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?

Composting at the NATO Protests in Chicago

Have you ever gone to a concert or a convention or some other large event and marveled at the staggering amounts of waste generated? I’ve been particularly wishing more of that waste was composted. And what do you know? Just as I was thinking about this, guest Root Simple blogger Nancy Klehm happened to send me a post on this very subject. If only every event had a compost tsar! Here’s Nancy:

I am obsessed with urban soil health, so when I got a phone call in mid May from Steven of the Seeds of Peace Collective, I realized a soil ship had floated in. Seeds of Peace is a collective of accomplished cooks and trained street medics, based in Missoula, who provide delicious home cooked food in support of non-violent social movements. They were in Chicago to set up a free community kitchen to serve thousands of NATO conference protestors. Steven said they needed my assistance with their food waste as they had already overwhelmed a small urban garden’s compost bin.

It was late, so I waited until morning and drove my pickup to their site – a parking lot between a community center and an auto parts store. The scene was impressive: a maroon biodiesel school bus with windows dressed in curtains screen printed with frying pans and butcher knives and the largest wok and cast iron pan I have ever seen. A purple tent stretched from the bus into the lot overhanging a to-code outdoor kitchen with multiple burner stoves, wash sinks, prepping area and boxes of produce, mostly organic. At least 12 people stood prepping food for the day. Gallons and gallons of salad and stir fry ingredients were being tossed and mixed in 30 gallon coolers with small wooden oars.

Every day for a week, I picked up the 100 or so gallons of food waste a day and provided them with extra large garbage cans to pour their waste into. Their kitchen was three miles from the rallying area. Once the food was prepared, they would pack a flat bed with it and a few tables and trundle off to the park to serve their healthy, delicious food free of charge.

One pick up was an entire garbage can of delicious looking chickpea and sweet potato curry that had fermented in the sun due to the police blocking their passage to the Park. It made me cry to compost that delicious looking curry. I had to use a couple of bales of straw and dumpstered cardboard from my carbon stockpile to take care of so much nitrogenous waste. Over the past month, the pile, well integrated and covered with a thick layer of straw reached thermophilic temperatures and now is in its mesophilic stage. Most of the food is just residual moisture now and the pile has dropped in volume by at least 20% due to composting and evaporation. So much future soil!

Thanks Steven, Sarah, Patrick and the rest of you of the Seeds of Peace Collective. May you meet with strong hearts and hands on the road.

Healing the yard with a huge compost pile

The new compost pile is covered with a tarp to keep moisture in. Eventually it will fill this whole space. In the background you can see our leftover adobe bricks.



So–our regular readers will know that we have high levels of lead in our back yard soil. We’re dealing with this by filling most of our yard with mulch and perennial natives to lock down the soil (lead laden dust is bad) and to diversify the local ecosystem.

Meanwhile, our vegetables must be grown in raised beds from now out. We used to have two main vegetable beds in the center of our back yard–they were our workhorses. Since the lead scare we’ve pulled up those beds. They were semi-sunken beds, the soil in them a mix of native soil, compost and imported soil.

When you have contaminated soil yet want to grow food, the easiest solution is to build extra deep raised beds and fill them with imported soil (soil which has, hopefully, been tested for lead!). Some people put plastic sheeting or rock barriers between the imported soil or native soil, which in effect makes the beds into giant containers.

We did something a little different–and a lot harder. We dug out a huge pit where our beds used to be. When I say “we,” I mean Erik dug a huge pit. (Somehow I weaseled out of this project.) This excavation had two purposes: 1) to remove the topsoil, where most of the lead (lead being an airborne pollutant) is located and 2) to harvest the clay beneath to use in our earth oven. Between the clay harvested for making the adobe bricks and cob, and the supplemental clay that we’ve put aside for future repairs and maintenance on the oven, the pit has grown to be about 12 feet wide and 2 feet deep.

This pit is going to be our new planting area, but obviously it needs to be filled in. Instead of buying imported soil, we’re going to grow soil by composting on a grand scale. We’re going to compost right in the pit and fill it up bit by bit. When it’s done, we’ll have a big round area where it will probably be safe enough to plant food crops. Might the plants suck some lead up from the deep clay layer? Maybe. We could test the deep clay. Might some lead leach in from the sides of the pit? Possibly. But this solution is good enough for us.

