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

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.

Cat Litter Compost, Installment #3

troutsitting

No, our cats aren’t privileged or anything.

A gentle reader reminds us that it’s been too long since we updated you all on the cat litter compost.

For background, see Installment One and Installment Two

Long story short, cat litter composting can work (under the care of an experienced composter, mind), especially in conjunction with a worm bin–but I’ve found a method I like better.

On the composting experiment:

In our last episode of Cat Box Madness, I discovered my kitty litter wasn’t breaking down very quickly, so I added nitrogen to the mix. That seemed to work well. All except the first 7 inches or so is really nicely broken down all the way through. I still wouldn’t put it as it is anywhere near food crops, even though it is two years old, just to be safe.

To make it extra safe — and useful — I’ve been letting the worms have at it. I’m using it as part of the mix that forms the worm bedding, so cat poo will become worm poo and the garden will be delighted.

That’s how I plan to dispose of all of it, bit by bit. If I didn’t have the worm bin, I’d call it done and spread it under fruit trees or ornamental plantings.

Lessons Learned:

1) Make sure your pile is accessible and easy to turn. Due to lack of yard space, I put my litter in a 50 gallon drum in a narrow, hard-to-access–and hot!–side yard. This meant I never wanted to tend it, and when I forced myself out there, I was pretty unhappy. There wasn’t even enough room to wield a shovel comfortably.

2) A big pile is a good pile. While I made this work in a 50 gallon drum, the best compost comes from a bin which is about 1 cubic meter/yard in size. Smaller bins just don’t heat up sufficiently, and are invariably pokey and hard to work with. If you want to do this, do it big.

3) Careful with the litter you choose. Not many litters make the grade. You can’t use clay litter, or any litter made with deodorants or coloring or “magic crystals” or tiny unicorns. It must be made of 100% plant based material. I approve of both World’s Best and S’wheat Scoop. Pine pellet litter, like Feline Pine, is much less expensive than the clumping brands, and suitably plant based, but under ordinary circumstances, since its not scoopable, you have to dump the whole tray rather often, which leads to a fast build up of material. If you have room for it, this might be okay.  (I’ll have more to say about pine litter further down, though.)

4) You have to add extra nitrogen to your pile to make it work. Even though it’s plenty stinky, the nitrogen present in cat waste can’t balance the heavy carbon loads of the litter by itself.

(Note: You should be an experienced composter before you try composting cat litter, as I’ve warned before, and so you will of course know what I mean by all this talk of carbon and nitrogen–but for those of you who are incorrigible, or simply curious, nitrogen sources you might add to your pile include urine, natural seed meal fertilizers, dried alfalfa, fresh grass clippings and other plant material, fresh chicken, horse, or cow manure, and vegetable trimmings.)

Other than those caveats, cat litter composting works pretty much like regular composting. Keep the pile moist. Keep an eye on it, fix it as necessary. Let it sit for two years at least before you spread it. And then spread it around non-edible plants, or under fruit trees. The fruit trees won’t uptake anything nasty.

It’s totally do-able and I’d do it again. But I’d rather do it again in a larger yard, where I could have a big, accessible compost bin. So now I’m doing something new.

Continue reading…

Alektyomancy: Divination by Rooster

We’ve blogged before about the Roman practice of using chickens to tell fortunes. It turns out the Greeks had their own chicken oracle method:

The Pythagoreans inquired about the posthumous fate of their recently dead by using an uncommon method of divination called alektyomancy. On a table were traced squares containing the letters of the alphabet, and in each square seeds were placed. After proper incantations, a white rooster was released, and the letters were read in the order in which the rooster pecked the seeds. The interpretation of the oracle is unknown.(1)

Thankfully you don’t need to own a chicken to practice alektyomancy. There’s an online version.

1) From I.P. Couliano’s book Out of this World: Otherworldly Journeys from Gilgamesh to Albert Einstein. Couliano was, incidentally, a gifted scholar whose life was tragically cut short by an assassin’s bullet. His book Eros and Magic in the Renaissance completely changed my view of Western history.

What is Killing the Bees?

bees and poppies

What’s the cause of colony collapse disorder (CCD)? We may be getting closer with the release of a study from the University of Maryland about fungicides and other chemicals used in agriculture.

This study is more interesting than many others I’ve seen. It looked at how pesticides interfere with honeybee’s resistance to a common parasite Nosema ceranae. Bees exposed to a widely used agricultural fungicide, chlorothonatil, were more likely to succumb to nosema. The most provocative result for me was that bees exposed to fluvalinate, a miticide used by beekeepers on their own bees, were also likely to get nosema.

Perhaps the villain in CCD is the beekepers themselves. Don’t get me wrong, pesticides probably play a role in CCD. But we must also remember that commercial beekeepers:

  • Treat their bees with pesticides to control mites and these chemicals, as the study points out, harm the bee’s immune systems.
  • Move hives thousands of miles every year to provide pollination services.
  • Place their hives in monocropped areas where their bees can forage on only one kind of nectar/pollen such as almonds in California and citrus in Florida.
  • Use foundation (sometimes made of plastic sometimes made of wax that may be contaminated with pesticides) that does not allow the bees to build their own comb.
  • Regulate (through the use of foundation) the amount of drones the queen can make. Drones may be a sacrificial first defense against mites.
  • Use queen excluders to prevent the queen from moving freely through the hive.
  • Kill the queen and re-queen every year, often using artificially inseminated queens.
  • Import hives from other climates.
  • Feed hives high fructose corn syrup.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s new book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder warns about what happens when we prop up and interfere with complex systems like beehives or the economy. When we don’t allow failure (such as trying to prevent mites with chemicals) we set ourselves up for bigger disasters down the road. It’s very convenient to be able to point the finger at the pesticides farmers use. But just like Ben Bernanke, the big beekeepers can’t see the foolishness of their own practices. Point this out at most local beekeeping association meetings and you’ll be shown the door.

