One week in Jamaica today! So far getting on the internet is proving to be above and beyond the most difficult thing about this trip. Difficult because I’m supposed to be keeping this blog, but also because I severely underestimated my urge to stay connected, stay seen. Despite my frequent preaching on the subject of how constant connection via the internet and smart phones makes us less present! less aware of each other!! it’s bullshit! …every time I can connect it’s like a tiny hit. I’ve come to Jamaica to learn about top bar beekeeping, an ethical and sustainable approach to tending bees, from Agape and Kwao, a lovely couple with 6 (!) rambunctious boys .
So far we have focused our work on value-added products and bees. I have only gone out to the hives twice so far because it was rainy the first few days I was here. The bees are very magical; they work as one organism, and they dance, and they smell wonderful and communicate through pheromones. Also, everything they produce has medicinal benefits. Ethically, though, a lot of beekeeping is very harmful. To the bees, to the environment, potentially to the people consuming bee products. Traditional beekeeping is also fairly expensive which makes it prohibitive for poor entrepreneurs, and also relies upon heavy equipment which limits the extent that most women and the disabled can participate. Agape and Kwao however, conscientious of all of this and more, use top bar hives which are ridiculously simple to make, lightweight, and less harmful to the bees. They are less harmful to the bees because they don’t use chemicals, or plastics which can absorb chemicals, and because they don’t use foundation (often made out of plastic) which creates a uniform cell size. The top bar hives respect the bees’ agency, allowing them to make their own decisions about cell size, which determines what purpose the cells will serve. The bees know what is best for them.
Yesterday Agape, Dave (a guest here) and I went out to the hives in the morning. Watching the bees work is transfixing. I have already seen several bees emerging from their cells and one queen. We smoke the hives with banana leaves which are free, abundant, and environmentally harmless. This year has been terrible for honey. Last year there was a drought creating a smaller bloom and this year lots of rain which has washed away the pollen from the flowers that have bloomed. So far they have not been able to collect any honey which is exceptionally rare, especially since June is very late in bee season. Because of this honey shortage (and how pricey it is at the grocery) we collected some young nectar and pollen, which we hopefully be extracting today.
Agape’s friends brought us five crocus bags of fever grass to distill into essential oil (for insect repellant) and hydrosol (they are using this to flavor a drink they are developing). Fever grass and citronella are both in the same family and work well to repel mosquitoes. In fact, working with the fever grass is the only time I haven’t been getting chewed up. Working with the fever grass though is extremely time consuming and labor intensive. The distillation process itself isn’t hard but because we don’t have a shredder, we had to hand cut all the blades into little pieces. The boys helped some, although a lot of their help consisted of getting fever grass all over the floor. Distilling essential oils requires way, way more plant material, energy (we use a gas burner) and ice than I ever imagined! Some plants, such as vetiver, can take up to 48 hours to distill. Also, a lot of oils on the market are adulterated and/or they only use the lighter volatile compounds. We distill for a much longer period of time so we can get to the heaviest volatile compounds, creating an oil that has greater medicinal uses and is also suitable for aromatherapy.