Home Sweet Home

Dear Friends,

Here’s the last journal entry from my time at Spikenard Honeybee Sanctuary! Thank you so much for all your encouragement and support, and sharing this adventure with me. The first half contains a little bit about my transition from Sanctuary to city, and near the end you’ll find a few more practical updates about what I’ve been up too and where the future of my beekeeping work (with your help) is taking me. Enjoy!

Home Sweet Home

It’s been a little over three weeks since I came down from the Blue Ridge Mountains and into the wide-open arms of the Midwest prairieland.

In the weeks leading up to my departure from Spikenard Honeybee Sanctuary, I wondered how I would feel about leaving. In addition to all the learning and experientially-transformational work we did with the bees and with the land, I made some truly nourishing connections and friendships at Spikenard, and felt a sense of belonging that I can’t say I’ve ever experienced before. Home is indeed where the heart is. Yet even with all the sweetness of life at Spikenard, something in me knew it was time to leave. Perhaps this is what it feels like, on some deep and unconscious level, to be born; within the safe, warm, nourishing and comfortable environment we trust, we also sense its limitation, and we know that it’s time to venture forth into an unknown world, full of risk and possibility, somewhere that the true destiny of our lives can unfold.

And so it was as I was saying goodbye to Gunther, Vivian, Alex, Gypsy, the community, the bees, the gardens, the river, the land and the whole being of Spikenard that have given so much more to me than I can possibly understand at this point in my life. The last few weeks at Spikenard were infused with a sense of completeness, of rightness, of gratitude and excitement, with several last suppers and hikes, packing and cleaning and putting the final touches on a few projects I had started months earlier. Each moment in the Sanctuary and with my new friends felt like a confirmation of this new and unexpected direction my life has taken…not an ending at all, but only the sweetest of beginnings; tender shoots finding nourishment from above and below, sending down roots to discover, uphold and carry out their great and unknown destiny.

The 13 hour drive home was beautiful, even with a heavily-loaded pickup truck, a broken muffler and 3 hours of sleep the night before. I left somewhere around 6am, and the rising sun found me far away from the small hilltop Sanctuary I gave my head, heart and hands to for the season.

I had plenty of time to think on my way home, to reflect and to dream. I went to Spikenard full of visions of the future, but after getting my hands in the earth, a few good stings, and being in the presence of wisdom far more mature than my own…my visions didn’t make as much sense anymore.

I left with the idea of starting a natural beekeeping endeavor, and, like many youthful dreams, it was rooted in the illusion that more is the secret to happiness; more bees, more hives, more honey, more success. Sure, it was easy to focus my attention on all the good that might come from such an endeavor, but after spending time with people who have cultivated a very different relationship with the Honeybee, it was obvious that my original plans had less to do with the well-being of the bees, and more to do with my own success. Like the rising sun that illuminated the winding road before me, during my time at Spikenard I slowly, but inevitably, realized that the relationship we can have with the Honeybee is far more valuable than any physical substance she can offer us; the gifts of the hive – honey, wax, propolis, pollen and sting – are not to be ignored, however, and are surely medicine for our increasingly distressed world…so where is the balance point?

As the miles flew by and the mountains faded into the distance behind me, it became clear that education needs to be the focal point of my beekeeping career. I feel that the future of beekeeping will not be in large, commercial operations with hundreds or thousands of hives, but simple backyard beekeepers, families, and communities who want a deeper connection with the bees, the gifts they give, the land, and each other. In this increasingly disconnected world, working with the bees is medicine for the body, mind, heart and soul. Beekeeping is even becoming a popular, successful, government-funded method of rehabilitation for veterans, prison inmates, disabled children and adults, and people struggling with mental health issues and substance abuse. I don’t foresee an end to the need for this kind of healing in my lifetime, and the sooner we stop exploiting the Honeybee and her generosity, the better.

With this piece of the puzzle falling into place, the bigger picture has started to become much clearer. As the winding road straightened out and the flat Midwest prairieland embraced me, I felt all the gifts, experiences and seeds that Spikenard had given me coming to life inside me. Some of them I recognized, could put words to, and helped give my dreams structure, form and gravity as I drove towards my Chicago home. Others were planted much deeper, beyond my ability to touch and articulate. But I know they are there. Waiting.

I approached the city from the Southeast, the steady glow of her restless heart illuminating the night sky and low-hanging clouds from many miles away. I arrived in Chicago at rush hour. I chose to take Lake Shore Drive and found myself, for the first time in 9 months, crawling along in bumper-to-bumper traffic with road construction, exhaust fumes and horns blazing. My drive up Lake Shore Drive to my home in the northern neighborhoods of Chicago took an hour. Minutes after I parked my truck and started unpacking, it began to snow. I was in love. I was home.

These few weeks back home have been both exciting and challenging. It’s been wonderful to see family and friends again, to enjoy some of my old city comforts and conveniences, and to spend time with our dear Lake Michigan. It’s been challenging, however, to come from such a solid, natural rhythm – and a community who lives in pretty much the same rhythm – to a city where everyone and everything has its own independent rhythm, divorced, for the most part, from the land, the sun, the stars, the soil, the night, silence and the seasons.

