Colony Collapse Disorder “Solved”

Russell Bates of the Backwards Beekeepers keeping bees naturally.

Media coverage of beekeeping, particularly colony collapse disorder gets me a bit frustrated. This week saw the release of a study from the University of Montana, Missoula and Army scientists at the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, linking CCD to a co-infection of a previously unreported virus and a common bee parasite called nosema. As usual, most reporters failed to do their due diligence, except for Katherine Eban at Fortune magazine who explored the ties between the lead researcher in this study, Jerry Bromenshenk, and pesticide manufacturer Bayer Crop Science. See her work in a provocative article, “What a scientist didn’t tell the New York Times about his study on bee deaths.”

Aside from the glaring conflicts of interest (Bromenshenk is also developing a hand held device to detect bee diseases including the ones in this study), I think what’s missing in bee research, in general, is a whole systems approach to the problem. Not only are commercial beekeepers trucking their bees thousands of miles, but they are using miticides, not allowing the bees to form their own comb, limiting the numbers of drones, breeding weak stock and exposing the bees to pesticides such as imidacloprid (manufactured by Bayer!) to name just a few questionable practices. All of this bad beekeeping promulgates bees with weakened immune systems. The researchers may find a “solution,” but with weak bees some other problem will come along in a few years and we’ll be right back where we started. Meanwhile the big commercial beekeepers cling to pesticides as the cause of CCD since this thesis allows them to carry on without addressing all of the aforementioned practices.

CCD is nothing new–it’s happened before and will happen again until we start keeping bees in a more natural manner. To “solve” CCD with some kind of treatment regimen or a hand held detection gadget is a bit like the government propping up those “too big to fail” banks. Everything works fine until the next bubble comes along. I believe that the long term solution lies with folks like the Backwards Beekeepers, Dee Lusby and in the words of the late Charles Martin Simon. In short, work with nature not against her.

Hens Busy Dust Bathing

It’s difficult to capture the cuteness of this chicken behavior with a still camera–we really should try to make a  video.  Anyway, this is called “dusting” or “dust bathing.” The ladies have dug a hole in our yard and are gleefully rolling around in it, flicking loose dirt under their wings and driving it between their feathers. This is an innate behavior and an important part of chicken hygiene. Dusting suffocates skin parasites that prey on chickens, and it also seems to be pleasurable for the hens, judging by their blissful expressions.

After dusting they puff up and shake off, and settle in to do fine cleaning by preening. When they’re done, they’re all pretty and shiny.

It’s really important that chickens have constant access to dirt–loose, dry, sandy dirt–so they can dust at will. If for whatever reason your chickens don’t have this access, whether that’s because they’re being raised in a concrete floor, or are trapped inside because of bad weather, or your chicken run is swamped with mud, or whatever, it’s a smart thing to provide them with a tray of dirt so they can bathe. Dusting is nature’s favored method of insect control.

ETA: To give you some indication of size, a kitty litter tray would be a good size for a few hens to share, a cement mixing tray for a bigger flock.

Warning: Rant Ahead

We first got our own hens because we disagreed with the industrial style of raising chickens and farming eggs.  But at the time that disagreement was purely theoretical–now it’s stronger than ever, because it’s based on practice. The more we know, and experience the fundamentals of chicken life, the more appalling the industrial practices become.  One fundamental is that chickens are designed to live on dirt. They love to scratch, peck, dig and bathe in it. Take dirt away from them and you have to scramble to make up for that deficit in unnatural ways. Being unable to scratch, chickens get bored and peck at each other–so their beaks have to be cut off. Deprived of the ability to dust, they get mites and lice, and have to be treated with pesticides. It’s just sad.

Spike 1998-2010

Our much loved 12 year old Doberman passed tonight. It’s been a horrible day spent going back and forth to the emergency vet, but he went fast, which was a blessing. Right now we’re blindsided. The house feels like it has a crater in the middle of it. He’s been with us since he was a puppy, so we really don’t know how to get along without him anymore.

His name was Spike, unless it was Deiter, which was also his name. He was intelligent, intense, and as fiercely attached to us as we were to him. He was also gorgeous. We never tired of looking at him.

He was very healthy all his life, and only began to slow down in his last year. We attribute his longevity to the vast quantities of avocados and heirloom tomatoes he pilfered from our garden. He might have died of pancreatitis, but we’re not sure, and probably will never know. 12 is quite old for a big Doberman male, so intellectually we know we had a good run with him. But right now all we want is to have our dog back.

Homegrown Evolution will be on hiatus for a couple of days.

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ETA: Our friend Doug has posted a photo tribute to Spike at his website.

Can’t sleep so had come back to eulogize a bit. Just sending this out into the ether. It has to go somewhere.

