Thursday, December 26, 2013

Who Will Speak for the Shelterbelts?: Canadians are on the verge of losing a legacy in sustainable farming

Our yard in Cactus Lake, Saskatchewan was bordered by a number of caragana hedges and deciduous trees. Caragana arborescens is a dense, prickly bush with small, yellow flowers typical of the pea family. In the late summer sun the seed pods crackle and pop, flinging their seeds onto dusty gravel roads and somerfallow fields. Caraganas were planted to form a protective barrier, sheltering yards and fields from harsh winter and summer winds. They separate our yard from the wheat field directly south of our home. As children we sucked sweet nectar from the blossoms, but when the wood was cut or broken it gave off an acrid smell that caught in the back of your throat. The branches have thorns that ravage summer-bared arms and legs and the bushes hiss malevolently with grasshoppers and caragana beetles. Love it or hate it, caragana is an integral part of our prairie agricultural history. The aging bushes are being integrated into a new model of shelterbelt plantings which includes a plan to help support native bees. This new eco-buffer model has international implications which is being promoted as part of a Canadian plan to improve and protect biodiversity. The bad news is the federal government is about to cut the very program that developed the revolutionary eco-buffer model.
When I make my weekly phone call to my mom in Cactus Lake, she gives me the weather report and the bird report. If it's been cold and snowing, I can hear the weariness creep into her tone of voice and I worry about her. I don't like to think of mom and dad driving to their Christmas parties and square dances on icy roads with blowing snow. I worry about their spirits getting low from feeling trapped and snowbound in their tiny isolated hamlet. Mom's bird report is in actuality the bird-feeder report in which she recites the roll call of recent visitors: red polls, wax-wings, downy woodpeckers and blue jays. My mom knows her local flora and fauna: birds, trees and wildflowers. When recent contestants on The Great Canadian Race could not name a single one the provincial flowers as part of a challenge, my mom hooted derisively at their abysmal lack of knowledge. "They didn't even know the Alberta wild rose," she is laughing so hard on the phone she can hardly spit out the words. Mom was a teacher in Cactus Lake's one-room schoolhouse. At that time, the provincial flowers would have been an important part of the patriotic elementary curriculum, but it was mom's father, Grandpa Clark, who inspired her love for nature and helped her develop a sharp eye for birding.

Fred Clark was a soft-spoken, gentle man I barely remember from childhood. In my favourite photograph, grandpa Clark is standing beside a beehive that is stacked with supers that reach above his head--a lovely little visual joke that would make those in-the-know smile. On the day that I understood that there was no way a beekeeper would really stack working hives that high, I felt he revealed part of himself to me--the quiet trickster. Mom says he was passionate about planting trees and loved the way they attracted the prong-horned antelope to his farm. "He planted trees until the day he died," she says proudly. My grandfather farmed near the town confidently named Conquest, Saskatchewan which over the years became known as the Caragana Capital of Canada. Those who grew up with caraganas might not think this was something to be proud of, but I think it's worth taking another look at this shelterbelt standard.

As I grew up with parents and grandparents who lived through The Depression I had always wondered why farmers didn't plant more bushes and trees between fields to keep the top soil from blowing away. When I worked in England in the 1990's and saw the beautiful dense hedgerows between fields, I couldn't understand why that model wasn't taken up on the prairies. I know the extreme cold and drought prohibits the growth of British hedgerow species, but surely there must be local bushes that would perform a similar function. The land around Cactus Lake is rolling prairie with large cultivated fields relieved by small ponds ringed with native bushes and trees. These are the ponds where I spent summer afternoons crouching on my haunches dipping a mason jar into the water to collect snails and other critters. The brackish smell of the water was layered with the comforting scent of wet willow bark and wild mint. Red-winged black birds sang "conkaree!" from cat-tails while their yellow-headed cousins did impressions of squeaky screen doors. Spotted fauns napped in the dappled shade of trembling aspens and porcupines nibbled roots in the shadows. These ponds and bluffs were islands of biodiversity in a sea of monoculture made of acres of wheat, barley, rye, mustard, and rapeseed crops. I felt sure there were plants from the pond bio-zones and wild bluffs where we picked Saskatoon berries that could be extended out to help shelter crops from the harsh elements while increasing wildlife habitat.

