Many survivalists have found their bit of land, and it is deeply inspiring to read online the various journeys of men and women turning those plots into small Edens, into havens of self-sufficiency, or even into comely places to make a final stand. But for those of us who will not be planning to bug-out, or who aren’t lucky enough to have an extended guerrilla skillset, it is wise, I think, to find activities or projects that are multi-faceted in their rewards.
I would like to suggest that anyone who can, consider the pairing up of two simple elements whose whole is far greater than the sum of their parts. I will share with you a richly rewarding pursuit that yields benefits for the kitchen table, the medicine cabinet, physical health, mental health, community benefits, and perhaps, in a Home Alone sort of way, even self-defense…
Honeybees and Lavender. It sounds so simple—and in many ways, it is. Keeping honeybees, of course, has its challenges, but no one can deny the numerous benefits that can come from having hives in your own backyard. Just to quickly name a few benefits of the products given straight from the bees:
- The wonderful, silky bee’s wax is safe and kitchen grade! (Have you thought of all the ways you will need wax or other lubricants or emollients?) But there are many other uses for beeswax. One interesting use is as a perfect sealer for cheese. And you probably know that beeswax candles are different from other candles…they drip far less.
- Propolis, the resinous stuff collected from sap flows, tree buds and other plants. Bees mix it with a little wax and use it to seal tiny spaces (a quarter inch or less). A review of the science shows that propolis (and its 300 active compounds) aids health of the the brain, pancreas, kidney and bladder, skin, prostate, breast, colon, liver, blood, and more. Propolis is also antiseptic and repels invaders like mice and snakes. Propolis: Greek, meaning “defense of the city.” It should also be mentioned that propolis has antibacterial, anti-fungal and anti-viral properties. It speeds up healing of wounds and burns and has been found to prevent or assist in healing respiratory tract, dental and gum troubles, and middle ear disorders. Many of us are not surprised that studies show this natural product is more effective than the high priced drugs used for identical purposes. Propolis eliminates some parasites and can even be used for wart removal.
- Bee pollen is a miracle. It is richer in protein than any food. I won’t belabor the point, but consider that this little gift is an energy enhancer, has antibiotic properties, is high in B vitamins, calms psoriasis or skin problems, is high in anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties, clears asthma and sinus problems, packed with digestive enzymes, corrects blood problems such as high cholesterol, and has even been found to treat difficulties with the prostrate, urination, and fertility.
- Honey. Don’t get me started! Okay, I’m sure I don’t need to educate you on all the benefits of honey and bees, but I did want to get you a little excited.
So—next I will give you the low-down on starting your own hives. But let me take a quick side jump and tell you a key reason why some hives fail.
The bees are at the mercy of the Nectar Flow. In a perfect world, there are timely waves of nectar flowing, and the bees are dependent on wave after wave. Depending on where you live, certain plants will be flowering in March, then a new range of plants begins flowering in April as the March flowers end nectar production. Throughout the summer beekeepers are quite aware of nectar flow. Most beekeepers—all that I know—supplement their hives with sugar water or some form of sugar food. One can buy “candy” to lay atop the hive, or fondant—a soft, sugar-rich substance—which will keep the bees producing when there is no nectar flow. And—there is often no nectar flow. Even when the fruit trees are flowering, if there is insufficient rain, those flowers and the nectar they hold become almost useless as a food source for bees.
In the past few years I became concerned with the amount of purchased sugar needed to provide sugar water. Putting the cost aside (between 5-12 pounds of sugar per week to feed 4 hives during low nectar flow), I was concerned about sustainability: what will happen if I can no longer buy sugar?
Here is where the Lavender comes in.
Blue or violet is the top color choice for a bee. Lavender, borage, and marjoram, along with certain clover, are the flowers most attractive to bees. Okay, so bees like lavender—but lavender is spectacularly special in its own right.
- We now have reliable physical research showing the remarkable health and healing properties of essential oils. And lavender is the mother of all essential oils.
- Lavender oil has a range of healing benefits that once understood and practiced, will make a true believer out of anyone. It is the most important item for healing burns (along with vitamine, aloe, calendula, and ice). A drop on the temples can calm, steady, clarify, and focus thinking when awake, and a drop under the nose promote restful sleep. There are entire books devoted to the important medicinal qualities of lavender.
- If you have not already added several bottles of lavender essential oil to your preps, do a little online research, print out some guidelines, and do so! Of course, everyone reading this already has a little case full of essential oils, right? At least some tea tree, and peppermint. Well, that’s another article.
- Lavender plants will not need any type of insecticide (very bad for bees!) as it is a self-protecting plant. Rabbits and deer stay away. It is a hardy, potent plant that shares its aroma with your entire farm. Each year, the perennial plants grow bigger and stronger with a bit of pruning.
- Lavender is a tough plant that produces lots of flowers, over-winters well, and is drought resistant. Most importantly for the bees—Lavender can flower from spring through the end of fall. The long flowering spikes are full of nectar producing buds that laugh at drought. That is, your lavender field will be nectar-producing all season long.
