What Do Microbes Have To Do With Homesteading?

So what are the activities that microbes make possible around the homestead? To name just four:

  • Fermentation
  • Beekeeping
  • Soil Fertility
  • Human beings

Pretty important stuff. In fact, new systems thinking, applied to our natural word, is demonstrating that things like human beings are really just symbiotic sacks of microbial life. An article in the Economist, “Microbes maketh man” discusses just how important microbes are to human health:

The traditional view is that a human body is a collection of 10 trillion cells which are themselves the products of 23,000 genes. If the revolutionaries are correct, these numbers radically underestimate the truth. For in the nooks and crannies of every human being, and especially in his or her guts, dwells the microbiome: 100 trillion bacteria of several hundred species bearing 3m non-human genes. The biological Robespierres believe these should count, too; that humans are not single organisms, but superorganisms made up of lots of smaller organisms working together.

Natural beekeeper Michael Bush has made the same argument about bees. Elaine Ingham has emphasized the importance of microbes in soil.

Mess with the complex interdependent relationships between microbes and people, soil etc. and you’re asking for trouble. This, for me, is the argument against things like GMOs, Miracle Grow or conventional chemical beekeeping. We don’t know enough, and probably never will know, how 100 trillion bacteria will react to our latest innovation. Best to be conservative when it comes to microbial life.

Looking forward to seeing more of this microbial paradigm shift in science.

Picture Sundays: Bike Rack With Bee Smoker

Bike Snob NYC predicted back in 2010 that beekeeping would be the new fixed-gear. Don’t know where I found this picture (Facebook?) but it looks like bikes and bees are achieving a kind of synergy. I think this is a custom rack just for that handsome Dadant smoker, which like the design of the bicycle, has not changed much in a hundred years:

Dadant smoker in 1910.

Does this mean that Dadant will come out with a titanium smoker?

Does the scent of compost make bees angry?

I think I’ve stumbled upon a strange phenomenon: the smell released by turning compost pisses off bees. Yesterday was the third time this has happened to me. I took a sting just underneath my eye and another one to my right hand when I was turning a pile located about 15 feet away from a hive. Coincidentally, the same thing happened to a friend yesterday: he got stung while working with compost near a hive. Ordinarily our bees are reasonable about living in a small yard with humans–they are not even very aggressive when I open their hive. But apparently turning compost near them is a different matter.

I look like I’ve been in a fight. Lots of Benadryl today.

I have a theory. Bees are incredibly sensitive to odors and use them to communicate. Their alarm pheromones alert the hive to predators such as bears and people. Bee alarm pheromone consists of many different compounds. Interestingly, a lot of these compounds such as n-Butanol and Isoamyl acetate are byproducts of fermentation processes. I’m guessing that a number of these compounds are present in compost, and that when you turn a pile the act releases a cloud of compounds that mimic the bee’s alarm pheromones, causing them to attack.

It turns out that other lifeforms like to mimic honeybee alarm pheromone. Some species of orchids mimic bee alarm pheromone in order to attract pollination services. Small hive beetles, who raid beehives for their pollen, apparently bring with them a yeast that causes a fermentation process that mimics alarm pheromones. The small hive beetle’s fermented alarm pheromone, in turn, attracts more small hive beetles who quickly overwhelm the hive. These sorts of deceptive, symbiotic and parasitic loops in nature really amaze me. 

As a side note, I’ve only had compost pile related bee stings at this time of year, when honeybee numbers are at their peak and pollen and nectar sources are getting scarce (summer is hot and dry in Los Angeles and not much is blooming).

If you don’t have a hive, I doubt random, foraging worker bees would go after you if you are just turning compost in your yard. But if you’ve got a compost pile and are thinking about installing a hive–or vice versa–I’d seriously consider keeping the two as far apart as possible.

Am I alone in noticing this compost/bee alarm pheromone issue?

How to Make a Native Bee Nesting Box

Back in the spring I made a native bee nesting box by drilling a bunch of holes in the long end of a 4 by 6 inch piece of scrap wood. I cut one end of the 4 x 6 at an angle so that I could nail on a makeshift roof made from a piece of 2 x 6. I hung the nesting box on an east facing wall or our house with a picture hanger.

