Hand-feeding Bees

So, a few years ago, I made a serious go at learning about bees. I studied them, I went on “smoke test” visits with bee-keepers. Chris got me hives for Christmas, and I tried… but I did not succeed, repeatedly, with bee-keeping. However, it’s given me an entirely different view on bees, and I love watching them going about their bee-siness in the garden, pollinating and nectaring and even gathering tree sap for propolis.

I learned that when nectar flow is scarce, particularly in our climate in late fall and early spring, bees are hungry. They will end up in your soda can, or trying to eat the jam out of your sandwich. When Chris found a couple of bees on dinner plates in the sink (we live with the house all open in early spring, until the mosquitoes get bad) we knew it was Bee Feeding Time. They’re warm enough to go out and forage, but not much is blooming for them to eat.

We mix 1:1 sugar syrup (one cup plain granulated sugar, one cup water) and put it in a tub. We put green weeds in there, so that if they get INTO the syrup, they can climb out. And the back yard becomes alive with little buzzing golden bodies.

Foraging bees are totally non-aggressive. The only way to get stung by one, is to accidentally crush her – they won’t fight or even argue, when they’re out hunting for nectar.


I didn’t take a video of how you FINISH feeding the bees… it’s kind of a gentle flick of the hand, dislodging the bees, and they fly away. They don’t chase you. I did have to brush a couple of bees off my pants legs, but they were just resting there.

It is surprising to me, how SPECIFIC their nectar-locating behavior is. There are scout bees, and they wander all over looking for nectar, and then there are foraging bees, who follow the very detailed directions from the scout bees and go direct to the source and then bee-line (yes, that’s where it comes from – they fly in a straight line) back to the hive. Zip, zip, zip. If you move your hand, or the tub of syrup, a foot… it’s not going to get any new bees until a scout bee relays the news back at the hive. They will land in the wrong spot for several minutes, stumbling around until they find the nectar, or going back hungry.


Amusingly, once the scout bees hear that there’s a big, pink-skinned nectar source, they stop and lick you, even when there’s no sugar. Like, just say for instance, you decide to lay out in the sun and get some Vitamin D when you’re done feeding the bees… you will get bee-licked.

Hitting the wall, hard.

A graph from a dog leash I wove – quote from “Down and Out in Paris and London” by George Orwell
“It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs, and, well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety.”

For any of y’all who don’t know, I work as the Assistant Director for a nonprofit, non-governmentally run performing arts center. We’re a private 501(c)(3) corporation, for my nonprofit geeks.

Basically, everything we do, is large gatherings of people – people come here to experience the arts, to sing or dance, to watch a band play, to meet and talk about art, to plan art events, to advocate for the place of art in society, and to raise funds for the arts. It’s a beautiful thing, and it’s a good life. The people are the best people – creative, open-hearted, passion-driven, and genuine. Of course, with the current concerns about Covid-19, we are having to cancel a LOT of things – rehearsals, performances, recitals, dances. If we don’t stay alive and healthy, we can’t keep singing and dancing and making art; being healthy and keeping our (often mature and occasionally at-risk) audiences healthy is key to what we do. But it means slashing all the bookings that make up a big part of our revenue stream. We are diversely funded by a variety of grants, donations, and personal gifts, but a major chunk of our budget revenues are earned income from the activities we host. And, because the arts community is made up of awesome people, they are being understanding and agreeing to work together, accepting the changes to schedules with good grace and equanimity. Our patrons, who are not getting to see shows they paid for and were looking forward to, have for the most part been gracious and kind.

I’m also on the board for a national fiber arts event. In that group, we’re in a situation faced by many small nonprofits – we have enough money to keep our events going, but we don’t have a bankroll that will allow us to basically eat an entire year’s worth of expenses. When we announced that we had to cancel our upcoming event, we got some amazing responses – one vendor even told us that it would be OK if we weren’t able to refund her vendor booth fee, and offered to donate sales of a special yarn to our event. We’re facing a mix, with some companies and attendees being angry and frustrated and demanding immediate refunds, and others being willing to work with us, helping out if possible.