What happened in the early years of prairie settlement was the cultivation and propagation of a bush that originated from Siberia. You guessed it--Caragana arborescens aka the Siberia Pea Tree. It was the most affordable option at the time because it was a survivor species and it could be grown from seed. And grow it they did--millions of Caragana bushes were grown at the Experimental Farm in Indian Head, Saskatchewan. William Cram was appointed as the horticulturalist at Indian Head Experimental farm in 1945. His promotion of planting trees to protect farms, fields and gardens and yards earned him the nickname 'Caragana Bill.' Farmers from the three Canadian Prairie provinces could apply to the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration Shelterbelt Centre for trees, depending on need and farm size (and their willingness to put in the time and labor needed to plant the trees). Farmers like my Grandpa Clark benefited from the wealth of experience and knowledge from the staff at the Indian Head Farm and from the scores of tree seedlings they received from the shelterbelt program.

There were other hedgerow and windbreak species grown and shared by the centre including: lilacs, willow, green ash, Siberian larch, spruce and poplar. Initially shelterbelts were planted to create farmyards for the early settlers for shelter from snow, sun and wind and to provide relief from the wide open spaces on the prairie. The prairie that the first settlers tilled had been covered by native plants that colonized the rich soil left behind by receding glaciers. Once this delicate grassland ecosystem was destroyed, the topsoil became vulnerable to drought and erosion which is in part what caused The Depression. Shelterbelts are a primary part of a multifaceted strategy towards topsoil preservation.

In favourable years, prairie food and flower garden flourish in the micro-climates created within successful shelterbelts. Planting a shelterbelt around a farmyard 5 rows deep with 2 rows of conifers can reduce the heating bill by 25%.There is the added benefit of trapping water from melting snowbanks which can be diverted for livestock and gardens. Buffer zones were grown to prevent erosion and keep snow from blowing from the fields onto the roads. Shelterbelts can act as livestock fences and protection from the elements. They are also used to create a barrier between fields and ponds, bogs or riparian areas. One of my childhood friends has planted a shelterbelt around her family farm yard to insulate it from the traffic noise. In addition to their spiritual and aesthetic value, shelterbelt plants can have cultural and monetary value as cosmetic, medicinal and food plants.

William Shroeder, one of the current horticulturalists at the Indian Head Farm specializes in breeding poplars. Perhaps we should call him "Poplar Bill." I phoned him to ask if caraganas can be an invasive species after reading that goats were recently brought in to Wascana Park in Regina to keep them under control. He explained that apart from the sterile cultivars, caraganas can be invasive in habitats such as parkland in northern Saskatchewan. Folks plant them around their cabins where there are no biological controls to check their growth. On the grasslands the land is tilled beside the bushes which them from spreading. Permaculturalists a looking at caragana bushes with renewed interest because of its hardiness in drought and winter, its ability to fix nitrogen in the soil and its potential as a food plant. I haven't eaten caragana "peas", but they have been used as chicken feed and famine food for humans. The leaves have been used to make a blue dye. I aske Bill if he's ever seen caragana used for chicken seed. "I saw a farmer in Kindersley put chickens in mobile cages along the caraganas. They ate the grasshoppers that were attracted to the bushes."

The good news is that Poplar Bill and his colleagues have developed a new shelterbelt model called eco-buffers based on the more natural model of the prairie bluffs where I spent my childhood exploring and daydreaming. These are composed of the bushes and trees that support the Western Bumblebee which has almost been extirpated from western Canada. (The Western Bumblebee is Bombus Occidentalis, aka the white-butted bumblebee, not to be confused with the Canadian white-tailed bumblebee, Bombus moderatus, which is not to be confused with the British white-tailed bumblebee, Bombus Lucorum.) Not that Caragana isn't a bee plant. Au contraire--being in the pea family, bumblebees love it, and it was an important prairie honey plant in the mid twentieth century when Caragana hedges were in their prime. However Caragana only blooms during May and June, leaving a dearth of bee forage for rest of the year.