I used three sizes of holes to see which ones would be most popular: 1/4 inch, 3/16 inch and 1/8 inch. All were moved into by, I think, the same native bee within days of putting up the box. This afternoon, when I went to check on the nest to take some pictures for this blog post, I was delighted to see a lot of activity. There were bee butts sticking out of the holes, as well as bees flying in and out. I think they are some sort of mason bee–extra credit to the person who successfully identifies the species:

They move fast, so I was only able to get these two blurry shots. No, they are not Chupacabras.

With the success of this primitive native bee box, I decided to make more nesting boxes to see if I could attract other solitary, native bees. I put this one together with some small pieces of bamboo that I found in a neighbor’s trash can:

I think there’s a great potential to create works of public art that double as insect nests. For a nice example of this idea see the “insect hotel” designed by by Arup Associates.

For general guidelines on how to build nesting boxes see this guide from the Xerces Society

We also have a project for a native bee box in our book Making It.

If you’ve built or seen a nice native bee box, leave a comment or a link.

Teflon Coated Light Bulbs Deadly to Chickens

Something I never would have thought of: Teflon coated light bulbs are toxic to chickens. In the letters section of this month’s issue of Backyard Poultry Magazine is the story of a woman who lost a flock of nineteen chickens after they succumbed to fumes put off by a GE Rough Service Worklight that was in the coop. When the bulbs heat up they release fumes that are deadly to chickens and other birds. According to the McMurray Hatchery website, birds are particularly vulnerable to airborne toxins. I can’t help but wonder about the effect of these fumes on humans too. Several years ago, Dupont was unsuccessfully sued over the toxicity of Teflon in cookware.

Sylvania, apparently, has a warning label on their Teflon coated bulbs, “WARNING: This product contains PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene–“Teflon” is a brand name). When heated, it creates fumes potentially fatal to confined birds.” GE does not have a warning label.

I let the ladies take the winter off of laying and it never dips below 40ºF here so we do not have a light bulb in our coop. But for those of you who do, make sure you don’t use one of these shatter resistant, Teflon coated bulbs.

See also the McMurray Hatchery warning on shatter resistant bulbs.

Lego-Robot Chickens

In response to our Monday post on clicker training chickens, Root Simple pal and fellow Master Food Preserver Diane Trunk posted a video on our Facebook page. Diane explains,

Here’s a link to a silly video of our trained chickens. My son trained them to come running in response to a beep. The beep signaled that a lego-robot box (you’ll see) was going to open, and the hens would get their favorite treat: string cheese. Alas, these hens are no longer with us. Our new ladies don’t care about string cheese, or even Lego robots.

Clicker Training Chickens

Our new pullets aren’t as used to being handled as were our last flock of hens. And because they don’t come when called, they can’t leave the chicken run to wander the yard.

So I’m working on training them. I know I could do more, but for now all I’m doing is taking special treats to them once a day and feeding them while making my chicken call (cheeck-cheeck-cheeck). They’re beginning to associate me and the call with treats. This doesn’t mean they trust me yet, but at least they have started making greeting noises when they see me. I hunker down in the run with the treats and hold very still. I put the treats close to me and make them come near to get them. The boldest one will sometimes take a treat from my hand.

This may work eventually. Or I could step up my game. Do you know that chickens can be clicker trained? My dog trainer friend tells me that in dog training seminars, trainers are often taught clicker training (a form of positive reinforcement) with chickens instead of dogs. This is because chickens are 100% food motivated and learn fast. Also, using hens takes away the potential mind games that occur between dog and trainer. Free of that distraction, the trainer learns the correct rhythm for training. It’s pure stimulus-response–reward.

Here’s a video of a chick learning the basics. You can find others of this sort on Youtube:

You might be able to find a chicken training seminar in your area, probably under the banner of dog training. With the rise of urban chicken-pets I think there is opportunity to be had in offering classes for would be chicken trainers. Googling around, I found this one in Lake Oswego, Oregon which is booked months in advance.

Have you trained your chickens to do anything?

News from the Kat Kingdom at Root Simple

Meet Buck.