I anticipated that this would be a challenging time of integration, and it has been. Yet every day I find myself seeing and appreciating this city life in new ways, and finding a more intimate connection with the impossibly resilient heart of nature to survive and thrive in the midst of our modern, chaotic, concrete culture. I’ve also become more aware of all the amazing work that does go on here, and all the individuals and communities that are doing their best to restore and live in harmony with the land, and create the most home-grown, sustainable lifestyle that they can have here. I’ve mostly kept to myself since I’ve been home, working on a few small projects and listening to get a sense of what the next few steps are, but I’m excited to reach out soon.

The first big step I’ve taken is to re-vision and recreate my natural beekeeping intentions and website. Searching for the right words to describe the way I work with the bees, I settled on, for now, holistic beekeeping. It also turned out that www.holisticbeekeeping.com was available, so I forged ahead and rebuilt my website from top to bottom. The new site features an ever-growing list of beekeeping resources that I’ve enjoyed and benefited from, as well as my own observations, experiences, projects, educational programs, mentorship work and newly-designed handmade beehives. Check it out and let me know what you think!

Another big step is that I’ve started to put together a 5-week introduction to natural, holistic beekeeping. This course is going to bring together everything I’ve learned and experienced at the Sanctuary, as well as a few of my own insights, inspirations, and surprises. I’m really excited to teach this class, and I’m hoping to have it ready sometime in January.

I also opened my holistic wellness practice again. After 9 months of constant outdoor physical labor and community engagement, the one-on-one, focused stillness and silence within my sessions feel deeply nourishing. I’ve also been receiving some much needed bodywork, taking care of myself, and trying to get as much (though it never seems to be quite enough) physical exercise and fresh air as I possibly can. Mostly I’m trying not to look too far ahead, and to let the next steps and opportunities present themselves in their own time.

There’s always so much more happening than I can share or remember to share, but I hope you’ve enjoyed hearing about my adventures as much as I’ve enjoyed having them. It’s been a real joy to know that you’ve keeping me company, learning and growing alongside me. I’ll keep writing on a regular basis, which I’ll post on www.holisticbeekeeping.com, and I invite you to share the rest of this journey with me.

I’d love to leave you with a verse Gunther often read to us and his classes. It’s from In the Light of a Child, a book of poetry written for children (and inner children), with a new verse each week that reflects the seasonal changes in both our outer and inner world. Coincidently, this was the verse for my last week at Spikenard. May it touch you, as it touched me:

The world I see
A frozen, empty, barren wasteland it would be
Without the work my head and heart and hands can do
To heal its pain.
All things must die and then be born anew.
To help in this great task, that life be not in vain,
The world needs you.

Michaelmas

It’s been raining for nearly three weeks straight. I’m looking out the window as I write, and the steady downpour has finally slowed to a heavy, clinging mist. Apparently, you do get what you pray for – after two months of almost constant sun, heat and withering vegetable gardens, our area has seen some of the wettest weather it can remember. Last week we saw flash flooding that washed away bridges, turned shopping malls into islands, caused dangerous mudslides and replaced pastures with lakes. Even our little river rose, churning, to her heights, and spilled out over our bottom lands.

The land certainly needed this water, and we are grateful to have it, even after spending long hours mopping up the office basement and hauling truckloads of soaked cardboard and damaged belongings to the dump. Driving though the countryside, I couldn’t help but take in and reflect on the destruction that surrounded us on all sides.

Somewhere under the chaos of it all, I felt like these kinds of unexpected crises are also an important and very necessary part of life; after being fully present for and attending to their challenges, I think we can also see a blessing within them. Our lives (at least mine, anyway) are full of unexpected upheavals and losses, and though we often suffer greatly as we move through these times, I feel that they are not in vain, nor are we victims of a cruel and unjust universe; these unexpected challenges are what help us remember what is truly worth suffering for.

In all the pictures I’ve seen of the recent flooding, I see people gathered together, pulling cars out of ditches and rivers, helping families cross flooded driveways, rescuing stranded livestock and pets, and demonstrating many other acts of compassion and courage. In small ways and large, people came together to support each other and put their own needs aside for the needs of others.

As I write this, I’m looking out the window and can see the fog-laden, deep green forest that surrounds my home becoming spotted with yellows and swaths of deep red. I see more bare branches peeking through the thinning canopies and wet leaves covering the front porch. I look inside my home and see a few pieces of firewood stacked next to the box-stove, and I can smell a hint charcoal in the air.

I’ve written previously about how these rhythms of nature and the rhythms of our lives are deeply intertwined, but nowhere does it seem as clear and significant as it does now, with the summer waning and winter’s cool breath whispering to us through the falling leaves, migrating birds, and the newfound comfort of our warm beds each morning.

And what do compassion, courage and sacrifice have to do with this time of year? These recent floodwaters coincided with a seasonal festival that celebrates these very qualities – Michaelmas. The folks here at Spikenard are deeply rooted in a spirituality that honors the turning of the seasons, and I’ve gotten to learn about and experience some of these new seasonal celebrations.

New to me, of course. Michaelmas is quite an old tradition, originating in 5th century Rome, and celebrates the archangel Michael and all the blessings that he brings (while I do not consider myself religious in the traditional sense, I do honor the teachings of many different spiritual paths and love exploring the wisdom they offer). Among the blessings that Michael gives to us, he offers us courage, inner fire, willpower, a striving toward unity, the inspiration to rise above our materialistic worldview, and, most importantly, a love of living our lives for the betterment of humanity rather than solely for ourselves.