Spike loved people, more so in the second half of his life when he gave up on his innate, guard dog aloofness. Any visitor to our house was greeted by a 95 lb, pointy eared demon dog, barking deep chested from the porch. I’d have to shout over the barks that this was simply him saying “Pet me! Pet me now!” to the terrified visitors. And sure enough, as soon as they came in he’d stop barking and demand admiration.

He loved little dogs and puppies more than anything, more than people perhaps. He was good with all dogs, never aggressive, but he’d get particularly excited whenever he saw a puppy. With puppies and little dogs he’d lay down on his belly so he could be eye to eye with them, and so they would not be as afraid of him.

He was terrified of cords. Phone cords, computer cables, etc. Wouldn’t cross them. Treated them like snakes. When he wanted to cross over a cord, or needed something on the other side of the cord, he’d bark this particular high pitched bark at it until we came and took it away.  Similarly, he would not nose or paw open doors, so would also bark at any door not open sufficiently wide for him.

His greatest love was perhaps the sofa. His sofa. When I think of him, one of the predominant images is of him sprawled across the sofa on his back, front paws in the air, back legs spread obscenely wide.

He purred. Especially when you rubbed his ears. It sounded like a soft growl. In fact, the first time I heard him do it (the habit started later in life) I thought he was growling at me, and scolded him for it. But we figured it out and made up. 

They call Dobermans “velcro dogs” because they have to be by your side. Where ever I was in the house, he was next to me. He’d wake out of a deep nap to follow me. Even in his last days when it was hard for him to move around, he’d heave himself up and follow. Lately I started trying to stay in the same place as much as possible to save him steps. This velcro nature had a darker side. He was deeply unhappy when Erik and I were away from home. He couldn’t stand to be separated from us. So of course we were always uneasy when we had to leave him. Which is one of many reasons why it is so painful to be separated from him tonight. I think it was hard for him to leave us.

Spike was driven to learn and work. He went to many dog classes in his time, and if we weren’t so lazy, could doubtlessly have been trained to do anything: work calculus problems, drive a cab–anything.  The last thing he learned was a sport called “fun nose work” wherein dogs search for targets of scented oil. He loved sniffing for treats, and got his sniffing title (NW1) at age 11.

He never harassed our chickens, or even looked at them sideways. He seemed to get that they were not food from the very beginning, and we could let them all wander around our yard together. Often I’d see big old leggy Spike standing in the middle of the yard, slightly befuddled, while hens pecked at the ground between his legs.

Sometimes I’d find him sniffing around the beehive, which always made my heart stop, but the bees seemed to understand that he meant no harm. I certainly couldn’t have come that close to them with impunity. Creatures are smart that way.

Spike slept on the floor (well, on his own bed) next to my side of the bed. Every night he needed petting before he’d lay down and go to sleep. If I tried to ignore him and play possum, he’d nudge his nose under my arm. I called this ritual “night time reassurances.” If I was gone, Erik would substitute. It started when he was a puppy, when I’d have to lean out and down from the edge of the bed to stroke his little head. It continued all his life, though when he was an adult, he loomed over me when I was laying in bed, so I had to reach up slightly for the mandatory chin scratching and ear stroking.

He became hard of hearing in his last year or so, and that was difficult for all of us, because prior to that he’d been so word-oriented. I’d never met a dog who listened so intently, or knew so many words. What was extra amazing was that he eavesdropped. He knew the name of our friends and their dogs. If we mentioned any of them in conversation he’d coming wagging up to us, all excited, because he thought if we mentioned them, they must be on their way over.

Our regular, somewhat cruel, language game with him was to start the sentence: “Do you want to go…?”  He knew the correct ending was “…for a walk?” But instead of ending it with “walk”, we’d tease him by ending it with things like “…to the bank?” “….to the Netherlands?” And he’d go from thrilled to consternated when the sentence didn’t end right. Doberman consternation is a sight to see. The brow wrinkles. The pointy ears spin and twitch. You can almost hear him saying, “Whaa??” After teasing him a couple times with false endings, we’d finally say the magic word–walk– and then he’d bound around for joy.

For the last year of his life he was on steroids, and those made him hungry all the time. He became a consummate food thief. What was so stunning about his thievery was the timing of it. He watched and waited for the perfect moment, and then struck with the speed of a shark. And I don’t mean he waited til we left the room. He’d wait until all human attention was well focused elsewhere–a distraction or some such. It’s hard to explain unless you saw it, but his timing was breathtakingly clever. I couldn’t even be mad because it was so brilliant.

Spike had a third name, Dorr’s Braveheart. This is the name on his registry papers. He was the last in a line of a superb family of Dobermans.  Within moments of meeting his parents, they were curled up on the breeder’s couch with me. I knew I had to have one of their babies.

