Book Review: Attracting Native Pollinators: The Xerces Society Guide to Conserving North American Bees and Butterflies and Their Habitat

How can we save the world? Simple. Get everyone to read and understand the contents of a new book, Attracting Native Pollinators: The Xerces Society Guide to Conserving North American Bees and Butterflies and Their Habitat. Why? There’s the obvious–pollinating insects provide a huge amount of our food–but they also have a few unappreciated roles.

Without pollinators, plant communities that stabilize river banks disappear. Mammals and birds that eat pollinated fruits perish. But perhaps most importantly, by raising awareness of the needs of pollinating insects we can better appreciate the damage we cause through the use of pesticides. Do we really want to live in a toxic world? A world, like China’s Sichuan Province, so choked with poison that apple farmers have to climb ladders to hand pollinate trees?

And we’re not just talking about honeybees. Attracting Native Pollinators delves into the fascinating world of native bees, bumblebees, wasps, moths and flies, providing a detailed guide on how to tell these species apart, what their nests look like and, most importantly, practical steps that everyone from a homeowner to a golf course manager can take to improve habitat. For instance, one of the most important things we can all do is simply to provide areas of open, sunny ground for pollinating species, such as bumblebees, that nest underground.

You’ll also find instructions for building nesting blocks for native bees and subterranean boxes for bumblebees. There’s also extensive plant lists for North America including both native and common non-native garden plants such as rosemary.

In our own garden we’ve planted a lot more flowering native perennials this year. But I’m also inspired to get a conversation going about creating more habitat for pollinators in public spaces. Los Angeles is full of space that could be planted with drought tolerant, flowering plants to replace the thousands of acres of lawn (mowed weeds, really) and Home Depot hedges. Think about the habitat we could create with all those barren parkways. Who’s in to help? Let’s pollinate a revolution.

The Practical Beekeeper by Michael Bush

“There are a few rules of thumb that are useful guides. One is that when you are confronted with some problem in the apiary and you do not know what to do, then do nothing. Matters are seldom made worse by doing nothing and are often made much worse by inept intervention.”-Richard Taylor

Michael Bush, in his new book on natural beekeeping, The Practical Beekeeper Beekeeping Naturally, begins with Taylor’s quote, which could just as easily apply to gardening or many other areas of our lives. Yet doing nothing is one of the hardest things for us Homo sapiens to wrap our busy heads around. Nassim Taleb is fond of pointing out the huge number of medical mistakes that could easily have been avoided by the doctor having the courage to not intervene with some needless procedure or pharmaceutical. Up until some time in the 20th century, in fact, you were actually better off not going to see a doctor.

Michael Bush’s The Practical Beekeeper is the new bible of natural no-treatment beekeeping. Bush’s non-interventionist approach is based on the work of Dee and Ed Lusby and is at odds with conventional (beekeeping associations and academics) reliance on chemical treatments, re-queening, artificial insemination etc. Beekeeping, in my and Michael Bush’s opinion, is one of those fields, like economics, where the experts have been thoroughly discredited by recent events–our current econopocolypse and, in beekeeping, colony collapse disorder. Of CCD, Michael Bush blames chemical treatments, directed at controlling mites and other issues, which throw off the microbial balance of the beehive. Bush’s emphasis in symbiotic microbial relationships puts his work in line with soil scientist Elaine Ingham and the pro-biotic movement in human health.

The Practical Beekeeper would benefit from an index (something said of our first book) and some editing for repetition, but those minor points aside, this is a must-have book for beginning and advanced beekeepers. There’s much good, practical information and I learned a lot reading this book on a long train trip. Bush has many interesting tips and tools that you can build yourself. And it’s the few books I’ve seen that tells you how to do swarm captures and cut-outs.

Bush’s website, The Practical Beekeeper also has an encyclopedia’s worth of handy info.

Bee Hotel

From an old beekeeping book (thanks Steve!),  How to Keep Bees and Sell Honey:

This is probably the finest bee hive in the world. It was built by E. S. Williams, St. Petersburg, Florida, who spent 6 months constructing it. It holds two standard 10 frame hive bodies and a bottom board. The second story lifts off for hive manipulations. It is wired for 110 volt current, has window shades and curtains. The front plastic doors swing easily and fit snugly. There is a flag pole, also a sign, that is not pictured here. This has been displayed at the Kentucky and Florida State Fairs. It is unusual items like this that make a few fair exhibits stand out.