The reason Michaelmas is celebrated at this time of the year is really quite beautiful. Here at Spikenard, we honor the summer months as times of expansion, of our minds, hearts, bodies and senses being totally enraptured with the land and its fullness. We are literally entranced by the outer world, and become much less aware and focused on our inner world. The long summer days grant us the freedom to work and play outside in equal measure. Make hay while the sun shines!

Yet we also know, deep within us, that we don’t want to keep expanding forever. We don’t want to keep living in the dreamy world of the senses. We don’t want to be forever entranced by the ever-changing beauty of the outer world. Something within us begins to crave another kind of nourishment, a nourishment rooted in our silent inner world, in clear thinking, in sincere self-reflection.

It is this kind of nourishment that winter brings to us, and the first hints of its arrival excite us, literally wake us up from our dreamy summer sleep and remind us that we have other work to do. And so it is Michael, and the Michaelmas festival, that stand at this threshold of summer and winter, this threshold of our inner and outer worlds, asking us to turn within to take a clear, honest look at ourselves and what our priorities in life actually are. Michaelmas is a celebration of this important inner work, the courage that it takes, and an opportunity to acknowledge what self-centered tendencies we need to overcome so that we may help create the most compassionate, connected, and harmonious world possible.

Before we completely leave summer’s embrace, we’ve started to take an even closer look at each hive to make sure they are going into the winter season with plenty of brood and plenty of food. This means we’ve been moving honey and/or bees around from one hive that has a surplus to another that is in need, and in some cases we’ve begun doing combinations, where we completely merge one smaller hive with a larger one, or two smaller hives to create a stronger single colony that will have a better chance of surviving the winter. Bees, being insects, have very little body heat of their own, but each bee can actually disengage their wing-muscles from their wings and rapidly vibrate them to create heat. Together, they keep the dense winter cluster warm (always above 50 degrees F.) during the long, dark, cold days of winter, and the larger the colony the easier this warming process becomes.

After the honey has been extracted from the frames of comb, we’ve been setting them outside so the bees can come and clean up whatever little bit of sweetness remains. This, my friends, quickly becomes a breathtaking sight. Bees are incredibly sensitive, and within minutes there are literally thousands upon thousands of bees swarming all over these frames, flying in the air, and making such noise that you’d think there were several swarms taking off at the same time. To step into their world a little more and have some fun, we’ve been setting the empty frames in a large circle and sitting or lying down in the middle of it. Being immersed this symphony is an experience I will never forget. All honeybees buzz at a common pitch, around the key of A in our western harmonic scale; sitting in the middle of this ecstatic, unified song touches something so deep and joyful one can’t help but sing along. And we do! Just yesterday there were three of us in the circle, and we could easily sing and tone in harmony with the song of plenty that surrounded us on all sides. The center of this circle is so thick with bees we can actually feel the air around us pulsing and vibrating as the bees weave and circle around us in every direction. Also, bees are constantly landing on us and brushing our skin with their tiny wings as they fly past; it’s wonderful to experience such intimacy with these marvelous creatures when they have no intention of stinging.

We’ve also recently built a beautiful pond in the Sanctuary, which I’ve included a picture or two of. We wanted to create a permanent and clean water source for our bees, and also bring a little bit more of the water element to the environment. Mary, our gardener and landscape designer, put in many joyful and laborious hours to bring this pond into being, and I can’t wait to see all the life that this new addition will attract over the next few years.

Our last workshop of the year happened in mid-September! It was a 3-day introduction to biodynamic principles and practices, and we had folks from all over America and even a few from Europe and Ireland. This workshop was very different than all the others, and even without working with the bees it was one of my favorite. While the bees are at the center of our work here, the foundation of this Sanctuary is built on biodynamic practices, which is we devote most of our daylight hours to. I felt like this workshop tied up several loose ends of information and understanding that I didn’t even know were hanging around, and gratefully celebrated all the other unseen work that goes on here.

I’ve enjoyed some visiting friends and family over these last few months as well…there’s something about this Sanctuary that lets people connect more deeply and share more easily than other places I’ve lived. I also made a short trip back to Chicago for a friend’s wedding, in which I had the honor of being the best man. It was great fun, and I was able to give them a bottle of some homemade mead that I’ve been crafting. For those of you who who’ve never enjoyed a glass of mead, it’s an alcoholic beverage made solely with fermented honey and water. It’s quite delicious and lightly sweet, with hints of whatever unique nectars the honey was made from.

It’s taken me a few weeks to actually get this entry out to you, and I’m now looking at only 4 more weeks here at Spikenard. I can hardly believe it. What an incredible journey! Of course there is still so much that I want to share, and so much that I could never put into words. I’ll write at least one more entry when I return to Chicago around Thanksgiving.

Thank you for sharing this experience with me.

Hiving a swarm!The pond is finished...for now!The pond is coming to life...There's always enoughSummer sweetnessJust look at that face So preciousBees building combDSCN3060Our 3-day intro to biodynamics Blessings abound

Tell it to the bees

We’ve been having more inspiring classes here at the Sanctuary, and I’d love to start by sharing a story that one of our students brought with her.

