Saturday, November 19, 2011

Panel provides glimpses into the wonderful world of bees

Honey bee (Apis melifera) visiting Pride of Madiera (Echium candicans)
Bees are amazing creatures, with their complex societies and unparalleled ability to pollinate plants*, so I like to learn about them when I can. One such opportunity recently was at a panel discussion about bees at Sonoma State University's Insectpalooza. Sitting on the panel were three experts on European and California native bees: Dr. Eric Mussen an extension apiculturist from UC Davis, Dr. Gretchen LeBuhn from San Francisco State University (professor of entomology, founder and director the Great Sunflower Project, a citizen-science project focused on native bees), and Marissa Ponder, a researcher in Professor Gordon Frankie's lab at UC Berkeley.

The bulk of the presentations were not about the European honey bee (Apis melifera), which is probably what most of us picture when we hear the word “bee” (I know that I do), but instead were on California’s native bees, which are found in about 1,500 different species.  Beyond their role as pollinators, most native bees differ in many ways from honey bees, most notably that they live solitary lives and do not make honey**.

Large black bee (a female of a Xylocopa species?) visiting wisteria

Current Thinking on Collapsing Colonies
Mussen talked mostly about European honey bees and the history and current status of colony collapse disorder (CCD).  He noted that the current CCD is not the first time we've seen this – there was one that lasted about a year in the late 1800s, and one that lasted for 3 years in the mid-1960s.  So, he asked, why has this one has been going on for 7 years?  Mussen theorized that today's beekeepers are better at nursing sick bees, thus the weak hives stick around longer instead of quickly dying off.

Among the interesting figures he presented included:
  • An average honeybee has a foraging range of 4 miles, which gives a colony a 50 square mile area to collect food – or to get into trouble with poisons and pests.
  • California has 780,000 acres of almond trees that require 1.5 million colonies of honeybees for pollination.  But California has only about 0.5 million colonies, so 1 million are trucked in for the season (a 2006 article in the Agricultural and Resource Economics Update claimed that 60% of the nation's bee colonies are used to pollinate almonds in California during blossom season). 

The “Professionals”
Dr. LeBuhn focused on the native bees, enhancing her presentation with beautiful illustrations by local illustrator Noel Pugh (examples of his work are at the Great Sunflower Project and will soon be seen in a book due to be published in 2012).  She started with some numbers:  there are about 30,000 bee species in the world, 4,000 in the U.S. and 1,500 in California.

Then she got into morphology and behavior, noting that other creatures besides bees pollinate plants – beetles, moths, hummingbirds are a few – but they are "amateurs", while bees are "professionals." Bees have characteristics that improve their efficiency:  special hairs to collect pollen, an electrostatic charge on their body that attracts pollen, and specialized mouth parts to reach into flowers.  Additionally, some plants need buzzing at a certain frequency to release the pollen, and bees can generate many frequencies.  As an example, LeBuhn mentioned that tomatoes release their pollen when excited by tone of 261 Hz (middle C), so one can place an excited middle C tuning fork near a tomato blossom to cause a pollen drop.

While European honey bees are generalists, visiting any flowers they can find, many California natives are specialists, preferring one species of plants for pollen, but visiting others to get nectar.  Another important difference between European honey bees and natives is that most native bees are solitary, building nests in tunnels underground, or in a hole in a tree, or inside of a stem. Inside the nest you would find several chambers, each with one or more balls of pollen inside and an egg placed on top of one of the balls of pollen.  Carpenter bees, for example, make walls that are like particle board to separate the chambers.

Native bees spend most of their life underground as an egg or larva, perhaps 46-48 weeks underground and 2-6 weeks above ground.

Two small bees feeding on onion flower
Native Bees Live in the City
Marissa Ponder, a researcher in the Professor Gordon Frankie lab at UC Berkeley, talked about native bees in urban and suburban environments, and enhanced her presentation with stunning photos by Rollin Coville.  One of Frankie’s projects has been a test garden on the UC Berkeley Oxford tract at the edge of downtown Berkeley to get a sense of native bee diversity in a highly urbanized environment.  In a small garden, surrounded by concrete and buildings, his team counted 85 species of native bees.  This result – which I find to be amazing – is not so unusual, as Ponder’s other examples illustrated, like a front yard in another city (the name of which was illegible in my notes), in which researchers counted 68 species.

But despite these examples of diversity, people with gardens and yards can give a helping hand to native bees by avoiding “mulch madness” and landscaping with native plants.  Most native bees (about 70%) are ground nesters, desiring bare, uncovered earth for nesting.  Mulch gets in their way, as do lawns.

