Free Egg Testing for California Backyard Chicken Keepers


If you keep a backyard chicken flock and are concerned about contaminants in your eggs, UC Davis is offering free egg testing for California residents. Specifically they are testing for fire contaminants and heavy metals.

Fire Contaminant Testing
Due to the recent fires, there is concern about backyard chickens ingesting contaminants from the ground and transmitting these to their eggs. UCD SVM is interested in testing eggs from these backyard flocks for various contaminants such as heavy metals, building materials, chemicals, etc.

Heavy Metal Contaminant Testing
Due to observation of high environmental lead levels in parts of California, there is concern that backyard chickens are being exposed to a level that could pose a public health risk. UCD SVM is interested in testing eggs from these birds for various contaminants such as Pb, PCBs, and PBDEs.

I know that our soil has lead in it and have always been curious to see if our chickens are passing any of this lead into their eggs. I sent off eggs for testing last Friday and will report back on the test results.

The New York Times reported on the issue of contaminants in eggs from backyard flocks back in 2012. If you’re a California resident and would like to send in some eggs for testing, check the UC Davis egg study website for a form to fill out as well as shipping directions. They will even assist with shipping costs if needed. Not only is this a great opportunity for backyard flock owners, but it’s also a way to advance the cause of environmental science.

What is and is not a “Swarm” of Bees

Root Simple reader Luis wrote with a simple request: a blog post with which to refer neighbors who freak out at the site of bees in their yards. It’s hard for those of us who garden and love nature to wrap our head around this fear, but I thought I’d offer a concise blog post when this issue arises.

What is a swarm?
This is what a swarm of bees looks like:

Image: Mark Osgatharp.

Swarms are the way honeybee colonies reproduce. As with all matters related to the biology of the honeybee, it’s easier to think of a colony as a single super-organism rather than thousands of individuals. Swarming takes place when a colony decides to make a new queen. Once the new queen hatches, the old queen takes off with about half the workers. Typically, they will land somewhere temporarily (such as a tree branch or the underside of a table) while they look for a permanent home. In this state they are not aggressive because they are not protecting babies and honey. Leave them alone and they will move on within a day or so. Very rarely you might spot a swarm in flight from one point to another. In this case the swarm will resemble a dark cloud. Like a resting swarm, a swarm in flight is also harmless.  For more information on swarms see this longer post.

Worker bees pollinating a flower. This is not a “swarm.”

What is not a “swarm”

Let’s say you have a flowering plant or tree and there are hundreds of bees landing on the flowers. They literally may be crawling all over the tree, but they will be working as individuals, not clustering together in a bunch. That is how you know they are not a swarm. Seeing so many bees in one place may be a bit frightening for some, but remember, those bees are working at gathering pollen and nectar (and as a side benefit helping the plants reproduce and make fruit by distributing that pollen). The bees you see hovering and landing on flowers are singularly focused on their work. They have no interest in you. It’s unlikely that they will sting, but it can happen if you brush up against one. Worker bees gathering pollen and nectar in your yard will never work as a group to sting you. Multiple stings from a group of bees will only happen if you disturb the place where they live as a colony.

What does a bee colony look like?
Bee colonies prefer to live in dark enclosed spaces such as a tree cavity, a crack in a wall, an electrical box or in the boxes beekeepers provide for a colony. If you see bees coming in and out of a hole in a wall, tree, etc. during daylight hours you’ve likely found their home. The activity at the entrance to the colony will look a lot like the landing pattern of a busy airport with bees coming and going constantly in an orderly fashion. Inside the colony you’ll find thousands of workers (all female), a queen and few male drones all crammed together in a tight space. If you find a colony leave them alone. If you have a colony somewhere where you don’t want them, please call a beekeeper. Please see my post on how and why you should find a reputable beekeeper.

What if the bees are “Africanized?”
Don’t let anyone try to scare you with Africanized bee hysteria. Read my longer post on this subject.

Wasps and hornets
Not all black and yellow flying insects are honeybees (Apis mellifera). There are also wasps, hornets, bumblebees and 4,000 species of native bees in the United States alone. These are often mistaken for honeybees, but their habits are very different. Collectively the evolutionary family tree that includes these insects are known as HymenopteraThe 150,000 known Hymenoptera have a beneficial roll to play in the web of life. In addition to gathering pollen and nectar many Hymenoptera species, such as wasps, eat other insects. Read Kelly’s blog post on a common Southern California wasp and why you should not freak out about it.