What drives us to this decision is our intuitive relationship with our yard. I know that sounds a little woo-woo, but I encourage you all to pay attention to what your gut tells you about your gardens. It won’t steer you wrong.

Our gut instincts told us to dig down rather than build up, and to make good use of excavated dirt in the oven. Now our instincts tell us to fill this giant hole with rich homemade compost rather than imported soil. It just seems more…holistic to grow out own soil. It will rise out of our meals, our labor, our intentions. It will belong to this place.

How long will this take? Probably about a year. Maybe more. We’re willing to wait for those future harvests because this feels right.

Disconnect to Reconnect: Ditching the “Flushie” for a Composting Toilet

Image from the Wikimedia Commons

We’re lucky to have another guest post by Nancy Klehm (see a nice interview with her on foraging here). Nancy visits us at the Root Simple compound at least once a year. What follows is an account of a plumbing misadventure she had on her last visit. 

To give you some context, ever since we’ve remodeled our bathroom and switched to a low-flow toilet we’ve had periodic backups. We think there is a low spot just within reach of our turlet snake. The toilet flushes OK most of the time, but at least once a week I’ve got to deploy that damn snake.

Here’s Nancy:

I don’t use a flushie often, I made the decision to ‘go dry’ years ago, adopting the bucket toilet + sawdust system as it pairs nicely with my composting obsession and food growing habit.

I stayed at Erik and Kelly’s back in February. Their low flush toilet and antique piping can’t seem to handle even the most modest bodily donation. Once a flushing attempt proves unsuccessful, and immediately following the ‘oh no…’ guilty grimace, a light-hearted blame game plays out and then according to homestead rules, Erik snakes the toilet. The closet augur is kept on the front porch (to greet visitors?). Erik augers for a few minutes, flushes successfully, marches the tool back outside to air out and we settle back into our routines relieved that our burdens are flowing into the larger mystery of pipes and their soupy contents to the municipal waste treatment plant miles away.

But with Erik and Kelly out of town on one of the weekends during my stay, the daily chores of feeding the kittens, letting out the single hen to roam the yard and snaking, if so needed, fell on me. And yes, the toilet clogged and no, I did not assume the blame. I am regular enough (2-3x/day) as are Erik and Kelly for the record [editor’s note: the editors demur from either acknowledging or disavowing the hypothetical frequency of their natural propensities.] to avoid creating such monsters and yet, the flushie needs snaking every day soon after the post-caffeine effect.

Continue reading…

The Stages of Alchemy as a Metaphor for Composting

I’ve been struck, for a long time, at the connections between alchemy and composting. I thought it might be interesting to “thoughtstyle” on the alchemical process and what it has to teach us as a metaphor for composting. Though there’s not universal agreement on this, western alchemy is often divided into four stages identified by color:

Nigredo or blackening
“The ever deepening descent into the unconscious suddenly becomes illumination from above” as Carl Jung put it. In other words, you have to go down to go up. When you work with compost you’re literally working with poop, waste and trash.

Albedo or whitening
The nigredo stage is purified by the fire of thermophilic bacteria and transformed into the albedo or “whitening”. The dark night of the soul has concluded as the trash (poop!) in our compost pile are now a living, breathing collective entity.

Citrinitas, the yellowing
Connected with the symbolism of the sun it’s a reminder that all life, including the microbes, fungi and insect life of the compost pile are ultimately (somewhat tangentially in the case of fungi) connected to the solar power of the sun.

Rubedo, a reddening
At the final stage, the rubedo, a multiplication takes place – life pervades the compost pile in a highly concentrated form. Lead becomes gold and, in fact, everything the rubedo touches becomes gold. The same goes with our compost. Everything it comes in contact with is pervaded with microbial life.

At its heart, alchemy is a metaphor for spiritual change. When we compost, we’re participating with and accelerating one of nature’s miracles: the transformation of waste in to life. Compost, then, is the spiritual, life-giving transformation of the planet.