An update on Phoebe


A whole lot of animal lovers read Root Simple, and so we get a lot of inquires about how our special cat, Phoebe, is doing. Because we know so many people care–and at risk of making this a maudlin sick pet blog–we wanted to let you know she’s in the hospital tonight (Monday night) and will probably be there most of tomorrow. She started having trouble breathing today, and needs to spend some time in a box full of oxygen, while her genius veterinarian, Dr. Zimmerman, does some tests and re-jiggers her treatment program.

Phoebe is in heart failure–and has been for almost two years now. That’s a really good run for a cat born with a ridiculous handbag for a heart. We can’t hope for too much more. It is possible that her heart simply can’t function well enough any more to sustain her, but we’re hoping that an adjustment of her meds will buy her a few more good months, and we’ll be able to bring her home tomorrow night. We won’t know until tomorrow.

It’s hard to leave a pet behind in a vet’s office, even such a good vet. Poor Phoebe will be sleeping in big plexiglass box with oxygen inputs and hand-holes, like The Boy in the Plastic Bubble. But she was looking mightily pissed off instead of sickly by the time we left, which means she felt much more herself. And at least we know she won’t be suffering tonight, fighting for air.

Now we are home with our other two cats, Trout and Buck, collectively known as the boys. Compared to them, Phoebe is a silent shadow, the most invisible of cats. Yet tonight, the house seems quiet and empty, even though the boys are galloping around in circles like idiots, yowling, like they always do this time of night. Without us realizing it, Phoebe quietly filled up a big space in our house. It’s the same in our hearts.

The Africanized Bee Myth

Beekeeping is on the way to being legalized in Los Angeles. But there’s one issue that keeps coming up: Africanized bees.

African honeybees (Apis mellifera scutellata) were introduced to the Americas in Brazil in 1957. Over the years, on their journey north, they have hybridized with European honeybees (Apis mellifera). African and hybrid “Africanized” honeybees can’t tolerate cold temperatures so there is a northern boundary to their territory.

Visually, Africanized honeybees are indistinguishable from purebred European varieties. The only way you can tell the difference is through DNA testing. They are just a hybridized subspecies of honeybee.

The hysteria over African honeybees is just that, hysteria. I have helped move many hives here from walls, trees and kitchen vents to people who have wanted to have bees. Most likely, all of the hives I have moved have been Africanized. I have yet to encounter a feral hive that I would consider aggressive. Africanized bees should not be used as an excuse to ban beekeeping in Los Angeles or anywhere else that has Africanized bee populations.

The people fanning the Africanized bee hysteria all have agendas (and, I’ll point out, they have never actually worked with Africanized bees–only killed them). Exterminators want your money. Government bureaucrats need an enemy to justify their jobs and pensions (government vector control “experts” the TSA, NSA and DEA have a lot in common including a bumbling incompetence). Conventional beekeepers are so blinded by honey production and pollination service income that they fail to see the long term evolutionary advantages of African bee genetics, specifically disease resistance. And I can’t help but think there’s a subconscious racism here of the sort that you find at the extreme end of the anti-invasive species movement (see Gert Gröning and Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn for more on that subject).

Africanized colonies have been living for years in walls, trees and utility boxes of the warmer parts of North America without any human intervention. They have, through the process of natural selection, survived all the problems that have decimated the hives of commercial beekeepers: varroa mite, American Foul Brood, nosema, etc. and I have no doubt they will figure out how to deal with the small hive beetle. Instead of demonizing Africanized colonies, we should see a possible answer to colony collapse disorder. As permaculturalists like to say, in the problem is a solution.

Are We Keeping Too Many Bees?

Someday I’ll get around to writing a fill in the blanks form for journalists doing the inevitable urban homesteading backlash story. You know, “Folks are tired of all the chores and are dumping their [chickens/vegetables/bees] and returning to a life of [shopping/golfing/riding jet skis].” This month’s backlash story concerns urban beekeeping in London.

Reader Cassandra Silver (who has a really beautiful blog) alerted us to a bee story in the Independent, “How do-gooders threaten humble bee.” The gist of the article is that urban beekeepers in London have more hives than the nectar and pollen sources can support:

The London Beekeepers Association (LBKA) is warning that there could be “too many bees” in the Greater London area for the environment to sustain. One beehive needs 120kg of nectar and 20kg to 30kg of pollen a year to sustain its bees; honey production will decrease if there are not enough pollinator-friendly plants to meet demand.