 Not sure the bees appreciate that electricity.

Meet the drones

Action shot! Check out those huge, beautiful eyes

I found this drone scrambling around on the ground in our yard. I don’t know why he was there. Perhaps he was all worn out from nightclubbing. Perhaps the ladies in his hive had booted him out. It’s hard to say. But I enjoyed taking a close at him, to appreciate the difference between him and his sisters, the worker bees, first hand.

Worker–Queen–Drone

Drones are longer than the workers, and a lot thicker through the body. Not so large that they’d be mistaken for bumble bees, but they’re definitely big, husky boys. The queen is longer than a drone, but much more slender–and anyway, unless you happen to catch her mating flight, you’ll never see a queen out and about. So if you spot an extra-large honey bee, it’s a drone.

The other dead giveaway for drones is their huge, shining eyes. Drones have one function only: to mate with a virgin queen. Should one come by. And should they be able to catch her. So they have to be on constant lookout, and moreover, they have to be looking up at all times, because she won’t be stretched out on a lounge chair, waiting for him to bring her a cocktail. She’ll be flying super-high up. He needs those huge eyes to spot her.

(As an aside, I don’t know why drone has become a synonym for a mindless worker (e.g. office drones). Drone should be a synonym for a highly privileged but ultimately disposable male, a male who lives off the work of others, his sole function to continue his genetic line, i.e, an aristocrat. I read a P.G. Wodehouse novel in which a gentleman’s club–in the historical, English sense of the term, not the euphemistic strip-joint sense–was named the Drone’s Club. And that was the best use of drone I’ve yet encountered.)

The last thing–and the coolest thing–you should know about drones is that they don’t have stingers. They cannot sting. Or bite. Or even wound you with a sarcastic remark. They’re lovers, not fighters. So if you’ve always wanted to pet a bee, don’t be afraid to pick one up.

Erik has been reading up on the amazing, secret life of drones lately, and I hope he’ll post about that soon. It will blow your mind.

Thirsty bees

Did you know bees need to drink water? They seek out shallow water sources like puddles and bird baths.

Even if you don’t keep bees, you can help out our little pollinator friends (and a host of other wildlife) by keeping a bird bath or even just putting a saucer of fresh water out for them. You can do this even if you don’t have a yard–try keeping a saucer of water on, say, a balcony railing or in a window box.

If you keep it full, and in the same location, word will spread and the bees will come and belly up. It may take a couple of weeks for a worker to discover the water source, but once she does, she will take that information back to her hive and they will never forget where it is.

The benefit to you is that if bees are coming to drink in your yard, they’ll do you the return favor of pollinating your garden.

Bees are not known as good swimmers, so it really helps if you put a stone or something in your bird bath–even in a saucer–so they have somewhere safe to perch while they drink. We keep this odd calcified beach-thing in our bird bath. (Don’t worry, it’s not salty anymore.) The bees really dig the way the water rises up into the nooks and crannies.  I dare say our bath is one of the most popular bee bars in town.
One of the busiest bee hang outs we’ve ever seen is a piece of modern sculpture by Aristide Maillol at the Getty Center. It’s this massive marble block thing that is skinned with a continuous flow of water. On one nice spring day we watched as hundreds of bees used it as their drinking fountain. If you ever happen to go to the Getty, check it out. It’s down in the little garden at the base of the hill where the trams come and go. Nice to see modern sculpture is good for something. ;)

Bees: Shown to the Children

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Homegrown Neighbor lent us this beautiful little book. The author is Ellison Hawks (what a name!) and dates to 1912. This book is part of a series of books for kids on various natural history topics, all titled the same way (i.e. X: Shown to the Children). I’d love to see the whole collection.