The new eco-buffer model has been constructed with ecological bee experts such as ecologist Mark Wonnek. The plants have been chosen to help provide a continuous supply of flowers for nectar and pollen and to provide other materials bees need such as plant resins and leaves of species that leaf-cutter bees use to make their nests. By creating soil conditions for ground-nesting bees, these new eco-buffers will provide support for our ailing pollinators. As farming machinery reaches peak size, heritage windbreaks planted in the former shelterbelt model at Conquest have been removed to accommodate the new mega-tractors. My cousins were very upset at the loss of trees and bushes that our ancestors had planted. (As we reach the era of peak soil and peak oil, I imagine tractors will become smaller and more fuel efficient and those wind rows that were removed will be sorely missed.) Rather than being planted in homogenous straight rows the new eco-buffers could be integrated naturally into the topography of a farm within a "precision farming" paradigm. This will create an aesthetically pleasing fluidity in the landscape that will allow the machinery room to maneuver and antelopes the freedom to travel between the biodiverse eco-buffer habitats (at least the ones that aren't bordered by livestock fences).

While the government in Nebraska is offering new grants to help their farmers replace and renew their aging shelterbelts, the federal Conservative government here in Canada has decided to shut down the 112 year old shelterbelt program at Indian Head. At a time when that program has developed a key solution to some of the major problems with current agricultural models, funding has been cut and jobs are being axed. Our ancestors have planted over 610 million trees sequestering megatonnes of carbon. The legacy of the program is priceless.

While the research and development program at Indian Head will continue, the government wants a private nursery to take over the shelterbelt program and farmers will have to pay market value for their trees and bushes. (Will the new eco-buffers have to be supported by crowd-sourced funding?) Many of us have benefited from the knowledge, labour and experience fostered at Indian Head. Our ancestors created the landscape of our childhood with these bushes and trees. We need a government that continues to invest in this legacy. We need to let it be known that we want a government that values the ecology and food security of our country. Please sign the online petition and send the Honourable Gerry Ritz, the Minister of Agriculture in Ottawa a card letting your views be known.

Constituency Office
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Videos for the Holiday Season from the Cornell Laborotory of Ornithology

Because you should shed a few tears today. It's traditional.

Because you should remind yourself of the beauty of the Snowy Owl.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Solstice is Immanent, Beware of Snowmen Bearing Guns

  Today I saw a hummingbird circle high above my head as I waited for the number 33 bus on Clancy Loranger Way by Queen Elizabeth Park. I hope that means I'm in for some good luck--better luck than I had this morning when I fell down our front stairs on my butt. Just when my back was beginning to recover. Merde.

 I love seeing wind-ravaged wasp nests and plump kiwi fruit silhouetted against the dusk at this time of the year.

Turns out Frosty the Snowman has carnivorous aspirations and enjoys hunting moose in his spare time.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Bees in Paradise, Women in the Kitchen

Check out this frothy confection of a film made in 1948. Set in 1943 it is a musical comedy fantasy about a colony of women who model their society on the beehive. It serves to undermine and mock authoritative women, eroding the power they gained by working during the war and sending them back into the kitchen. There's some fun physical comedy, cute double entendres and pretty good costumes. The set dec is pretty awesome--lots of skeps carved in "stone". The text  and music is mostly derivative, but saved in part by its self-referential and self-mocking tone.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

December Berries and a New Eco-Feminist Book

Winter berries glow
Where bees in summer roamed

We are enjoying crisp sunny skies at minus 3 degrees Celsius while Southern Alberta struggles with a snowstorm.

I just purchased Vandana Shiva's breathless new work Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development. It's just come out in paperback with a lovely new cover by Nikki McClure. If you like Michale Pollen you should read Vandana Shiva. It is an essential eco-feminist book on global food security, ($17.50 at Banyen Books, but I bought the last copy. Sorry!)

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Join the Slofemists this Saturday at the Strathcona Fieldhouse!

