Monday, September 30, 2013

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Brian Campbell in the News and Around Town

My mentor Brian Campbell will be on the CTV news tonight talking about neonics, plus a documentary featuring Brian will be screened tomorrow night. Check it out! And Brian's also going to be at VanDusen Gardens on Saturday. (See below.)

"Saving the Life Keepers" screening with Director and Master Beekeeper
Fri, Sept 27 @ 8pm
Entry of $8 includes an organic vegan cookie and tea
At Eternal Abundance (1025 Commercial Dr, Vancouver)

"Saving the Life Keepers" is a visual delight for the eyes and reveals how local citizens, farmers, small and large businesses as well as beekeepers can help protect and preserve bee populations throughout the world. This documentary offers several practical solutions including utilizing the biodiversity of plants; mass plantings of protein rich flowers; Queen bee organic mating yards; how to fight bee parasites and diseases without chemicals and antibiotics; and how beekeepers work successfully with productive and resistant Africanized bees. A humanistic adventure based on the extraordinary realities of the present, this documentary marks the way to sustain the future for generations of people and bees yet to come.
Watch the trailer:!__page-2

Master beekeeper Brian Campbell and the film director and producer Jocelyn Demers will be in attendance for a Q & A.

Saturday: Sept 28
3rd Annual Harvest Festival
at the Floral Hall, VanDusen
Admission by donation 

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Honey Harvest with Brian Campbell's Bee School

 Yesterday I celebrated the Harvest Moon by mucking in with the honey extraction with Brian Campbell and his Bee School Students.

 From Brian's website:

Blessed Bee Farm aspires endeavors to integrate bees into the fabric of urban life by providing guest honey beehives to reside in neighbourhood backyards. Through offering courses and hands on workshops at our Bee School for novice and experienced beekeepers and for those interested in both honey bees and Canada’s native bees we strive to create a sustainable urban ecology that welcomes and supports bees and beekeepers. We are committed to excellence in all of our apiculture practices. Our concern is with the future of bees. Although we extract and sell honey the bees always come first. As healthy as honey is for people it is even better for the bees.

And being good to the bees means the raw honey tastes really good and it's good for you, full of the essential oils and pollen that the bees collect. This honey is coarse-filtered though sieves that just separate the larger piece of detritus such as wax and honey-drowned bees from the final product.

We get good and sticky and there are little pools of honey on the table. We taste the blonde frames: this is spring honey, light and tasting of lilies. The darker honey has a richer fuller taste, with that nutty butterscotch and caramel flavor. Once the frames have all been uncapped on both sides we stop for a snack of light fluffy goat cheese drizzled with honey. It is the colour of golden butterscotch and tastes of flowers and caramels. Brian tells us the flavours will blend and harmonize once the honey has been sitting in jars.  Somehow I don't think mine will be sitting around for long--it's going to be eaten pretty darn quickly.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Kiss Your Aster

Well, don't take me literally because if you did kiss your aster, chances are you'd end up with bee stung lips. If you have planted asters in your garden, pat yourself on the back. You are helping the honeybees at at time of the year when forage is getting scarce. This aster is right by a patch of blooming borage in my neighbor's yard. It catches the afternoon sun and it was much appreciated by the sisters.

Did you see the Harvest moon on Thursday night? Did you see the ring around the harvest moon? Today I celebrated with participating in a honey harvest at Urban Homesteader. Pics to follow soon!

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Elusive Green-Eyed Sand Wasp

 At the beginning of summer I tried to get a photo of a sand wasp at City Hall Community Garden. Finally on Wednesday I took some pics of the Bembix wasp on rudbeckia at the Moberly Cultural Herb Garden.

These sand wasps have a bulge in population every seven years which really freaks people out. They are confident, but not aggressive creatures, provisioning their solitary nests with caterpillars and fly larvae. I think they're quite beautiful!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Fall Bees at UBC Farm

It's almost the end of the bee foraging year for both bumblebees and honeybees. For the queen bumbles it's a frantic time of loading up as much as possible for surviving the winter. Other bees are literally on the last leg of their journey. At the harvest festivals in September we should really be celebrating these brave little souls who are essential to creating our rich bounty and variety of foods.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Mayan Cooking Class and Feast at UBC Farm

I am a big fan of the Mayan gardeners at UBC Farm. The bright costumes and colourful produce and flowers add colour and flair to the Saturday market. I decided to sign up for a Mayan cooking class they held this weekend at the farm. When I enter the farm center the table is laid out with beautiful purple and red cloths woven with traditional designs. I ask permission to take photographs and promise not to give away their secrets. "You couldn't give away our secrets because no one else has these condiments, one woman says," meaning ingredients. She's absolutely right. Over the next two hours we had the privilege of sampling some unique ingredients and condiments.

