Tuesday, June 24, 2008

national pollinator week

Last Sunday kicked off National Pollinator Week (last Sunday was also my birthday; I don't think anyone planned it that way).

By now, everyone should be familiar with the problems facing honey bees: worker bees are just up and leaving the apparently healthy and functioning hive, and nobody knows why. There might be some parasite or virus that scientists haven't been able to pinpoint yet, but from what I've read it is more likely a combination stressors from all directions that are wearing the bees down to the point where I guess they just give up.

Pesticides are a big one; after all, it is not inconceivable that chemicals designed to kill one kind of insect may have effects on another kind of insect. Genetically modified crops are a big stressor, too, particularly Bt corn. Even if exposure to pesticides and GMO crops does not kill the adult bees outright, it will weaken their immune system and make them more susceptible to disease, and it will almost certainly disrupt the development of the more vulnerable larvae, who feed on the chemically-tainted nectar and pollen that the adult bees bring back to the hive.

Another stressor for the honey bees is a poor diet. Many (most?) commercial honey bees are trucked around the country to pollinate different crops as they go to flower, so for a few weeks they're in Maine pollinating blueberries, then later they're in Pennsylvania for a while pollinating apples, then they're in Florida pollinating melons, etc. Large scale, commercial farms almost exclusively have their field planted in huge, monocropped expanses, and there is precious little diversity (wildflowers, after all, are "weeds") and there are increasingly fewer and fewer greenbelts or hedgerows or other places left wild, and what that means is that the bee's diet is limited to whatever crops they are plunked down in. How do you think you would feel if you ate nothing but bread? (Which, actually, might be our fate if the honeybees disappear completely.) And many of these crop plants are ultra ultra hybridized to produce the biggest, most perfect-looking fruit. For us humans, this fruit is often less tasty and less nutritious than the more natural versions, so it would follow that the pollen and nectar are also less nutritious for honey bees. Bees in this situation might also be overcrowded in an attempt to ensure adequate pollination, which means that there's not enough nectar to go around and the bees go hungry.

All that traveling, chasing the bloom, adds to the stress of bees, and exposes them to a wider variety of diseases and other pathogens. Then there's a host of "smaller" stressors, like climate change or pollution or electromagnetic radiation from cell phones (although I think that last one has been disproven).

If honeybees go completely kaput, so does about one third of our food—pretty much all fruit, vegetables, beans, and nuts. Even meat and dairy products might become scarce or more expensive, since many animal feed crops (like soybeans or clover) are pollinated by bees. The only thing that would be safe, really, would be grains like wheat, which are wind pollinated. There are other insects that work as pollinators, but none on a commercial scale, and it wouldn't be worth it to try to domesticate some other species of bee or fly or moth or hummingbird for pollination purposes (as cute as a hummingbird farm would be), because we'd eventually just run up against the same problems. It's our agricultural system that's corrupt, not the honey bees.

So what can you do to help honey bees and other pollinators? One solution that's always mentioned is to plant flowers and vegetables in your yard, and although it sounds small and insignificant, it does make a huge difference. Native wildflowers produce better food for native pollinators, and heirloom fruits, vegetables, and flower varieties produce a higher quality pollen than many of the new hybrids, which are often sterile. You could also think about setting up a beehive of your own. Small scale and backyard beekeepers rarely experience the same calamities that commercial beekeepers do, and I reckon the bees are happier, too. Growing your own food also means that you are less dependant on big agriculture and all its evils.

Another important thing you can do is to support bee-friendly agriculture. Buying organic is a good start, and it's cleaner for the air and water and soil, but in my opinion a huge, monocropped, organic field is only marginally superior than a huge, monocropped, non-organic field. A better solution is to support small, local, sustainable farms, which may or may not be certified organic. Small farms are more likely to have a diverse selection of crops, and are also more likely to have pastureland or a woodlot or some other plot of greenery that is left in a wild state, all of which are better for bees and other wildlife. (Supporting local farms has a host of other benefits, too.) It's summer now in the northern hemisphere, and is the perfect time to go visit farmers markets or roadside stands, and buy local for the bees.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Indigo Bunting

We've had a colorful visitor in the yard recently, and today I finally got some decent pictures of him.

Like many other birds, it's the bright, flashy male that the entire species is named after, which is kind of insulting towards the female. I mean, she exists, too, she's half the species, and she's often very pretty in her own right. But with the Indigo Bunting, you can almost forgive those early ornithologists who did the naming, since the male of the species is rather stunning, a fierce gas-flame blue lighting through the verdant flush of summer.

The females are more drab (and this particular picture below isn't the most flattering either, since the angle of the sunlight washes out a lot of her color). But then, drabness is what works for her, since she spends more time sitting on the nest. Bright colors are great for attracting mates, but a smooth dun is better for camouflaging yourself and your children against predators.

We've had a male and female in the yard pretty consistently for the past few days. They might be thinking about nesting near here, so we've been trying to keep the feeders full for them, which is no small feat since the grackles and starlings are feeding their babies now, and a fleet of them can clean out a feeder in a few quick hours.

Friday, June 13, 2008

the awesomeness of plants

To make up for my two recent text-only posts, here is a photo-centric one.

We went walking yesterday and found the stump of this huge tree, probably a Black Willow, but I don't really know my willows that well, and there's a kerjillion of them and they hybridize.

Looks dead, huh? Nope, not quite.

