plans we returned to a simple drawing of Al’s that I loved, drew it on a table, and began to work over it in metal.
Al showed us the forge, the bellows, the anvil, the water used to cool the irons, I know he told me about the temperature that the coal burns at, the names of things, but I was quite giddy with the process of smithing and have forgotten. He apprenticed with a European master who drove him very hard, and demanded excellence, but Al knows how to teach in a gentle, disciplined, encouraging way. The scrolls that Al is so gifted at are made through a wonderful process of hammering the heated steel against the anvil at a slight angle, to draw them out. I began with that. My hammer’s name is Matilda, she’s so fine. My arm gave out now and then from sheer exhaustion! I love the timing, working quickly so that the heat doesn’t travel too far up the rod to burn me, returning the iron to the fire when it had cooled, taking another out, working that. I love that the precision is all by hand and eye, Al flips the metal at a right angle to compress it, back again to draw it out further, moves it to the corner of the anvil for me to hammer it around, stands it up to begin bending that curve that surprisingly rounds into a scroll.
If you look closely at ironwork you can see the mark of an accomplished smith in the taper and curve of the scrolls. That turn toward a fine point is a handmade article, and as pleasing to make with your hands as it is to follow with your eyes.
The proverbial too many irons in the fire is one of those smithy expressions I never understood before. If there are too many irons to keep working through them all, the heat will travel up the iron from the end that sit in the fire, and they’ll burn you when you pick them up, they’ll get too hot to work. I always have too many irons in the fire, now that I think of it.
My scrolls, made with the deft and careful guidance of the master blacksmith.
I had been taught very well by my sister’s sweetheart Richard, so I welded them together without much difficulty.
Oh, here we go, it’s coming together now. I’m ever so fond of welding.
Then we set to bending metal into a circle. This is mild steel, so a bit easier than it looks!
Al fitted the circle so expertly that he just knocked the trio of scrolls into place. Then more welding.
The welds need grinding down, and a bit of filing here and there.
We were all amazed with it. Quite beautiful.
To prevent oxidizing, using a traditional method, Al heated the piece in the forge again, then gave it a beeswax finish, beeswax mixed with shoe black, so lovely to watch.
Then burned off the last of the polish in the fire. Complete! This was such a joyful process, we had such an tremendous time Al, thank you so much. Thanks to my sister Anita and her Richard, you gave me such a gift.
You can find the remarkable Al MacIsaac in his workshop, and his extraordinary custom ironwork installed all over Vancouver and beyond.