This cluelessness is why I recommend new beekeepers avoid most state beekeeping organizations. For a practical and wholistic approach to beekeeping see Michael Bush’s website, The Practical Beekeeper and look at the videos at the Backwards Beekeepers.

Are you part of a natural, no-treatment beekeeping group? Or is your local beekeeping club open to alternative methods? If so, leave a comment . . .

An Overdue Update on Phoebe

Phoebe

This is her cute face. Her surprised by the camera face. Her usual expression is more calculating. Even frightening.

I realized that it’s been a long time since we updated you all on how our cat Phoebe is doing–well over a year, actually. And at that time, we told you we didn’t expect her to live more than 9 more months.

Surprise! She’s been doing really well.

(For those of you new to the blog, Phoebe has a malformed heart. It’s missing important parts. Here’s the original post from 10/25/11)

Thank goodness for drugs and really smart kitty cardiologists. Thank you, Dr. Zimmerman! The first vet to diagnose her sent her home to die. Our lesson: seek out the good vets. The meds that keep Phoebe alive are not even expensive.

Her quality of life has really improved since diagnosis. It’s even improved since our last post about her. When she first began treatment, she was sick, breathing hard and moving slow. But ever since we got her meds adjusted correctly, she’s been spry and happy, not at all acting like an old cat anymore.

True, she’s not quite as hyperactive as our other two cats, but she beats up Buck, the youngest of our cats, every morning like clockwork, loves to savage the fishing pole toy, and is diligently destroying the underside of our sofa. The sofa is her great work, an evolving art piece about the nature of entropy.

She will have a short lifespan, though. The drugs just buy her a little time.  Dr. Zimmerman told us the oldest cat she knew with Phoebe’s rare condition made it to four years old. Phoebe has already passed her second birthday. I’ve noticed her breathing sounds a bit wet lately, so we’re going to the vet this week and we hope an adjustment of her diuretics will clear that up.

Knowing her time is short just makes her all the more precious. I’ve come to appreciate her as a real “cat’s cat.” The other two cats, Buck and Trout, known collectively as “The Boys”, are too friendly and simpleminded to do credit to the cat kingdom.

Meanwhile, Phoebe is a real cat, a stone cold killer, a witch’s familiar, a walking riddle, an evil genius, an Egyptian statue with scornful golden eyes. Erik is her devoted slave. Me, she doesn’t like that much–but I’m still in love with her.

Hens in the Orchard for Pest Control

hensinorchard

Photo: hencam.com

Author Terry Golson, who blogs at HenCam.com, sent along a great pest control tip in response to our thrip post–chickens, of course!

Chickens and orchards go together like gin and tonic. The hens take care of pests, clean up rotten fruit, add nitrogen to the soil and the canopy of the orchard protects the hens from hawks and heat. Plus you get eggs and meat. Permaculture in action.

The 1920s era photo you see above comes from one of Terry’s posts, Chickens in Orchards.

Bee Fever in Los Angeles

honey love photo

Photo: Honey Love.

This week’s LA Weekly has an article, “Could LA Become a Honeybee Mecca” detailing efforts by two groups, Honey Love and the Backwards Beekeepers, to legalize beekeeping in Los Angeles. The process, while slow, looks promising thanks to the hard work of Honey Love and sympathetic city councilman Bill Rosendahl.

The article also neatly sums up the radical “backwards” approach to beekeeping advocated by LA’s maverick urban beekeeper Kirk Anderson,

Anderson learned from apiarist Charles Martin Simon, who invented the concept of “beekeeping backwards.” Simon’s approach was stupidly simple: Give the bees a clean box, put them in it and leave them alone. If they get sick? Don’t medicate them. Let them die. Then get some more bees.

Amen. Selecting for strong bees is an approach that, in my opinion, holds the answers to colony collapse disorder.

I also like Anderson’s thoughts on mainstream beekeeper’s all consuming obsession with counting varoa mites. Anderson says, “To me it’d be like joining the Kennel Club and talking about my dog’s fleas.”

Looking for Chicken Coop Plans

John Zapf chicken run

Our chicken run–designed by John Zapf.

I got a note from Tricia Cornell, who is putting together a chicken coop plan book. There is a real need for this, so if you have a coop, consider sharing your design:

Hi!

I’m a chicken owner in Minneapolis. I was wondering if you could help me spread the word. I’m looking for smart, good-looking chicken coops to feature in an upcoming book.

If you’re proud of your coop, send pictures to [email protected]. Please indicate whether you would be able to provide building plans. (I have a budget to compensate builders for their plans.) I do *not* need plans to go with all the pictures, so send your pics even without them.

Then I’ll be in touch if your coop meets our needs. Please feel free to share this message with any chicken-owners you know.

A little bit about me: I’m a writer and chicken owner living in Minnesota. I’m the author of Eat More Vegetables: A Guide to Making the Most of Your Seasonal Produce, The Minnesota Farmers Market Cookbook, and the Moon guides to Minnesota and the Twin Cities. This is my first chicken-related book.

Thanks!
Tricia Cornell