organic

Basics of Bee Keeping Presentation Follow Up

Basics of Bee Keeping Presentation Follow Up

A follow up to this past weekend’s class at Bastyr University, “The Basics of Bee Keeping”. Links are included for each of the handouts that were available at the end of class.

Native Bees Facing Extinction - Should We Care?

Just this week, I read an article stating that the Rusty-Patched Bumblebee had been placed on the endangered species list after a rapid decline. Previously abundant in the United States, their numbers have dwindled down to 13% of what they used to be.  This comes right on the heels of reports that seven species of bees in the state of Hawaii were added to the endangered species list. In the case of the Hawaiian bees, two of the species have decreased in numbers so much, that they are now found in only one location across the entire state. Of course, some websites will tell you not to worry, because honey bees aren't endangered. Yet. So should you be worried? And if you are, is there anything that can be done about it?

Before answer that, I need to get one thing out of the way. I have a bone to pick with the whole "save the honey bees" concept. Don't get me wrong, honey bees absolutely do need help. The work that they do every day keeps many economies alive. I love the honey bee, I have several of my own hives, and sales of honey are a key part of my business. They are amazing creatures, fascinating little engineers, and they make miracles happen inside their hives. Their honey is not only delicious, but it has medicinal value as well. Manuka honey, from New Zealand, is currently being studied for use as a topical wound treatment. And, of course, many people eat raw honey because they feel it reduces their allergy and cold symptoms. So why be a hater then, Katy? Well, it's not hate, per se, rather it is an irresistible urge to redirect the focus from the honey bee to ALL bees. And because honey bees are already getting the lion's share of attention, I choose to emphasize the (often ignored) native bees.

An alfalfa leafcutter bee, busy at work pollinating ragwort. Leafcutter bees are native to much of the United States.

An alfalfa leafcutter bee, busy at work pollinating ragwort. Leafcutter bees are native to much of the United States.

There is a second reason to focus on native bee species. Location, location, location! Many animals are found in only one specific area. Polar bears live near the Arctic circle. Orangutans are only found in Borneo and Sumatra. Kangaroos are found in Australia, New Guinea, and Tasmania. Any one of us can recognize that if you were to move all the polar bears to Australia and all of the orangutans to the Arctic that it wouldn't work out very well. Those animals aren't meant to be there - the weather is all wrong, they foods they need aren't there, and they don't have the right kind of habitat for making their homes and raising their young. Bees are no different. We have native bees that live in very specific parts of the world with requirements for life that are not the same as other bees from other areas, or even a different species in the same area. I share the same environment as a few native bees, and so it makes sense for me to focus on giving aid to my native bees. If you are from the Deep South, your native bees may be different than mine. Your actions will affect your bees more than it will affect mine. If you are in another country, or another continent, then this is even more true. This is why I say that it matters for every one of us to focus on our native bees, plants, and animal species.

Hawaii is a perfect example of what happens when humans lose sight of protecting our native species. During the height of sugar cane production in the late 1800's, rats were a nuisance for farmers. So farmers introduced the mongoose in an effort to kill the rats. What they didn't realize, was that rats are nocturnal, and mongooses hunt during the day. So the hungry and opportunistic mongooses, not having their native foods available, found something else to eat - eggs. The native ground-nesting bird populations on the islands were decimated, resulting in 8 species being added to the endangered species list. Sea turtles, also now endangered, were brought to the brink of disaster due to mongooses eating both their beach-laid eggs and their hatchlings. The islands of Kauai and Lanai never introduced the mongoose, but that doesn't mean they haven't had their share of ecosystem tampering. Just this month, during a visit to Kauai, I saw firsthand what it looks like when an introduced species gains a foothold on the islands. Every morning at sunrise, I could hear a massive number of birds squawking and chirping and creating a huge ruckus. They would fly out of the coconut palms, and be gone all day. Then, at sunset, they would return all at once. They would spend 30 minutes or more flying from one palm tree to the next, diving across the sky, and making an incredible amount of noise in the process. At first, I thought it was rather a beautiful sight. The birds, ring-necked parakeets, are bright green and well over a foot in length. At first glance, they seem to belong here - they seem so tropical. But the fact of the matter is that they are injurious to native Hawaiian wildlife, and they absolutely destroy fruit orchards (eating not just the fruit, but even the leaf buds). As beautiful as these birds are, they were never supposed to be a part of the Hawaiian ecology.

Ring-necked parakeets returning to the coconut palms to roost at sunset. These birds are an invasive species, not native to the Hawaiian islands. At sunrise they will all leave their nests at once, flying inland where they will destroy entire fields of corn and decimate fruit trees just as the fruit is about ready to go to market.