What I want for y’all to think about, is if you’ve got tickets to a show, or you’ve made a reservation for an event, and that event has made the brutally painful choice to cancel – that organization is hitting a wall, hard. Many of the smaller groups may not be able to survive a catastrophe like this; even many of the bigger ones will take a serious hit, and next year’s event may be under-funded or smaller than before because of it. If you have an income situation where you’re able to let a part of your refund be a donation instead, or if you’re able to make a gift to the nonprofit of whatever amount, it can make a huge difference in whether they can go on, pay their staff, present the show in the fall, have the event next year.

The nonprofit that I work for as my “day job” is a medium-sized, long-term stable corporation. We’re in good health, as these things are measured; we’ve got money in the bank, we’re endowed with gifts from people who love and support what we do, and we’ve got a strong and flexible professional staff. The nonprofit that I am involved with as my “passion job” on the side, is a healthy and dynamic organization, but it’s entirely volunteer-run. A board of ten people plus six advisors organize, schedule, and run this huge event that serves hundreds of students and thousands of visitors over the course of a four-day super-weekend. We have many volunteers at event time, and there is a lot of help – but it’s in the hands of those few people. We have funds in the bank, a little, but not enough to swallow a whole event’s worth of expenses and survive. As a nonprofit board member (did y’all know this?) I bear a personal financial responsibility for the organization – if it goes under, particularly if a big corporation chooses to be inflexible with the money we contractually owe it for an event we can’t have, they can name me in the suit (see also: turnip, comma, blood from…). They can go after every one of us. If they can get a judge to approve it, they could put a lien on my house, or garnish my wages.

So if you can’t go to an event, please think a moment before you give a nonprofit VOLUNTEER person a nasty tongue-lashing about how you believe they should have handled things differently. Pause, and ask yourself if you want the event to happen next year – if you want the organization to live. If you can’t get a full refund, because the dance troupe or the orchestra just doesn’t have the funds to refund everyone’s money (advance ticket sales are often used for things like space rentals for rehearsals, paying set designers, building costumes, paying technical help), can you afford to forgive that debt, make it a donation to the event? Canceling an event last minute is complicated and horrible – with the fiber festival, we’ve already designed brochures, laid out our vendor hall, ordered name badges. People did their class homework, bought plane tickets, picked out their favorite things to wear and show off. Everyone – including every member of our volunteer board – was looking forward to seeing people we see only once a year. We’re devastated and literally crying through our days some times, and we are doing our best to make it as close to right as we can, for everyone.

Reactive Craft

I’m taking an art class. Wednesday’s session involved studying a photo of a Jeff Koons sculpture, and working to capture its various shades of white and gray with black and white paint. After class, we had lined up our pictures and were talking about how the class had gone, how we felt about the materials, etc. Our instructor Jay Bailey said something that really struck me — that drawing is a reactive craft. You look at the subject, and you make a mark, and then you compare the mark to the model and see if it’s right, if you need to adjust, if you need to move it, or darken it, or what.

After thinking about it a little while, I realized that it’s precisely the passage of the attention back and forth between the mark and the model, comparing and adjusting, that makes drawing so soothing and engaging for me. It’s like a mantra, or a hypnotist’s pendulum – repeating that swinging of my focus, back and forth, back… and…. forth… and it puts me into a special, non-verbal but highly creative headspace. It’s what Betty Edwards calls “R-mode” – when you present the brain with a task that the analytical and linguistic “Left Brain” with a task that simply can’t be handled with the tools it has, it shuts down and relinquishes control to the creative, spatial, visual “Right Brain” side.

L. Reuteri Yogurt

I crush the tablets first, so that when I’ve got the slurry ready I can add the powder.

A few months ago, I found this post on Wheatbelly about probiotic yogurt made using special strains of Lactobacillus reuteri. That link will sometimes lead to a paywall; here’s another post that recapitulates most of the same info in case Wheatbelly is locked. Technically, it’s not precisely yogurt, because the strains that make it aren’t registered yogurt strains – but it tastes like yogurt and handles like yogurt, so that’s what I call it. I started making it, and switched from half and half to heavy cream to get more good fat and less carbohydrate since I follow a keto diet. I’m not sure how much of the Koolaid I’m willing to swallow in terms of some of the dramatic claims – but I can definitely agree that this stuff seems to help my digestion and make me feel better. This “yogurt” is about halfway between sour cream and cream cheese in both texture and flavor, and it tastes good in both savory and sweet dishes. I regularly take it sweet with Splenda and some Lily’s chocolate chips and crushed pecans, or savory with herbs and salt on vegetables or a steak, or thinned down with ranch seasoning for dressing. I made a batch and shared it with several of my friends recently, and some of them asked for a tutorial – so here it is!