We have one small car, a hatchback. On car trips, Spike had to make due with the narrow back seat. Mostly he insisted on balancing his front paws on the arm rest between the two front seats, while his hind end was on the back seat. Positioned this way, he’d car surf. The goal, I think, was to have his nose line up with ours, because a car ride was like running with the pack. The last time we took a ride with him (other than the rush to the vet today) his balance was not so good, so he leaned against me as we drove. Shoulder to shoulder and cheek to cheek.

While I hope one day to know another dog as special as Spike, I know such gifts don’t come frequently. I’ve met few dogs so sensitive and intelligent and sweet. We were blessed to spend 12 years with him at our side.

Mad Hen

One of our hens will be featured in the new Coco’s Variety ad campaign. What’s Coco’s Variety you ask?

“Coco’s Variety’s primary business is bicycles. Additionally, we sell Japanese figural pencil erasers, used bike parts, old toolboxes, books worth owning, bike pumps, balsa wood gliders, pocket knives, Lodge cast iron frying pans, glass water bottles, Park bicycle tools, wicker bike baskets and Dutch bicycle cargo bags for the carting of fresh produce, the transportation of books of French poetry and the rescuing of kittens.”

If you’re not in Los Angeles, you can get a virtual Coco’s experience on their awesome blog at: http://www.cocosvariety.com/.

Via the magic of the interwebs we offer you an exclusive behind the scenes look at Coco’s proprietor Mr. Jalopy making advertising history:

Changing Egg Habits

photo by Buzz Carter

Got the last word in an Associated Press article on the egg recall: Egg recall has some changing buying, eating habits. Basically, I said small is beautiful–better to have lots of  people with four hens each rather than a few people with hundreds of thousands. Too bad food safety laws winding their way through Washington are being crafted to favor the big guys who caused this recent outbreak. More on that anon.

A Hotel for Insects

To celebrate 2010, the International Year of Biodiversity, British Land and the City of London sponsored a design competition for a “Hotel for Insects.” Arup Associates won with the design above. The rules stipulated that the hotel had to accommodate stag beetles, solitary bees, butterflies, moths, spiders, lacewings and ladybugs.

Read the full article here Thanks to Leonardo of the Backwards Beekeepers for the tip.

See some other examples of attractive solitary bee habitats at http://www.wildbienen.de/wbschutz.htm.  It’s in German, but the pictures speak for themselves.

Love the Grub 2.1

Black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens) larvae, common in compost piles, are a free protein source for chickens and fish. It’s possible to create a composter to deliberately propagate BSF. Jerry (sorry I don’t know your last name) of the Black Soldier Fly Blog, has put together excellent and very detailed instructions on how to construct the BSF composter above. It’s a kind of Logan’s Run for larvae. Soldier fly females enter through the pipe on the top of the bucket and lay their eggs in food scraps you place in the bottom of the device. Larvae hatch and climb up a spiral tube and fall into a holding box.

You can buy a commercial BSF propogator, the Biopod, but it’s a bit over my price range. I’ll be putting together this BSF composter soon and will report back on my results.

Thanks to Federico of the Los Angeles Eco-village for the tip on this. See Federico’s blog http://eeio.blogspot.com/ for some other amazing DIY projects.

Also, see our previous post on the BSF.

Los Angeles School Board Cancels Tyson Contract

Thanks to the hard work of local food activists, including my neighbor Jennie Cook, the Los Angeles Board of Education voted this past week to withdraw its five year contract with Tyson Foods Inc. It’s a multi-million dollar loss for Tyson which provides chicken, or.what they refer to on their own website as “protein products” to the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Tyson was to have been a part of a contract divided between three other providers. All together Tyson and the other companies, who provide beef, potatoes and turkey, were to split a potential $284,450,000 over five years.

Rumor has it that Tyson representatives will attempt to win back the contract over the next month, with the activists promising to return to the next LAUSD board meeting on August 31st.

Looks like Jamie Oliver’s “food revolution” has come to LAUSD.

Clarification 7/20/2010: According to an email from Jennie Cook, LAUSD cancelled the Tyson contract because of labor practices not food quality. I’ll post more on this story later.

Trapping bees out of a kitchen vent

With a growing awareness of the plight of honeybees more people are calling on the services of beekeepers rather than exterminators. And, thanks to a crash course in bee removal and relocation from Backwards Beekeeping guru Kirk Anderson, I’ve managed to help relocate about ten or so hives, giving them new homes with Los Angeles’ hobby beekeepers. Each removal has been different and I’ve made plenty of mistakes. But with each experience I’ve learned valuable lessons. Last week I started my first solo “trap-out.”