Warning: Shameless, meandering cat narrative ahead. If you don’t like cats, all you can do at this point is turn away and sigh.

The big news here is that we’ve been suckered into taking another kitten–but there will be no more! We will not turn into crazy cat collectors. As it is, keeping three cats in this tiny house is ridiculous. They’re always everywhere, always staring at you, or tripping you, or sitting where you want to sit. We’d sworn only to have two cats, but two factors intervened. One is our neighbor Anne. The other is the shadow of the Grim Reaper.

Factor 1: Anne is a dangerous neighbor because she almost always has a kitten (or other needful creature) on hand, and can be quite ruthless in her drive to find them homes. The story behind this particular kitten is that a neighbor girl came to Anne and led her to a tiny kitten laying cold and dehydrated in a driveway, somehow separated from its litter. Anne said he was so far gone as to be stiff, and she thought he was a goner, but given some milk and warmth he rose up like Lazarus himself. (Or as Lazarus would be, had Lazarus been blessed with four white paws a perky little tail.) I saw him that same day and fed him a bottle. Anne is very good at tricking one into getting emotionally involved with the foundlings–this is how she got us to take the other two.  And to cut a long story short, that is how she got us to take this one.

Factor 1-B: I should mention that the kitten was a dead ringer for Trout at that age. I think they share genetics, as they come from the same street. It was very hard to reject a mini-Trout.

Factor 2: Phoebe seems happy and well enough right now (I don’t think you’d guess she was sick if you saw her), but medically speaking she is in decline. She has officially commenced heart failure, which means her lifespan is now measured in months. In fact, at a recent visit to the vet we found out she has not one but two distinct heart diseases, and the newly identified one is very rare in young cats. The vet is fascinated by her case. But it doesn’t change her outcome much, just makes it all the more inevitable.

Obviously she doesn’t have a lot of energy, but Trout does. The resulting dynamic between the two of them had become slightly worrisome. She could play with him for a bit, but then needed to rest. Trout didn’t understand that and would regularly disturb her naps by pouncing on her. She is pretty good about holding boundaries, and Trout is not too much of a jerk, but nonetheless when this kitten offer came around we realized a kitten would be an excellent distraction for Trout.

So yes, we basically we adopted this kitten as a toy for Trout– a toy that looks just like him. For some reason this reminds me of little girls with their American Girl dolls, dressed in identical outfits, playing in a solipsistic world. But anyway, it’s worked out well.

Of course we were worried about the “what ifs”  –  What if Trout and the kitten didn’t get along? What if the kitten beat up on Phoebe? But we trusted what we knew about all of them to believe it would all be fine.

The transition went like this: We threw them all together, but watched them. Trout was thrilled and stalked the kitten for the first day. The kitten was less than thrilled and bristled and yowled at Trout, and Trout would back off.  On the second day, someone threw a magic switch and all of a sudden the kitten and Trout were chasing, then they were wrestling, then they were spitting on their paws and promising to be blood brothers for ever and ever.

Phoebe, on the other hand, was horrified by the new arrival. She clutched her pearls and hissed and wouldn’t be in the same room as the kitten. But she would avidly watch him around corners. And after two days of sputtering indignation she got bored and came out to observe the kitten from high spots. After four days she and the kitten were playing chase games. At the end of the week all three cats were sleeping on our bed. We decided we would definitely keep him.

We named the kitten Buck. He’s bold and affectionate and eats like an alligator and though he is currently Trout’s toy, will likely rule the house very soon.

The two boys play and snuggle together as Phoebe and Trout never have. Phoebe is dignified and standoffish, whereas Trout is a goofball. In Buck he’s met his match. As a pair they generate cuteness levels that can actually make you lightheaded. They play all day, every day, and then sleep together in adorable postures. We spend far too much time watching those cats with glazed, stupid looks on our faces. Household productivity is way, way down.

Meanwhile, like us, Phoebe seems genuinely entertained by watching the boys. If Buck is Trout’s toy, the two of them together are Phoebe’s television set. She gets to sleep unmolested, and when it suits her, she plays with both of them. So all is well.

Phoebe kindly attends to our filing, to make up for lost household productivity