Before the Industrial Revolution transformed every aspect of our daily lives, beekeeping and our relationship with the honeybee was very different than it is today. Traditionally, honeybees were kept by priests, monks, medicine men and women, and also families for the pollination of their homestead or small farm. At that time, honey was considered so precious that it couldn’t be bought or sold, and was given away freely, as gifts to friends and family, or used as medicine. Even in our oldest historical records of beekeeping, inscribed on temple walls in Ancient Egypt, we find that honeybees were considered sacred and honored as an important member of the community.

Go tell it to the bees is a beautiful tradition that arose from knowledge that the honeybee is a highly evolved being that embodies a quality of love and service that most of us humans strive our entire lives to emulate. With this understanding, we were able to approach the honeybees from a place of humility and vulnerability, and in doing so, we would open ourselves to receive what blessings and wisdom they had to offer.

So we went to the bees to pour our hearts out, to share with the bees our innermost and private secrets, pains, joys, failures and hopes. And the bees listened. They would take in our stories and begin foraging on specific nectar sources that would, in turn, create a living, healing honey remedy unique to the situations we brought before them. Of course this honey could not be sold, but given away as medicine for those that needed it. And even more important than the physical healing remedy that the bees prepared, we recognized that the bees, if sincerely invited, would come into our lives and work with us on deeper emotional and spiritual levels.

Now, I have already experienced the honeybees as a guiding and healing presence in my life. When I felt like I wanted to do more with my life and prayed for direction, the honeybees came to me in dreams, in nature, in conversations and in many other ways, clearly encouraging me to explore their world and help them in this time of need. Before I started working with the bees I also had a painful digestive issue that saw no signs of healing, and had persisted through several different approaches to treatment. After starting to work with bees and getting stung a few times, my digestive issues cleared up almost immediately. And there have been many, many other experiences with the bees that have proven to me that they are much more than the story our physical senses tell us, and that they have much more to offer us than the honey, wax, propolis and pollination we already benefit from.

And so I took this woman’s story to heart. These last two months have been fairly emotionally challenging for me, full of difficult endings, new beginnings, physical illness, old dysfunctional patterns and beliefs surfacing, and a whole lot of new experiences to make sense of. Somewhere in the middle of all this, I remembered this woman’s story. And so I started telling the bees.

Sometimes I go the bees in the early morning, and sometimes I go late at night when the sanctuary is empty, save for fireflies and starlight. Sometimes I go to each hive, and sometimes I go only to one or two I feel a special connection with. To whichever hive I go, I sit or stand close by and, as best I can, open myself to the bees. At times there are words that come, and sometimes tears, though most often I simply tell the bees what’s going on and invite them into my heart to see whatever is there.

Now, it would be great if I could say that after telling the bees, all my problems were solved. But they weren’t. I think the bees are far too wise for that! What I have begun to see, however, is how situations have started to arise that are exactly what I need to see my issues in a different and clearer way. Or situations arise that require me to bring forth a level of courage that make my challenges seem to fall apart on their own, as if the glue (usually fear) that holds them together is no longer strong enough. The simple telling of my (ongoing) story to the bees also feels like significant part of the process, and I have noticed my relationship and ease with the bees continue to deepen. I have also started to have cravings for honey like never before, and almost every evening I drink a cup of nettle tea with honey and raw milk. Stepping back to get a sense of the bigger picture, it feels like the bees, if asked, are willing to help us become more aware, selfless, connected and loving human beings, and that it is their great joy to serve us in this way.

I often ask myself how is this even possible? And the true answer is that I don’t know. I don’t actually know how any of this is possible, yet impossibly beautiful and unexplainable things happen here every single day. And, as I shared in a previous entry, I think these are the questions that may be better left unanswered, and given time to unfold throughout the course of a lifetime. All I know is that the bees do indeed have a certain magic and wisdom of their own, and are willing to help those who sincerely ask for it. Being willing to get stung also helps, though I’ve experienced that some need that particular medicine more than others.

While this healing and discovery process has been at the heart of my experience during these last two months, we have also been very busy at Spikenard! Swarming season is coming to an end, with 14 swarms caught and most given new homes here in the Sanctuary. I’m a little sad that that swarming season is over, though it does come with a small sigh of relief and bit more of a regular daily rhythm. It’s now time to start looking with the bees toward the winter months, to make sure they are strong and provisioned enough to survive even the harshest and longest winter here. I am learning that overcompensation is the beekeeper’s best friend.

And even with a healthy dose of overcompensation, we’ve still been able to have a small honey harvest this year. What a joy that is! To harvest, we simply take the ready and bee-less box off the hive, pull out the frames, uncap the honey and spin the frames in our extractor. Soon there will be a river of honey flowing out and into waiting 5 gallon buckets. And, in case you were wondering, there is absolutely no way to harvest honey without getting it literally everywhere. And the rule here is that not a single drop honey goes to waste, which makes for a very sweet afternoon. On average, we’re able to harvest about 10% of the honey our bees make, and the rest gets left with them for their winter and spring needs.

Our gardens and nursery have been overflowing with an abundance of flowers, vegetables, herbs and fruit, and we are now starting to plan and seed for the fall. The food from these gardens is like nothing else I’ve ever experienced! So full of life! There have been studies done, mostly in Europe where biodynamic food is more accessible, that show that the cells of biodynamic food actually contain and radiate more light than organic or conventionally grown food. The quality of light in our food, I am learning, is another important aspect of nutrition and necessary for the proper functioning of our whole being.