Ingredients:

Cream. I like to use Horizon or other organic types because I know they’re raised without hormones or antibiotics, but any cream will do. I’m usually making it by the quart, so two pints per batch. If you use a kind with stabilizers such as guar gum, xanthan gum, or carageenan, it will make the yogurt a little more stiff, but still perfectly fine.

Inulin. This is a fine, mildly sweet white powder made from processing starches. It’s used as a PREbiotic (not a probiotic) which means that it helps feed your intestinal flora, your “good bugs.” In this case, especially because I’m using cream which has very little milk sugar, it helps feed the Lactobacillus bacteria that make the yogurt. I can’t find any chart showing the difference between the inulin made from different sources (there are a LOT), but they do have slightly different flavors and significantly different textures. You do want to get one that’s a powder, not a bottle full of capsules. I use two tablespoons per quart. My friend Allison came over, and we did some experimentation – the Jerusalem artichoke inulin mixed up OK, but the agave inulin was easier to stir to a smooth slurry. The chicory inulin was tough to stir to a smooth slurry, and I had to strain it. I won’t get the chicory again.

The BioGaia tablets crushed to a powder.

And, most importantly: the bacteria. This supplement, BioGaia’s GASTRUS, is the one that was listed in the Wheatbelly post, and it’s made from two strains that have been used in a lot of laboratory tests. The tablets are designed to be chewable, and they’ve got a slight mint/citrus flavor which doesn’t come through at all in the yogurt, but you might want to be aware of if you’re allergic to mint or citrus. Other probiotics will work, with varying degrees of success, I’m sure – I haven’t tried a bunch, and I don’t have a huge amount of yogurt experience. Unfortunately, this means I also can’t answer “but what if I substitute this different thing for that thing” questions.

I do this “cold start,” which means I don’t heat the cream to pasteurize it before inoculating it with the bacteria. I also don’t heat sterilize my equipment. I’ve read some sources that give all kinds of dire warnings about contaminated batches which go sour or fail to set. It hasn’t happened to me. If you want to heat sterilize your jars and tools and pasteurize your cream, by all means go ahead. I’ve done plenty of sterilizing with canning and jelly making, I’m just not that bothered about the likelihood of pre-pasteurized cream going bad.

Inulin slurry is really weird stuff. There are about three inches of fresh air between the bottom of the bowl and the countertop, and I’m holding the bowl up by the spoon. It acts like Oobleck; it’s stiff when it settles, it’s fluid when it’s moving. The agave insulin was much thinner, not as non-Newtonian.
After you stir the mixture, it’s fluid again, and it will pour off a spoon like this.

Start: make the slurry. If you try to just stir the inulin into the cream, it clumps up into little nodules, and they are very, very hard to stir out. I like to pour a tablespoon of water into a small dish, and sprinkle the two tablespoons of inulin on top of it, let it sink, and then stir. If you don’t let the inulin sink, its hard to stir. If you get lumps, you can press them through a tea strainer with the back of a spoon to break them up.

Add the probiotics. There are two ways to do this; if you’re starting from scratch, use ten of the BioGaia Gastrus tablets, crushed to a powder. I crush them on a dinner plate using the bottom of a small jar, but any kind of mortar-and-pestle arrangement will work. If you’ve made one batch already, then you can use two tablespoons of the last batch of yogurt instead. Whichever of the two you use, stir the mixture until smooth.

If you use prior batch yogurt to innoculate the cream, mix it into the slurry instead of the powdered bacteria tablets.

Put the slurry-plus-probiotics into the jars you’ll make the yogurt in. I like wide-mouth quart jars for my own use; I use wide-mouth pints or even little jelly jars if I’m making it to share.