Lois Klassen and Lori Weidenhammer invite you to be a part of Slofemists, a long-run artists' project that offers the unhurried production of feminisms. Join in the Slofemists embroidery circle at Strathcona Field House on November 30 from 1-3pm. Participants should bring a feminist story that has inspired them to share, in exchange for a take-home feminist embroidery pattern. Supplies for an afternoon of feminist embroidery will be provided. Embroidered linen patches from Slofemists events will eventually form a composite patchwork that will be used as a couch cover or Slofa - a prop to designate a mobile space for dialogue and performance. Slofemists has been presented at the Surface Design Association of Alberta at the John Snow House in Calgary (October 2013).

In 2014, Slofemists will host Vancouver feminist embroidery events at #204-2075 Yukon Street on the last Saturday of each month: January 25 (1-3pm), February 22 (1-3pm), and March 29 (1-3pm)Register for these by emailing lois(at)loisklassen(dot)com .

Lois Klassen is an artist and writer based in Vancouver. She is interested in participatory art in the city and the social life of crafts. Her on-going social sewing project is documented at

Lori Weidenhammer is a performance-based eco-feminist artist and educator. She prefers to make art in “galleries without walls”, i.e. gardens. She is part of the Second Site Collective and a founding member of the Slofemists. She blogs at

Klassen and Weidenhammer are past collaborators in the Means of Production Artists Raw Resource Collective (with Sharon Kallis, 2009) and CornerFarm: Repurposed Planters for Avant Gardeners (2008). Lori and Lois have collaborated on a number of projects concerning ecology and sustainable lifestyles.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Scabiosa Stellata 'Ping Pong'

Finding out that there is a flower named Scabiosa stellata Ping Pong has made my day. I can use this fab phrase as an incantation to cheer myself up in sticky situations. If someone tries to push ahead of you in line at the grocery store, fix them with your eyes and recite: "Scabiosa stellata Ping Pong!" in your most intimidating wizard's voice and I assure you people will start treating you with respect. I fell in love with this flower at Dan Jason's farm on Salt Spring Island. It has a demure blue-violet flower which has a good sturdy landing pad for the big bumble bees that love to sip the nectar. The wonderful thing about Scabiosa stellata ping pong is its translucent globe-shaped seed heads, which is why it is sometimes poetically called "Paper Moon." Each dimple in the ping pong ball is marked with a charming 5 pointed star. They are an eco-artist's dream and look great in sculptures and flower arrangements. The seeds would make great holiday gifts.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

November Nectar: Red Bistort

When there's a warm day in November, there's not much for honeybees to choose from for forage, so when I visited VanDusen this week I was pleased to see there was some red bistort aka Persicaria for those bees who ventured outside the hive.

 Being red, it breaks the rules for bee plant colour, but you can see those purple anthers on the stamens. I wonder if they help attract the bee to the plant. Certainly when it's this cold, there is not fragrance I could detect.

Not all the florets on the inflorescence bloom at once. You can see how they are blooming at different stages, moving from the bottom towards the top. This is a good strategy for the plant to extend blossom time to hedge its bets on being pollinated.

Bistort is from the Polygonaceae or buckwheat family,  which contains an important collection of bee plants. You can see the tiny white grains of pollen, but it's the nectar that's attracting the bees to this plant.

 Polygonaceae persicarium: Smart arse with pink pokers and knobby knees

What we in British Columbia call Smart Weed (more polite than smart arse) is Polygonum persicarium also known as lady's-thumb. Persicaria comes from the Latin word for "peach" because of the similarity of its leaves to those from the peach tree. The "knobby knees" of Polygonum refers to its jointed stems. Smartweed competes with food crops and can cause yield losses and harvesting delays. It thrives in moist, shady conditions and I am very familiar with it, having spend hours on UBC Farm weeding it out of the veggie rows. At the time I didn't realize it was edible and medicinal. Foragers use smart weed sparingly to lend hot pepper flavor to soups. 
The common name bistort rhymes with distort, the "tort "meaning twisted, referring to the roots. There are wild bistorts and cultivars from all over the globe, some of which are great bee plants for gardens. You may be most familiar with the classic border perennials like Persicaria bistoria 'Superba' with its light pink blossoms on long stems aka pink pokers. The red cultivars are also popular, and although they break the rules for bee plant colours, on late fall days they attract honeybees when not much else is in bloom.