I’m confused about the article and the quotes from the BLKA. Is the concern about the bees or about having less honey? Focusing on honey can indeed lead to bee overpopulation. Bee populations self-regulate. If there are not enough food sources colonies will die off.

That is, unless people are feeding bee colonies sugar to prop them up (and I assume they are because feeding bees is one of the many misguided bits of advice that mainstream beekeeping organizations promulgate). Natural beekeeper Michael Bush has many good reasons for not feeding bees except under certain limited circumstances. One of the unintended consequence of feeding bees is that you could easily contribute to an overpopulation problem. It would be better to let populations decline and stabilize, in my opinion.

One good thing that might come out of London’s alleged bee overpopulation problem, that the article points out, is that the situation might prompt people to plant more flowering plants. Public and private urban spaces all over the world would benefit from landscaping that takes pollinators into account. Such landscapes tend to be beautiful, nourishing both to the bees and the human soul.

On Monday, the African bee myth.

Shock the Worm


From the November 1932 issue of Modern Mechanix, an idea from an era when people were a lot more cavalier about electricity. Personally, I prefer the safer worm grunting method. Via Modern Mechanix.

Update: Reader Don pointed out the similarity of this idea to the plot of a 1970s horror movie in which a downed power line causes a upward migration of killer worms. Here’s the trailer:

The Smell of Bees


Image: Wikimedia.

A friend called me over to her house today after her gardeners complained about a beehive. We both marched around her yard peering at the eaves of her house. All we found were a handful of wasps.

Then I smelled it–that distinctive, slightly sweet but hard to describe smell that beehives put off. I looked up through a bougainvillea bush and found the hive–living in a garage wall next door to my friend’s house.

If you know what this smell is, please leave a comment as I’ve been unable to find a good answer. I’m guessing that it’s a mixture of many smells: fermenting honey, pollen, wax, propolis, pheromones, etc. And I’m sure that the bees can parse out these smells as easily as we skip around the internet. Micheal Thiele describes beehives as, “a giant nose.”

To us this hive smell is a complex mixture of smell notes, like a good bottle of wine. I have a feeling that to the bees it’s their internet: a complex network of information.

Book Review: The Urban Bestiary


Humans in our culture operate under a rather crazed delusion that we are not a part of nature. We fight nature. We defend nature. We pack up our tents and visit nature. I am as susceptible to this delusion as anyone else, but I do try to remember that I am a creature of nature, living in a vast human habitat which exists as part of a web with the entire ecosystem. Remembering that I am not apart from nature sometimes requires a little mental judo–and some well chosen bedside reading.

Thus my recent reading has included books like Being Animal and What the Robin Knows (reviewed here) and most recently The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild by Lyanda Lynn Haupt, author of the excellent Crow PlanetThe Urban Bestiary is an exploration of the intimate intersection of humans and other urban animals, such as coyotes and raccoons and opossums and squirrels.

In The Urban Bestiary, Haupt introduces us to our close neighbors, the animals which share our land, and sometimes even our homes. She gives us a naturalist’s overview of their behaviors, physiology and life cycles, interspersed with personal anecdotes and interviews with wildlife experts. The resulting animal portraits are as fresh and delicately drawn as watercolors.

The chapters cover:

Coyote • Mole • Raccoon • Opossum • Squirrel (and Rat) • Black Bear • Cougar • Birds  • Starling, House Sparrow, Pigeon • Chickadee • Crow • Hawk and Owl • Chicken • Tree • Human

The truth is we think we know all we need to know about these animals–these pests which overturn our garbage cans, scare off the native birds, eat our cats or scare the bejeezus out of us on the porch late at night–but we don’t, not really. We see what we want to see and understand very little.

This book goes a long way toward filling in that knowledge gap. And with knowledge comes understanding–and maybe even peace. With some understanding, we can appreciate  for the bits of wildness our animal neighbors bring into our lives. Haupt is not saying we should romanticize them–and am I- but rather that we can see them with a naturalist’s eye, enjoy encounters for what they teach us, and using our knowledge of an animal’s behavior, mitigate the conflicts that arise when our needs clash with theirs.

If there is anything controversial to be found in such a lovely book, it will be in this idea, which runs like a thread through the chapters. Haupt shows how common “solutions” to our backyard clashes are short sighted, and don’t even work, and offers alternate suggestions and strategies.