Add the slurry to the jar, then half the cream, and stir to mix it in.
Add the rest of the cream and stir again. Be careful not to bang the spoon too hard into the jar; it can crack the glass.

Add the cream. Because this won’t be steam sterilized, you don’t need to worry about head space; it will set without increasing in volume or making any kind of froth. I use a long spoon to stir the mixture. Be careful not to hit the side of the jar hard with the spoon, or it can break a hole, and make a mess. Ask me about how much trouble it is to clean up a quart of cream that spills down the front of the cabinets! Put the lids on the jars.

The eight-quart Instant Pot will hold four quart jars.

Put the jars in the Instant Pot, add a few inches of warm water, and set it for YOGURT. My IP has options on the YOGURT button for “more” and “less” – I set it for “less.” I have read some sources that say the IP gets too hot, but again – my results have been just right, with that setting. If you have a yogurt maker, you can use that, or you can do the trick with the oven that the Wheatbelly blog recommends. I set mine for 36 hours on the timer (press the little + sign until the time goes up). It will be yogurt-y after about 6 or 8 hours, but it grows more of the good bacteria as it goes longer, and gets a tangier flavor that I like. Refrigerate it to let it set before you use it.

A lot of yogurt folks on the internet will show off their yogurt by standing up a spoon in it… this is really intense yogurt.

That’s it! Once it’s yogurt, you scoop it out, add whatever you like (or nothing at all) and eat it. If you’re going to mix it with something, it helps to stir it by itself some first in the bowl, and then add whatever you’re doctoring it with. I like to add C8 MCT oil to mine to get more ketones, and a tablespoon or more will easily stir into a half cup of yogurt with no major impact on flavor or texture. This stuff isn’t light – it’s about five hundred calories per cup – but it fits perfectly in a ketogenic diet, with almost all of the already minimal lactose in the cream being eaten up by the bacteria+. If you’re not doing keto, and you’re eating it for breakfast, just be aware that it’s dense!

This also makes an AWESOME cultured butter – just put the cream in a stand mixer with the usual paddle blade and let it do its thing on LOW. If you try to do it too fast, there’s a lot of splashing. Once it starts to clump, turn it all the way down, and let it run until it’s one big clump. Pour off the buttermilk (which is VERY sour, and awesome for use in recipes or to drink with some sweetening) and then wash the butter in cold water, pressing through it with a spatula until the water is clear and there’s no more buttermilk in it. Salt it if you like your butter salted.

Her Milkshake

It brings all the boys to the yard. The female Polyphemus moth that hatched out Sunday at DFW Fiber Fest was mated last night.

To ensure that I get eggs for the next generation, I make a slip-knot leash out of silk sewing thread and tie it around the base of her wings, so that it doesn’t bother her as she moves. I tie the other end to a spring clip. I hide her in a bush (in this case, a Japanese maple) and she uses a pheromone to attract nearby males. They will fly up to 5 miles to find her, based solely on scent. In a natural state, they will stay attached through the following day, and then part ways at dusk. She will start flying around laying her eggs (usually around 200) and he will fly off to find another mate. If I’m wanting to rear the eggs, I will put her into a brown paper lunch bag and fold down the top; she will lay eggs inside the bag, and I’ll collect them by tearing up the bag into little pieces with the glued-down eggs attached. I often do half-and-half — she lays half the eggs in the bag for me, and I let her go to fly around and give the other half to the woods.

Butterflies make silk too.

A thing I didn’t know until I started doing more and more research about silk: butterfly caterpillars make silk too.

Many of them don’t make much silk – it’s often just a little tuft, a few yards total – but it’s critically important to their life cycle. Most of the time, silk is used to make a small pad which attaches to a surface – anything from a twig to a leaf to a patio chair – where the caterpillar is going to pupate.  Many, like some swallowtails, also make a “lasso” which helps keep the pupa in position against its substrate.

This is the hatched-out chrysalis of a Gulf fritillary, Agraulis vanillae, from my backyard  passionflower patch. The silk pad attached it to the garden chair.

