Saturday, March 30, 2013

More than you probably want to know about beekeeping

In case you were wondering about the honey and beeswax in our soap and lip balm: they are what started Soapzilla. My first year as a beekeeper, my single hive yielded 100 pounds of honey, which is a LOT. There was a lot of wax, too, but I personally don't find it exciting to pour wax candles, so I looked into how else I might be able to use up all that beeswax. The internet informed me that I could make soap with it, which seemed appealingly Little-House-on-the-Prairie, so I tried it, and loved it. And the more I made, the more my friends wanted it, and they told their friends, who told their friends, and voila! Soapmaking business, just from a fun hobby.

But the beekeeping is still a huge part of it. I'm very proud of my bees, and I raise them using IPM, or integrated pest management, which is a practical philosophy of beekeeping. It boils down to the fact that I never use any chemicals, ever- not to poison hive beetles or mites, not to medicate the bees- and instead manage them year-round in ways that reduce their susceptibility to pests and diseases. The result is that the wax and honey I harvest from my bees to use in soap is as pristine as it's possible to be. Of course, bees are foragers and will travel up to two miles for a good nectar source, so they can come into contact with any chemicals used in my general area. But I'm very lucky, because my yard is full of good nectar sources and even a creek, so it limits how far my bees need to go to get what they need and reduces the risk that they'll come into contact with anything unpleasant.

I never used to think about the ingredients in my soap, because somehow it seemed more important to consider the ingredients in food. But in my time beekeeping, I've used honey for so many things- on scrapes and cuts, as an allergy remedy, etc.- and found it to be so effective, that it was hard not to think about how great an ingredient it is in pretty much anything. Raw, chemical-free honey and beeswax is so good for you, and so different from processed honey, that it's a no-brainer to put it in soap if you want to make something that'll make your skin happy. To understand it in terms of food ingredients, the chemical-free aspect is like the difference between free-range chicken and the poor chickens who live in boxes and get pumped full of medications, and the raw part is like the difference between ice cream and probiotic yogurt (that last example sounds less than delicious, maybe, but you get what I mean. Live ingredients are everything.)

Anyway, most of this rambling is a result of my happiness over catching a swarm this week. It's always great to have a  new addition to the bee yard, and rescuing a swarm means that the bees get a good home and proper management, instead of finding themselves a cranny in the wall of someone's house, unable to build a proper hive. And more bees here at Soapzilla just mean that we have more honey and beeswax to use in our soap and lip balm!

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Jewelweed and Poison Ivy

Even though this will make me sound like my little brother, circa 1990: wanna see something gross?

Wait, wait! Don't be so quick to click. Sheesh. Let me explain.

A long, long time ago, when I was first learning to garden by taming the yard of the house I had purchased at the ripe old age of 22, knowing nothing whatsoever about plants of any kind (I'm still the only person I know who managed to kill a pet cactus), I discovered poison ivy. That is, I discovered the particular indignities related to it: an itch so bad I woke up already scratching my arms, an entire abdomen covered with cracked and oozing scabs, the way a steroid shot in the butt hurts a little when actually administered but becomes increasingly painful all day... the list goes on. I am so sensitive to poison ivy that the rash stays for more than a month, and sometimes leaves scars. I once went to a wedding and at the reception, when I mentioned how embarrassing it was to have to go to a social event while I had poison ivy on my face, a friend said, "Oh, we just thought you had the herp."

Wanted. to. die.

So obviously, when I heard about jewelweed, I was extremely interested. A natural remedy for poison ivy? No way. So I made myself some soap using oil that I had infused with dried jewelweed, and some of the actual dried plant that I had ground up. The next time I thought I had come into contact with poison ivy, I used the soap, and didn't get a rash. I figured I must not have had poison ivy at all. The next time I had poison ivy for sure, I used it again- and I got better surprisingly quickly. The most recent time that I had poison ivy (if you're wondering why I keep on getting poison ivy, it's partially because my yard is enormous and jungly, and partially because I won't listen to my husband and wear gloves. He gets to say, "I told you so," a lot) I did a little experiment. I used jewelweed soap on my face and neck, and made sure NOT to use it on my arm. Three weeks later, when I caved and went to the urgent care (which is especially embarrassing because the urgent care doctor is not only hot but is also a good friend of my boss'), the rash on my face and neck was healed to the point that he couldn't even see it, while my arm was so bad that I got not only a steroid shot in the butt, but oral steroids and antihistamines too.

So while I cannot make any health claims about my soap (it's a real labeling rule, believe it or not), jewelweed has been an herbal remedy for years, and though it may work differently on different people, I have proved to my own satisfaction that it works. Like magic. I've also been told that it works on other rashes and itchy-skin conditions, although I haven't tested for that, thankfully not having had occasion. You can read more about the plant and its history here:

All that being said, here is where the grossness comes in. I took a picture of myself after my doctor's visit, with both affected areas. The first photo is the untreated rash (try to ignore the foreshortening that makes me look like I have burly dude arms), and the second is the one I used the jewelweed soap on- you can just barely see where the rash was; it made a sort of horizontal line just under my chin and running up toward the back of my neck.


Keep in mind that this is the very same case of poison ivy, from a single day; before the rash developed fully, you could actually see the lines where the poison ivy stem had touched me running across my arm and up my neck. And yes, just the stem... this was in January. The oil is even more potent in the stem and roots, which is all that's there in the winter. It's a sneaky plant.

Anyway, if you should get some soap to use for yourself, here are instructions:

If you believe you've come into contact with poison ivy, wash the affected area right away with jewelweed soap and COLD water. Hot water opens up your pores and lets the oil affect you more strongly. Speaking of which, strip down and wash everything you've touched- the active part of poison ivy is an oil, and it can cover more territory than you would believe. A lot of people think that their rash is just spreading naturally, but really they're just coming into contact with the oil repeatedly, because they got it on their gloves or shoes or clothes or sheets or, heck, their dog. The rash itself, once you've washed the oil off, is not contagious and doesn't spread. It does develop gradually, though, and if you scratch it, can get infected, which also makes people think it's spreading.

If you wash immediately and thoroughly, you may never develop a rash at all (best-case scenario). If your rash is already developed, I've found that washing it a couple of times in a row, or lathering it up and letting it sit for a minute before rinsing, will make the rash scab over and heal far more quickly, and also scar less. If you've scratched enough that the rash is raw, it'll sting a little, but it's very effective. Repeat twice daily for the best results, and try hard not to scratch.