You see, if we kill or relocate an animal from our yard, a new one will simply move in to fill that niche. It’s a losing game. (And trapping and relocating is no kindness at all, believe you me.) Unless we plan to embark on a mass eradication program on a bison-like scale, the solutions lie with us, and our own behavior and attitudes.

Most of this is commonsensical, and not scientifically controversial. It is basically the practice of IPM (integrated pest management).  We can bring in our cats and small dogs at night. We can seal up our attics and basements. We can stop leaving pet food and garbage outdoors. We can build sturdy chicken coops. Name your pest, and there’s something we can change about our environment to make it less attractive to them. As they say, the best offense is a good defense. Beyond that, we can accept occasional messes, losses or frights as part of what it means for us to be alive, to be animals interacting with other animals in the world.

I’m writing this with a particular passion right now, because recently someone in our neighborhood (not our near neighbors, but our general area) hired a company to set snares for coyotes, and a video of a coyote thus strangled surfaced on a local news blog. I don’t doubt that those neighbors were driven by fear, or grief, to hire this trapper, but the death was so cruel and ultimately so pointless and stupid, given the number of coyotes in the area, and the incontrovertible forces which are driving them here, it made me very sad.

To be clear, The Urban Bestiary is not an no-kill polemic. I’ve perhaps put too much emphasis on the aspects of the book which focus on management and co-existence. The great majority of the book is about the animals themselves. Imagine you had a friend who was a naturalist who could explain the mysteries of the familiar yet unfamiliar wildlife which flit and shuffle through your backyard over a nice cup of coffee.  Someone who could offer you an introduction to their world, and a chance to see your own world in a new light. This would be that book.

Radical Apiculturalist Michael Thiele

Micheal Thiele approaches a hive.

Micheal Thiele approaches a hive.

Could the huge loss of bees in recent years be because we treat them, like so may other farm animals, as cogs in a big industrial ag machine?  This is just one of the questions posed by apiculturalist (he rejects the term “beekeeper” – more on that below) Michael Thiele at a workshop Kelly and I attended which was sponsored by Honey Love.

The language of bees
Thiele began his lecture with a critique of the language we use for bees–first off the term “beekeeper.” “Keeping” bees suggests the constant interference bees get in our industrial system: being dosed with insecticides to treat mites, moving them thousands of miles a year, feeding them high fructose corn syrup, artificially breeding queens, etc. Thiele proposed the term “apiculture” as a word that suggests living with bees rather than keeping them. Feral honeybees as well as the bees of natural apiculturalists, after all, keep themselves and seem to be doing better without all the intervention.

The same goes for the word “worker.” Thiele suggested that when we use this kind of 19th century industrial language we’re thinking more of our own desires than the true nature and health of the bees.

The bien
Thiele wants us to think of a hive holistically, as a superorganism he calls (as did Rudolf Steiner) the bien. As Thiele puts it, the bien is “one being . . . permeated with life based on love.” In Thiele’s inclusive view the bien is much more than just a few thousand individual bees. The bien also includes all the symbiotic and parasitic relationships bees have with microorganisms, flowers, honey, gravity–even wax moth larvae and mites. When we take a whole systems approach, Thiele suggests, we’re more likely to admit our ignorance and approach the hive with humility. Thiele’s description of the bien reminded me of Martin Buber’s  I-Thou as opposed to I-It relationship, i.e. subject to subject rather than subject to object. In fact, several hundreds of years of materialism in the west has, sadly, degenerated most of our relationships into I-it relationships (think separateness and detachment).

Due to the sheer complexity of the a hive, Thiele suggests our relationship with the bien should rely, for the most part, on intuition. When we deal with other humans–or a dog or a horse–we have a face to look at. With bees there is no face. Bees also have an otherness about them that makes a connection with them a very different experience than dealing with our fellow mammals. Unfortunately, the intuitive senses we need to relate to a bien that lacks a recognizable face have atrophied in our culture, another victim of I-it.

At the end of the workshop, when we visited some hives in a backyard in Santa Monica, we had a chance to see Thiele demonstrate his intuitive approach to bees. He approached the bees, without a veil, with a quiet reverence. Kneeling, he placed a hand on top of one of the boxes. A guard bee came out to fly around his face. Thiele told us what to do when this happens: relax and try to connect with the bien. After buzzing around for a minute or so, the guard bee left.