And I’m coming to understand the biodynamic farming methods and practices even more deeply, and to appreciate how they strive not only to heal and enliven the earth and soil, but provide nourishment that actually supports the development and evolution of the complete human being. If there is a way out of the challenges we have created for ourselves on this planet, growing our own food with love, or supporting those who do, is surely the place to start.

Which brings me to the last thing I’d like to share, which is that I’ve started to have a sense of what I’ll be working towards after I leave this internship in November. I came here for the bees, but I’m seeing now that my work with the bees is really only part of a much bigger vision – to find a small bit of land and help us human beings remember what it’s like to live in harmony with the earth and its processes and rhythms, to help us remember how to care for our land, plants, and animals in a way that brings vitality, understanding, growth, beauty, and harmony to everything we touch.

It’s becoming so clear that unless we really know how to live on this planet in a way that honors and encourages health at all levels for all involved, we cannot possibly hope for a future our children can thrive in. And I know if I can do it, if I, too, can be another small example of what else is possible, then I know anyone can do it. What greater gift could I give?

Speaking of gifts, I recently had a meeting with Gunther, the founder of Spikenard, and I shared these feelings and visions with him. I’d like to end this entry with one of the things he said to me, in my own words:

“If your vision is selfless enough, you will receive all the help you need to stay the course. You can never know all the ways in which help will come, and you may not always recognize help when it arrives. But help will come. It always does. Nobody is an island, and we are completely dependent on each other for our survival. The sooner you learn this, the better.”

Thanks, Gunther.

Alex catching treetop swarm Treetop swarm Stairway to heaven Treetop swarm Sunrise silica spraying God save the queen Sunrise prep stirring Echinacea Beautiful bees Sweetness and grace Honey with friends Borage Bumbling Chanterelle Class in the pavilion Compost wisdom

Of Sowing and Swarming

The experience of planting a seed and watching it grow is a fitting analogy for my time here at Spikenard Honeybee Sanctuary. My first month here, March, was a time of breaking down, of softening and germinating, of darkness. Snow was still on the ground, the trees were still bare, and I came from Chicago with several layers of protection, physically as well as emotionally. As March transitioned into April, we began to see the first few flowers break ground and bring color back to the land. During this time I, too, saw old ways of being, thinking and acting, as well as old layers of emotional protection, begin to fall away.

It’s humbling to see how deeply connected we are to the land and the seasons, and to watch the same processes unfolding both inside and out. From this experience naturally arises the question…where exactly is the boundary between what we call our inner and outer experience? Does it even exist when we go looking for it? One of the greatest things about this place is their love of good questions and their encouragement to hold these good questions in our hearts so they may touch, transform, and guide us throughout our lives.

These first 3 months have been challenging in every way, but the new growth, opportunities, and possibilities that have begun to emerge have been well worth it. More than ever, I’m finding great joy and reverence in the simplest things, especially the daily, weekly, monthly and yearly rhythms that a healthy farm, or any organism, is sustained by. Rudolf Steiner, the founder of biodynamic farming, reminds us that rhythm restores power. Finding a healthy rhythm for eating, sleeping, working, meditating, nature walks, artistic and creative expression, as well as community and social life has been hugely empowering and I have never felt as nourished, grounded, and vital as I do now. And, just like in the sanctuary, the real fruit of our rhythms and labors have yet to arrive. Except for the strawberries – they’ve just started coming and are out of this world!

These last two months have really flown by. I had intended to write in April as well, but suddenly it was mid-April and May was fast approaching. Then, in the beat of a honeybee’s wing, it was mid-May already! The trees are green and the grass needs mowing and the garden is always in great need of weeding. The majority of our perennial flower garden has yet to bloom, and I’m told the month of July will be the most beautiful month of the entire season. It’s hard to imagine that it could get any more beautiful than it already is, but I’m looking forward to it.

When I first arrived, I felt like this place was a good representation of what nature is like when we just “get out of the way” and let it take care of itself. More and more, however, I’m realizing how special this sanctuary is, and how nothing like this could ever exist without the caring hands of a human being. We humans are capable of such destruction, yet here it’s also clear that we are capable of living in harmony with the land, it’s animals and each other, enriching and enlivening all that we touch, and that our hearts, minds, and hands can indeed come together with wisdom and reverence for all life. If I leave here with nothing else, I will leave with hope.

The bees have also been busy, and swarming season is upon us! This may be the most exciting time in the whole year. For those of you who are new to the world of the honeybee, swarming happens when everything in the hive is perfect: there is an abundance of food stored, there are many flowering plants and fresh nectar sources, morale is high, the days are getting longer, and there isn’t any room to build new comb and expand the colony. At this point, usually in the spring, the colony goes into swarming mode. On a nice sunny day, the queen and roughly half of the colony, perhaps between 20,000 to 30,000 bees, triumphantly spill from the hive and create a huge spiraling vortex that you can hear across the entire sanctuary. Swarming is quite possibly the most joyful thing I’ve ever experienced; time stops and the air is literally alive with the hum and excitement of birth and a new beginning – the queen and half her children leave the hive in it’s absolutely perfect condition to search for a new home and begin building anew, while the hive they’ve just left will soon raise a new queen and carry on their good work. Honeybees are at their most gentle when swarming; when the swarm lands and gathers nearby, we can actually collect it with our bare hands and transfer them into a waiting hive.

