Free Online Chicken Behavior Course

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Thank you to reader James for this tip:

Coursera is offering a 5 week online course on chicken behavior, taught by the staff of Scotland’s Rural College.

For those of you who haven’t heard about Coursera, it’s an online platform offering free courses in a wide variety of subjects, taught by professors from genuine big name universities, via video. The classes may or may not also include homework and discussion groups, but these are optional, and required only for those who wish to receive a certificate of course completion (which is not the same as credit from the host university.)

The chicken class has already started, but don’t worry, you can jump in and catch up. I’m not 100% sure, but I believe you can look at the class video any time, but you may not be able to access the teachers via the forums after the official course run is finished. This one is in its first week still. We’ll be watching!

041 Sounds of the Homestead

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Kelly and Erik discuss some of the unusual sounds heard around the Root Simple compound: chickens, cats, bees and, yes, Kaiser Permanente’s music on hold.

If you want 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. Additional music by Rho. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

040 Natural Beekeeper Kirk Anderson

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Our guest on the podcast is the one and only Kirk Anderson, a natural, no-treatment beekeeper and our mentor. Kirk tells a lot of funny stories and shares his wisdom on how to keep bees in a big city. During the podcast we discuss:

If you want 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. Additional music by Rho. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

Why We Have No Vegetables: Raccoon Gangs

This week, our Crittercam revealed yet more nocturnal raccoon antics in our vegetable beds. Not only are the raccoons digging for grubs, but they are also using the vegetable beds and bird netting as a sort of trampoline/wrestling ring. Apologies for the haphazardly applied banjo music.

The Crittercam may have revealed an emergent phenomena: raccoons in urban locations discovering the benefits of social behavior.

My Apologies to the Skunk Community

For years I’ve blamed the nightly vegetable carnage that takes place in our raised beds on skunks. The other night, our CritterCam (a Wingscapes BirdCam Pro), revealed the culprit: raccoons. And they work in pairs trios!

No wonder it’s been so difficult to secure the beds! Given the strength and agility of Racoons, I’m surprised that bird netting has worked at all (though, I’ll note, only when that netting is firmly secured with many staples). Perhaps it’s time to consider escalating to metal wire.

The “citizen science” lesson this week: raccoon and skunk diets overlap considerably. Both are highly adaptable urban foragers. In the case of our raised beds, both the skunks and raccoons are digging for figeater beetle larvae (Cotinis mutabilis). These huge larvae must be a delectable treat, the equivalent of a raccoon and skunk sushi party. Maybe I should overcome my squeamishness and join in the nightly feast. A plate of Cotinis mutabilis larvae ceviche could just be the next hip LA food trend . . .

Getting Those Bees Back to the Garden

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Johnny, of the superb blog Granola Shotgun sent me these photos he shot near Bakersfield, California. They show some of the millions of hives that are trucked into the Central Valley at this time of year to pollinate almonds.

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Somehow the press never questions the practices of these industrial beekeepers and the role these practices play in the overall health of bees. This is not even to mention the profligate use of water to grow almonds.

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Johnny said that these beehives reminded him of Stalinist apartment blocks he photographed on a recent trip to the Ukraine.

I don’t intend this to be an editorial against the Langstroth hive (I think you can use a Langstroth responsibly but certainly not in the concentrations seen in these pictures). Rather, it’s interesting to see how a reductionist approach to bees and people leads to similar outcomes.

Landscaping Lightly 2015 Calendar

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I think we can pretty much close down this blog now that the Council for Watershed Health has summarized all or our creeds in their 2015 downloadable calendar (pdf). The calendar offers “tips and techniques for sustainable landscaping” and sharp graphic design by artist Edward Lum. Each month you get a new exhortation: everything from installing a greywater system, to welcoming pollinators to, gasp, using a broom instead of a leaf blower. The last two pages are a handy list of California-centric resources.

If we all worked to implement the simple steps in this calendar we’d pretty much be living in Eden.

The Flow Hive: a Solution in Search of a Problem

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This week so many people have forwarded me links to this Indigogo pitch for a new kind of beehive called the Flow™ that I feel I’ve got to respond and let you all know what I think of the idea.