I’ve had three encounters with guard bees since I’ve seen Thiele demonstrate this. Two times I followed Thiele’s advice and the guard bee flew off. Once I did the opposite, freaked out and promptly got stung. It’s yet another of the odd metaphysical experiences I’ve had with bees. To the skeptics I’d suggest that this non-verbal communication is no different than what you’d do with a frightened horse: relax, try to establish a contact with the horse brain and you’ll be fine. Freak out, and things could go badly for both you and the horse.

A machine for living
Along with the industrial language that we use to describe bees, Thiele suggests that it’s well past time to rethink the industrial hardware we use to “keep” bees. The 19th century Langstroth hive still dominates, and this form of hive could be likened to a 19th century factory design: a honey factory. Thiele thinks that Langstroth hives are for our convenience rather than the health of the bees. Thiele says we need to look at how bees live in nature to find clues for the types of housing we should provide. Thiele has been experimenting for years with various designs, some as simple as just a hollowed out log, others more elaborate such as the sun hive, a beautiful woven object:

sun hiveThe sun hive has movable frames, a feature that is mandated by law in the US. Provocatively, Thiele noted the difference between a legal obligation and a moral obligation. In our hive designs we may have to transcend the law. And we’re also going to need to get creative. Thiele’s sun hive, by his own admission, is by no means the last word on the subject. Thiele hopes that we can begin the process of experimentation, always asking the bien what it wants rather than being focused on our own interests. I’ll take a look at some alternate hive designs in-depth in future blog posts.

The alchemy of bee-ing
As the late apiculturalist Charles Martin Simon said, “it’s not about the honey. It’s not about the money.” Focus on those two things and we’ll destroy ourselves along with the bees. Apiculture, according to Thiele is “an art of the soul.” Bees, he says, are messengers for different levels of consciousness. They link the realms of heaven and earth in their daily journeys. They may also be the key to integrating our disjointed souls.

To see more of Thiele’s work including some videos visit Gaia Bees.

Fabulous Postcards from HenCam


From Vintage Chicken Photographs. Terry says this picture reminds her of Erik. It reminds me of our friend Craig at Winnetka Farms. Whichever! Let’s hear it for tall handsome gentlemen holding poultry!

Our friend Terry over at the great chicken site HenCam has produced three lovely sets of postcard books based on antique photos of people with animals. One set is people and chickens, the second is people with other livestock, and the third in people and their dogs. (She promises she’s trying for a cat collection, but it seems kitties were a little too sly for early cameras, making good pictures (as opposed to cat-shaped blurs) hard to find.)

She tells us she spent two years collecting pictures for these collections, searching everywhere, from flea markets to eBay, parsing through thousands of photos. Her favorites are collected in books of 30. She picked good ones. Every card tells the story, and most of them leave me with questions, too.

Also, I really like how the pictures show the intimacy of people with their pets and smallstock, and their pride in these animals. Though few of us are farmers now, most of us come from farm people if you go far enough back. The land is in our blood, and as those of us who have rediscovered the joy of keeping smallstock, whether those be bees or hens or goats, our connection with animals comes right back, too.

And of course, we love our dogs, whether we’re farmers or townfolk. That goes without saying!

So we thought we’d give a shout out to Terry for her great books. They are heavy, 5″ x 7″ cards bound into books, but bound so that the postcards can be lifted out cleanly and used, in any order. They have a photo on the front and the back has the classic postcard layout. If you’re looking for easy presents for the holidays, or a set of nice postcards, so you can treat your friends to an actual handwritten note, go check them out at her store. They cost twenty bucks for a book of thirty cards–that’s about 66 cents per card.

A couple of more pics after the break:

Continue reading…

Michael Thiele and the Love of Bees

On Saturday, September 21st, Erik and I will be attending a day-long Biodynamic Apiculture Workshop with Michael Thiele, sponsored by the fine folks at Honey Love. We hear there are still some open spaces, so please join us if you can. Erik has seen Michael Thiele speak, and says he is mesmerizing.

Michael Thiele is the founder of Gaia Bees, and co-founder of The Melissa Garden (a honey bee sanctuary and resource center). His approach toward bees is deeply respectful and non-exploitative. He views honey as a gift and a medicine, not as a crop.

In the video above he is demonstrating a hive of his own design, the Sun Hive or Haengekorb, the shape of which reflects the nature, needs and processes of the bees–not us. He describes the hive as an “offering to the bees” to support their welfare. As you will see in the video, he and the bees share a remarkable understanding.