One thing that makes this place a true sanctuary is that we always encourage and support the instinctual behavior and rhythms of the bees, such as swarming, while, in contrast, many commercial and hobby beekeepers actually take action to suppress swarming, as well as other natural colony behaviors. And, sadly, I just read that 42% of America’s honeybee colonies died over this last year…of course there are many factors that contribute to these tragic and unsustainably high losses, but for perspective, Spikenard had a 100% survival rate last winter, and a 97% survival rate this winter.

We’ve also had several workshops over the last 2 months, which is always profoundly inspiring to be a part of. People from all over America, and even from other countries, come spend a few days or even a week with us to explore the foundations of sustainable beekeeping and biodynamic farming. Even though I have heard much of this information before, it somehow seems to get more powerful, important and relevant every time I hear it. The sense of community and friendship that develops within our classes is also very moving, and helps us remember that we are not alone in our efforts or struggles with the conventionally accepted ways of thinking, living, and acting.

And what else…the vegetable garden is overflowing with an abundance of leafy greens, asparagus and mushrooms, and we’ve got so much more on the way: carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, squash, peas, beans, rye, onions, garlic, a myriad of herbs and spices…and so much more I can’t even remember right now, and there is still more that has yet to be planted. I’m still waiting to go on some more hikes…the bees, sanctuary, garden, and classes have been needing our attention, though I think we’ve got a short break in the action for the first few weeks of June. And, last but not least, there is a small river that runs along the border of the sanctuary’s bottom lands (planted with a few acres of pollinator forage) that we love to cool off in after our long hot days in the sanctuary…again, at day’s end, it’s those simple and unglamorous things that actually seem to be the most important.

May you enjoy these beautiful days and all that life has to offer!

~Ryan

Gunther sharing some cow horn wisdomOur bees enjoying one of the first warm days in April Look what we found!Our best friend, the Dandelion Gunther and Alex inspecting a hive with our students Introducing a swarm to the Sun HiveBeings of the SunGroup discussion with studentsBottoms up! This family drove 8 hours to spend the afternoon with us Gunther with an about-to-be-caught swarm I'm about to shake this swarm into that box!

Monthly Reflections

Dear friends,

It’s been a month since I arrived here at Spikenard Farm Honeybee Sanctuary! So much has happened over the last month…where shall I start?

I’d first like to share with you my newfound appreciation and reverence for those who have devoted their lives to insuring that the rest of us have clean and vibrant food to eat every day. The amount of physical, emotional, and mental work it takes to keep a farm, of any size, running smoothly is astounding. Even with only a few acres to tend, every day here brings a whole new set of needs, challenges, decisions, gifts, and opportunities for growth, and yet everything gets done and with presence, care, and deep gratitude.

I am learning how a farm is truly a living, breathing organism that depends on the proper functioning and health of all its separate parts. It really is a beautiful dance, each day to the next, as we give attention to one part of the farm and then another, as we keep everything in communication, in movement, in balance. We grow a lot of the food we eat here, and also food for the classes and workshops we offer, so much of my time has been spent in the compost piles, greenhouse, nursery, gardens and orchard, giving whatever care that’s needed and seeing that everything is maturing as vibrantly as possible. The farm is steadily transitioning out of it’s winter hibernation, and every day new seeds are being sown and new garden beds are being prepared.

Spikenard is a biodynamic farm and honeybee sanctuary, which is a method and philosophy of farming that seeks to enliven the processes of life at every level. While conventional farming is often about getting as much as possible out of the land, biodynamics seeks to work in harmony with nature and it’s rhythms, and to insure that every single action that’s taken is a healing and restorative one. Biodynamics is a very deep, beautiful, and challenging topic of study, and I have only barely scratched the surface. Gunther and Vivian Hauk, the founders of Spikenard, have been studying and practicing biodynamic farming for over 40 years. It is deeply humbling and rewarding to work with the land in such a loving and healing way, and to receive this wisdom from such caring and patient teachers. I also often feel as if my ancestors are standing near, offering their support and guidance as I take part in one of the most ancient and important traditions we have has human beings.

And at the center of this farm and all it’s activity are the honeybees! We care for about 35 hives here, and offer a whole year’s worth of classes, workshops, lectures, and volunteer work days to educate people about the honeybees and what’s needed to help them survive and thrive in this time of crisis. In addition to our vegetable gardens, we also have several gardens filled with medicinal herbs and flowers for the bees, flowering trees, fruit trees, water stations, and other carefully selected plantings that contribute to the health and wealth of each colony, as well as native pollinators, throughout the year.

Before every workday begins, we spend about 30 minutes with the bees, sharing our gratitude with them, in one way or another. Some days we are working in the hives, checking in and addressing any issues we find, but for the most part we help the bees by enriching the farm and it’s diversity of pollinator forage. In addition to our regular farm work, we are also constantly planning, planting, pruning, weeding, and landscaping new pollinator gardens for the coming seasons and years; Spikenard is still very much in it’s infancy, and much of our time has been given to renovating it’s foundation and asking ourselves what we’d like to see happen over the 10-20 years. Also, Spikenard is a non-profit organization, and almost all of it’s funding comes from classes and donations. The amount of generosity this endeavor requires and constantly receives is no less than miraculous.

