Thursday, July 23, 2009

An Aspiring Bee Keeper

My friend Kathy took me on a field trip this week. We went to her apiary, a yard where she keeps bees. Kathy has been keeping bees for the past 10 years. As an aspiring bee keeper myself I was delighted to spend the day with Kathy, see her hives, her bees, the brood, the Queen and get my first close up experience with honey bees. I am in! I am completely swooned and compelled to embark on this adventure.

The day held some surprises, including my willingness to be vulnerable and expose some of my most intimate thoughts about my yearning to keep bees. Somehow I felt completely safe, which says volumes about Kathy.  I have been struggling with the validity of my desire and needed to know if I was completely off base. You see, it isn't about the honey, although that would be nice. And it isn't about the benefits of pollination which I would be happy to be a part of. It is far more selfish and self-serving. While the bees were surely a high point, the affirmation I got about my visceral desire to keep bees was just as much a highlight. I come at this endeavor with a need to be tamed, with the idea that the bees can empower me to be more mindful, more deliberate, more contemplative, and to be  slowed down. I had only shared these thoughts with Tina. Perhaps Kathy would think, hum, she needs some therapy, not a colony of bees. I took a risk, sharing my thoughts, I knew it was a deal breaker, either I was meant for bee keeping or I wasn't and I had to know. Did I say I am in? I am in!  I was completely affirmed. I would much rather spend my money on bees than a therapist!

We  went to the bee yard, taking with us Kathy's observation hive, a small hive she keeps on her back porch for observation purposes, and teaching. The bees in this hive were not doing well and Kathy planned on adding them to an established hive. Only in doing so she needed to dispatch the Queen, something no beekeeper wants to do! The Queen seemed to have stopped laying eggs which is a very unfortunate problem, so she had to go. I felt enormous sadness for Kathy but honestly I was so intrigued in her ability to locate and extract the Queen that I lost sight of the killing. 

Then Kathy began her inspection of her equipment, one entire colony had simply absconded! The other hive, a hive that feral bees had taken up residence had encouraging activity outside the hive. Bees buzzing about, heading in and out of the entrance with nectar and possibly some pollen although I could not appreciate either of these elements. We both donned  protective veils at this point. Kathy did not really know the temperament of this particular colony, after all they had been living in the wild and simply moved in! In no short order Kathy removed her veil confident that the bees were docile and it would be easier to see and work. I would have removed my veil as well, things were going well for me, I felt enormously calm. However, it really was my first experience and I thought keeping the veil on was prudent.

 Kathy went through the boxes inspecting the frames and pointing out cells with eggs, brood, comb, nectar, honey . . . and then she spotted the feral Queen. Finding the Queen, or at least good evidence that she is well, is a critical part of the inspection. Kathy seemed very pleased, good brood, good brood patterns, a thriving hive, it was all very positive, and maybe even unexpected considering the unusual nature of the acquisition. Once the hive was put back together I did remove my veil and watched the activity outside the hive, trying to appreciate the presence of nectar in the belly of the bee or see some pollen being carried in on their back feet,  I could not. 

We left the bee yard and went to see Kathy's farmer friends who host her apiary on their land. Catherine and Melissa have been farming for the past 15 years or so in Zumbrota, MN. They raise lambs, cattle, chicken and have lama's, ducks, dogs, cats and a beautiful peacock. They wool and butcher the lambs. Catherine is a writer, and wrote The Compassionate Carnivore, a book on how to keep animals happy, save Old MacDonald's Farm, reduce your hoofprint, and still eat meat. My kind of book and I intend to read it soon. Melissa took me a tour, showing off their stunning and well cared for animals and then we went to lunch.

It was a completely empowering day. I felt calm, centered and content. I felt like the world was full of possibility and that I could in fact do this, keep bees. I realize that I come to bee keeping at the worst possible time for the honey bee! Honey bees are facing unprecedented threats which include the introduction of mites, the arrival of the Africanized bee, the prevalent and persistent use of agricultural chemicals and more recently the so called Colony Collapse Disorder which is decimating hundreds of managed honey bee populations. It is a upward battle for the beekeeper, especially  a novice like myself!