It may be too late for Hawaii in some respects. While on Kauai, we stopped in at the Kilohana Plantation, where I had the best mai tai ever. We were treated to a demonstration of a sugar cane press from long ago, the juice produced going straight into our mai tais with a vanilla simple syrup and Koloa Rum (amongst other things). We were told that the vanilla syrup is made in-house, and that the vanilla is all hand-pollinated. Why? Because it was only pollinated by one bee species on the island and it no longer exists. Much like tomatoes, peppers, and blueberries on the mainland, that vanilla was a plant that needed specialized pollination. They could have a billion honey bees, and it wouldn't do any good because it was the native bee that was specialized to pollinate the native plant. And now Hylaeus hilaris and Hylaeus kuakea, the two most critically endangered Hawaiian bees, are only found in one location. What crops will be affected when they are gone? How many bees and crops will disappear before we wake up and realize that we can't hand-pollinate everything?

Our bees and plants have a symbiotic relationship that has to be protected, or we will lose them both. It is vital to understand that everything in an ecosystem works together. If you lose one piece of the puzzle, it's not quite right. If you lose too many pieces, then it all falls apart. We are starting to see pieces going missing. First, the 7 yellow-faced bees in Hawaii. Now the rusty-patched bumblebee. Remember, honey bees don't "buzz pollinate", only our native bees do that. Without buzz pollination, we will lose the crops that rely on it -- peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, blueberries, pumpkins, etc. I don't know about you, but I really enjoy those foods and I don't want to lose them.

By now you can probably see why we should care about native bees. So what can we do about it? We can't just scream and holler and expect the world to change. Change starts small. I am doing things differently. I hope you will, too. When enough of us alter our behavior, then society will change because we are society. So here it is, three things you can personally do to make a difference.

  1. Educate yourself, and spread the word. More people making small changes means a bigger overall impact.
  2. Stop doing things that kill bees. If you just can't handle weeds in your lawn or growing in the cracks of the driveway, dig them - don't spray. Bees bring the chemical coated pollen home, killing their larvae and contaminating wax (in honey bee hives - most native bees don't produce wax). If you have a garden, don't rake up every last leaf - you are probably raking up all of next year's baby ground-nesting bees. Don't cut down every single dead stem when fall comes - many bees use those stems to hold their eggs, larvae, or cocoons until they hatch in late spring. Stop buying conventionally grown produce - the pesticides used to make it beautiful for the market kills bees.
  3. Do things that are helpful to bees. Give them native plants and non-invasive introduced plants for food, grown without pesticides. If you are local to the PacNW, you can find native and bee-friendly plant lists here, here, and here. You can also ask for help at a reputable nursery like Molbak's or Skye Nursery. (Sorry, Big Box Store, you don't make the cut here.) For the especially lazy among us, just plant herbs and let your dandelions grow. You will be an insect hero. Give the bees a place to live and raise their young. For native bees, this can be as simple as leaving one small area of your yard free from mowing, raking, and clipping. You can take it a step further by providing a house and nesting materials which are designed to give bees the best possible chance of survival (available in my bee shop). Consider adding a water source. Around here, finding water isn't usually a problem, but putting a few stones into a shallow tray of water can help if it gets especially dry. Support organic farming practices by purchasing foods that are certified organic. If budget is an issue, start with replacing just one fruit or vegetable that you buy regularly, and dedicate yourself to do more when you can.
A blue orchard mason bee flying back to her nesting tube. Eggs are laid one at a time in tubes, each egg being separated by a wall of mud. By October the eggs will grow into larvae and spin cocoons. Full tubes will have 5-6 cocoons inside.

A blue orchard mason bee flying back to her nesting tube. Eggs are laid one at a time in tubes, each egg being separated by a wall of mud. By October the eggs will grow into larvae and spin cocoons. Full tubes will have 5-6 cocoons inside.

It's not too late. But we are on the verge. Make a change now, or pay for it with our future.

And yes, it is mongooses. I checked. ;p

 

 

 

Making Your Own Essential Oils

This past Christmas, my husband was thoughtful enough to buy me the coolest gift a geeky artsy girl like me could ever want. I finally had a chance to use it, and I am so excited about the possible uses! I know that a lot of you buy essential oils. It's no secret that they can be incredibly expensive! Well now you can make your own, and all you need is a good supply of plant material and this cool gadget.

EssenEx 100 Essentail Oil Extraction Kit

EssenEx 100 Essentail Oil Extraction Kit

It's a bit pricey (starting at $150). But if you buy essential oils on a regular basis, either for soap making or aromatherapy, you already know that if this product works then you could recoup your costs pretty quickly. Ah, but does it work? I had to find out.