Every time I read an old children’s book, I’m struck by the sophistication of the language and themes presented, and wonder why this has been lost, and then try not to despair for civilization. Take this passage about intruders to the hive, from the chapter called Workers in the City (in the book, the hive is conceptualized as a bee city). It’s poetic and morbid and violent fascinating–all things I would have loved as a child:

Sometimes a mouse or a snail enters the hive, and then indeed there is great excitement. Imagine a great elephant-like creature, thirty or forty feet high, with a tail thirty feet long, to come walking into one of our cities, and you will have some idea what it seems like to the bees when a mouse is foolish enough to poke its head in the hive! But the bees are not frightened; the guards are promptly called out, and the poor mouse is soon put to death by hundreds of stings. Having made sure that the intruder is quite dead, the bees leave his body to the scavengers, who are confronted with the problem of disposing of it. If it were left it would cause disease and pestilence throughout the city, and it is too big and heavy for them to move. It is true that they might bite it into tiny pieces and thus carry it outside the hive, but this would take too much of the bees’ valuable time. A better plan is thought of, and the body is soon covered over with a thin coating of wax. It is thus embalmed in a beautiful white tomb, which is made perfectly air tight. If the tomb is near to the door, and interferes with the passing in and out of the workers, tunnels are cut through it. Sometimes when we look inside a hive, we may see two or three of these little mounts of was, and we may be sure that each one is the grave of some intruder who had no right to be there.

Granted, I believe foreign bodies in the hive, such as mouse corpses, are actually covered with propolis, not wax, but I’m not going to hold it against the authors. First, I’m not sure if I’m right or not, and at any rate, the idea is the same, and very well described.

There’s so much good to say about this book. It’s illustrated with early photos, line drawings, and pretty full color illustrations. In somewhat more than 100 pages it covers bee anatomy, behavior, the process of collecting nectar, hive society, beekeeping basics and even includes a chapter on “The Ancients” which addresses the apparently long-lasting ancient supposition that bees are born from the rotting bodies of oxen (?!?). I’m wondering if that was more of a symbolic conceit, because surely the ancients were no dummies and could tell the difference between blowflies and bees. But it makes for colorful reading, and again, as a child, I would have been entranced. Even if I couldn’t understand half the words.

Turns out this book is hard to find in the US because it’s an UK title. There’s only one Amazon listing, and it’s $23, and a couple more expensive at Alibris, but lots of UK listings for less. We may have to begin direct negotiations with Homegrown Neighbor for this copy.

UPDATE: A reader wrote in to tell us the whole book is available online, for free, at the Hathi Trust Digital Library. So if you want you can jump over there and page through it. I’d checked Google books, and it’s not there. I’m glad to learn of Hathi. They’ve got three other books in the series, too, btw.

A Taste of Honey – Story from the BBC

Gentle readers,

Mrs. Homegrown here. When we renamed our blog Root Simple we were making a commitment to build a better blog. We don’t have the change all mapped out yet–we’re letting it evolve organically (how else?) but one thing we’ve known for a long time, and that is that we wanted to partner with Eric Thomason and Julia Posey from Ramshackle Solid. We’ve long admired their aesthetics, the grace with which they live simply, and the way they’re raising their boys: free and bold.

Don’t worry, Ramshackle Solid fans: they will continue to document their adventures on that blog, just as always. Here at Root Simple they’re going to liven up our game, dropping by with opinions, ideas and information that you probably wouldn’t get from me and Erik, making Root Simple a more interesting place. At the same time, Erik and I will continue to blog as we always have.

So give them a big welcome! And now, on with Eric’s first post, about one of my favorite subjects, the healing power of honey:

photo credit: edibleoffice via creative commons lisc.
The other night, Wednesday Feb 9th to be exact, while suffering a bout of sleeplessness, I had the great good fortune to hear this very interesting 27 min. audio story: A Taste of Honey (BBC)
It’s a very informative news piece starting with the history of mankind’s honey consumption and cultivation, discussing small scale vs. large commercial apiaries, colony collapse and ending with new breakthrough medicinal application of honey for aliments ranging from types of cancer to drug resistant staff infections.
One type of honey in particular, manuka honey, has very effective antimicrobial properties due to an additional compound found only in some wild manuka (leptospermum scoparium) in New Zealand.
Here’s a statement from the Summer Glow Apiaries website:

In laboratory studies honey with high UMF activity (over UMF10) has been found to be effective against a wide range of bacteria including the very resistant helicobacter pylori (this bacteria causes most stomach ulcers), the wound-infecting bacteria staphylococcus aureus and escherichia coli, streptococcus pyogenes (causes sore throats).

If you don’t have the time to listen or prefer to read, much of the health benefits being explored are discussed here in this BBC print piece from 2004: Harnessing Honey’s Healing Power