Friday, October 22, 2010

Permaculture: letting nature work for you instead of fighting it.

Permaculture looks to be the next evolution in agriculture taking organic to another level.  The focus on diversity and micro-climates to overcome hurdles where chemicals and fans/heaters are used in conventional agriculture. 

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Colony Collapse Disorder prevention turns out to be easy

Common sense explanation of CCD and the problems with commercial beekeeping methods.  Probably not dramatic enough to be on the front page of the New York Times. 

Friday, October 15, 2010

More mead recipes!!! Good stuff and not just for Renaissance faires.

Several mead recipes that look good though I haven't tried them exactly. 

Mead Brews                                                                                                                                   

Modern agriculture: higher yields lower nutrition, for everyone.

Bees may be dealing with some of the same issues humans with respect to the nutrition that is coming from our orchards and fields.  As harvest yields have  been steadily increasing over the decades there has a decrease in the amount of vitamins and minerals in many fruits and vegetables.

From the National health foundation:

To get the same calcium content from fresh veggies today as when JFK was president, you'd have to eat twice as much broccoli. To get the same amount of iron as when the Beatles were singing "We All Live in a Yellow Submarine," you'd have to eat four times as many collard greens. To maintain your vitamin A and C levels under the next administration, it will take three times as much cauliflower and twice as much watercress as during the Nixon and Watergate era. These are a few of the conclusions gleaned from comparing the U.S. government's food composition tables from the 1960s and 1970s to the present day.
Similar studies in Europe have come to the same conclusion, and calls by scientists and journalists for any follow up data have inspired me to undertake research and analysis of several other food groups. For this article, I have investigated the nutrient loss in fresh fruits over the last 25 years. In a recent experiment, I compiled a "digital fruit basket" of twelve common fruits and compared their nutrient content today with that published in Handbook #8 issued by the USDA in 1975. Like the sample of twelve random vegetables I investigated earlier, I found that the fruits have lost a major share of their vitamins and minerals. Overall, vitamin C levels are off 1.9%, vitamin A levels are down 16.4%, phosphorus has diminished 23.9%, calcium content has fallen 28.9%, and iron levels have plunged 47.6%.
The vitamin A in apples, for example, dropped 41%, strawberries lost 55%, and that in grapefruit plunged 87.5%. Vitamin C fared better, with minor losses in a majority of the fruits, though that in cherries was off a hefty 30% and lemons dropped 31.2%. Grapefruit, also significantly down in calcium and iron, has particularly lost its vitality. This may be the result of pollution in the Everglades (caused primarily by run off from sugar refining). The vitamin levels in oranges, Florida's other top crop, remained constant, but its iron content fell 75%.
Over time much of our fresh food is losing its nutritional values.  Just as economist often tout that people respond to incentives, industrial farming has followed suit.  Large agriculture gets paid by the pound of produce not the milligram of vitamins and minerals.  This incentive has pushed yields per acre and farmers are continually looking to maximize tonnage to bring to market.   Hybrids, GMO's and chemical fertilizers have helped boost yields and continues to make America's farmland the most "productive" in the world.

What happens when you revert back to more traditional methods of agriculture like the organic movement?  The crop yields may go down but premium that organic farmers get can make up the difference.  In the study below it is shown that organic produce does contain more nutritional value than conventionally grown agriculture. 

Nutritional Superiority of Organic Foods                                                                                                                                   

Where does this all lead us?  It is difficult enough in our fast food culture to eat well and maintain a budget along with a waistline.   The prices of fresh fruits and vegetables and meat are rising almost twice as fast as other foods according to a recent University of Washington study.  Supporting organic agriculture especially through a CSA (community supported agriculture).  Find a CSA in your area here.

To bring this back to the decline of the bee population since the number of American hives peaked in 1980; conventional agriculture is heavily dependent on mono-cultures and use pollinators to increase crop yield.  I am not going to make the correlation means causation argument with CCD and the general decline in bees, but if nutrition is declining in conventionally grown produce why wouldn't other parts of the plant decline as well?  Specifically if fruits and vegetables have declining nutrients why wouldn't pollen and nectar from the flowers; the things that the bees depend upon.  Beekeepers using organic and natural methods are not being hit by colony collapse disorder in the magnitude that conventional beekeepers are in conventionally grown agricultural areas.  I am sure that there are many contributing factors to CCD and the general decline of bees but declining nutrition in pollen and nectar that the bees depend upon for survival sure can't help.  Studies need to be done to analyze the effect of nutrition on bees, but if you ever seen the movie "super size me" a diet of a single type of food (monoculture) doesn't lead to health out comes.  

The pendulum has begun to swing back towards sustainability but modern agriculture does have its benefits like being able to feed an ever growing world population: finding the right mix for people and the environment alike is the critical question. 