But I am in! I am hoping to find a host for my hives in Northfield and if all goes well I will hive two colonies next spring. I am registered to take a weekend class on honey bee management at the U of M in March and I am going to join the MN hobby Beekeepers organization. I have a new friend (which is the best part of all) and a bee keeping mentor. Life has taken a turn for me and I am full of energy, enthusiasm and some healthy trepidation.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Beekeeper

We had company for dinner last evening, an old high school friend I have not really seen in 30 years, safe a moment here and there over the years. We reconnected via Facebook, which is an entirely different story. I learned that Kathy was a beekeeper while reading her blog. It was as though I was swooned by the bees and the journey. I am crazy about honey and simply captivated by the creation of the nectar. I was riveted that Kathy was actually a real live beekeeper. I wish I had the confidence and resources to take up beekeeping. Our friend Maggie was a beekeeper as well, but somehow I got enthralled in Kathy's bees through her very poignant writing and story telling. 

I began to plan our dinner weeks ago and thought it would be oh so fun to serve cheese and honey, maybe even some honeycomb. I had purchased some honey in Budapest that I knew would be interesting to serve.  But suddenly Kathy's bee's were in peril and I fretted endlessly about the possibility that they had all perished. A cheese owner convinced me to get some honeycomb but the closer the evening came, not knowing about the fate of the bees I worried that serving honeycomb and honey would be all too sad, especially if the bees were dead. Tina laughed at me as I weighed my options. I supposed it was silly to worry so much. I can't help myself, I am wired that way. I went ahead with cheese and honey and kept the honeycomb in the cupboard which in the end turned out perfectly.

The bees, well for the moment they are surviving, maybe not thriving, I am not exactly sure but they haven't all perished. Kathy gave me a jar of her Minnesota State Fair, 2006 Blue Ribbon Honey. She calls it Lake Isle of Innisfree Apiaries (which I believe comes from the famous poet William Yeats). Of course I opened it right then to serve with the cheese. Oh my gosh, it was so wonderful, better than any of the other honey I was serving. I had more of it this morning and I am simply thrilled an honored to have received such of thoughtful gift. I know there are a limited number of jars and quite frankly I am overwhelmed to have received one of 7 jars left from the harvest. Pure joy!

As for the evening, I can't even begin to describe how enjoyable it was to reconnect with Kathy and meet her partner Carolyn. Tina especially enjoyed the evening, telling me, "They are a lot like me, smart and a little nerdy, I liked them both so much".  I worried that the evening might be awkward, after all it had been 30 years, or that Kathy and I might take to remembering too much about high school, leaving Tina and Carolyn out. There was a little bit of remembering but for the most part we talked about who we are now. Although I must admit, Kathy relayed the sweetest, most endearing memory of me that nearly made me cry. We had one of the most relaxing and enjoyable evenings ever. 

Friday, July 3, 2009

I have waited three years for this news!

I know you can't read the letter and I know it is probably weird to post personal medical information. But I am so excited about this note I can hardly stand it! I have complex Celiac Disease, not your run of the mill type that most people have. I am an informed, compliant patient, a doctors dream really. I am grateful to be able to navigate the health care system, grateful to have good health insurance, grateful to live so close to one of the greatest medical institutions in the country, grateful to be able to afford my diet. However, I have struggled with a great deal of discouragement and worry over the past three years because I simply was not recovering, not responding to the diet. It has been very hard to stay positive and focused, hard to keep my spirits up, knowing that I was so completely compliant with the diet, not having one intentional ingestion of gluten, and probably not having any accidental ingestions either.

For the past three years I have had endoscopic biopsies at Mayo. It is a simple procedure, not much to it. I get sedated and long tube is guided down into the small portion of my intestine. It takes less than 15 minutes. And then I wait, which is the worst part, waiting for the return apt to get the results.  My physician is brilliant, but scattered and sometimes I go back and he is not really ready to meet with me. This year I actually told him, "I am a good steward of my health care dollars, please don't have me come back until your prepared." When I returned in late March for the results of my February endoscopy he was not prepared, again. He likes to look at biopsy results himself and not rely on the pathology report. So all he could tell me was that things looked better, still some problems but over all better. He had not reviewed the slides himself, even though it had been well over two weeks.

