A Halloween Mouth of Truth

We are lucky to live on a block with a lot of friendly, creative people. Last year on Halloween, two of our neighbors did an elaborate Mount Olympus/Hades themed candy giveaway, while another, a professional DJ, turned on all his professional lighting equipment and smoke machines in addition to a full laser light show. This year all of these attractions returned with the addition of a new contribution from Kelly: a candy dispensing Mouth of Truth.

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The original Mouth of Truth (La Bocca della Verità) is a first century fountain or manhole cover on display in the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome, Italy. A folk tradition holds that if you stick your hand in the mouth you have to tell the truth or else your hand will be bitten off. The Mouth of Truth had its fifteen minutes of fame back in 1953 when it was featured in the Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck movie Roman Holiday.

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Kelly’s Mouth of Truth remix featured a puppet tongue that alternately gave candy and tugged on kid’s hands. It was a big hit. We had huge crowds and gave up around 9 pm after serving approximately 300 delighted customers (and two completely terrified toddlers).

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Zeus put down his cardboard thunderbolt and took a break from handing out candy two doors down at Mount Olympus to visit the Mouth of Truth.

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Our friend John donned his cat suit and acted as Mouth of Truth interpreter, explaining the the concept to the many hundreds of costumed kids.

img_1842Kelly donned a witch’s hat, in spite of the fact that she was out of view the whole evening performing the arduous task of tongue puppetry for three hours. I dispensed cheese, crackers and cocktails to visiting adults in the adjoining garage.

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John suggested that, next year, we create a giant candy dispensing Zardoz head as a tribute to this nearly unwatchable “so bad it’s good” 1974 Sean Connery science fiction vehicle.

zardoz-21No, I will not to wear Sean Connery’s Zardoz costume.

Zardoz costume aside, the fun that Halloween provides really helps get to know neighbors. We need more festivals in our lives like this, where we take a break from day to day concerns and work together, on the neighborhood level, to create space for joy and unity.

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Saturday Tweets: Squirrels, Swingers, Singers

Peter and the Farm

We haven’t seen this very “red in tooth and claw” documentary yet but, ladies and gentleman, this is how you do a trailer! From the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s synopsis of Peter and the Farm,

Peter Dunning is a rugged individualist in the extreme, a hard-drinking loner and former artist who has burned bridges with his wives and children and whose only company, even on harsh winter nights, are the sheep, cows, and pigs he tends on his Vermont farm. Peter is also one of the most complicated, sympathetic documentary subjects to come along in some time, a product of the 1960s counterculture whose poetic idealism has since soured. For all his candor, he slips into drunken self-destructive habits, cursing the splendors of a pastoral landscape that he has spent decades nurturing. Imbued with an aching tenderness, Tony Stone’s documentary is both haunting and heartbreaking, a mosaic of its singular subject’s transitory memories and reflections—however funny, tragic, or angry they may be.

Peter and the Farm will be in theaters and available on demand through Amazon Video and iTunes starting November 4th. More info here.

094 The American Woman’s Home

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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.