Bistort is a boggy member of the knotweed family. As I was taking these photos, my feet were squelching in the wet grass around the dried flower garden at VanDusen. Persicaria amplexicaulis 'Firetail' aka red bistort is a long-blooming (midsummer to late autumn) plant which grows just over a metre tall. There are dwarf versions as well, but I can't vouch if they attract bees as well as this cultivar. It's a shade tolerant plant which can tolerate different soils, including clay, but it does prefer wet feet.

An infusion of bistort was believed to drive out evil spirits. Witchipedia's list of alternative names for P. bistorta names reads like a spell from Hogwart's including Osterick, Snakeroot, Easter Mangiant, Adderwort, Twice Writhen, Pudding grass, Serpentaria, Dracunculus, Serpentary Dragonwort, Patience dock, Red Legs, and Dragon’s Scales. The roots have been soaked in water and boiled to eat as famine food in Europe and the seeds were used as chicken feed. Young leaves and shoots were cooked in Bistort Herb Pudding aka Easter-mangiant. It is is a boil-in-a-bag dish made of simple ingredients including oatmeal, barley, and hedgerow herbs such as sweet cicely, nettles, black current leaves, and yellow dock. Bistort pudding was traditionally prepared in May when other vegetables were few and far between. This dish is still eaten in parts of northern England (Cumberland). According to the authors of Seaweed and Eat It Easter mangiant was a fertility pudding, eaten at the end of lent when women wanted to conceive.

Brazilian scientists studied Polygonum punctatum and isolated the sesquiterpene dialdehyde polygodial as the active chemical constituent which along with tannin gives the plant its antibiotic, anti-flammatory and anti-hyperalgesic qualities. Plants from this genus have been used as astringent gargles and wound washes. Caution is warranted in the ingestion of bistort because of its high tannin content which can cause nausea and liver toxicity.

American bistort (Polygonum bistortoides) has a white flower head and is very attractive in a meadow. The roots were eaten raw or roasted in the fire by Rocky Mountain tribes, with a flavor that has been compared to chestnuts. I would like to try to grow it in my back yard, but the seeds are hard to find and difficult to germinate.

Feral smartweeds have historically been a major honey plant in the U. S. and Canada. In the book Plants for Bees by Kirk and Howes the authors say that although not a favoured honey plant in Britain, in other countries Persicarias produce a dark, spicy honey that is quick to crystallize. They suggest that the aquatic Persicaria ( P. amphibria) may be a good source of nectar to plant around pods and wet wastelands.

For a great blog post on Persicaria cultivars check out this article by Jan Verschoor.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Two Queens in November

Here are two queens in November, one foraging, one resting. They had exhausted a patch of Phacelia tanacetifolia, and then turned to these orange beauties.  The queens were weak and drowsy, falling off the flowers, but determined to seek sweetness on the unseasonably warm afternoon, with temperatures reaching 12 degrees Celsius. The morphology of this Phacelia is sturdier and with the florets close together, it is more ergonomic than these flowers with their weak and flopping petals. The bees kept slipping off these flowers, but there just wasn't much else to choose from at this time of the year. I don't think I've ever seen two queens tolerate such closeness, but they were just too weak to bother competing for space, hanging on for dear life. If you want to support bees, plant phacelia. I am hoping to try some new varieties next year.

 Did you notice Phacelia and Globe Gilia (above) both have blue pollen? It's luscious.

Location: Oak Meadows Pollinator Garden near the Insect Hotel @Oak and 41st, Vancouver, Canada.

The Pollinator Land Reserve

Land should not be taken out of the Agricultural Land Reserve for development. We need to save our bees by setting this land aside for them. Let's start a Pollinator Land Reserve--property set aside as buffer zones around arable soil in the ALR to save the bees and other insects that pollinate our crops and wildflowers. Our lives depend on it.

(All photos taken on Dan Jason's Farm at Salt Spring Seeds.)

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Of Macro and Miracles

Sometimes when you find a new friend, it's like a miracle. It's like a new piece of your life shifts, falls into place and somehow allows you to move more easily in the world. It's a mitzvah. There are many things that have brought new friends into my life: art, food, and bees and when all three of these favourite passions of mine come together it's a case of triple happiness. So it is with my new friend and colleague, J. G.

