“fuck off with the stuff that isn’t the most amazing way that you can imagine spending your time.”
Today went by so fast. I felt sick after breakfast so I played hooky from the bees. Agape gave me some sweet mint (also called colon or colic mint) leaves to chew on which helped almost instantly. I went to the beach by myself, a rare luxury, especially since the tide was low enough to actually lay out for a couple hours. Later, talking in the kitchen with Agape about life. I will miss talking to Agape and Kwao; they are both funny, wise, frank, interesting, outspoken and creative people living the life they chose.
In the late afternoon, Kwao taught the interns how to build top bar hives. I was displeased because my nails were not perfectly straight, which I thought was a reasonable reaction to the project, especially since Kwao was teaching us and was clearly unimpressed by our efforts. He’s not the type to commend mediocre work, or really to commend anyone in general. Agape thought I should feel better about my work since it was the first time I had ever built a top bar hive (or used a hammer to nail anything other than picture frame hangers). Her exact words were “you need to learn to look on the bright side of yourself.” I try, but also I don’t think it’s absurd to want to be, if not immediately an excellent carpenter, at least immediately someone who can nail nails straight into a board. Preferably in 3 hammer strokes.
Tomorrow Agape is going to teach me how to make samosas! with tamarind sauce and everything.
slow rainy day. I’m hiding out in the kitchen watching sheets of rain rustle the palm trees outside, listening to the rain beating on the tin roof. When it rains this hard I pretend that I’m on a ship at stormy sea. (I also do this when airplanes go through turbulence, and imagine the terror of sailors centuries past). I’ve never been in the kitchen with all the doors and windows closed up (all the windows that can be closed up). All I’ve done today is read a book on my computer, go to a small walk to strawberry point and eat crackers and jam. I also counted how many books I can remember reading since I got here: 19. Free e-books are saving me right now
later. Kaela stepped away from the light of her computer and noticed the absolutely incredible pink sky sunset. So we ran down the hill to the beach trying not to slip in the mud and caught some photographs. Sadly, none of my polaroids turned out. I don’t think the instant camera will take a successful far away photo with so little light. sigh.
My iPhone worked great even though its poor screen is absolutely busted.
The other morning we went to Robin’s Bay school to teach the kids at summer camp about bees, specifically to teach them the waggle dance. The school is small and charming. The kids were not terribly enthusiastic about learning the waggle dance. The parts they liked were when Agape chased them around with a broom, pretending to be “danger” to the bees, and when they got to have a dance contest at the end. The dance contest itself was brutal. We had envisioned adults judging the contest but instead the teacher had the other kids scream “yes” or “no” to each dancer. It was very clearly a popularity contest. My sensitive inner child recoiled. We gave the winners guava jam that Marjorie, a family friend, made. Then we went home and Kaela and I ate half a jar. And we’ve pretty much eaten that amount of jam every day since.
The next day Kwao, Tom, Kaela and I went to visit a man named Mr. Hill who does many different forms of animal husbandry in his backyard. He gave us several bags of cinnamon leaves for Agape to distill into essential oil, plus an extensive tour of his property. He probably has about 200 birds, many of which are considered pets. I was actually pretty unclear about how to distinguish between the animals being raised to eat and those that were pets and horrified his 5 year old grandson by asking him if they ate their guinea pigs.
learning how to hold a rabbit…
it’s actually quite difficult
Yesterday Kwao took Halle -the newest intern! she is also from the south and (also) very funny- and I and the eldest boys on a really intense, mostly uphill river hike that involved scaling the sides of 2 waterfalls. I have been begging to go on this hike for weeks even though it apparently made one intern break down in tears halfway through. No one in our group cried but I did take a 3 hour nap when we got home. Which I mostly blame on staying up late reading the night before (Rainbow Rowell, look her up).