But I’m allergic!
Every human being is “allergic” to bees in that if you get stung you will experience pain, swelling and itchiness. Taking Benydryl immediately will greatly reduce swelling and discomfort. A small percentage of the population is severely allergic to bees and will go into Anaphylaxis and require immediate medical attention. If you get stung by a bee and experience trouble breathing, a weak pulse, or dizziness you should call 911.

The bottom line
Without bees and other pollinating insects we’d all starve. Even if you don’t like bees it’s not like they are going to go away. Nature is beautiful, wondrous and inspiring but she also has her stings. Stop trying to control nature, relax and you’ll enjoy the show.

Gray Miscellany

Root Simple has a large, virtual dust bin full of news and notions not quite worthy of a full blog post. I thought I’d sweep a few of them into a brief missive.

Grey vs. Gray
In the great greywater vs. graywater debate I neglected to note a somewhat irrelevant factoid: Sherwin-Williams sells a paint color named after the actor/monologist Spalding Gray. When will Werner Herzog get a paint color?

OED Access
I couldn’t find my library’s online Oxford English Dictionary access. Then I did some digging and discovered it. For those of you in Los Angeles you can access the OED with your library card number here.

While you’re on the LA Library’s website, take a look at their scanned collection of vintage menus, including the Brown Derby and Cocoanut Grove.

America’s Hippest Neighborhood
The part of Los Angeles we live in or on the border of (the border region is disputed) is Silver Lake. Silver Lake is two words my brothers and sisters. If I downed a matcha latte for every time I’ve seen “Silverlake” I’d be a wealthy, if green tinted man. FYI, Silver Lake is named after Herman Silver, a water commissioner and city councilman from the early 1900s.  Perhaps we should rename our lake and community after Spalding Gray. Welcome to Gray Lake! But then, I suppose, we’d have the grey vs. gray problem.

While we’re on the topic of local news, the band Yacht, in their latest video, has included the beloved “happy foot/sad foot” characters from the rotating podiatrist’s sign that defines and delineates us from greater Silver Lake.

Have a great weekend and please enjoy this chicken playing Puccini’s “O Mio Babbino Caro“:

This is why we have the internets.

115 Inventing a New Word: Apisoir



Wine writer Micheal Alberty was thinking of a way to promote the “terroir” of local honey so, naturally, he coined a new word, “apisoir.” Find out what happened when he tried to get this word into Wikipedia as well as the reasons he thinks we should support local honey. You heard it first on Root Simple! During the podcast Michael mentions:

You can reach Michael via his Facebook page and his email is [email protected] Apisoir, apisoir, apisoir!

If you’d like to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. Closing theme music by Dr. Frankenstein. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

A Spidery Christmas

Ukrainian Christmas ornament. Image: Wikipedia

Monday’s spider post prompted Root Simple pal and patron Michael W. to tip me off to a the unlikely Ukrainian combination of spiders and Christmas. In an article in the Ukrainian Weekly Orysia Paszczak Tracz explains,

The spider-web-covered “yalynka” (Christmas tree) is now a standard Ukrainian Christmas story. It comes in many versions, and has appeared in a number of contemporary children’s books. Basically, a poor family has nothing with which to decorate their yalynka and, hearing this, a spider overnight spins its web all over the tree, making the spiderweb sparkle and glitter in the morning sunlight. This explains the tradition of tinsel on the Christmas tree.

The various embellishments of the story depend upon the teller and the tale. Another version has the Holy Family hiding in a cave during their flight to Egypt. The benevolent spiders spin webs and cover the whole entrance to the cave. When Herod’s soldiers pass by, they do not bother searching the cave, because obviously it has not been disturbed in a long time – and the Holy Family is safe.

Now, a few things need to be clarified. First of all, the custom of the Christmas tree arrived in Ukraine from Germany in the 19th century. It became a supplement to the Ukrainian “didukh,” the sheaf of wheat and other best grains, which symbolizes Ukrainian Christmas. The spirits of the ancestors come into the home in the didukh for the holy days. They had lived in the fields in the grain helping the bountiful harvest. The didukh is symbolic, the yalynka is decorative.

Here’s what a didukh looks like:

Image: Wikipedia

Being both a fan of spiders and wheat I can only hope that Ukrainian Christmas traditions will make their way west.