Book Review: What the Robin Knows


Jon Young is a well-known naturalist, tracker, author and teacher based in Santa Cruz, California. I’ve heard many people praising his bird language classes, , but didn’t think I would ever be able to take one of his classes, because they’re too far away.  S0 the moment I heard about his new book, What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World, I scampered to my email, contacted his publisher and begged for a review copy. They kindly obliged. And that is my full disclosure. But if they hadn’t been so obliging, I would have scraped my pennies together for this one.

Studying bird language is different from bird watching. It is a nature awareness practice which uses the observation of commonplace birds, like robins and sparrows, to teach you about the larger workings of the nature and yourself.

In a nutshell, Young asks you to choose a place to sit outdoors and commit to sitting in this place regularly, for about 40 minutes per session, watching the birds, watching all that happens around you. This sit spot might be your yard, a public park, or the wilderness. It doesn’t matter where–all that matters is that the location is easy to access, and you go there regularly. Over time, you’ll learn what he calls the baseline environment looks, sounds, feels like. The baseline being the ordinary sets of bird sounds and bird motion you see and hear in that place, at that time or day, at that time of year. To facilitate this recognition, he teaches you the five basic types of calls birds make (alarm calls, companion calls, etc.), using online audio files to help with the most common birds.  He goes on to teach about behavior, predators, etc.

Once you understand the baseline you will be able to tell when the baseline is disturbed, and eventually, you will be able to tell why. Knowing this allows you insight into the workings of nature. With study, what once seemed generic bird noise to you (if you heard it at all) becomes pinpoint-specific information. If the birds alert on something, for instance, with practice you can not only tell where that something is coming from, but you can distinguish whether that intruder is a person, a house cat or a hawk.

Indoors, we are all networked and interconnected by our electronic devices. (Twitter indeed!!) Outside, there’s just as much communication going on–and that communication is interspecies communication. Different types of birds listen to each other.  They both help and trick each other. The coyote and the raccoon and the fox listen to all of them. It’s an intense world out there around the bird feeder or up in those maples in the park. And with a little study, you can plug into this world, and regain your place in it.

Why should you want to plug in? Lots of reasons. First, sitting in nature heals our frazzled brains and eases our souls. I don’t think it goes too far to think of this practice as meditation. Most of all, studying bird language gives you a reason or an excuse to spend time in nature–and that alone is enough.

Another reason is animal watching. If you like to take walks and hope to see a deer or a fox once in a while, you need to listen to the birds. Birds are the first alert system of the forest. Their alarm calls can show you where predators are moving. They also tip off all and sundry that you’re coming, clearing an empty path in front of you as efficiently as Hollywood bodyguards plow through paparazzi. Young says if you ever want to see other wildlife when you’re out walking, you need to ask the birds’ permission first.

Perhaps he says it all best:

Eons ago, Homo sapiens were just as alert and aware as all other creatures…our sensory equipment and our brains are still designed for this awareness. These instincts are still in each of us, just buried, maybe deeply buried. Connecting with bird language begins the process of unearthing them. It changes the whole dynamic of our lives immediately. We now recognize the robin. We recognize the sparrow. These birds lift us from our troubled minds. They give us a reason to move and see and listen respectfully. They unlock the outdoors. They reflect our knowledge and our attitude, and ultimately yield the first rite of passage when we’re allowed a close encounter with an animal that would otherwise have fled our presence long before.

Most of all I like this book because he asks a lot of you. At one point in the book he’s talking about how there’s no formula for this stuff, just lots of dedication and time, and notes, “The lifelong learning curve is the ultimate appeal of what we do.”

This made me laugh out loud. Appeal? The notion of working on one skill all your life (especially one as unglamorous as robin-watching)  is not a popular notion it contemporary culture, when everything is the “20 Minute This” and the “4 Hour That.”  But I understand the appeal of a lifelong practice myself, and I have the deepest respect of long term practitioners of any art.

I just finished the book and spent 40 minutes this morning in the backyard, utterly puzzled.  It’s a beginning.

A note on the text:

The book is not structured like a “how-to” manual. It’s full of anecdotes and has a relaxed, meandering tone which is actually quite nice. It’s easy to imagine you’re just hanging outwith Jon Young in some nice green place, listening to his bird stories. The key concepts are woven in along the way.  You don’t need to take notes as you read, or worry you’ll miss some important step. At the end of the book he gives a summary and set of instructions on how to actually begin your practice. And again, he provides audio files online to illustrate all the basic calls of the common birds, and references those audio files throughout the text.