And this is only the beginning of what’s been going on here. Every day is truly a whole new experience. My body is finally starting to adjust to being up before sunrise every day and the physical demands of farm work; I am no longer completely exhausted by 5pm or ravenously hungry every 3 hours! The sunrise and sunsets are absolutely magical, and the stars here are unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. The farm is about 20 minutes away from the nearest town, Floyd, which is a lovely, close-knit, and very artistic little town with only 1 stoplight. Everyone I’ve met has been warm, inviting and supportive, and I feel very welcomed and comfortable here. I haven’t had much time to explore or hike yet, as the weather is just now starting to be consistently above 50 degrees. I’ve heard there are some amazing hikes and beautiful waterfalls nearby, which I am excited to discover.

And, oh, the flowers are just starting to wake up from their winter sleep and the bees are getting excited! We’ve seen the bees carrying bright red, purple, and golden pollen back to the hive, fresh nectar is pouring in, and most colonies are increasing their numbers and preparing for swarming season! Spring is definitely in the air.

There is so much more going on here, and so much more in store for this year. I’m hoping to have at least one full entry each month, but also feel free to contact me with any questions or curiosities.

With love,

~Ryan

The first pollen of the year Alex inspecting our hexagonal top-bar hive Getting schooled in the fine art of pruning Intro to Beekeeping workshop Intro to Beekeeping workshop Our new sanctuary helper, Gypsy Sweet dreams The first crocuses of the year Good morning bees! Prepping the bed with fresh horse manure! The local watering hole Gunther sharing some wisdom about the varroa mite

Natural Beekeeping Internship

The most unexpected and wonderful news has just arrived!

In the beginning of December, I submitted my application to be an intern at Gunther Hauk’s honeybee sanctuary in Floyd, Virginia this summer. Gunther is a well-known and well-loved pioneer in the field of natural beekeeping, and his work with the bees has been a huge inspiration to me. When the invitation for a new Sanctuary intern was sent out, I had to apply. Because of the great interest in this internship position, I truly had no expectation of being accepted. So I sent off my application and continued on with my local beekeeping plans.

And then, just a few days ago, I received an email saying that my application had been accepted and that I would be one of two new interns at the Sanctuary this year!

We arranged a phone conversation later in the week, so I had a few days to sit with this news to decide if going away this year was the right thing to do. After exploring all the possibilities, it was pretty clear that spending more time at the Sanctuary was the best thing I could possibly do. Yesterday I had a phone conversation with Gunther, and it looks like I’ll be heading out to Virginia at the end of February, to be a full-time intern at the Sanctuary until December.

I’m currently seeing clients full-time until I leave, so if you’d like a session before I go, now is the time to schedule! Please contact me directly with any questions or concerns you might have, and I also ask for your blessings as I move in this unexpected, yet very significant direction. I look forward to keeping in touch and sharing my time at the Sanctuary with you. I’ll make regular updates here, and also at www.RivendellApiaries.com.

Thanks again for all your support.

PS – If you haven’t seen Queen of The Sun, I highly recommend it! Gunther is featured in the film, and other than being a very inspiring documentary, it will give you a little taste of what I’ll be getting into this year.

Busy as a bee

It’s been a while since I last posted, and I have been busy here with clients and the bees! After returning from Eugene, OR, I had a few weeks here in Chicago and then headed out east to begin a part-time, 2 year sustainable beekeeping training with Gunther Hauk at his honeybee sanctuary in Floyd, Virginia. The class was wonderful in so many different ways, and I feel like I am just now starting to get to know the bees, rather than just knowing about the bees. I look forward to going back this August for the next weekend intensive. Now back in Chicago, I am seeing clients and working on getting everything ready for the launch of my organic, sustainable beekeeping initiative, Rivendell Apiaries. I’ll share more news when I have more time! In the meantime, www.RivendellApiaries.com is up and has a bit more information about what I’ve got going on.

I hope you are enjoying your summer!

Homeward bound

Well, my month here in Eugene is winding down and I’m preparing to leave in just a few days. It feels like so much has happened here, and somehow it also seems like I just arrived.

Being here for the last month has been both challenging and rewarding, and I now have a much deeper appreciation and respect for those who work with the land and earn their living out in the sun and the soil.

I can also say that I haven’t ever felt this healthy, and that my body, mind, and heart love this way of living and right livelihood; there is such a feeling of satisfaction after a long day’s work in the sun, out in the garden or in the bee yards around town, or at the Saturday market in downtown Eugene.

There is so much to learn here, both about beekeeping and also working more closely with the Earth. Coming from the city of Chicago, I have had little exposure to gardening, farming, or anything more strenuous than shopping at my local farmers market or grocery store; witnessing the entire cycle of seed to flower to food on my plate is a miracle in itself. And not just witnessing, but also actively learning and applying the agricultural practices and wisdom that have laid the foundation for the evolution of our entire species.  There is just something so…right…about partaking in some of these most basic of human experiences…tilling the soil, turning the compost, watering the newly planted seeds, and all the other daily chores that our survival depends upon.   