Then he delivered a blow I did not expect. I was planning an 6 week medical mission trip to Northern India to deliver basic health care to Tibetan's in exile in April. He told me he did not want me to go on the trip, that my intestine was simply too unhealthy for the food preparation practices in India. I was broken, simply broken. I considered ignoring his concern but in the end my own health took priority and I canceled the trip.

Then late yesterday, this note from Dr. Murray arrived, three months after my last meeting with him and four months after my last endoscopy. He finally got around to reviewing my biopsy slides himself and says,  "It looks like your villi have completely recovered and look generally very healthy. There is still somewhat of an increase in inflammatory cells, (hence his concern about India remains). . . Given these findings, and especially the recovery of the architecture of the intestine and how well you are doing, I think it would be reasonable to wait one year before reevaluating this. I would find the recovery of your intestinal architecture and the villi as being quite a positive finding."

I can not begin to explain how welcoming this news is for me, and it tempers the sadness of not going to Northern India. It affirms me in every imaginable way

Thursday, July 2, 2009

I did it!

Part of me wishes this was a photo and post about homemade cherry chocolate chunk ice cream. But that endeavor was a disaster. I am going to remember there are good local ice cream parlors who make very good cherry ice cream. I need not waste my time.

Gluten-free fruit tarts however, they are impossible to find! We are have special company for dinner next week and Tina wants to make her fruit tarts for desert. They are good, they are beautiful and they are a quintessential summer treat. However, I don't like being left out, especially left out of dessert. I also don't like having something different than everyone else. So this week I set my mind to creating a gluten-free fruit tart, actually the crust was the only issue. Everything else is naturally gluten free.

This particular recipe came from a gluten-free cook book our friend Joan gave me. I don't actually use GF cookbooks but this one is a baking book from the Culinary Institute of America and it is an excellent resource!  I am also the cook in our house, not really a baker, that is Tina's domain. So I was way outside my comfort zone.

I started by making a flour-blend with 1 3/4 cup white rice flour, 1 1/4 cup brown rice flour, 3/4 cup potato starch and 1 cup tapioca starch. Fortunately I had all of these flours in our GF freezer. Then I made a tart dough using 1/2 cup cold butter, 1/4 cup sugar and 1 1/4 cups of the flour blend and one egg.  I cut the butter into small cubes and then combined all the ingredients in the bowl of a mixer, using a paddle attachment. I mixed until the dough came together and then worked the dough on the counter until I was sure the butter was incorporated. The dough went into some plastic wrap and into the fridge for an hour. Once chilled, I rolled the dough out to 1/8 an inch thickness and cut circle big enough to fit into my tart pans. I did poke the tarts with a fork to dock the dough and then baked the tarts for 20 to 25 minutes at 325 degrees. 

They came out the pans very easily once cooled but were very fragile! I made a traditional pastry cream to fill the tarts and topped with fresh fruit. Ordinarily I would finish the tarts with an apricot glaze but I was way to eager to try the tarts.  They are identifiably gluten-free, no doubt, they crumble easily and have that rice flour grittiness. But I was simply thrilled. I felt very accomplished and satisfied with the result, especially since Tina ate an entire tart. That is a very good sign people!  

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


If I get even handful of tomatoes I will ecstatic! I planted potted tomatoes. I know, they would grow better in the ground but it was a last minute decision and I didn't have time to get the soil checked in our back yard. Besides, it is a condo and I don't really have the ability to plant anything I want. We have a yard committee and everything passes through the committee for approval. I just wanted to try. I planted several cherry tomato plants and a few regular tomato plants. They all have yellow blossoms and evidence of some fruit, in fact one is already blushed slightly red. It is fun to watch the growth and hope.