Opening the Hives

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Yesterday we visited our hive “McGill 1”, located on the roof of the library building at McGill University, to remove the winter insulation. As soon as we opened the door to the roof and walked around to the hives, we were greeted with a happy surprise. Prior to yesterday, the health of “McGill 1” was questionable because of how calm the hive was at the time it was audio checked a few weeks ago. We were concerned we might find a hive with large casualties, in need of extra syrup until the blooms arrive. To our delight, the hive was very active with bees flying in and out (and clearing little bee bodies) by the small entranceway.UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1e.jpg

With the knowledge that the bees were out and active, we assembled our newly washed (bleached) suits. The newest beekeepers (me) wore full protection. That being said, I was very aware that my hood had a finger sized hole in it, which shook my confidence a bit in approaching the bees. The experienced bee keepers wore the gear according to their preferences, opting not to don the full pants of the suit or gloves since it was a balmy 15C.

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With gear on, we approached the hives and removed the wrapping. The insulation we used is good for two years, this being the second year. Since we knew the hive was active, unwrapping the insulation was a lot like unwrapping a Christmas gift all together. After the insulation was removed, the supers were visible. The top super was full of hay to add airy insulation which helped with the moisture control of the hive.

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We removed the super full of hay, and left the two bottom supers where the clean and the brood live. The only thing left to do was to insert a tray at the bottom of the hive in order to collect mites and parasites. We will go back later to count the number and assess the amount of treatment (if any) required for the hive. We will also add a super full of drone frames in order to have drone eggs laid, which will contain most of the varroa parasite. We then take these frames and put them in the freezer in order to kill the mites. This kills the drones (male bees) also, but these males are not required to fertilize the queen or work in the colony.

For the entire season the hive will keep two supers for the laying of eggs and housing of the queen. Later, we will add a queen extruder and honey supers so that baby bees are not hatching near the honey we plan to harvest. UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_24.jpg

Before leaving, we placed a tilted roof on the top of our hive, for ventilation. We took a few minutes to watch the baby bees which were born during the winter make a “map” with relation to the hive. The new bees do this by exiting the hive and then hovering at certain distances away from the hive in order to learn to assess distances.

Unfortunately “McGill 2” and our hive at the Santropol Roulant did not survive the winter. We also had two hives stored on one of the beekeepers farm that didn’t survive this particularly difficult winter. The next step will be to unwrap the hive “McGill 3” on Monday, and the remaining hive at Santropol. We will also perform quick post-mortems to understand if our hives died due to lack of food or parasite infections.

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So in summary from our 6 hives, we have 2 left. The good news is at least one of these appears healthy enough to maybe be split early in the season!

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Preparing for the Season

Today we scraped, and cleaned and sanitized the “supers” and frames that we will use during this years beekeeping season. This is an important process to kill any spores of parasites that might be present on the wood within the frames and boxes.

We first brought all the boxes out of deep basement storage, and removed the frames from the supers in order to scrape off any propolis, honey and excess wax build-up that might get in the way of sealing the frames. The bees use propolis as a kind of glue to fill in cracks on their structure. If the frames don’t fit well together because of a build up of junk, this impacts the work of the bees.

Once scraped, the frames are washed with a water-bleach solution. Most of the frames contain a plastic support to give the bees a starting point for building up their combs. Some of our frames are just frames. The bees can build their combs without any help from us, but this takes longer and the beekeeping season in Montréal is already quite short. However, if you want to remove and eat the honeycomb, then an empty frame is the way to go.

The supers, or boxes, are free of plastic and therefore can be sanitized using a propane torch. As the resin and wax on the box are heated, the supers give off the most lovely smell: a mixture of burnt pine wood and beeswax.

To our delight, one of our bees was out for his cleansing flight. On the earliest days of spring, bees leave their hives in search of a place to “read a magazine”.  Bees are very clean animals and they never eliminate their waste within their hives. Our bee came to visit the newly cleaned frames, and poked around. He seemed to know they were intended for him, even after the frames had been bleached.

As winter goes on, the bees within the closed up hives gradually eat through their stash of honey (or maple syrup). Now the days are warm and they may leave the hive, but the flowers are not out yet. This means our bees cannot collect any new food. Though our colonies can definitely survive on their own, we will probably feed them with pollen packs, in order to build up their strength early in the season. Image result for bee supers Sonoma County Beekeeper’s Association. (2011). Beekeeping Basics. Retrieved from http://www.sonomabees.org/honey/index.html

Cleaning of equipment also provided the seasoned members of our collective with an opportunity to educate us on parasites (why we clean), different frames, screens (to restrict the queens access to the honey supers), and other clever accessories. The drawing above shows that the honey supers are separated from the deep super where the queen and larvae live. This keeps the baby larvae away from the supers which are removed for honey harvest, and is similar to the segregation that exists within the hive in nature.