These crops were grown from seeds they carried with them when they fled Guatemala in the 1980's. During Guatemala's 36 year long civil war (1960-1996) 200,000 Mayans and Indigenous people were killed by the Guatemalan army in what was called their "scorched earth policy". In the early 1980's approximately 200,000 ethnic Mayans fled Guatelmala to go to Mexico, Honduras and other countries. In 1985 the Canadian government opened up a refugee program and a few families moved to British Columbia. The Mayans in Vancouver were homesick for their land, their corn and beans and their traditions and they started a garden on Barnston Island from 1986 to 1999. It was difficult for the families to travel to the island and in 2000 the Mayan support group found out about the UBC Farm Roots and Shoots program which helped them start the garden they have at the farm today.

One of the gardeners explained why the garden on UBC Farm is so precious to them. Life in the city is stressful and this garden helps them to unwind, keep in touch with the land and keep their culture alive. They can practise their culture growing the three sisters: bean, corn, and squash. "That's really who we are," he says, " We are the children of the corn."

When I hear him say "We are the Children of the Corn"--a thrill goes up my spine. And not just because I'd watched a horror movie at a tender age with that title that made me fear people with black nail polish. Corn has been getting a bad wrap lately with Michael Pollen and Margaret Visser deconstructing the corn industry in North America. We need to be reminded that corn is a sacred food, in spite of what we've done to it.

Besides at least two varieties of corn, three varieties of squash, and three types of beans, the Mayans grow sunflowers, tomatilloes, amaranth, cilantro, and epazote. Beans, corn, herbs and squash are eaten in endless variations in their soups and tamales. Even pumpkin seeds are toasted and put inside the tamales.

The decorative dahlias (don't eat them, they're toxic) are grown near their homes because one year the tractor came too close to the garden and destroyed them (oops!) and because they need to be watered more than once a week in the summer.  Dahlia fanatics will dig the tubers up and store them in winter, but these ladies shrug and say "They just keep growing."

 My favourite dish of the class was the dessert made from three kinds of squash and brown sugar, but I'm not going to tell you how to make it-- you'll have to come to one of their fabulous workshops--and make sure you arrive with an empty stomach!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Molting and Migrating: How to Support Vulnerable Birds in Your Garden

 While at the Salt Spring Centre for Yoga I kept seeing this goldfinch feeding in the sunflowers. She was feeding herself as well as that plump little fledgeling. I was concerned about the state of her feathers, which as you can see looked patchy and discolored. Then I read an article on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology about molting (It's Summer, Where did All the Birds Go? by Jessie Barry) and suddenly it all made sense. All birds need to go through a seasonal molt to replace old and worn feathers. During molting time, birds are vulnerable and they need places in your garden to hide from predators.

Last night I attended a fascinating talk on supporting birds in your garden by Vancouver Avian Research Centre board member Dr. Jason Jones. According to Jones, American Goldfinches are the only vegan birds in North America. Instead of feeding their young insects, they rely on seeds. Planting sunflowers in your garden are a great way to support goldfinches and chickadees. With the growth of cities and suburban sprawl migrating birds are increasingly dependent on backyards for food, shelter and water. Even if your home doesn't fall on a migration path you can still support the birds that prefer to stay closer to your home all year round.

Jones stressed that feeding birds carries a serious responsibility. Seeds that fall from the feeder can start to compost and make birds sick. Migrating birds can become dependent on the food you put out for them and they will return to your yard expecting that resource and depending on it. Dr Jones stressed that the single most important thing you can do for birds is to set out sources of clean water at varying heights.

Migration is the most stressful part of a migratory bird's life and we can support them by creating a biodiverse habitat in our back yard. Birds need spaces to feed, nest, hide, and spend the night. Jones made the point that the birds need berries throughout the season, so a succession of different kinds of berry bushes which bloom and fruit at different times are very important for birds. This is true for bees which benefit from the flowers on these same bushes. Snowberry which has a long bloom season which is good for bees also has a long fruiting season which is great for bees. Jason says whatever attracts insects to your garden is good for birds and what attracts insects is "a vibrant plant community." Think of the morphology and density foliage of the plants in your garden, and make sure the plants are rich and varied. Just as there are oligolectic bees that are attracted to narrow types of pollen there are also birds that are specialists whose beaks evolved to crack open specific seeds. Those birds, such as the crossbills would be particularly vulnerable to loss of habitat.

One of my favorite bird-related facts Jones told us was that when the crows roost in Burnaby they meet to gossip and share information about food finds. The next day birds will follow the dude that brags the loudest about his feast. And if a crow snatches a cucumber or two from the vines on your balcony (this really happened to him), be prepared for a murder of crows to show up the next morning for brunch.