There were clumps of fresh sprouts coming out of the trunk. Sure, you can cut through a five-foot trunk and remove probably 100+ feet worth of tree. But that doesn't mean that it's dead.

There were, however, decomposers making quick work of the trunk.

(Note: this picture is larger than life; in reality the millipede-looking things (anybody have an ID?) were about half and inch long and about the thickness of a sewing needle.)

And then in the rotting-trunk-turning-into-dirt, we have what looks like a Box Elder seedling sprouting.

If everything survives, and the Box Elder keeps growing in the middle of a clump of willows, it's possible the willows and Box Elder could graft themselves together and create some bizarro franken-tree. I wonder if the trunk will decompose quickly enough for the Box Elder to grow, or if it will just grow through the trunk to reach the soil. That is also possible: willow is a fairly soft wood, and while I don't personally know Box Elders that intimately, other trees' roots can grow through stone to reach water or soil if they need to.

And then, party just to show off my camera, here is a neat picture of a fly I took on the willow. Anybody have an ID for that? About an inch long, with a one inch wing span. I didn't even realize until I uploaded my pictures onto my computer that it had a stinger. Maybe I shouldn't have gotten so close to it, huh?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

gas prices, food, and manure

There was an article in the local paper recently (not online, sorry) about how a bunch of local farmers are struggling to be able to afford petrochemical fertilizers—because just like with oil, the price of those have been going up and up, too—and some of the farmers are reduced to trying "alternative" fertilizers, like manure.

It's a sad commentary that manure is now an "alternative" fertilizer. One of the farmers interviewed even already had a dairy operation, but is only just now using the manure produced to fertilize his corn field. What was he doing with all that manure before?

Now, I know that farmers aren't stupid, and I don't mean to imply that they are. I'm sure that the dairy/corn farmer did realize that manure can be used as a fertilizer, but he chose not to use it because he believed that the store-bought petrochemical stuff was better, because that's what all the advertising says and because everybody else is using it. (Which is sadly how human society tends to function, anyway: the dominant or most visible system is the most "correct," and anything different is suspect. It doesn't matter if you're talking about farming practices or food choices or religion or sexuality or anything else.)

Although the farmers might have had somewhat valid reasons for choosing petrochemicals. So many crop plants, especially corn or soy, have been hybridized and genetically engineered all to heck, and they need mega applications of chemicals to keep them going, and the farmers think that its worth it because they can then harvest mega yields. I'd like to see some long term study done comparing the cost and yield of growing heirloom vegetables organically in smaller, rotating plots vs. growing monocropped frankenfood chemically. It would have to be conducted over a long period of time, say ten or twenty years, because eventually the monocropped petrochemical corn field is going to be a sterile wasteland—the soil cannot sustain that level of abuse and continue to rebuild itself—but organic farming has been shown to actually improve the soil over time. I would bet that the chem field would have larger, less expensive yields for the first two or three years, but that the organic field would win by leaps and bounds in the long run.

The US government is now predicting that gas prices will peak at about $4.15/gallon and will hover around $4 for the rest of 2008 and 2009. I have a hard time really caring that much. I don't drive, and a lot of the food I buy is organic. I buy local whenever I can, and I grow some of my own food (just in pots out on the back steps now, but hopefully in a year or two I will have yard space for a real garden). I don't think rising oil prices is a crisis; the crisis is a cultural system that is dependant on inexpensive and abundant amounts of a finite resource.

There was another article in the local paper a while ago where garden centers said that they were selling significantly more edible plants this year, that in addition to the usual flowers, every customer seemed to be picking up a six pack of tomatoes or some herbs or strawberries, and they posited that this was a reaction to rising food prices at the supermarkets. This economy is good for something. If everyone converted even half their lawn into a vegetable garden and started a compost pile, we could easily grow a significant portion of our food, and do it organically.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

pray at the pump

This is one of the more offensive things I've read in a long time:

Americans pray at the pump for cheaper petrol

1.) Making a spectacle of your own religion is always a good idea, and 2.) In what universe is this a useful or practical solution?, and 3.) Is cheap fuel really the answer, anyway?

Do they really think God wants Americans to drive big cars and to drive them long distances? Personally, I would tend to think increasing fuel prices would be a sort of blessing in disguise, since they illustrate the unsustainability of our culture—the ubiquitousness of single passenger vehicles, car-centric urban layouts, a lack public transit, a globalized economy where most of our food and nearly all of our consumer goods are shipped from halfway around the globe, etc. Or maybe God is punishing us for screwing up his planet.

Not that $4/gallon is really much of a punishment, when Europeans are paying $8-12/gallon, and the rest of the world is paying as much as we are (or more) and with a considerably lower average income. Americans have always had fairly cheap gas, and, globally speaking, $4/gallon is still cheap.

But I understand that $4/gallon is still a pinch, especially for rural Americans who are probably making less money to begin with and also don't have a lot of other options for transportation. So it's extra funny that Mr. Twyman and his crew are holding their pray-ins in Washington DC and San Fransisco, because it's not like these cities have any kind of public transit or anything.

I also like their modified version of "We Shall Overcome" with the added lyrics "We'll have lower gas prices." Because that's what the civil rights movement was all about! Cheap gas! Unsustainability and perceived convenience!

If you feel the need to pray about anything here, I think it should be for things like more public transit (especially a reintroduction of rail lines between big cities and small towns), more pedestrian and bike friendly communities, more and stronger local food economies, and more funding for renewable energy. That is a more practical long term solution to our present situation, not cheap oil.