094 The American Woman’s Home

Listen to “094 The American Woman’s Home” on Spreaker.

On the podcast this week Kelly and I discuss a 19th century urban homesteading book written by Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, The American Woman’s Home. The book was written mostly by Catherine, with some contributions from Harriet (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin). It’s likely that Catherine realized that attaching her famous sister’s name would sell more copies. Published in 1869, The American Woman’s Home covers a great deal of territory, everything from indoor air quality to houseplants, to childcare to housing the homeless. The book is in line with her family’s activism on issues such as women’s education, temperance and the abolition of slavery. We discuss many of Catherine’s specific recommendations including: butter, bread, terrariums, indoor plants, earth closets and art (she suggests everyone own a print of Eastman Johnson’s “Barefoot Boy” and Bierstadt’s “Sunset in the Yosemite Valley“).

You can read the full text of An American Woman’s Home online here.

If you’d like to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

Varroa Mites: No-Treatment is the Best Treatment

Drone pupae with varroa mites. Image: Wikipedia.

Drone pupae with varroa mites. Image: Wikipedia.

The narrative in the mainstream press about beekeeping tends to be about brave and environmentally conscious beekeepers fighting the scourge of big ag’s pesticides. But the truth is far messier. Step into the world of beekeeping and what you’ll find is a swarm of acrimonious finger pointing and a heavy reliance, by conventional beekeepers, on pesticides. Why would beekeepers use pesticides? Varroa mites.

The varroa mite is a tiny blood sucking parasite that hops on individual bees and infests whole colonies. Originally from Java, varroa first appeared in the United States in 1987. By far the number one topic at any conventional beekeeping conference is the varroa mite. My beekeeping mentor Kirk Anderson likes to quip that the singular obsession with varroa is “like going to dog show where everyone only talks about fleas.”

One of the controversial aspects of what’s come to be called “backwards” (named after an essay by Charles Martin Simon and taught by Anderson) beekeeping has been two practices: keeping feral bees for their believed varroa resistance and not treating bees in order to favor stronger colonies.

Let’s first define what a “feral” bee is. Honey bees are not native to the Americas. They were, most likely, brought here by the Spanish. Since that introduction, some honey bees escaped tended apiaries and took up residence in forests and cities where they have lived, happily, for centuries without much human intervention. To clarify, when I say “feral” bees I mean untended honey bees (Apis mellifera) not any of the 4,000 species of native bees in North America such as carpenter bees and bumblebees.

Most conventional beekeepers buy or breed their own colonies and queens. Backwards beekeepers collect swarms and remove and relocate feral colonies. When it comes to varroa mite these feral colonies have gone through a process of natural selection. When varroa arrived in the Americas, no doubt, many feral colonies died out. But the ones that had natural resistance survived. Over time feral colonies have developed hygiene practices that greatly reduce the varroa problem. They still have varroa, but they don’t succumb to it.

Most controversially, natural, backwards beekeepers such as myself do not treat our bees for mites, believing that such treatment interferes with the microbiome of the colony and leads to bees that lack natural resistance to varroa. No-treatment beekeepers don’t even use so-called “natural” treatments such as dusting with powdered sugar or essential oils.

A technological solution to varroa?
A recent article in Wired Magazine profiled Jerry Hayes, A Swarm of Controversy In Their Struggle for Survival Against Killer Mites, Bees Get an Unlikely Ally: Monsanto. Hayes was a state beekeeping inspector in Florida and an advice columnist in the American Bee Journal before taking a job with Monsanto. The article looks at Hayes’s work at Monsanto which uses RNA interference (RNAi) to target varroa. It’s easy to see why Hayes would be interested in RNAi technology. It has the potential to knock out varroa mite without the many problems of current miticides. Critics of RNAi, however, bring up the issue of risk management: the unintended consequences of using a novel technology such as RNAi. If something did go wrong it could go very wrong, what some scientists refer to as an “oops” moment.

The ideas in the article, like much science reporting in the mainstream press, suffer, in my opinion from what Nassim Taleb calls the “technological salvation fallacy,” the idea that solutions are always technological. It’s an approach that Taleb criticizes as “blind to risk.” It goes hand in hand with an 18th century Enlightenment narrative of continuous improvement that, I believe, is proving incredibly dangerous (see climate change, nuclear weapons, industrialized genocide etc.). To step out of this Hegelian view of history is, in our contemporary culture, to be a crank a description I’ve come to embrace.