On the slim chance you haven’t been forwarded the pitch yet, the Flow™ Hive is a honey super that you can extract honey from without having to open the hive and remove frames. It’s like a cross between a beehive and a beer tap.  My problem with this design is mostly symbolic.

Conceptually, the idea that a beehive is like a beer keg you can tap is troublesome. A beehive is a living thing, not a machine for our exploitation. I’m a natural beekeeper and feel that honey harvests must be done with caution and respect. To us, beekeeping is, at the risk of sounding a little melodramatic– a sacred vocation. We are in relationship with our backyard hive, and feel our role is to support them, and to very occasionally accept the gift of excess honey. For new beekeepers, and for people who are not beekeepers, beekeeping is all about the honey. “How much honey do you get from your hives? ” is the first question people ask us. But in our minds, the honey matters very little. What we get we consider precious, and use for medicine more than sweetening.

So that’s where we come from, and if you understand that, you’ll understand why we look askance at this “bee keg.” It reinforces our culture’s unfortunate dualistic view of nature that says all of creation is ours for our exploitation–our convenient exploitation.

On a more practical level, it seems to me that the ease of the tapping could lead inexperienced beekeepers to over-tap the hive.

Now, the inventors say this system is less stressful to the hive, because you don’t have to remove the frames for harvest, or even to check to see if the frames are ready for harvest.  And this is true. It is a novel system, where the plastic comb is built so that frame splits open and lets the honey drain out secretly, as it were, so while the bees are not disturbed by the lifting of frames, they periodically discover that all their work has just vanished into thin air.

This novel plastic foundation is key to this system. Under it, the bees do no building of their own. They are set to live in a tower of prefabricated plastic cells. As a natural beekeeper I  don’t use foundation at all, as bees are by nature builders, and I believe they build the best homes for themselves. I would not presume to define the scope and size of their home.

Another concern for me is honey robbing.  Pictures on the Flow™ Hive site also show honey dripping from the hive into open jars. In our region, this would set off a robbing frenzy as other hives in the area discover free, open air honey. When robbing gets going the bees in the hive get very defensive and stinging of people and animals nearby can result. Other photos on the site show the harvest tubes connected to lidded jars, which would be a lot safer. But I don’t think lidded harvest systems are included in the price of the set up.

Speaking of the price: It’s $460 for just the contraption or $600 for a brood box and the Flow™ Hive. I can buy two unassembled Lanstroth boxes with frames for around $40. A top and bottom board ads a few bucks. Some folks build top bar hives entirely from free scrap lumber.

All in all, to me this invention seems like a solution in search of a problem. It’s not difficult to peek in the top of the hive, take out a few honey frames and replace them with empty frames. It’s true that you have to take precautions: honey harvests should be done swiftly, deliberately and gracefully. But that’s not hard if you just make sure you’ve got everything ready before you open the hive.

As of this morning the inventors have raised an astonishing $1.2 million USD on a $70,000 campaign. I can’t help but think that the money would be better spent on researching natural beekeeping methods.

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036 The Cat Doctor

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Our guest this week is veterinarian Dr. Tracy McFarland DMV, founder of the Cat Doctor and Friends–a cat-only veterinary practice in Santa Clarita, CA. Dr. Tracy is our veterinarian, even though Santa Clarita is a bit of a haul from Los Angeles. We commute to see her, because she’s that good. And we are thrilled to have her with us this week to talk about cat health and cat behavior.  During the show we discuss:

  • The importance of checkups
  • What makes cats unique from a biological perspective
  • Cat dental care
  • Vaccinations
  • Rabies
  • Feline panleukopenia virus
  • The outdoor vs. indoor cat debate
  • Ohio State University advice on environmental enrichment for indoor cats (pdf)
  • DIY cat toys
  • A toy to be careful about
  • Strange things Dr. Tracy has removed from cat’s stomachs
  • Plants that are toxic to cats
  • What should you feed your cats
  • The raw food debate
  • Natural veterinary food and homemade pet food resource: balanceit.com
  • AAFCO feeding trial
  • How to tell if your cat is fat
  • Meal feeding cats
  • How to know how much to feed a cat
  • Dry vs. wet food
  • Flea control
  • Heartworm
  • Listener questions: weepy eyes,
  • L-Lysine
  • Cat social hierarchy
  • Zylkene

If you want 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. Additional music by Rho. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.