Monday, May 30, 2011

In Praise of the Queen of the Sun

Last Wednesday, I was fortunate enough to catch the last showing of Queen of the Sun at the Melwood Screening room. 

In 1923, Rudolf Steiner, a scientist, philosopher & social innovator, predicted that in 80 to 100 years honeybees would collapse. His prediction has come true with Colony Collapse Disorder where bees are disappearing in mass numbers from their hives with no clear explanation. In an alarming inquiry into the insights behind Steiner’s prediction Queen of the Sun examines the global bee crisis through the eyes of biodynamic beekeepers, scientists, farmers, and philosophers. On a pilgrimage around the world, 10,000 years of beekeeping is unveiled, highlighting how our historic and sacred relationship with bees has been lost due to highly mechanized industrial practices. Featuring Michael Pollan, Vandana Shiva, Gunther Hauk and beekeepers around the world, Queen of the Sun weaves a dramatic story which uncovers the problems and solutions in renewing a culture in balance with nature. (Link)
The movie beautifully interweaves pieces showing the beauty and mystery of the beehive and the profound love inspired in the beekeepers for these industrious and majestic creatures upon whom our very lives depend with the tragedy brought upon the colonies by the industrialized beekeeping necessary to support unsustainable industrial agriculture with its monocrops and reliance on pesticides and chemical fertilizers. 

The good news is that there are things that can be done to improve the lot of the honeybee, and you can help! An obvious move would be to become a beekeeper yourself, and Burgh Bees will gladly help you get started if you are so inclined. (Note: The City of Pittsburgh recently passed a zoning ordinance allowing for the keeping of chickens and bees in the City.) Even if you are not interested in/able to have a few hives of your own there is still plenty you can do! The Queen of the Sun website offers a list of ten relatively simple things you can do to help bees, and the Burgh Bees site echoes several of those points.

Probably the first step for many people is to learn to not be afraid of bees! Don’t be nervous about encouraging bees around your home—they have little interest in you. As the Burgh Bees website states: “Honeybees are very docile unless trapped, disturbed by harassing their home or stepped on. A honeybee flying around you is just being curious and will not sting you. They only sting in defense of their hive.” Unfortunately since honey bees share a similar shape and buzz as wasps, hornets, and yellow jackets, they are guilty by association in many people’s minds. If you need a quick lesson telling the difference, click here. Honeybees, unlike carnivorous wasps, are vegetarians—they aren’t interested in you or your picnic goodies. Honeybees also die after they sting, so they are inclined only to do so when they feel threatened. Wasps, on the other hand, can sting and bite repeatedly. The best way to deal with these aggressive pests is to keep them from setting up shop in places where you and they are likely to cross paths with unpleasant results. Wasps et al are territorial and will avoid another colony’s space, so I am going to purchase a Waspinator (a wasp’s nest made from fabric) from the Ahimsa store and see if it effectively keeps these more aggressive pests away from my patio and deck.

Now that you know the bees are far more interested in your flowers than you, what to plant? When thinking about what to plant around your home or in your window boxes or balcony pots at your apartment, you’ll want plants that will attract and nourish our bees and select varieties that bloom at different times. Both the Burgh Bees and Queen of the Sun websites have information about specific plants, as does the Penn State Extension. Make sure that you also provide your pollinators with a source of water. A small birdbath (or the bottom pan for a flower pot) with rocks that allow the insects to walk to the edge of the water without risking falling in is ideal. 

Avoid using pesticides in your garden and on your lawn. Among many other reasons to avoid using poisons around your home and yard, there is increasing evidence that pesticides strain bee colonies and neo-nicotinoid varieties have been one of the major culprits in Colony Collapse Disorder (link). Bees are designed to attract pollen particles to their bodies, so when you spray chemicals, they mop up the poison along with their food and their bodies have no protection against the toxins. These toxins, in turn, end up in their honey and if that honey is collected for human consumption, it will end up in us. There are many ways to manage insect problems organically which involves creating the appropriate conditions in which nature can do her job. One of the problems with pesticides is that they are indiscriminate, so they kill all the beneficial insects as well as the pests. If you find ways to attract and care for your beneficial insects, they’ll take care of the other guys eating your plants.