My cranky advice for beekeepers
A prescient 1998 paper in the Journal California Agriculture predicted,

It is unlikely that European bees will evolve resistance [to varroa] because commercial beekeepers must treat their colonies with miticides to stay in business. Varroa eliminate feral European colonies that are then replaced either with AHB [Africanized honeybees] or with European colonies derived from nonresistant commercial colonies. In the end, AHB will spread to their ecological limits, wherever they may be.

The future predicted in that article has arrived. I have heard, from three sources in the natural beekeeping community, that conventional beekeepers are secretly buying feral AHB colonies and queens. The reason is simple. AHB colonies live with and don’t succumb to varroa because they were never treated for the problem.

My experience is limited to Southern California and I’ve only kept (well mannered) AHBs. But the no-treatment approach is not limited to AHB. Here’s what Michael Bush has to say about no-treatment beekeeping in an article on his website, Four simple steps to healthier bees,

What is the upside of not treating? You don’t have to buy the treatments. You don’t have to drive to the yard and put the treatments in and drive to the yard to take them out. You don’t have to contaminate your wax. You don’t upset the natural balance by killing off micro and macro organisms that you weren’t targeting but who are killed by the treatments anyway. That would seem like upside enough, but you also give the ecosystem of the bee hive a chance to find some natural balance again.

But the most obvious up side is that until you quit treating you can’t breed for survival against whatever your issues are. As long as you treat you prop up weak genetics and you can’t tell what weaknesses they have. As long as you treat you keep breeding weak bees and super mites. The sooner you stop, the sooner you start breeding mites adapted to their host and bees who can survive with them.

The treatment vs. no-treatment issue is so tribal in nature that, perhaps, we will have to wait for the pro-treatment technological salvationists to depart, along with Elon Musk, for those Martian colonies (good luck with that one guys) and leave us treatment-free beekeepers in peace on good old planet Earth.

Saturday Tweets: Scary Gelatins and Flesh Eating Screwworms

Pet Peeve: Martini Glass Size Inflation

cocktailbigIn my perfect world Root Simple has a downtown office in one of LA’s iconic 1920’s era office buildings. Every day at noon we’d break for a three martini lunch. But how are we going to bring back this boozy tradition without losing afternoon productivity? The answer is simple: we’re going to reduce the size of the glass.

In yet another example of the supersizing of America, the average martini glass size has gone from 3 ounces, back in the early 20th century, to a stupendous 12 ounces or more. In other words, the three martini lunch of yesterday has less alcohol than you would consume with just one martini today.

I thought I might be the lone voice in the wilderness on this issue, thinking that the masses have flocked to martinis the size of hot tubs. But the kids at the Kitchn beat me to it, noting that small 3 to 4 ounce martini glasses have the added advantage of being less top heavy and keeping drinks cooler. They also provide some specific recommendations. I especially like this classic 4.6 ounce glass. For a more thrifty option you can do as I did and scour thrift stores.

So my brothers and sisters, let’s unite and un-supersize our martinis! The fate of civilization is in our hands.


Learn to Bake Your Own Bread! Fall Classes With Dana Morgan and Linda Preuss


Tired of crappy supermarket bread? Don’t like paying $10 for a loaf of decent bread? How about learning to bake your own bread? I can’t think of any better teachers than my friends Dana Morgan and Linda Preuss. They have three classes coming up:

October 22
Tartine-Style Sourdough—30% Whole Grain

November 12
100% Whole Grain Breads—Blending Varietal Grains

December 10
Baking with Spelt—100% Spelt Breads

If that’s not enough incentive, each class breaks for a pizza lunch baked in the Westchester Community Oven at Holy Nativity Episcopal Church.

Sign up for the classes through the Los Angeles Bread Baker’s Meetup. The classes take place at 10:45-3:00pm with a break for the pizza lunch at 12:00pm.

Cost: $65.00/class. Free banneton for shaping bread ($15 value) if you sign up for 2 of the classes. Class size is limited to 14 bakers so sign up soon!