Helping the Bees with Science in your Backyard

San Francisco State University associate professor Gretchen LeBuhn is currently coordinating the innovative Great Sunflower Project, enlisting gardeners around the country to plant sunflowers and count the number of bees that visit them in a set period of time. We participated this summer, planting the sunflower seeds provided by the project. It’s too late to start this year, but you can sign up for next year’s project here. When we last did an observation, we counted five bees within ten minutes visiting the flower we chose to watch. See the video above for an instant replay.

This project is very important, and participation and support of it is a way we can all help out with what appears to be an alarming decrease in bees due to colony collapse disorder. In a fascinating and well written new book, A Spring Without Bees, author Michael Schacker explains the details of colony collapse disorder and the media’s poor job of covering it (hint: it ain’t cellphones, moving bees around or a bee rapture). Schacker blames the bee decline on two pesticides: GAUCHO, manufactured by Bayer Crop Science and Fipronil, manufactured by BASF. You can read more about Schacker’s efforts on Plan Bee.

An Omnivore’s Dilemma

I’m constantly amazed at the wide spectrum of people interested in the subjects profiled on this blog. Our readers run the gamut from leftists to libertarians, to Republicans, with a sprinkling of hunters, new moms, city dwellers, suburbanites, and more all united in the common goal of manifesting a better world.

Of course such a wide coalition isn’t always going to agree on everything. This week we heard from some animal rights activists amongst our readers who politely took issue with the fact that we keep chickens for eggs. I’ll keep my rebuttal short, hoping that we can stay focused on our common goals. With the animal rights folks I agree that current agribusiness livestock practices are appalling and I suspect most of our readers agree on this point. I don’t agree with animal rights activists on the nature of the relationship between domesticated animals and humans. I see a long historical, symbiotic, beneficial relationship cutting across almost all the peoples of the world (with some exceptions such as Hindus). Farmer Bryan Welch sums up my attitude far more eloquently than I can in an essay in Mother Earth News when he says, “I get a lot of laughs watching my animals figure out their lives and I get pretty sad when it’s time to kill them. I have a lot more death in my life than I did before. And, ironically, that’s part of the reason why I feel like I have a lot more life in my life. That’s why I farm.”

Even though I’m raising hens for eggs not meat (though I don’t have a problem with doing so), there are ethical questions involved in keeping backyard poultry. Is shipping chicks by mail humane? What to do with roosters? Would keeping hens on pasture be better than confined to a run? I believe these concerns are outweighed by the benefits of knowing where my food comes from, but others may disagree and I respect that.

Since I’ve been asked in the past, I’ll let everyone know that I’m a omnivore (though I don’t eat much meat, following Michael Pollan’s admonition, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”). Mrs. Homegrown is a “fishetarian”. And I’m interested in hearing our reader’s opinions on the ethicacy of keeping backyard livestock: please leave comments. I’ve also crafted a poll that you’ll find along the right side of this page to indicate your dietary practices which I’m curious about.

Bird Flu and Industrial Agriculture

While I have not seen this new documentary, Shall We Gather at the River, its website contains three provocative interview clips with Michael Greger M.D., the U.S. Humane Society’s Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture. In these excerpts Dr. Greger asserts that industrial agriculture’s penchant for cramming thousands of animals into sheds is the most likely vector for a host of scary diseases such as bird flu and mad cow disease.

Keeping chickens in our backyard has brought home the debate on biosecurity and bird flu. There’s considerable dispute about how these viruses spread, with the industry trying to make the case that wild birds and backyard poultry keepers such as ourselves are a greater threat. A report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Industrial Livestock Production and Global Health Risks (pdf) lends credence to Dr. Greger’s assertion that the hazard of a bird flu outbreak comes not just from backyard flocks but from large scale livestock operations. It seems logical: pack thousands of immunosupressed birds in a shed and spew their waste into the air and waterways and you’re asking for trouble.

And f.y.i. our sickened hen (not by influenza) seems to be on the mend and will hopefully rejoin the flock soon.

Problems Part I


The road to urban homesteading ain’t smooth and involves more than a few potholes along the way. Some of those potholes will swallow a bike tire while others are big enough for a Hummer. But with persistence it becomes easier to deal with the occasional bump, lessons can be learned and future mistakes avoided. With the popularity of our earlier blunders post, I’d like to begin regularly sharing problems as they develop. Here’s problem #1 for this troublesome July:

A Sick Chicken

Our Araucana hen became listless and depressed over the weekend, just sitting around, avoiding food and not engaging in the usual hen chatter. She also stopped laying eggs. At first we thought she might be egg bound, a condition in which an egg becomes stuck on the way out the cloaca. Warm baths and lubricants (I’m going to resist a cheap joke here) ensued with no results. The thought of inserting a finger into the cloaca, or worse, attempting to break an egg seemed foolish for inexperienced chicken owners such as ourselves. As of today we can feel no swelling in the abdomen, or butt dragging, both signs of an egg-bound chicken.

We began to think that our ill tempered Rhode Island Red, who had pecked the Araucana pretty badly last week, may have caused an infection to develop. On Sunday we borrowed some antibiotics from a fellow backyard chicken keeper, specifically a product called Terramycin which we added to her drinking water. As of today she is substantially improved, but not completely back to normal. As a friend of ours who grew up on a farm says, “chickens are either on or off.” Once they get sick they often don’t come back “on”. We’ll hope for the best.

This problem brings to mind two lessons we’ve learned in the past year of backyard chicken keeping:

1. When you build your coop think about creating an isolation ward. A real farmer would just cull a sick bird to keep the flock safe. For those of us with just a few hens this is more difficult and it’s great to have a place to separate, at a distance, a sick bird just in case they have something communicable. It’s better to figure out how to configure this ahead of time rather than at 8 p.m. on a Sunday. Thankfully we’ve got a large dog pen for our Doberman that can double as a small chicken run. We’ve also got a small dog/cat crate that works well for bringing a chicken indoors at night to keep her warm.

2. Have medications on hand before you need them. A chicken first aid kit is a good idea. Here’s an article on what that kit should include. If our hen recovers we’ll have to follow up the Terramycin with a probiotic supplement to restore beneficial gut bacteria killed by the antibiotics. It would have been great to have these medications on hand rather than having to run to a feed store, rely on a friend, or pay to have them shipped overnight.

Stay tuned for July’s problem #2–an old friend–blossom end rot.

UPDATE: The Araucana (actually, probably a “Americana”) made a full recovery.

Terror of Tiny Town

The Homegrown Evolution in-box overfloweth this week with news of the cute and the tiny. Yesterday’s post about our miniature Red Currant tomatoes prompted Bruce F of Chicago to inform us that he’s working on the world’s smallest kale plant. He’s growing them in self-watering containers made with old pop bottles (more info on how to make a pop bottle self-watering container here and here). These pop bottle containers look like they’d work well for starting seeds, as they provide a constant source of water.

Nance Klehm, another intrepid Chicago resident, informed us that someone just gave her two bantam chickens for her backyard, the perfect compliment to her chihuahuas. Some say that bantams are better for smaller backyards due to their diminutive size. Readers with bantam experience please let us know what you think about keeping bantams vs. normal chickens as we only have experience with SUV sized poultry.

The photo above is, incidentally, a scene from Werner Herzog’s brilliant and inexplicable film “Even Dwarfs Started Small”.