So our frames and supers are clean and ready to be used. Now we have to do a quick inventory of all our equipment. If the weather stays nice, we will need to consider opening our hives in the next week or so!

Becoming a Beekeeper

The beekeeping season is almost underway, and I hope it will be the first of many. But for now, I have lots of learning to do!

This year I became a volunteer amateur beekeeper with the Bee Collective of Santropol Roulant, a non-profit organization that, through volunteer collectives and community programs, is doing many things to bring the community together (Meals-on-Wheels, etc). What makes the experience extra special is that those of us lucky few will be trained in urban beekeeping in downtown Montréal within a collective that is run on democracy and consensus, just like our bees.

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For now, our beekeeping involves weekly meetings to discuss bee education, Epi-pen procurement, how many hives we will manage for the season and discussion of lessons learned from last year. It was collectively decided that we will keep  3-6 hives, order 3 new queen bees, and split two existing hives if they prove healthy enough after opening.

Our 6 rooftop hives are located at McGill University, and on the Santropol building itself, in the heart of plateau Mont Royal. The hives are still covered in insulation for winter. They look innocuous except for the small visible holes in the side of the hives, below which several dearly departed bees can be seen (nothing to worry about!) By audio check, it is possible to check the health of these hives, even while still “dormant”, in order to assess the health of the hive and whether intervention is required. Our assessment showed one healthy hive, and one hive requiring a bit of TLC. 

The Bee Collective is mandated with connecting urban-dwellers and food sources through education. We also harvest honey twice per year. Each beekeeper will receive a large portion of honey (relatively speaking) and the rest will be sold with profits donated back to fund Santropol Roulant.

We are finishing up our inventory of tools and gear this Sunday, and the hives will be opened in late April, weather permitting. In the meantime, it’s just the right time to plant those bee friendly seeds : Asters (pictured below), black-eyed susans, snapdragons, cone flowers, zinnias, salvia, sunflowers, etc. This is especially important for our urban bees who might struggle to find food and clean water sources in the downtown areas! Happy planting!

photo credit: http://www.mnn.com/your-home/organic-farming-gardening/stories/9-honeybee-friendly-plants

Learning to Green Grocery Shop

Food packaging represents a substantial portion of the non-recyclable plastic (and waxed cardboard) waste that is rapidly filling our landfills. Whether you are concerned about food packaging and plastic for environmental reasons or worried that we are running out of usable landfill space, there is a lot you can do to reduce or eliminate the food packaging you bring home.

Recently, the opening of the new German “supermarket” Original Unverpackt received a lot of attention for its no packaging mission to reduce unnecessary waste. But many cities already have their own versions of a package free bulk store.

Finding the Bulk Scene

Having begun my journey to eliminate my home’s landfill contribution in Toronto, I soon discovered my neighbourhood was well-equipped with several Bulk Barns. Green grocery shopping was easy. When I moved to Montreal I was devastated to learn that the nearest Bulk Barn was in fact off the island. I needed to get more creative. I put in the leg work and began experimental visits to bulk stores all over the plateau, and mile-end. Frenco became a fast favourite. Others include Folie en Vrac and other hidden gems. Some may not even advertise that they offer bulk food and cleaning items…

The First Visit

I think that one of the most intimidating things about changing your lifestyle to shopping green involves finding the best bulk stores, and knowing what to expect the first time you go there. Afterall, we are creatures of habit. So I’m going to tell you exactly what you can expect to find at these stores and how to prep before your visit.

Happily, it is the habit of most people to carry large reusable fabric bags to car their groceries home. To be truly ecologically friendly, consider taking some time to make small lightweight reusable fabric bags that you can use to buy your dry goods too. This simplifies the process when the cashier is weighing your dry goods at checkout. The stores themselves do offer you three other options:

  • Free small plastic bags (some recyclable, some not)
  • Recyclable plastic containers on the spot (25 cents)
  • Bring your own containers and ask the cashier to weigh them before you fill them

Show some style

I opted to make my own bulk bags. Because the bags are relatively small, you can purchase spare fabric in the scrap bin of your local fabric store, and it is usually much cheaper that way. They were relatively easy to sew myself on a rented-by-the-hour sewing machine at Effiloché on St Hubert near Beaubien.