Today was super laid back. Went into the bees briefly, beached, I cooked dinner and finished another book by Rainbow Rowell (Fangirl, here I come). AND I FINALLY WROTE A NEW BLOG POST. You’re welcome mom.
P.S. Cuji, the toddler, who is my favorite person here (sorry Kwao and Agape!!), is fascinated by his own image. Probably why we get along so well, we have so much in common. He can be endlessly entertained by picture and videos of himself (or of donkeys, he loves those too).
Yesterday I killed my first queen. I’ve witnessed Agape kill queens before and I didn’t think it would be very hard but it was. She is always gorgeous and resplendent and she runs from you like she can sense what you’re there for. It’s tempting even in her death to give her a queenly name: Eleanor or Arwen, Bridget or Victoria. But if the queen is doing a poor job laying then it is the responsibility of the beekeeper to give the bees a younger, stronger queen. This will likely make your hive more productive and give you more honey and beeswax. Another time it can be a good idea to kill a queen is if the colony has any pests. This will give them (hopefully) better genes to fight off the pests or disease. Selective breeding is a key component to natural beekeeping. More on that in my next post.
*shout out to patrick rothfuss and his excellent fantasy novels. speaking of which, I recant my prior opinion of Tolkien and confess that I begged Melchizedek to search high and low for the next two books-which he couldn’t find! After they get to Moria it really picks up action and dialogue wise. The parts with the Elves are beautiful and sad, how much they are sacrificing to destroy the ring! I loved Galadriel and her temptation to use the ring, mirrored what I think would be my own desire to do so more than any of the other characters so far. I finished this morning and am happy only because I know that where I am going next (to my dear friend’s home in Asheville) there will definitely be copies of them all. Message here: re-read books, they may be better than you remember (this also just happened to me with Wind Up Bird Chronicle). Keep friends close at hand who are fellow readers. Killing royals is sometimes inevitable.
Our little bat friend died last night. RIP bruce/edward. Kaela and I didn’t have the heart to deal with his corpse before breakfast so that’s what we’re going to do now. Reminded of all the baby birds I tried to rescue as a little kid and that time in 2nd grade when all the cicadas came to Tennessee and I made a cicada hospital.
A fruit bat has taken up residence in our house. The poor guy has a broken wing. This morning, after calling a vet friend of Agape’s last night for advice, Kaela and I wrapped up his wing. Hopefully it will heal and he will be able to fly again! He is really cute and fuzzy and seems to know we are here to help him. We also made him a little home in an upside down pineapple box. We have been feeding him mangos out of our hands, squeezing them so he can lick the juice, and giving him capfulls of water. I named him Edward Gorey and Kaela named him Bruce Wayne. We will see which name sticks.
Late last night a trainer from Honduras named Tom Hebert arrived. He will be staying here for a month to do bee trainers around the island and participate in the agricultural expo at the end of the month, called Denbigh, this year their focus is sustainable beekeeping! Agape and Kwao are excited to have him because he is a very skilled beekeeper and also super nice. He keeps africanized bees, aka killer bees. Click to link to his (very good) blog!
Very desperate for a fantasy novel in my life so I’m reading a beat up, cover less copy of Fellowship of the Ring. I know this is blasphemous but Tolkien has just never really done it for me. I’m over 300 pages in and a woman has spoken 1 time. Yikes. No wonder those movies failed the Bechdel test. Other than the obvious gender stuff though, this book is boring. Every other page someone is either singing a song that is therefore transcribed at length or telling a detailed story the reader already knows to another character. Tolkien has clearly never heard the famous writing mantra “show don’t tell”. However, it is giving me a much needed magic fix. Currently dreaming of coming home to bookstores, creme brulee and my much loved copies of The Magicians.