Most of us appreciate a tidy and pretty yard, but a pristine yard makes a lousy ecosystem. Clover is actually incredibly healthy for your lawn and provides food for pollinators. Feeding your lawn organically with compost or compost tea provides it with the nutrients and microorganisms it needs to remain healthy through all seasons. Keeping your lawn on a diet of chemical fertilizer is like giving up eating food and subsisting on vitamin pills. In theory you are getting the nutrients that you need, but not in the most effective way for your long-term health. In addition, you are exposing yourself, your family, and your pets to toxins, many of which then get washed off your lawn and into our waterways, affecting aquatic life all the way from your nearest stream down to the New Jersey-size dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Allowing some native wildflowers that might otherwise be known as weeds to bloom in a few corners of your yard and leaving some of your winter garden clean up until spring provides food sources and habitat for many beneficial insects that will overwinter in hollow plant stalks or under some of the garden debris. (If you don’t want to do it yourself, Phipps provides a list of lawn care and landscaping professionals who are certified in their Sustainable Practices program.)

Buy Fresh! Buy Local! As if the fresh peaches, beefsteaks bursting with flavor, and sweet corn that is actually sweet aren’t cause enough to get to a farmer’s market or grocery that carries locally-grown produce, consider also that most small scale farmers do not practice monocropping. Monocropping is one of the primary reasons why bees are driven on semi-trucks all over the country under high-stress conditions. When there is only one crop growing for 5000 acres, there is nothing to sustain the bees for the 50 weeks a year when that single crop is not in bloom. Biodiversity is essential for a healthy, sustainable ecosystem, so get to know the folks growing your food. Learn about where it comes from. Support growers who use natural and/or organic practices. Feel good about what you are putting into your body. And, while you are ogling all the delicious things you might bring home for dinner, be sure to grab a jar of locally-produced raw or pure honey that has not been treated with any chemicals. Explore the many various flavors available and get to know your local beekeepers. 

Without bees, our agricultural system will collapse. These small, industrious creatures do so much work for us, and then, to top off their remarkable feats, they treat us with one of nature’s most miraculous products. In the movie, world renowned beekeeper Gunther Hauk says: "Honey was considered so sacred as a gift from the bees. The honey was not sold until the end of the 19th or into the 20th century. Most of the honey was given away as a gift. It is one of the most beneficial and healing substances that we can imagine.” Such gifts does this little insect give to us, the least we can do is to be hospitable to this kind guest. Please consider learning more about the amazing bee and seeing what you can do around your own home to make it an accommodating stop for our pollinating friends.

Add 06/01/2011: Check out this WTAE news story about a swarm of bees that landed in a North Versailles KMart parking lot. Props to the store for getting Burgh Bees out to collect the swarm rather than grabbing for the Raid cans.

Why is this place called Rough Branch?

Rough Branch is a reference to Wendell Berry's "mad farmer" poems. Berry is an agrarian populist poet, and advocate for sustainable agricultural practices. I don't agree with every position he takes, but his reverence for the beauty and balance of the natural world, for the preciousness of the life that runs through it (including our own), and of the community that sustains both the land and each other, speaks to my heart.

Over the past few years, I have sunk myself into the soil in my back yard, and into the community of neighbors that surrounds it, and it has begun to restore me. My garden is not just a plot of dirt providing vegetables for the salad bowl, it is an act of love, a place of profundity and awe. If you knew about the ecosystem that lives in but one gram of good earth, you would be humbled, literally, to the ground.

Berry's poems are passionate calls to live--deeply, profoundly, fearlessly. To step out of narrow-minded egotism, to secede "[f]rom the union of self-gratification and self-annihilation, [to] secede into care for one another, and for the good gifts of Heaven and Earth."

And so I have made my own nation small enough to walk across. I have named the small corner of the earth I steward Rough Branch. I have declared myself free of ignorant love, and I secede...

From the union of power and money,
from the union of power and secrecy,
from the union of government and art,
from the union of science and money,
from the union of ambition and ignorance,
from the union of genius and war,
from the union of outer space and inner vacuity,
the Mad Farmer walks quietly away.

There is only one of him, but he goes.
He returns to the small country he calls home,
his own nation small enough to walk across.
(From "The Mad Farmer, Flying the Flag of Rough Branch, Secedes from the Union")
The Mad Farmer challenges us to reconnect, to resurrect our land, our communities, and our souls.
So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.

Listen to carrion -- put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
(From "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front")
All quotes from Wendell Berry.