For extra keen sewers use natural beeswax to line the bags and add zippers (optional) to create your own re-useable ziplock or sandiwch bags (shout out to my friend Ally for introducing me to such a stellar idea) You can find the tutorial here, and you’ll never run out of sandwich bags.

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Beeswax Fabric 6

The Economics

The liquid refill station at Frenco (pictured below) offers handsoap, shampoo, conditioner, dishsoap, and laundry detergent refills. You might even get your pick of natural scents. A word of caution, be alert and consult the price by weight. It can be hard to predict the cost of a liquid refill. I speak from experience having accidentally walked out after spending 28$ on a laundry detergent refill.

Most dry goods are reasonably priced. Dry fruit can end up costing you a lot. Though the price is comparable to what you would find in the grocery story, if you grab one large scoop you will be taking home a lot more volume than you find packaged in conventional grocery stores. So if you just want a little treat, and don’t want to break the bank, be careful. Quinoa is another item that is expensive virtually everywhere unless you can find a non-organic version. This is consistently the most expensive item on my bill, but after all I am buying in bulk so I take home enough quinoa to last me for a month!

On a recent trip to Frenco I acquired a week’s worth of rolled oatmeal for the morning, 3 cups of heavy molasses, 6 eggs, 4 cups of dark brown sugar (clearly I was doing some holiday baking) for a combined cost of less than 9$. I was admittedly suprised it wasn’t more expensive because it was my first time purchasing molasses and buying a new item at Frenco can result in a bit of sticker shock.

Things you won’t find

Meat, butter and milk, even the glass bottled kind. Meat is sort of an obvious one as many of these stores cater to vegetarians and vegans. But if you’re a meat-lover (I enjoy a great roasted chicken myself now and again) try to find a local butcher, you might just see major savings.

For dairy, if you can’t find it in the bulk stores you can consider an alternative. There are a lot of them. Indian Ghee, solid at room temperature, is sold in glass jars in most ethnic grocery stores. The Ghee is clarified butter and is especially bad for you as it is made up of the hydrogenated components of the butter. This means the Ghee is solid at room temperature, and contributes more to arterial plaque. If you choose this option, use sparingly. For baking, oil and applesauce and so many other alternatives exist, and taste great. They will also help keep you healthy.photo 3

Yogurt and kefir (a delicious yogurt-like substance) can easily be found in jars, and the jars can be returned Rachelle-Béry Epicerie Santé for cash. But these are expensive options. For the green shopper on a budget, consider making your own yogurt using a yogurt maker at home. Recently, friends introduced me to yogurt making. The process is fun and cheap, and serving sizes are up to you.

Try it!

Whether it’s my cheerful red polka-dotted bulk bags and/or the feeling that I am doing some relatively easy things to preserve the environemtnal, I actually enjoy my bulk shopping. In fact I look forward to it, and to guessing at the bill.

So next time need to grocery shop, give the bulk store a try before you head to your conventional grocery store. Once you eliminate food packaging from your life you will be amazing at how slowly your garbage fills and how you look at the packaging of food products

Vermicomposting: A few hundred new roommates

As a young person without a full set of power tools, getting the worm composter (or vermicomposter) underway took me a couple of weeks. Once you get started, its a very fast process to build one of your own!

My disdain for plastic in general led me to try out a natural wood composter, that would allow me to compost year-round, and indoors. I am so thrilled to have started the process of turning my unused food into rich soil for my plants.

I started off using Red Wigglers worms. I have read about subtle differences between these worms and the other popular composting worm, European Nightcrawlers. The Red Wigglers seem to be a bit hardier with respect to pH balance, which was just what I was looking for for my first go at having a worm bin!

The comparison between an earthworm, and the smaller Red Wiggler composting worms. Source: gardeningwormcomposting.com

I found the vermicomposting start-up a lot more difficult than they seemed in the DIY tutorials, and I have to admit my first batch of worms did die on me. It may have been that the pH or moisture levels were off, or that my microorganisms (the actual food for the worm) got out of hand. Luckily, I was able to find someone to trust me with a few hundred more!

At full capacity, my worms should be able to handle about half a pound of veggie waste a day. With all of our cooking and being two people living in this house, we found we will need two worm composters and a big regular composter to handle more of the starchy leftovers that cannot be added (except in moderation) to our worms.