Lavender and Bees
My purpose of this little essay is to propose that if you are able, that you keep yourself a hive or two of honeybees. And, to ensure that they have a long, sure, steady flow of nectar—that grows larger and stronger each year, God willing—plant yourself a half acre or more of lavender. The more, the better. The honeybees flock to the lavender, which benefits from all the attention. So, not only will you have a sustainable food source, you will have two arrays of powerful medicinal substances in your own back yard.
The Lavender Field
Here are my suggestions for optimizing your success in starting a lavender field:
- Check your geographical location against the USDA Plant Hardiness Map. My experience is in growing (both bees and lavender) right smack dab in the middle of the country. If you are north, (hardiness zones 1-4), you may select different lavender cultivars. Obviously those who live in the more southern zones can have a bit more leeway in choosing lavender types, as the winters are not as harsh. Spanish Lavender, with its enormous flowers, is very popular in Texas. Any decent greenhouse and many online sites are dedicated to providing good information about lavender choices exactly right for your specific area. DO NOT WASTE TIME AND MONEY buying types that are incorrect for your climate zone location. Start with the proven varieties and add new “testers” each season
- Also, I suggest that while you DO want to buy several cultivars for variety, stick with True Lavenders (not hybrids). True lavenders (Lavandula angustifolia) are able to withstand winters better. English lavenders are a good place to start. Angustifolia varieties, which bloom either continuously or multiple times, offer a greater opportunity for bees to have a regular ‘diet’ of lavender pollen and nectar. Importantly for beekeepers, lavandin hybrids (L. x intermedia) are poorer nectar producers. So, you do NOT want to get fooled by the pretty flowers.
- To grow lavender, one needs soil which is ideally just slightly alkaline, has good drainage, and not too rich. The field must get at least 8 hours of sun. Long, super-hot days = Good! You will not need to fertilize. Think rocky Mediterranean poor soil…
- Don’t bother with lavender seeds. Plants are usually propagated from cuttings. So if you plant 20 plants, you can take 2-5 cuttings from each plant and double, triple your field quickly. I first started by buying several flats at a local greenhouse. Three-inch plants in the spring became 2-3 foot flowering mounds by the end of summer. (Actually, first I did try to propagate with seeds. I babied those little suckers like they were gold seeds–all 600 of them. They sprouted well but could not survive a transplant.)
- The plants like to be watered when dry but will die or mold if left sitting in water. That’s why you see the mounded rows—so the water will drain off quickly. I found that those mounded rows made for easy weeding, tilling, watering (watering is rare—when needed, mainly when young). I also mulched with wood chips in the winter, which kept the snow from getting the soil soggy.
- Join a local Honeybee Keeper’s Association. This was the best move I could have made. Experts were there to help, and saved all us newbies from many mistakes. I discovered there are associations all over the country, and they appear to be real fine people. I have made real friends through our association, people who tend to have similar outlooks on life…
- A real benefit from joining an association is the availability of used equipment. New equipment is great but used equipment is much cheaper and sometimes free! At times beekeepers will need to get rid of their entire hives; for example, if they are moving or discover their spouse has an extreme bee allergy… Extracting honey can be done more efficiently using the shared resources within a club, and information about nectar flow, wintering issues, local insecticides, and other important data is shared.
- You can learn how to start hives through good books and from several archived SurvivalBlog articles. And you can go to online sites such as Kelly’s or Brushy Mountain, and they will send you the equipment you need right away. But I had the help of my association, so I am unable to say how easy this path would be.
- After a year or two, belonging to an association is less critical. I do suggest that if possible, at least 2 in your household learn about the bees, as it is great fun and much easier as well to examine the hive and do the maintenance needed with four hands. Still, there is no reason that even a solitary honey-lover can’t raise honeybees all by her or his lonesome. It is actually kind of a romantic image…
- Warning: Bees are amazing. Their intricacy, stunning activities, impossible feats, and general sweetness will make you believe in the Ineffable Divine. You will also pray for them, because you will fall in love with them. I could go on and on with stories and advice about bees, but you get the picture.
- For your library: The Hive and the Honey Bee, circa 1850, expanded regularly,
and published by Dadant and Sons of Hamilton, Illinois. 1,300
Lavender fields and honeybee hives will give you gifts in one season. You can start in early spring, and by fall are reaping blessings, to say nothing of the actual joy involved in the work. Both of these endeavors can, with good fortune, increase naturally year after year.
So, there it is. My little way of keeping bees happy without buying sugar: plant a lavender field. You could also plant a clover field, which will also come back strong each year (God willing). But the benefits of having the most important medicinal herb right at your doorstep—along with the $25 to $50 a quart for Lavender Honey—and the scent of Pure Well-being surrounding your little Eden. Well, need I say more?
JWR Adds: Keep in mind that lavender flowers are mildly toxic to dogs, cats, and horses. If you own horses, make sure that your horse pastures are isolated from your lavender fields!