Through her generosity there are new colours in my life and a new way of seeing the world. OMG, it's MACRO!!!!!!

I gave her SLR with its macro lens a twirl today in the afternoon light. Of course, most of my pics were out of focus, but even the soft photos revealed new things about flowers I didn't see before. I am falling even more deeply in love with plants as a result of seeing them from this point of view. It's the velvety textures, the soft vulnerable sexuality of plants, the bold drama of nectar guides that I could barely see before. I can hardly contain my excitement and fear this may create in me a new form of paraphilia--macro erotica!

Can you see it? Can you feel the love?

I am losing some of the sharpness in my vision (partly from age, partly from what happened when I gave birth) so being able to suddenly bump up that capacity feels like a miracle. It makes me want to eke out every moment of the dying light of a November afternoon, my face buried deep in the nectaries of flowers and the crevices of kale.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Blooming in November

 On Friday I noticed we had our first hard frost, with the nasturtiums in our garden plot looking like they'd finally been defeated. Other flowers don't seem to be bothered. The penstemons are still hanging in there, which is good for the Anna's hummingbirds and cold spiders looking for a place to hide.

Penstemons have such lovely nectar guides--I bet the hummers can see them clearly because of the reddish hues.

 There are a few campanulas about.

 And there are calendula blooming amid the maple leaves. The red of the leaves brings out the orange tones in the center of the flower.

This Malva zebrina also  has stunning nectar guides.

A "Hotlips" salvia that has bloomed all summer long.

 Woodpecker holes in a tree trunk. Some of these may be full of mason bees.

Ivy blossoms attract bees and wasps at this time of the year.

Jean's lovely chickens frolic in the autumn leaves.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

From the Family Archives: Making Horseradish

I have been sorting through some family photos and found this one of my grandparents and great grandparents making horseradish in Cactus Lake Saskatchewan. I think it's from the early 1950's and my grandma May has written, "Making horseradish, a forgotten and tear enduring task." I guess making it outside makes it less tear inducing. I have a soft spot for that old white picket fence and the Virginia Creeper climbing over the arch. It's long-since been replaced by a caragana hedge.

Decomeber 8, 2013 has been declared Terra Madre "Slow Food, Slow Everything" Day. Maybe we should celebrate by making horseradish in the streets!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Edible Native Plant Workshop with The Vancouver Fruit Tree Project

On Sunday I hopped on the bus to Chinatown and enjoyed a beautiful bowl of udon soup with chicken and watercress at Harvest as the fall sun streamed in the windows. Then I walked to the Strathona Community Centre and attended a fantastic workshop on edible native plants with Nadine from The Vancouver Fruit Tree Project. Nadine is a botanist with a passion for native plants. She even grows them in pots on her balcony in Vancouver. The impressive list of plants Nadine grows include Mahonia nervosa, licorice fern, Saskatoon berry, Canadian mint, red flowering currant, vine maple, red huckleberry, evergreen huckleberry, chives, coastal strawberry, kinnikinnik and Labrador tea. Only one part of her balcony gets full sun for a few hours each day which is where she places the currant, strawberries, Saskatoons and herbs. Everything else survives in full to partial shade. "I'm a guerilla gardener," Nadine proclaims. "I figure if something was meant to stay with me it will survive."

 The Vancouver Fruit Tree Project helps people pick the fruit from trees on their property. The owner decides how much fruit they want to keep and any excess is donated to one of a dozen organizations who distribute it to people who need a healthy boost in their diet. (The social service organizations include Aids Vancouver, Steve's Manor, and the DTES Women's Shelter.) This summer the organization picked 5000 lbs of fruits which may otherwise have gone to waste. Over the years they have picked over 40 000 lbs of fruit in this city.

The proceeds from this workshop help fund the VFTP and the organization will soon be offering a low cost pruning service, which will operate on a profit-sharing model. There is an apple and pear pruning workshop coming up on Saturday November 16 from 10 am to 12 pm. Details on eventbrite.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Cleaning Mason Bee Condos with Brian Campbell

 It's that time of the year to prepare your mason bees for winter by cleaning the cocoons and condos. Brian Campbell gave a thoroughly fascinating workshop on mason bees as part of the VanDusen Garden workshop series. Brian started the class with a talk on the diversity of bees in British Columbia. He says our province is a great place to practice native bee conservation. This talk is worth the price of admission alone and Brian can come to your garden club or school and tell you all about our local bees. He can give you the confidence to clean your mason bees and help them live to produce another generation next spring.