Yesterday the oldest boys, Kayla, and I went with Kwao to the apiary on top of the mountain to feed the bees. Working a hive we had split last week we found a bunch of queen cells which we had hoped to find. When bees suddenly become queenless (as these did when we took away their queen) they will turn several eggs in the hive into queen cells and feed them royal jelly. Although all baby bees are fed some royal jelly, the queen will dine exclusively upon it for her entire life. Whichever queen hatches first will either be allowed by the workers to make her way through the hive, seeking out queen cells through a high pitched sound that the other queens respond to and then stinging the queens inside to death or the workers will guide her away from the other queen cells and force her to swarm. Sometimes the workers will let 2 emerged queens fight, with studies showing they often handicap the queen they want to lose. Although the queen is pampered for her whole extensive life, she has no real control or power. The importance of the queen lies in her ability to pass on favorable genes to the hive. This is why genetic selection is a crucial part of all beekeeping particularly organic, natural beekeeping that does not rely on antibiotics and other chemicals as preventative measures for pest control. Instead organic beekeepers breed stronger, disease and pest resistant bees. It is also important when breeding to consider how productive and docile your bees are. Productive bees will grant greater honey yields and calm bees are much more fun and pleasant to work with than aggressive bees.
This was also a rare opportunity for me to get to taste royal jelly, which honestly is gross. Although lauded for its alleged health benefits across many cultures (especially for fertility), royal honey tastes extremely sour, like yogurt that has turned bad. Kwao teased me for being game to try it, saying I must secretly want a baby (if so, it’s a secret from me too). Anyways, it’s not something I recommend eating taste-wise and although health and cosmetic products are sometimes marketed on the basis of containing royal jelly, I would also be adverse to buy anything that uses it. The bees only make large quantities (we’re talking a few teaspoons worth) when they are making new queens so it’s an extremely difficult product to create and harvest sustainably. The bees must be stimulated to create queen cells outside of the conditions that they would normally do so, when swarming or when replacing a queen that has died. From a labor perspective royal jelly is also not sustainable. It requires a large, extremely cheap labor force, which is why China is at the forefront of royal jelly production. So buying royal jelly is supporting both unsustainable bee practices and encouraging reprehensible labor conditions. So don’t do it!
We also worked the few Langstroth hives that Kwao still has. Working Langstroth hives is pretty horrible once you are used to the ease of top bar hives! The major benefit of Langstroth hives is that they do produce more honey than top bar hives.
As you can see in the above photos the boxes must be disassembled to reach the bees in the lower boxes. The boxes do not have bottoms (other than the lowest one) so the bees are left exposed, increasing the likelihood of stings. The boxes are also heavy. This form of beekeeping requires a lot of physical strength and so excludes or discourages many people from trying beekeeping. Top bar hives are very equitable; women can easily participate as can people who are disabled or elderly. It is also much easier to rearrange combs when working a top bar hive because everything is laid out in a linear and not a stacked fashion.
Today we went into the hives in the backyard. Beekeeping is actually very intense work especially in this heat! Bee stings often have an energizing effect but if you are lucky enough to avoid them, recovery time is crucial. We did some fun stuff in the hives though. A comb had fallen off its top bar and Agape got to teach us how to use a comb saver.
cutting the comb to fit
lacing it on
And now to escape the kitchen and go lay by the sea.
I have been really slacking on postings and also on writing more about the bees themselves and all their elegant intricacies. The good news is Agape and Kwao have encouraged me to stay longer so I have more time to learn and write and soak in the sun. Here are some brief recent highlights. Today: made bee food (sugar water) and fed the bees. This IS NOT recommended except under circumstances where the bees might starve or fail without food. It is far better for the bees’ health to eat the honey that they create. It is also better for the ecosystem they live in because they are then pollinating flowers and crops. We only fed two small split hives not all of the hives in the apiary. If this was a normal year with a strong flow of honey we would not have needed to do this. A split hive is when a normal hive gets big enough that the beekeeper is worried it may swarm. Swarms are when the bees make a new queen and the old queen leaves with a bunch of her bees to find a new home. Although swarming is good in some respects because it produces a new, young, vibrant queen for the hive it is also a nuisance because you have a large cluster of bees you must either catch or lose. Splits are a good alternative. When a hive gets large enough the beekeeper will remove some brood combs and some resource combs and put them into a new hive. As long as the brood comb has eggs in it the bees who go to the small hive will be able to create their own queen. Tada!