So the first worm bin and our regular composter are underway in the backyard, at least until the summer swelter begins (worms like cool temperatures). I look forward to getting this off the ground and finding new projects (such as book-shelf farming in my apartment) to help use up the dirt!

For a quick photo journey on how I built my composter, check out my vermicomposting page.

Not one for carpentry? The vermicomposter can easily be constructed using a plastic storage bin and a drill for air holes!

Is that a lemon in the shower? Actually, it’s my conditioner…

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A couple of months ago I decided to give up shampoo. Like all of my 2014 lifestyle changes, I did it gradually by waiting until my giant bottles of 365 (the wholefoods brand) shampoo and conditioner ran out.

It’s been a couple of months now, and it’s been an adjustment period but I’m happy overall  with my no-poo lifestyle. Afterall, its just hair. To the average observer I think I look clean. But we do get a lot of curious questions about our lemons in the shower.

My aversion to shampoo might stem from the fact that I have ridiculously unhardy skin. Remember those fun Disney brand bubble baths? That spelled out a pretty horrific bathtime experience for me. So maybe its the chemicals,  and a lack of understanding of my allergies. Maybe it was the idea that all shampoo is manufactured somewhere, packaged, and shipped to me. Or maybe it was that most shampoo comes in plastic bottles, and is a lot more expensive that homemade hair-cleansing routine. In the end it was probably a combination of these reasons that convinced me to try baking soda as a hair cleanser, and various natural conditioners.

I read a lot of blogs (some suggesting beer as a hair cleanser?) and talked no-poo a lot at parties, and got some good advice on what to try on my hair. Even still there were a lot of bad hair days and experiments.

My first no shampoo shower was an experience. I walked to the bathroom with an old glass jar, a box of baking soda, a (PLASTIC) bottle of apple cider vinaigre, and a butter knife. I did as I was instructed by this other no-poo girl at a party, and I put about a centimeter of baking soda in with about a cup and a half of HOT water. I stirred it up in the jar using my butter knife. I awkwardly (AWKWARDLY) poured the mixture over my hair (you’re going to want to avoid tasting the mixture if you try this). And then I rinsed it out.

I decided to be a little more careful with the vinaigre conditioner, pouring an inch or two into my glass jar, then stuffing my long hair into it and pressing the jar to my head to create a seal. Awkward again, but no vinaigre in the eyes, no tears. I suddenly felt a huge craving for salad topped off with apple cidre vinaigre. As instructed, I hopped out of the shower without rinsing the vinaigre.

First impressions: The vinaigre worked AWESOME. I could comb through my hair no problem. But it still didn’t exactly feel like my hair was clean. My next shower, I did the same, except for doubling the baking soda in my mixture. You really DON’T want to do that. Instead of getting a better clean, I ended up with excess baking soda all over my scalp. So that’s worth warning about.

People and blogs assured me that over the weeks my hair would readjust and become less oily the less I washed it. I started washing my hair only twice per week.

I also finished my bottled of vinaigre and moved on to lemons as conditioning agents, for their obvious lack of packaging and processing. I just take a lemon or two into the shower, cut it in half and squeeze it over my hair. CAUTION: too much lemon and your hair will look mega dry and over-moussed. Also, lemon do not mix well with shaving, especially safety razor shaving.

Do I look like I used lemons to wash my hair? In any event, my hair was the least of my worries this day as I helped out with a plant tour of Sanimax, a company recycling meat industry by-products.

Two months later and I’m not sure my hair leveled out, I may have just become more lax about the appearance and feel of my hair. I can be honest and say that my hair is thicker, healthier and gorgeous  for at least the first day following a wash. And maybe feeling dirty is good for the spirit, I feel like a cavewoman, back to my roots. Until 5 minutes later when I throw my hair in a towel and send a couple of emails.

Henry David Thoreau

“What’s the use of a fine house if you haven’t gota tolerable planet to put it on?”                                          – Henry David Thoreau, Familiar Letters

Franklin D. Roosevelt

“A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself. Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people. ”                                              – Franklin D. Roosevelt

Ansel Adams

“It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment.”                                                                                                – Ansel Adams

Halifax Harbour

Halifax Harbour last summer was a stunning view, until I realized that the sailboat I had been happily watching was about to pass in front of a cute little island, which appeared on fire due to the parallax in my view of Halifax’s not so pretty sister-city, Dartmouth. An ugly reminder that being idealistic doesn’t power people’s homes and businesses. We need to show people how to change in very specific ways (what to buy, what can go into recycling) and to work towards green technologies that allow people to maintain their quality of life.