Jason Jones works in the area of enviromental impact assessment, especially in the area of wind-powered technology. He is grows 15 varieties of kale in his garden in Burnaby. Just don't tell the crows.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Best Way to Grow Tomatoes: With a Hummingbird Helper

"You should make some fried green tomatoes," Catherine suggests as I'm leaving her house. "Grab some tomatoes in the greenhouse, dip them in egg, then cornmeal and fry them. I like mine with soya sauce for dipping." So I took her up on her generous offer. After all, the rains have started here in Vancouver so we are under pressure to start picking tomatoes before early blight sets in. The recipe sounds simple enough, so I don't even do a Google search for the details. I just buy the organic cornmeal and do it. First off, I didn't know how thick to slice the tomatoes, second, which way to slice them and third, I didn't know how much oil to put in the pan. So I tried thicker and thinner slices, one tomato sliced across the width, the other vertically. Peter sampled a bite and shrugged. He always does this when he's not impressed with something. It happens involuntarily and I can pick up even the most subtle of shrugs. It's his "tell". I wasn't too convinced either. The tomatoes seemed tough and the cornmeal didn't feel cooked. I chalk it up as one of my culinary failures.

Later that evening I do my research. It seems there needs to be milk in the batter and at least a half an inch of oil in the pan. So I will give it another try on a later date. In the meantime I heated a couple of leftover slices in the oven this morning and piled smoked salmon on top with tsatskiki, onions and capers. It was delicious. The fried green tomatoes make a good bread substitute. I can imagine making grilled cheese sandwiches this way.

Did you know that bumblebees pollinate tomatoes? Tomatoes are new world crops that didn't evolve with honeybees. Our new world bumblebees have the ability to shake the pollen out of the stamen like a salt or pepper shaker. People who have enclosed greenhouses have to hand pollinate the flowers with vibrators, which must feel pretty silly. Then farmers got the bright idea to farm bumblebees, placing artificial nests in the greenhouses. This may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but they imported eastern bumblebees to western Canada. These bumblebees not only got sick, but many escaped and started bullying the indigenous western bumble bees out of their nests.

There are two families of plants that benefit from buzz pollination. The first is the nightshade family (Solanaceae) which includes tomatoes, eggplant, ground cherries, chile peppers, potatoes, chayote, and goji berries (Lycium barbarum). The second family is the heather family (Ericaceae), including red huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium), cranberries and blueberries. Bumblebees are better pollinators than honeybees for watermelon and cucumber, although there are squash bees that evolved to pollinator the cucurbits. They are about the size of honeybees and the males have an endearing habit of bedding down in small groups inside pumpkin flowers.

At the Saltspring Centre for Yoga there is a greenhouse hosting a wide range of colours and shapes of tomatoes. The door is wide open so that bumblebees can come in and shake the stamens. Furthermore, there is a resident hummingbird that perches on the wires suspending the tomato vines. She eats up all the tiny bugs that would otherwise be munching on the tomatoes. The back of the greenhouse is planted with hummingbird flowers: nasturtiums and beautiful purple morning glories that twine up among the tomato vines and will provide extra nectar for the bumblebees once the tomatoes have finished flowering. Surely this is one of the best ways to grow tomatoes in a northern climate. I have read in gardening forums that hummers will sometimes perch on tomato cages, so I bought a bright red one to put in my raised bed even when I'm not growing tomatoes.

Ever since I heard the story of bumble bees and greenhouses, I have been intrigued by the question: what is the best way to grow tomatoes here in British Columbia? Tomatoes are tricky here because we tend not to get enough dry sunny weather for them. Sustained late summer rains often means the tomatoes get blight, which means you've got to toss everything out and it's risky to grow tomatoes in that soil again. They are the most high-maintenance veggie I'm willing to grow in pots in our back yard and this year I didn't plant any because I knew I'd be too busy to attend to their needs.

Yesterday my friend Lori made me a salad with tomatoes, cukes, feta and olives. Having forgotten spoons we ate the ripe tomatoes with our fingers on a picnic table at UBC Farm. At least I know the best ways to eat tomatoes.

Links for more information about the problems of using commercially raised bumble bees in greenhouses:

Hedgerows at UBC Farm

I am very excited about the hedgerows at UBC Farm and their potential to provide much needed forage for the exotic honeybees and the native bees on site. This is what they looked like two weeks ago when I visited the farm.

Yesterday I headed out to the farm with an herbalist. She was equally excited about the medicinal plants in the hedgerows.

Most of the flowers and are finished for the season, but other plants around the hedge like clover, dandelion, yarrow and vetch are important fall bee forage. These are also considered hedgerow plants in the old sense of it not being literally a row of hedges, but also the plants that exist in the borders between fields.

One of the saddest losses in the development of Wesbrook village was the decimation of many hedgerow plants along with a chunk of forest. I have written extensively in my blog about the birds and insects that lived in that habitat. It's too bad those bushes couldn't have been replanted at the farm. Condominiums and baseball diamonds just don't feed bees, or humans for that matter.

These hawthorn berries give me hope that some day hedgerows will be an essential part of every farm, garden and park.

Hedgerows provide materials for garden fencing, nutrient dense food for birds, humans and bees, as well as shelter for song bird nests.

This bamboo could be replaced by hazelnut. Just a suggestion.

There are many native plants that are suitable for hedgerows and once established, they look after themselves.

Using ground covers like kinnikinnik and salal prevents the need for mulch and provides some undisturbed soil for  ground-nesting bees.

We heart hedgerows! Now if only we had some cute little hedgehogs to spread the word.