200 grams of assorted orange peels

200 grams of assorted orange peels

The included instructions were pretty simple to follow. I really wanted to try using fresh herbs, but being the middle of January I didn't want to take any cuttings from my plants. I was too excited to wait until I could make a trip to the grocery store. So I made my first attempt with what I had on hand -- about a dozen oranges. I didn't feel bad "wasting" them, because they had been ignored in the fruit bowl for a long time. So long, in fact, that they were starting to shrivel. There were a few mandarins, as well as navel oranges. I peeled them and measured 200 grams of the peels (that's about 7 ounces). The peels were then loosely packed into the large glass bowl.

Beaker inserted into the oil extraction unit

Beaker inserted into the oil extraction unit

In the middle, protected by a microwave-safe metal shield, I placed the provided 250 mL beaker. I was really starting to feel nerdy at this point. There was giggling.

An ice core assembly

An ice core assembly

Next, I needed to attach an ice core to the unit. You heard right, an ice core. It sounds fancy, but really it is the simplest thing in the world. A funnel, with the end plugged, sits upright inside a mug. You fill the funnel with water. Then you take a disc with a hole in the center and thread a plastic screw into it. That sites on top of the funnel. The purpose of the disk is simply to keep the screw centered in the water inside the funnel. Into the freezer it goes for a day, and you have an ice core.

Ice core ready to attach to the lid

Ice core ready to attach to the lid

Remember the plastic screw? That's how the ice core gets attached to the lid. It sits inside a metal shield, centered over the shielded beaker. Now it heads to the microwave. In only 6 minutes, the magic is complete! Or is it?

Steam filled extraction unit

Steam filled extraction unit

After letting everything cool a bit, I removed the lid. I could see an oil slick on the surface of the water in my beaker.

Film of orange essential oil

Film of orange essential oil

I poured the liquid into a flask, put a cap on top, and waited for the oil to float to the top.

Oil collection flask

Oil collection flask

Nothing. Just some water with a vague dirty orange scent. Hmmm... Is this a piece of junk? Or did I do something wrong? I decided to try again. I took a look at my process, especially all the parts that, in my opinion, the instructions had left open to interpretation. I froze 3 ice cores, so that I could make multiple attempts in a short amount of time. Fortunately, I had success on my very next try!

I wondered if the mandarin oranges, with their very thin skin, might not have been a very good choice. So I opted for a variety of fresh citrus fruits - lemons, limes, and even a blood orange, because I happened to have some in the house. Aside from variety and freshness, the only other change I made was in how I removed the peels. Remembering that the oils are located in the outermost layer, I chose to cut the peels off with a paring knife, leaving as much of the white pith behind as possible. I knew as soon as I removed the lid that my results would be better. I was immediately hit with the scent of lime! I poured the liquid into my flask, and an oil layer floated to the top.

Citrus oil blend

Citrus oil blend

Success! I used a pipette, similar to an eye dropper, to suction the oil off the surface and into an amber bottle for storage.

Essential oil in amber glass

Essential oil in amber glass

That single batch produced about 1/4 dram of essential oil from all organic peels. I don't know about you, but a dram is a unit that I just don't use, so I prefer to use ounces or milliliters. In this case, that's just under 1 mL of oil. How does that compare to simply buying the same quantity of organic essential oil? A quick online search shows organic essential oil blends in 5 mL bottles for $20 - $25, or an average of $4.50 per mL . My cost? Well, that depends. In this case, we ate the blood orange, and used our juicer to make some awesome lemon-limeade for the kids. The peels would have been put out with the compost, we had no other use for them. So in this case, I think my cost was, well, nothing. I think the same would be true if I use my own herbs this spring. I routinely have to cut them back to keep them from growing outside of their assigned locations (they are naughty buggers that like to escape their raised beds). I have, many times, had to throw herbs out to the compost because there was just so much that I couldn't even give it all away. So, to me, oil produced from that excess would be free. So my only real cost is in the Extraction Kit itself.  Since it costs around $150, dividing that by the $4.50 per mL cost of buying oils, means that if I can produce 33 mL of oils then I will break even. Any more than that, and I will be saving money.

The bottom line is this: yes, you can make your own essential oils! It is easy, and safe enough that you can have kids actually help. I will happily promote anything that can gets kids interested in science, and teach them about the various chemicals (both natural and synthetic) that they are likely to encounter so they can make better choices as adults. For making soap, it would be difficult to produce enough essential oil to use for a typical batch. I often use several ounces at a time. For aromatherapy, this might be just enough. So, what will I do with my oil? I think this will be exactly enough to go into a batch of coconut-lime lip balm. And this summer, when my thyme is going crazy, I may see if I can make my own thyme oil to use as a mite treatment in the beehives. What oil would you want to make?