In a trap-out you make a one way exit for bees that are somewhere they aren’t wanted, in this case a kitchen vent. Foraging bees leave the hive but can’t come back in. Next to the one way exit you place a “nuc” box (a cardboard box that holds five frames) that contains open brood comb, cells with eggs and larvae, from another hive. The workers can’t get back into their old home, adopt the brood comb in the box and use it to create a new queen. The process takes at least four to six weeks since you have to wait for the old queen to stop laying eggs and for all the bees in the wall to make their way out. At then end of the six weeks the beekeeper takes away the nuc box, now hopefully full of bees with a new queen. After I remove the nuc box I’m going to open up the vent and clean out any remaining comb and honey. I’ve heard of opening back up the old hive and letting the bees clean out the honey, but I’d be worried they would move back in. And what happens to the old queen is a mystery to me. Different sources give conflicting information. She either flies off, dies or fights her way into the new colony.

The alternative to a trap-out is to do a “cut-out” opening up the wall and physically removing the bees and their comb. Cut-outs are traumatic for the bees and make an incredible mess of the house. The advantage is that the removal is over in one day at the most. In this case I decided to do a trap-out so that I could save the homeowner, on a fixed income, from the expense of having to replace the kitchen vent the bees are living in.

Her house, cantilevered over a steep hillside in the Hollywood Hills presented a few challenges. I had to work from above, leaning over the edge of the roof to attach the escape cone to the vent. One thing I’ve learned is to have everything fabricated and all tools ready before beginning any structural bee removal. You need to act carefully and decisively when you’ve got thousands of pissed off bees flying around. I made the cone out of 1/8 inch hardware cloth attached to a rectangular piece of the same material to block off the entire vent. I smoked the bees to calm them down. Next, I leaned over the edge of the roof and quickly hammered the cone in place with roofing nails. It would have been better to attach the cone early in the morning before the bees had left for the day, but logistically this was impossible for me. As soon as nailed the escape in place a large cloud of returning workers started bearding at their former entrance at the base of the cone. Another angry contingent pinged the front of my veil. Using rope, I lowered the nuc box with the open brood in it and secured it to a concrete block I placed on the roof. When I came back the next day the bees had calmed down and were starting to come and go from the nuc box. Some were still “bearding” at their old entrance.

There are two kinds of one way exits. You can make one by creating a cone, at least a foot long out of 1/8 inch hardware cloth with a 3/8 inch opening at the end. This is enough, usually, to throw off the bee’s precise orientation to their old entrance. They leave but can’t come back in. Alternately, you can use a Porter bee escape, a spring loaded device that lets bees out but prevents their re-entry. Each method has its advantages and disadvantages. Sometimes the bees figure out how to get back through the cone. In that case you can put another cone around the existing cone. The bees entering the second cone end up back outside. The disadvantage with the Porter bee escape is that its small springs can sometimes fail under the strain of thousands of workers passing through. My neighbor Ray, a beekeeper and airline mechanic, examined the two bee escapes sold by our local supplier. Not surprisingly, the English made escape was superior to a Chinese made model which had a poor connection between the springs and plastic body.

There’s a lot that can go wrong. In a trap-out that I’m helping Ray with underneath a poorly constructed concrete patio, the bees keep finding new ways to chew their way out. This could be interesting if we were dealing with a wall and the bees were to find their way into the house. With the patio it’s simply frustrating. The bees gave up on the brood and now we need to find more and wait another six weeks for the process to end. With my kitchen vent bees I blocked off the grill above the stove with metal screen and aluminum foil. Next time I’ll use sheet metal. The bees have chewed their way underneath the aluminum foil. The screen keeps them out of the house, but the foil is amplifying their buzzing. I’ve created an unintentional acoustic bee amplifier which is disconcerting to the homeowner! I also had to come back and rig up a sheet metal tray underneath the vent to catch the bits of comb, mites and dirt that the bees shed. While my trap-out seems to be working, I still have to keep my fingers crossed that the bees make a new queen and that she mates without getting eaten by a bird or squashed on a windshield. And Kirk is right, the process is more about managing the people than the bees. You have to have a homeowner who is willing to stick with a six week process and tolerate a box of bees strapped to the side of their house.

Still, I really enjoy the process. It combines a few of my favorite things, nature, heights, low-tech gadgets and diplomacy. I wish I could do this more often but we don’t have room in our yard for bees.

For more information on the trap-out process see, Charles Martin Simons’ article “Fundamentals and Finesse of Structural Bee Removal.”

If you’re in LA and have bees you need relocated call the Backwards Beekeepers rescue hotline at (213) 373-1104.

And lastly, while I love bees I would not want them in my house. Prevent what could be an expensive problem by making sure that small cracks on the outside of your house are sealed off.