My father-in-law says he brings his houses in to dry a few days before he cleans them out. Brian takes his in much earlier to protect them from birds and predatory mites. If you had two condos you could try both methods and compare the results. (Note that it's important not to disturb the egg while it is developing into a larva.)

If you have houses made of drilled holes with paper tubes you need to pull out the tubes and unroll them to remove the cocoons. I recently read that parchment paper for cooking is the best paper for rolling your own tubes if you are using the system with the drilled holes.When cleaning cocoons it's important to watch for hibernating wasp queens. We had found one that appeared totally dormant until she woke up and began flying around the room. There are several other mason bee pests you may find in your tunnels including parasitic wasps, cuckoo bees, cuckoo wasps, carpet beetles, flour beetles, spider beetles and pollen mites.

Also look for any cocoons that are damaged and empty and put them in the garbage pile. If your tunnels are filled with crumbly brown matter and chalky white hard  dead larva you may have a condo infected with chalk brood. In this case you've got to quarantine your condo and clean it with water and bleach. Clean your hands as well to prevent the disease from spreading.

If you've got some healthy cocoons, separate them out and wash them in a tub. Some people use bleach, and some don't. There are other people experimenting with natural oils to eliminate the mites and also the cleansing action of gentle abrasion with sand. There are natural eco-sensitive bleaches on the market that would work for this. Brian assures us the healthy cocoons are water proof and the bleach will not get into the bees.

 This condo was interesting because it contained the cells and larva of resin bees. If these are put back together once the mason bees are cleaned out they should pupate and hatch next summer. The exact species of this bee remains a mystery to us. I really wish we had a digital microscope to look more closely at all the insects and debris in the tunnels. (If anyone knows of a good digital microscope for classroom and home use with a MAC OS, please let me know. Price is an object, BTW!)

 It's as simple as this: just putting the cocoons in water and letting them float to the top. You can remove them and let them dry on an old towel. Some people repeat this three times or also use sand to help abrade debris from the cocoons. The most common debris is black pellets of bee poop and pollen mites. These hairy footed mites hitchhike on the backs of bees to eat pollen. Like Varroa mites they reproduce at an alarming rate which can all end in tears. If hairy mites in the tunnels run out of pollen they eat the mason bee cocoons and then they eat the mason bees.

Next you can "candle" the bees by laying them on a powerful flashlight or light tray. Brian encouraged us to keep track of how many large (female) cocoons and smaller (male) cocoons were intact. By mid December (or earlier) puts the cocoons in a plastic bag in a jar in the refrigerator until spring. He adds a wet piece of paper towel on the bottom to keep some humidity in the jar, but not too much. Check your bees periodically to see if they are too dry or too wet.

We also found a tiny dead cuckoo wasp: Pseudomalus auratus. It was just a few mm long and it had a shiny turquoise thorax and a red shiny abdomen. It is one of the wasps that parasitizes mason bees. This wasp does not sting, but curls into a ball when it feels threatened. Awwww.

Should you clean your cocoons? Yes. Most folks had not cleaned their condos for a couple of years and they were overrun with pollen mites and disease. From my research I also learned it is best to buy cocoons from a trusted local mason beekeeper like Brian who checks to make sure he sells disease-free Western mason bees.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

To Sting or Not to Sting: A Poem by Madame Beespeaker

 To Sting or Not to Sting

Bombus queens and monarchs of the Apis melifera

 can sting you more than once.

Their daughters can defend themselves,

Alas, not so the sons.

A Honeybee uses her stinger to protect the hive,

if she stilletos another insect she may remain alive.

She'd rather not attack a mammal for fear of her mortality,

But African bees will sting en masse with a mob mentality.

Princess bees and the queen will fight each other to the death,

But the elder queen would rather swarm to avoid regicidal stress.

All male bees are amorous and really quite defenseless.

