Minding the Hive

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Author Maggie Knowles with one of her happy hives. Photo courtesy of Knowles

Let’s hear it for the bees; a beekeeper advocates for keeping bees, or at least making use of local honey.

Do you want to see something cool?”

Without waiting for an answer, the farmer turned on bare, callus-covered feet and led the way out of the barn. Something wet poked my hand, startling me. I looked down into the sweet eyes of a blocky-headed dog and followed him around some trees. There the goddess-farmer stood, the deep golden sun a halo around her. Her legs spread, hands on the hips. A warrior.

“Just watch,” she said.

I stood a bit back, not wanting to dent her orb of light.

Watching. Waiting. What?

Then, it happened.

Along the horizon line, small beings headed for us.

“The bees,” she said. “They are coming home.”

Thousands of honey bees, backlit by pink twilight, buzzed past us sparkling with the energy of honey—sweet, healing and bright.

We stood there, a silent trio, until the sun sank and the last bee flew past.

That moment in 2003 on a roadside farm in Gray, when I had been drawn to stop in to buy some hand-churned butter, was when the bees chose me to become part of their world.

Since then, I have become a beekeeper, an herbalist focusing on honey-based remedies and an advocate for honey bees. I co-founded Portland Protectors with Avery Yale-Kamila and after a three-year community-led initiative to push back against the scientifically proven harm posed by pesticides and herbicides, the Portland City Council passed an organic lawn care ordinance in early 2018. It went into effect on city property last year and for private residents this year, which will be a big change for many homeowners as growing season starts. South Portland passed a similar ordinance in 2016 and many other communities are following suit.

I could wax-poetic on honey bees for hours; they’re magical to me. Even if you don’t care about them, your life is impacted by them every time you enter a grocery store, sniff a flower or even sip coffee.

And as you have no doubt heard, bee health is in trouble. Due to a variety of factors—from single-crop pollination practices to use of the neonicotinoids class of insecticides—pollinators are dying in record numbers. If there are no bees to pollinate the majority of the food we enjoy, what does that look like for the health of mankind?

If I can take you under my proverbial Queen Bee wing, here are some easy and meaningful ways you can support the bees in your yard.

  1. Keep bees at some point during your life and teach your kids how to as well. I’ve been doing it since about 2013 and love it. The Honey Exchange in Portland offers beginner and intermediate classes plus it provides a wealth of knowledge throughout the year. I teach Healing with Honey workshops and there is a lovely community always ready to talk and share.
  2. Having hives too much for you? Support bees by eating raw honey from local beekeepers. No, not the corn syrup mess in the plastic bear, but real honey from the farmer’s market or neighborhood keeper. The added bonus? Eating local honey helps lessen seasonal allergies. (See recipe below.)

  3. Plant organics that attract native pollinators. Visit local nurseries and buy flowering gems that will bring the butterflies and bees to your yard. Anise hyssop and cone flowers are two of my favorites. Ask to make sure they are not sprayed with pesticides that contain neonicotinoids.
  4. Once you’ve created a bee safe yard, let your neighbors know with a Pollinator Safe yard sign. This can spark conversations to educate and hopefully stop any accidental spraying of your yard by lawn care companies, which happens more than you would think. Hire landscape companies that offer eco-friendly methods or take a permaculture class through the University of Maine Cooperative Extension (there’s an office in Falmouth). Healthy soil and healthy bees are connected.
  5. Watch documentaries such as More than Honey or Netflix’s Rotten: Lawyers, Guns & Honey with your kids. As a family, you can commit to helping others understand how important it is to protect honey bees. Plus, it is so cool to see the inner-working of the hive.

Honey has been used for thousands of years as medicine due to its anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-viral and anti-inflammatory aspects. It is a delicious and powerful home remedy. (But remember, babies under one-year cannot eat honey due to a risk of botulism.) Here are two of my most popular recipes featuring honey.

COCOA HONEY

This spread is like healthy Nutella. Eat daily on bread, apples or by the spoonful throughout cold and flu season to boost immunity.

1 cup virgin coconut oil
3/4 cup raw honey
3 teaspoons cinnamon
2 teaspoons cacao (Health boost tip: Substitute chocolate protein powder for the cacao.)
1/4 teaspoon sea salt.

Whisk by hand or mix just until blended in food processor. Store in a Mason jar in a cool place or fridge for up to two weeks.

HONEY-SUGAR SCRUB

May 12 is Mother’s Day so consider giving your mother a pot of this. But keep it on hand for yourself too; I believe all of us need some self-love. Make a batch of this to buff away dry, dull skin and soothe your face, hands and feet. Avoid the eye area and keep in mind, oil can make the shower slippery so be careful.

In a glass bowl, whisk:
1 tablespoon raw honey
1 teaspoon raw coconut oil
1/3 cup brown sugar
10 drops Lavender or Rose essential oil (optional)

Store in a small Mason jar. Gently rub on wet skin in circular motions for about 30 seconds. Rinse with lukewarm water.

Maggie Knowles writes about all things kid. She and her family live in Yarmouth, where she gardens but refuses to get rid of her stilettos.