June 27th, miscellaneous last few days

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view of “our” beach from above 

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!

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Kayla and I at Strawberry Point

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.

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jamaica’s most famous crop 
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June 20th, strawberry moon and lightning storms

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.

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.

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the boys and a couple girls from down the street playing a bicycle traffic game. i was reading in that hammock in the middle of them most of the time they were doing this. 
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kofi as a little baby lion ❤

June 19th, picking marigolds, river pool, Latoya’s last day

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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.

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Joshua taking a break

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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.

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This idyllic scene was soon interrupted by 5 boys jumping into it

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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.

June 17th, milk and honey

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heart of honey

This morning after breakfast I went down the street with Kwao to help his friend with his hives. We inspected all 3 hives and then moved 2 of them across the yard. I was warned not to drop my end of the hive if I got stung which I was very nervous about doing, but luckily no bee stings for me today. The hives were surprisingly light. Unfortunately when you move hives, even across a small space like this yard, some of the returning worker bees get confused and cannot find their way home again. To help outgoing bees reorient to their new location we placed small leafy branches across the entrances. This way as the bees leave they encounter a strange object and must reorient themselves,adjusting themselves to the larger change as well.

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one of the hives we moved

The guy who lives there has a dog and a cat who are friends. When I was little my kitten Tarzan and my brother’s dog Blaze loved to roughhouse with each other but I haven’t seen any other dog/cat friends since.

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When we got home I was exhausted and drenched in sweat. The bee veils are sweltering. Latoya and I took some of the younger boys, Kofi, Enoch and Joshua, down to the sea and I lay on the beach and read a coverless Kurt Vonnegut novel I found in the kitchen. Enoch hated this and kept insisting I come play with them, with rafts of wood and nails they had found or made and were surfing and kicking around on. We finally got them to come upstairs to the kitchen for lunch which was nowhere near ready. Latoya and I walked up the road to Bobby’s shop and I had a perfect cup of coffee, Nescafe with milk. Icy shards floated in the milk, the first time I’ve had milk in my coffee since I arrived here. We drink it with honey at home and I will honestly drink coffee any which way but I was still grateful for this small unexpected luxury.

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modeling my beekeeping attire. strings are the new belts. 

June 15th, Fearless 1989

Magical waterfall day.

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Today Latoya and I hiked 3 miles up to this astonishingly gorgeous waterfall. Our guide was a local man named Maxwell Steel who goes by “Doggy”. He told us that everyone who lives in Strawberry Fields is a family; they all know each other and look out for one another. This village is extraordinary in the same way as other places I have loved; everyone has chosen to be here. The land has claimed them and so they fit their lives around their need to be right here. As I hiked along the coastline with the bush on my left and the sea on my right, I realized that everyone here lives in a world of green and blue. Only at twilight do the colors change. The people here call it “pretty time”, when the skies streak with sunset, soaking orange-pink light into the air. After that comes the stars.

We swam in the crystal cold water and ate dried figs I had left over from my flight. Some little birds had made their homes against the rock, small pocket like nests stuck onto the cliff walls. Then we continued on, to the black sand beach.

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making us lunch

Steve, our boat captain and chef, was already there making us lunch. Afterwards Latoya and I swam in the sea, body surfed and laid out on the beach. There was a small “island” next to the beach, a steep pinnacle of gravley rock. Although this was not the kind of point you could jump off of into the ocean, I decided I wanted to climb up in anyways. This involved navigating through sea urchin infested waters, climbing the crumbling rock face and standing on top, buffeted by the winds. Daunting and exhilarating. As always when standing atop tall structures overlooking the ocean I pretended to be Leonardo Di Caprio, king of the world.  Then I quickly climbed back down.

To get back home we took a boat named Fearless, 1989. Steve put all of our stuff into a large white Igloo cooler, strapped on flippers and swam it out to the boat. We stood on the shore and I watched my phone bobbing across the waves. The weather was windy, the water tumultuous. I had thrown a white polka-dot tunic over my swimsuit, the cleanest and most glamorous I looked since arriving in Jamaica (even paired with Chacos). We crossed the navy sea, shooting perpendicular across the waves, balancing on each crest then pivoting swiftly down. The sea poured into the boat, spraying us, dumping buckets of herself on our heads. I couldn’t have gotten wetter if I’d swam home. Latoya had NEVER in her life been on a boat before and was terrified. She held my hand, insisted on wearing a lifejacket and was horrified when I opted not to (me: “do i have to?” doggy: “no” latoya: “ISABELLA!!” me: “i’m a really strong swimmer” me inside: feeling *^&^%#@@$ VINDICATED for every time I had to nonsensically wear a life jacket on canoe trips as a child). But we all got safely back in only 15 minutes. And now we’re eating watermelon and waiting for dinner.