Bald faced hornets will not hurt us if we keep our distance.

The same can be said of mostly all the female Vespas,

But giant Japanese hornets are Hymenoptera horribilus.

They make all other wasps and bees seem but an inconvenience.


Madame Beespeaker, Oct. 30, In the Year of Our Bee 2013

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Halloween Phenology

We've still having some beautiful warm, sunny days. The women that do morning tai chi at Moberly perform their elegant workout and then meditate together on a bench with the sun on their faces. The trees stop me in my tracks with their transforming colors. I am feeling that tension, waiting for the first frost. My partner keeps waffling on whether he'll move from cycling to taking the bus. I overheard someone saying there might have been some black ice on the roads this morning. She was surprised to come to work and there were no bicycles on the rack. "What do they know that I don't?" she wonders aloud.

I passed by the EYA's Pollinator Paradise garden today and their were two contrasting bumblebee queens foraging in the Phacelia tanacetifolia. I feel so honored to see them, but part of me says, "Come on Queenie, it's time to retire to the Royal Bedchamber." I don't blame them for wanting to squeeze in one more solar-powered nectar-sweet day.

As the bumblebees descend into the underworld it's time to take out the mason bee cocoons and hold them up to the light. I spent a lovely morning at a mason bee workshop where Brian Campbell taught us how to confidently clean our mason bee cocoons. This is an important skill for those who want to take your good intentions and turn them into real action for caring for our bees. A mason bee condo that you don't clean often turns into a bee graveyard, as we sadly discovered. Here lies Osmia lignaria lignaria, ravaged by chalk brood, pollen mites and parasitic wasps.

With the good weather our neighborhood has become rife with stage-managed graveyards made from leaves piled into mounds marked with theatrical white crosses and ghoulish gravestones. This is the week we remember our ancestors with a candle and a prayer. We take out woolens out to clean them and repair the moth holes. We flip our clocks forward to save the light. We sort out seeds and put them in a safe place. We stitch our diurnal narrative into the fabric of sunlight, leaves and bark.

I went into our local flower shop because I want to smell the air and I want to buy a little succulent. The women behind the counter are being instructed to roll little rubber balls on their hands to relieve tension and help with the circulation. It's a lovely afternoon ritual for women who use their hands on cold plants for hours every day. I am calmed by watching them and I resolve to take a class in this ball rolling method.

On the way home I run into my neighbor and somehow we stumble into a conversation where I find more out about her in five minutes than I have in 13 years. How she survived an Earthquake in China and nearly died of lung cancer six years ago. I am astonished. "But you look so good!" I exclaim. She's always got good color in her cheeks and she walks her dog faithfully. Cities are strange and wonderful--full of the surprising richness of humans and bees so close to us we can barely see them.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Take Me Outside Day at Moberly Cultural Herb Garden

As the fall weather turns colder the impulse to hibernate starts to manifest in our animal brains and it takes an extra effort to get motivated to go outside. Yesterday was Take Me Outside Day, and so we celebrated by taking a group of grade five students out of the classroom into the garden. We cleaned up the garden and put her to bed.

Students collected seeds from red flax, echinacea and coreopsis. They were excited to find an earwig and a tiny translucent white spider in the seed bowl. The girls were shocked when they opened scarlet runner pods and found bright purple beans inside that matched their nail polish.

 Some guys just dug holes in the sand pit and filled them up again, but sometime's that's the kind of thing being outside is all about.

Herbalist Lori Snyder taught the students about three plants in and around the garden and gave the students a taste of her infused rose petal honey. Students learned how to identify Plantago major and use it to treat bee stings.

The Latin name for these flowers is Echinacea purpurea and they are in the Asteraceae family. The Greek word "echino" means sea urchin. In fact Echinacea is the same Latin name used for the sea animal. You can see the resemblance to sea urchins in these coneflower heads. Tapping the dried heads over a bowl releases the seeds. As it hasn't rained much at all this month, the seeds will quickly dry out in the classroom.

Artist/gardener Loree Boehm led the students on a visioning exercise for a new garden we are planning. The students had some great ideas. "I think we should learn more about plants," I overheard one student muse aloud. Amen dude. Let's get outside more often.