The oldest boys took us up to Strawberry Point a few evenings ago. The highlight for them was definitely the gross dead (part of a) goat that they found. Also, showing me a crashed car and telling me someone drove it off the cliff. In reality, people have been dumping cars over the cliff edge. I have not really exercised since I’ve been here so I’ve been getting by on all the bush walks we’re doing. Also, yoga poses and stretches with Cuji who is 2. Yesterday though Kwao took us on a long hike up the river gully. We hiked all the way up to one of their other farms on the top of a mountain which was arduous, especially for Kwao. The path was completely overgrown so he had to cutlass our way through the bush while the boys yelled at each other to walk faster. Coming down we went through Kwao’s cousin’s ganja farm.
June’s full moon is called the strawberry moon, the honey moon and the rose moon. A whole month of sweetness. Bees nuzzling flowers, fuzzy with pollen, bringing home their bounty and turning it into food, giving life to the fruit of the flowers.
Monday marked the first time since 1948 that a full moon bloomed on the summer solstice. Here we had lightning storms marking the occasion and late in the night, a full thunderstorm came through, knocking our windows against the walls and misting rain through our mosquito nets. Magical energy starting the summer!
I spent most of today in the kitchen, making lunch and baking bread. Agape taught me how to make my own sourdough starter which is super easy! All it takes is flour and water. Set it out and let yeast from the air fall into it. Then you just have to keep feeding it more flour and water. This is called wild fermentation. I’m excited to bake sourdough bread back in New York over the fall and think about Jamaica.
adding mashed plaintains to the bread for sweetness and texture
stone kiln for bread making
Agape and Kwao took Claudia to Annotto Bay to the hospital. Her body was breaking out in spots all over and we all thought she had some sort of sun poisoning. It turns out she has chicken pox! Kwao and I are the only ones here who have had it before so fingers crossed no one catches it. While they were gone Kayla and I were in charge of building and feeding the fire so we could get the outdoor oven hot enough to cook the bread.
Yesterday was Latoya’s last day here. The night before we picked up a new intern, Kayla, so I will still have some one to room and roam around with. After a breakfast of plantains and sauteed greens a few of us went to pick marigolds to distill into essential oil. Joshua, Kayla and I walked down the road and into a big meadow on the side of a hill that overlooks the ocean. Picking 2 buckets of marigolds takes about a million years, especially with only three people.
When we got home (with one bucket) we went down to the sea to revive. Kayla and I watched hermit crabs switching out their shells. She is a zoology major and is fascinated by all the creatures here. It’s fun being around someone who notices things I miss. We had lunch and Agape gave us a brief lesson on patois, the language of Jamaica. Agape described patois as “Old English, Spanish and West African languages all got simplified”. She also said that it has an African grammar structure with English vocabulary. Then the boys took us out to the river pool.
When we got home Kayla, the older boys and I helped Kwao lay cement for the new house they are building at the bottom of the hill. We had to fill in the cracks for the stone patio he is building. I felt like I could become someone very handy. Walking into the kitchen for dinner we found it filled with all the children in the village getting their faces painted. Claudia, a new Swiss tourist staying here, is a face painter. After dinner everyone else distilled marigolds while I escaped to my room to read and be alone. It’s strange and unusual for me to be around this many people, this much of the time. A test of my introvert boundaries and needs. I am surprised by how much I don’t mind it, aside from the boys screaming at each other which is awful and makes me even less sentimental about having children. Being with others doesn’t make me long to be alone as much as to be with the people I already love. I want to go home and tell all my friends I love them, that they are the essential part of my feeling at home where I am.