The Life of Bees

I’ve been feeling a bit like a worker bee these last few weeks. I race out to find all the ripe experiences waiting for me to discover them, engage, play, exchange ideas and skills, and then return to my hive of equally hard-working explorers to divulge all the new secrets and fruitful leads I’ve uncovered—I regurgitate my experience and we sift through together to find the sweet spots and harvest the honey of opportunities. It’s a sweet, sticky process filled with wax, little bugs, and a few upset drones…

But it tastes delicious. And it’s worth the occasional sting —

Today — a little about the farm…

AASD’s greenhouse — where I harvest about 2–3 kilos of fresh rainbow chard, basil, oregano, and cherry tomatoes every week mmm — is built on their demonstration farm. The farm, or chacra, is the school-room for agricultural/garden volunteers wanting to learn about bio-intensive farming techniques. A version (locally-specified) of the bio-intensive method informs the ag practices that AASD promotes in the communities who have, or are building, school and family greenhouses.

The farm is a mixed-bag of activities and projects. The image below illustrates both the greenhouse and the org’s vermiculture initiative — the use of worms to decompose organic food waste and manure (or guano) to produce nutrient-rich soil that supports optimal plant growth. This is a low-maintenance, self-sustaining composting method; the worm’s digestion helps rebuild the soil, uses a minimal amount of water and energy, and is convenient, simple, and organic.

AASD’s Greenhouse and Vermiculture site

In order to have a self-sustaining, organic farm, it needs to be on a decent size piece of land to be able to produce the amount of material needed to source from within. The bio-intensive method divides the land by what is needed for producing the right amount of compost: 60% of the growing area is used for carbon production (corn stalks, dried grass, quinoa stalks, branches) — anything dry and dense; 30% of the growing area is used for root crops, with the surface level leaves used for green material (the leafy greens of beets, potatoes, garlic, carrots, onions, etc); and the last 10% used for vegetable production (like salad crops: lettuce, chard, kale). There are many different ways to compost (i.e. vermiculture) but a typical compost pile, or pit, will be layers of brown material (carbon), green material (nitrogen), (manure/guano → not according to the bio-intensive method, though all of my colleagues and ag-specialists in the NGO disagree with this), topped with a layer of organic food waste, then soil, and water.

Since the NGO doesn’t have animals, they have an agreement with some nearby friends — they get to eat grass all day long, in exchange for their nutrient-rich poop =)

But, what about composting in the concrete jungles? If you need so much land to have a self-sustaining system…? I would personally like to be able to sustainably compost back in Portland rather than have to buy fertilized soil, especially when I know I can easily make my own — but like most poor, student, city-dwellers, I don’t have much of a backyard. But! One could argue that the resources necessary for city-composting recycle city-waste products and help make the city more green: using inkless-cardboard, newspaper, your neighbor’s food scraps, and recycled chicken-poop is the do-good, city-version of sustainable composting =) Definitely will be a project of mine…

But, perhaps my favorite aspect of the farm, are the beautiful, busy, dancing bees. The farm has two colonies, and their presence is really beneficial to the health of the farm plant’s reproductive health. Bees are the best pollinating entities! A little crash course on what I’ve learned at the farm harvesting honey:

Honey bees in particular are fantastic because they are monogamous with the flower species that they’re courting. This helps to contain cross-pollination and the production of hybrid plants (hybrids don’t produce seed that can produce the same plants — they are unpredictable, and sometimes produce seed that don’t grow plants at all). The flowers seduce the bees with their aroma of sweet nectar; the honey bees drink the liquid and simultaneously pollinate the same species of flowers, allowing them to bear fruit, or seeds. The nectar is stored in the worker bees ‘nectar’ stomach, which is separate from their digesting stomach.

Freshly Harvested Honey

When they arrive back at their hive, they store the nectar in a wax honeycomb hexagon, from which other bees drink the water from the nectar until it becomes honey — their main source of nutrition, one of my favorite sweet indulgences, and one of the best organic, facial exfoliants.

We harvested almost enough honey to fill this 10 L bucket: (from just one colony)

In order to separate the wax honeycomb from the honey, you have to heat it. The commercial way is to use a machine that extracts the honey from the combs as you harvest — otherwise you can boil the honey (a huge Ayurvedic no-no by the way) or leave it out in the sun so that the wax floats to the top.

We left ours out in the sun, and little-by-little are removing the waxy top-layer to enjoy the succulent juice underneath.

This harvest has been my best friend as I heal my gut back to health; as slow-going as it is, it’s delicious, and I definitely don’t mind the fresh mint and honey tea 3 x day =)