As I prepare to leave, I feel that I am just starting to get a taste of what might be coming in the months and years ahead. Being here, even just through this short month, has been deeply inspiring, and I feel a great motivation to continue this work back in Chicago. Working with honeybees is definitely a priority, and my entrepreneurial mind is already spinning with the possibilities.

I’ll be back in Chicago in Mid June, and then out to Virginia to begin a part-time, biodynamic beekeeping training with Gunther Hauk. I anticipate that Gunther’s training will be very different than this one, and I am excited to learn from and spend time with another experienced beekeeper.

I have heard it said that ‘if you ask 10 beekeepers a question, you’ll get 11 different answers’, which is to say that every beekeeper may have a different take on the same situation, or go about things slightly (or very) differently. Luckily, as I have discovered, the bees are very, very forgiving.

Working with Philip has been great, and it’s also been wonderful getting to know some of the other folk that live here and around town. I hope to make it back here sometime, and also I would love to have more time to explore the area. This is a beautiful part of the county.

I feel like there is so much more that I could write, and a more dedicated online journal may be soon in coming. Until then, I’m grateful to share this here and I’ll keep sharing as things continue to evolve.

Blessed Bee

After a 3 day train ride from Chicago to the west coast, I made it to Eugene, OR, to work with Philip Smith of Blessed Bee. Philip is a small-scale organic beekeeper here in Eugene, with some hives at home and a few outlying beeyards around town. 

We’ve been busy this week, working in the garden, checking up on the hives around town, collecting pollen, bottling honey, and getting ready for Eugene’s (apparently famous) Saturday farmers market.

I’d say that I am already learning a lot here. Philip is great teacher, and there is little teaching here that can be spoken aloud; much of what I’ve been learning is simply how to be and work with the bees in a gentle and perceptive way, how to not get in their way, how to understand what is going on with them by they way they behave, and how to intuit what they will be needing over the next few weeks as the season matures. 

I’m realizing that getting to know the bees is also getting to know the entire play of nature and the seasons.  I’ve really enjoyed, as we drive around town from beeyard to beeyard, learning about all the different flowering plants and trees that the bees are visiting, each offering it’s own unique nectar and pollen for the bees to collect. Black Locust, Yellow Locust, Scotch Broom, Photinia, Crimson Clover, Lavender…soon the main honey flow will start, which happens when the Blackberries begin to bloom. We’ll often just pull over and check to see of the bees have started working a certain tree or plant yet, or Philip will point out the window as we drive by and I’ll catch a few honeybees darting from flower to flower, high up in the treetops.  

Tasting honey straight from the hive is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, and it is nothing like what we finally eat from the bottle…so much gets lost along the way. Honey straight from the hive is like a blend liquid sunlight, pure joy, and the subtle essence of a million blooming flowers that radiate the inherent goodness of simply being alive. If I didn’t have an open box of bees in front of me at the time, I may have just wept. It was that beautiful.

I am also becoming more aware of the very real crisis that we and the honeybees are facing.  Philip has been doing a huge amount of work to raise awareness of the danger that pesticides, chemicals, and other conventional farming methods create for pollinators of all kinds.  Because of him and other local beekeepers, Eugene became the first city in the US to ban the use of neonicotinoids, the #1 pollinator-killing pesticide currently on the market (read this recent study about neonicotinoids). This is a challenging aspect of this work, though one that has helped me become even more inspired and clear about working with the bees in a holistic and healing way. 

Being in Oregon and the Pacific Northwest is a blessing, and I’m looking forward to the next few weeks here.  It looks like I’ll be back in Chicago and available for sessions from the 16th to the 21st of June, and then I will be heading out to Floyd, Virginia to begin a 2 year, part-time biodynamic beekeeping certification course. I’ve just opened up my online scheduler for this one week in June that I will be in Chicago, and also after I return from Virginia on the 7th of July.

We’ve been busy keeping up with the bees here, and I will share more when I can!  

Summer travels

My beekeeping travel plans are finally starting to shape up! I will be working with and learning from an organic beekeeper in Eugene, Oregon for the month of May and the first half of June. I’ll be back in Chicago mid-June, then taking a quick trip to Floyd, Virginia to start a part-time biodynamic beekeeping training at the end of the month. I’ll be back in Chicago in the beginning of July, for, most likely, the rest of the summer and fall. 

My availability for sessions will be somewhat tentative through June, though I expect to be back and taking appointments full-time in July. I’ll send out another update when things get clearer around that time. I will, however, still be offering distant energetic healing sessions while I am away. Please follow this link for more information about those: energetic healing

I am still seeing clients until I leave on April 29th. If you’d like a session before I leave, now is the time to schedule.

As nice as taking the winter off and working with bees in Hawaii would have been (my original plan), I am glad things have fallen into place as they have.  With the plans as they are now, I will be getting a much better education in the world of biodynamic beekeeping and also having a little bit more of an adventure along the way. 

This has been a good lesson about not holding on to any particular outcome, saying yes to not knowing, and letting go and allowing life to move itself.  And, as it turns out, life has given birth to a much more satisfying, exciting, and beneficial situation for myself and everyone else.  When I look back, it doesn’t even feel like I made any decisions at all, but simply held the space for life to create itself.  And what a marvelous creation! 

I’ll be updating my blog with writing and pictures as often as I can. I look forward to sharing this adventure with you!

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