CCD cause found; Point, Counterpoint

Recently the New York Times ran an article detailing how the cause of colony collapse disorder had been discovered.  It is linked to a fungus and a virus.  The research paper can be found here.


In 2010 Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), again devastated honey bee colonies in the USA, indicating that the problem is neither diminishing nor has it been resolved. Many CCD investigations, using sensitive genome-based methods, have found small RNA bee viruses and the microsporidia, Nosema apis and N. ceranae in healthy and collapsing colonies alike with no single pathogen firmly linked to honey bee losses.


These findings implicate co-infection by IIV and Nosema with honey bee colony decline, giving credence to older research pointing to IIV, interacting with Nosema and mites, as probable cause of bee losses in the USA, Europe, and Asia. We next need to characterize the IIV and Nosema that we detected and develop management practices to reduce honey bee losses.
The Times distills it down to:
Dr. Bromenshenk’s team at the University of Montana and Montana State University in Bozeman, working with the Army’s Edgewood Chemical Biological Center northeast of Baltimore, said in their jointly written paper that the virus-fungus one-two punch was found in every killed colony the group studied. Neither agent alone seems able to devastate; together, the research suggests, they are 100 percent fatal.

This is a very significant finding and will lead to developing new methods to deal with colony collapse.  Since a cause of CCD will give new avenues to deal specifically with the virus and/or the fungus.   My feeling though is, this can reduce CCD but the honeybee population has been on the decline since 1980 well before CCD.   If we get back to the pre-ccd downtrend in bee populations we will be out of the free-fall but still on the decline.   Mites, pesticides and other know viruses are still a lot to deal with.  Hopefully a diagnosis of CCD won't cause complacency and lack of research into what ails honeybees.

And now on the counterpoint side of the research:

Correlation is not causation  plus Follow the Money.

Fortune magazine was one of the first to expose that the explanation is does not fill all the holes in the ccd riddle though it does make for a nice packaged story to put on their front cover.

  Bromenshenk's study acknowledges that the research does not "clearly define" whether the concurrent virus and fungus, which were found in all the afflicted bee samples, is "a marker, a cause, or a consequence of CCD." It also notes uncertainty as to how, exactly, the combination kills the bees, and whether other factors like weather and bee digestion play a role. Scientists like Sass at NRDC believe the mystery is far from resolved: "We're even concerned that based on this, beekeepers will use more pesticides trying to treat these viruses," says Sass.
also conflicts of interests were brought up in the scope of the study which did not include pesticides as a contributor to CCD.  To use HIV as an example, the HIV virus itself doesn't kill people, it weakens the immune system making it susceptible to deadly diseases.   It is no stretch to think of pesticides as the same, reducing the immune systems of honeybee colonies.  What does strike me is that still the percent of hives lost in the hardest hit areas are agricultural not urban, suburban and organic operations i.e. areas where pesticides are used the most.  There can be other explanations than pesticides but testing for pesticide levels in the bees that succumbed would be more enlightening and make for a more robust study.

Not dealing with pesticides seems to stirred up some conflict of interest questions.  

The long list of possible suspects has included pests, viruses, fungi, and also pesticides, particularly so-called neonicotinoids, a class of neurotoxins that kills insects by attacking their nervous systems. For years, their leading manufacturer, Bayer Crop Science, a subsidiary of the German pharmaceutical giant Bayer AG , has tangled with regulators and fended off lawsuits from angry beekeepers who allege that the pesticides have disoriented and ultimately killed their bees. The company has countered that, when used correctly, the pesticides pose little risk.
What the Times article did not explore -- nor did the study disclose -- was the relationship between the study's lead author, Montana bee researcher Dr. Jerry Bromenshenk, and Bayer Crop Science. In recent years Bromenshenk has received a significant research grant from Bayer to study bee pollination. Indeed, before receiving the Bayer funding, Bromenshenk was lined up on the opposite side: He had signed on to serve as an expert witness for beekeepers who brought a class-action lawsuit against Bayer in 2003. He then dropped out and received the grant.
A study that points the cause of CCD toward a virus and fungus is definitely less controversial with heavily monied interests like pharma companies than pointing to pesticides.  Viruses don't file lawsuits. 

The research still continues hopefully a New York Times article won't sway public thought that we now know what we need to make headway against CCD and lose public pressure to investigate agricultural methods and how interconnected society and agriculture are.  Many people still need to be reminded that our food doesn't come from stores but from farms. 

Friday, October 1, 2010

Beekeeping in the Ukraine now and through history.

The diversity of hives is amazing, from artwork to making use of what is available. 

Creative Beekeeping Europe Caldeira