Eating Local: Bees and dogs and honey ointment
Poor Pepper the herding dog spent the weekend in bed nursing an ugly wound. His snout is raw, red and runny. We think it started with a bee sting. A small break in the skin just above his nose spread and started bleeding as he tore at it with his paws. A great bump rose up on his nose until he looked like Bullwinkle.
Ed’s a beekeeper, so we always have bees here. At this time of year they might be in transit as hives move from summer to winter beeyards, or clinging to newly harvested supers packed with honey to extract.
Ed used to take Pepper with him when he visited the beeyards, but it didn’t take long for Pepper and the bees to discover they don’t like each other one bit. To the bees he must look just like a little bear. After one too many stings, Pepper snaps wildly at the bees or runs from them.
It’s an axiom of folk medicine that nature provides an antidote in proximity to any poison. When he saw Pepper’s flayed face, Ed immediately said, “Let’s get some honey ointment on him.”
Earlier this month we attended a regional beekeeping conference in Boulder where I learned to make honey ointment. Dr. Allen Dennison, an internist from Rhode Island, is affable, funny and a true believer in honey’s healing power. He’s used it successfully on his patients in nursing homes to treat bedsores, chronic wounds that refuse to heal and ragged tears in their paper-thin skin.
The honey ointment is a simple 50/50 mixture of raw honey and Aquaphor, a salve dermatologists routinely prescribe. Dr. Dennison says the Aquaphor is really just a good matrix to hold the honey in place so it can go to work. Honey is packed with antibacterial agents. It encourages new skin growth and even rids festering wounds of odor.
I clapped a plastic cone around Pepper’s head, and while he jerked and struggled, Ed applied the honey ointment.
Food and bugs intersect at many levels. Heck, I’ve eaten ants (hormigas) and crickets (chapulinas) in Mexico. The ants were on the menu in an upscale restaurant situated between Mexico City’s central plaza and the palace of fine arts. The crickets were a salty treat in Oaxaca, a state noted for its cuisine. Eating like a local promises unpredictable adventures.
And eating insects may be the wave of the future if we really intend to put 9 billion or even 12 billion humans on the planet. Insects are ubiquitous. They comprise 80 percent of the planet’s species and, despite their puny size, weigh more collectively than any land animal.
But I was speaking of Apis mellifera, the honeybee, praised in poetry and song through the ages for the liquid gold that is the product of her incessant industry, a pure and luxurious food prized by the privileged classes who would never think of sitting down to a dinner of creepy crawlies.
Apis mellifera, who probably injected her venom into poor Pepper’s nose, although it could have been a hornet or a yellowjacket or a wasp.
Marla Spivak’s talk on protecting pollinators was a highlight of the conference. She’s a MacArthur fellow and leading bee researcher from the University of Minnesota greatly admired by Ed. I’m sure he’d run off with her if he got the chance.
The idea that honeybees are in trouble has penetrated far and wide. Strangers ask Ed all the time how his bees are doing. They’ve heard of colony collapse disorder, when large numbers of bees mysteriously disappear, never returning to the hive. Ed has not experienced this, although he constantly battles starvation, winter losses, bee diseases and parasites.
Bees play a critical role in our food supply. One of every three bites we owe to the work of pollinators. A thousand plants we turn into food, drink and medicine depend upon their free labor. In the U.S. alone, insects are responsible for $40 billion in commerce every year.
But here’s the thing. Honeybees have a powerful ally. Beekeepers care for them, feed them, treat their diseases, negotiate with farmers over pesticides, lobby and write laws. Native pollinators — and there are many, often evolved in symbiosis with their ecosystem — lack these advantages. Honeybees’ troubles are magnified tenfold for native bees.
Marla Spivak guesses there are 20,000 species of native bees in the world, at least. The damage inflicted on these less charismatic pollinators by habitat loss, pesticides and other stressors is not well understood.
You can try this at home. Marla wants you to tear out that lawn and plant a pollinator-friendly landscape blooming with color and aroma and variety.
“Bees need really good, clean food,” she said.
Landscaping with native plants is catching on. “Who would have ever thought that people would start growing these ‘weedy’ plants in their yards?” she asked. “Now people are understanding that actually this is quite pretty, and this is really beneficial for more animals than just humans.”
Even, perhaps, cattle dogs. Pepper wears the cone of shame and buzzing insects worry him like never before. But honey heals all wounds.
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