 

Marguerite’s Trim

 

 

I’ve been weaving some. It feels good. I wanted to do something with a little more “OMG” factor than the plain black and white cotton I’ve been doing the past few warps, so I went for some silk sewing thread ribbon. The pattern is on 25 tablets, plus 3 tablets of plain border on either side. The pattern is worked in double-face technique, with all the tablets threaded the same – two holes carrying the copper thread, two carrying the silver. The finished trim is just over half an inch wide, yielding an effective density of about 250 EPI (ends per inch.)

I graphed out a chart for this trim for a dress a friend of mine in the SCA made back in the early nineties. It’s based on a portrait of Marguerite de Valois by François Clouet.

Looking at the portrait, the original trim is probably either couched cord, or trim of couched tiny beads. Either way, it rendered really well into tablet weaving graph.

 

 

The silk I’m using for this is a very glossy machine embroidery thread. I like low-twist, high-sheen thread for ribbons like this; they are supple and glossy, more so than regular garment sewing threads. This is the band before a wash and a hard steam press; you can see how much the silk flattened out in the first picture.

 

A turn-of-the-seventeenth century book on sericulture, translated into English by Nicholas Geffe, refers to the”glosse wherein consisteth the chiefest bewtie of the silke.” Still photos just don’t capture it, you have to see it move. Depending on your browser, this might be a moving image.

 

Rainbow bracelet

I saw another band weaver’s bracelets on Facebook, and got intrigued with the concept. This is the first result. The original ribbon was from years ago (decades, actually!) and is Gutermann polyester button thread that I had made for an SCA Iris ribbon; I had woven off the remainder of the warp just to have. I’ve always thought it was pretty, but didn’t have any real project for it. I saw it in my stash of woven bands, and thought, “This could be some seriously crafty homo bling.”

 

This is one of those projects that had a lot of “opportunities for learning” – where you aren’t sure how to proceed, and you screw up in interesting ways, but once you’ve un-superglued your fingers from the table, you have learned a valuable lesson, and you’ll do it differently next time. The clasp is magnetic, I got them from Amazon. Also, single-use packets of SuperGlue are AWESOME; one tiny tube did the whole thing, and there was no sad half-empty tube sitting in the drawer getting crusty afterward.

 

I used a piece of the “Fuck That B.S” sampler as the backing. I figured it was apt, and it was the right width. It gives the finished project a lot more heft, and it protects the gold threads from getting sweaty and/or snagged. The thickness of the band, however, meant that there was a significant difference in diameter between the inside and the outside once it was done. What it means in practical terms, is that the piece won’t lie flat. It buckles. Which is fine – it’s not meant to be flat, it’s meant to go around a wrist, and it’s more important for it to lie smoothly on the curve. But for the next one, there will be some curved pressing involved before the stitching, and careful distribution of that diameter difference to make sure that it’s even. Also, my stitches show up a LOT more in photos, so next time I’ll stitch a little more carefully.

 

This is the ribbon I started with. I wove it some time in the late nineties.

Notes for next time: Press the ribbon round.  Stitch in the ditch between threads, even if whipping is faster. Be careful where the SuperGlue goes.

Special lighting

I got this shot of a long-tailed skipper (Urbanus proteus) a couple of weekends ago, at my friend Dale Clark’s butterfly farm. He does an open house every fall, catching the migrating monarchs as they float through his giant yard planted with nectar and host plants. I love the way the light strikes this butterfly’s head and shoulders – it’s almost as if he had a special spotlight that followed him around. I’ve known people like that – wherever they are, they appear slightly brighter than the surrounding area. I think it’s partly an innate thing, and partly an out-pouring of energy – attitude, spirit, whatever you want to call it.

I feel like I do it sometimes. I can feel it, when the light is on me – and I feel it even more when I step wrong and I’m out of it. It’s a feeling of alignment, like you’re in the right place and you’re saying the right lines and the show’s going well. It feels like I’m harmonizing, like I’m in tune.

Lately, I’ve been out of it a lot. I’m trying; I get bits of it. Occasional moments.

I’ve been dreaming a lot, and working on exploring my dreams; this always helps me connect.

 

 

 

Class for the Board

 

Last weekend, I taught a class for the DFW Fiber Fest Board. Everybody had a loom, and I loved how they looked lined up on the table!