June 14th, attack of the bees

Today Kwao took me out to another one of their bush farms to check on another apiary. This apiary was very overgrown with guinea grass, an invasive species. It was overgrown enough that Kwao decided to hack down all the grass before we went into the hives, even though this confuses and angers the bees. When we went into the first hive the bees were mad. Generous amounts of smoke did not calm them down and they basically chased us down the road. So we took a break and walked down the road to look at the view.

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clearing some space
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putting the fresh in refreshment
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vulture overhead

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When we came back we did one more hive and cleared out a dead hive of its old comb (which was filled with roaches and hive moth). Agape, Latoya and I will render the dirty comb and get beeswax out of it, which we will then boil several more times until we have clean, good wax to make stuff with.

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cutting out the dirty comb

June 12th, harvesting honeycomb

The keeping of bees is like the direction of sunbeams.

-Henry David Thoreau

This morning Kwao took me and Melchizedek out to the Hall Estate hives to collect honey.  Hall Farm is an inland farm and one of three that Kwao and Agape own. We inspected the first five hives with little trouble. The first hive was small and did not have a queen. Luckily, we easily located the queens in all our other hives and gave one to the little hive so it could produce brood again. The hive we took from had eggs so we knew that the bees could make another queen after theirs was gone.

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Can you spot the queen? She’s bigger and longer than the other bees

A queen only flies once a year, during swarm season, and only mates once in her entire life. Tethered to her hive she walks through the combs, laying eggs, followed by her court of attendants. Her court tends to all her needs: feeding her, taking away her royal excrement, touching her with their feelers and passing her pheromones throughout the colony. Pheromone passing is unintentional but it brands the bees to that colony. If an alien bee, a robber or a drifter, comes to the hive the guard bees therefore know that they do not belong to the hive because they do not have the right scent. Drifting bees, fuzzy with pollen and nectar, are usually allowed in because they have resources to share but empty, naked bees are there to steal and will be attacked by the guards.

On our 6th hive I started smoking the hive before we went in as I had with the other hives. This confuses and calms the bees and prevents them from passing along attack alerts. Or at least it should. This hive was not into it. Two bees immediately stung my hands while others went for my ankles and legs through my socks and pants. One bee even got inside my veil but I got away and got it off before it too could sting me. I have been here long enough to see Agape and Kwao get stung and they both act like it hurts. They are both pretty tough so I definitely did not think they were overreacting but I also thought that I pay (a lot of money really) to get hair ripped out of my body and also to get acupuncture so how much can this really hurt? Answer: It hurts like a motherf*cker. But after about ten minutes it stops stinging and just goes kind of numb. I was really lucky because I don’t seem to have a strong reaction. Some people swell up a lot. Bee venom is actually used medicinally. People pay to get stung by the bees. It helps a lot with arthritis. This is another reason why I underestimated how much they would hurt. As a fellow spender of money on beauty treatments that other people find very painful but do not bother me very much (ie. threading), I thought I had found some kindred spirits. Bee stings are a thing that is too painful for me to consider spending money on, regardless of the benefits. Also, I think they are fairly unethical. Bees die when they sting you, so you are basically asking a bunch of creatures to die for you every time you get a treatment which feels sad and wrong to me. (however, I will say that while they sting you it is easy to think “DIE, you asshole!”)

After this experience, I took a break and then went back into the bees. I figured it’s probably like getting kicked off a horse, you should get right back on. We finished the last couple hives and then Melchizedek came back with chocolate fruit. We ate chocolate fruit, tangerines and honey comb on the drive back home.

Later, Agape showed me how to render honey from the comb. We did it in a very low-tech, for-our-household-only way, which is definitely NOT how we would have rendered it if it was for sale.

Hand squeezing the honeycomb through a sieve and pouring it into bottles. To do this on a larger scale we would use a drill and if we were giving or selling it to other people we would use gloves! The honeycomb varies in color by age. Young, pale comb is in the bottom right corner. As the bees use the comb for brood, they create layers of cocoons, darkening the comb. Brood comb also darkens through propolis deposits which are mixed in with the brood capping and through travel stains. There is a distinct difference in taste between the light and dark comb! I prefer the darker comb, it has greater depth of flavor.