Ponder talked about some research on native bee plant preference. The researchers found that plants from South Africa, Australia, Central and South America are largely ignored by native bees, while a native like the California poppy will be visited by native bumblebees, sweat bees, and also non-native honey bees.  I don’t doubt that research, but will note that the non-native wisteria on the front and back of my house are swarming with several species of bumble bees (most likely natives) when the flowers are in bloom, and when I had a blooming onion flower it was popular with natives as well as European honey bees. The rosemary plants at my office, however, only seems to attract honey bees, but that might be because the landscape managers at office parks love to cover any non-grassy ground with mulch and so the native bee population is low.

Many more bee-helping tips can be found at the Urban Bee Gardens project website.  In addition, the Yerba Buena Nursery has compiled a list of which bees visit which plants.  If you want to help bees on a larger scale, check out Your Garden Show (warning: autostarting video), an on-line community that is helping to get supporters for the Highways Bee Act, H.R. 2381, a bill that would promote pollinator-friendly practices on highway rights-of-way while also saving states money through reduced mowing.

* An incredible fraction of fruit, nut and vegetable crops need assistance from bees.  One study, “The Value of Honey Bees as Pollinators of U.S. Crops in 2000” from Cornell University (March 2000, PDF), estimated that almost $15 billion in crop value can be directly associated with honey bee pollination. A number of crops, including almonds, avocados, cranberries and onions are fully dependent on insect pollination (with the vast majority of those services provided by honey bees).  Where bee populations have been wiped out, like in China's southern Sichuan province, some farmers are trying to pollinate fruit trees by hand, as a 2007 episode of Nature called Silence of the Bees showed (the human-pollinator segment starts at 38:51).

** Only one other bee makes honey, that's a stingless bee that is native to Central and Southern Mexico. Covered by Bayless in Episode 12 of Season 5 of Mexico—One Plate at a Time. The bees don't sting, but that doesn’t mean you can go mucking around their hives to take their honey (which is used in the Yucatan to make a liqueur called XtabentĂșn). If you do, you’ll discover that they defend the hive by swarming the attacker and going into eyes, ears, mouth, and nose.

Random link from the archive: Save the Basil! A Tip to Keep it Fresh

Saturday, November 05, 2011

OPENeducation celebrates Chez Panisse's dedication to edible education

Some birthday parties are enlivened by a clown, a magician, or a karaoke machine. But when an legendary restaurant like Chez Panisse hits 40 in a creative city like Berkeley, California, you can expect something out of the ordinary.

A group called OPENrestaurant provided plenty of surprise and wonder at a party called OPENeducation, where attendees could experience the unexpected, like eating an edible shoe, eating chapati made with flour from a bicycle-powered flour mill, learning about "pre-hippie" bread baking ("Digger Bread," loaves that were baked and distributed for free by the San Francisco Diggers in the late 1960s), and listening to activists delivering their words from the roof of a decomissioned police car. Small radios were scattered around the venue, often playing music, but now and then broadcasting an interview conducted by children (interview subjects included Alice Waters). The education sessions were often led by students from local schools, and so the students became the teachers, ideally giving them a confidence boost. Edible education is one of Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters' passions, and the Chez Panisse Foundation was instrumental in establishment and operation of the first Edible Schoolyard in at a middle school in Berkeley, and also a key supporter of the healthy lunch initiative in the Berkeley Public Schools (how they cook in Berkeley schools was comprehensively covered by The Slow Cook in 2010).  

Police Car Stage Recalls Free Speech Movement 
One of the more traditional educational approaches was at the "police car stage," where interviewers and subjects stood or sat on the car — an homage to the October 1, 1964 protests that kicked off Free Speech Movement of 1964-65 (photos from the day are at calisphere: Mario Savio, Jack Weinberg and more), a movement that had an influence on Alice Waters and others who were part of the early days of Chez Panisse and Berkeley's "Gourmet Ghetto" in the late 60s and early 70s.

Twilight Greenaway, Grist's new food editor, kicked off the program with interviews of three activists:
  • Enosh Baker is Northern California Regional Director of CoFed, an organization that seeks to create food cooperatives on university campuses. Among those already in operation, Baker recommended the coops at UC Berkeley and the University of Maryland as excellent examples to learn from. He expects to have a busy 2012, as the United Nations has declared 2012 as the International Year of Cooperatives.
  • Mei Ling Hui is the urban agriculture coordinator and also works on urban forests at the San Francisco Department of the Environment (SF Environment). Her group is starting an urban orchard program in the city. Fittingly, since trees sequester carbon, the initiative is partially supported by the city's carbon fund, an account that is filled by internal levies on such activities as city employees flying for official business.
  • Temra Costa, author of the book "Farmer Jane: Women Changing the Way We Eat" and operator of, got into the Free Speech Movement spirit by figuring out how to use the bullhorn and still be heard by the crowd (she pointed the bullhorn at the interviewer's microphone). She told the crowd about some of the women featured in her book and website.
Next, Jen Maiser from Eat Local Challenge interviewed Kyle Cornforth, director of the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley. Kyle has been at the Edible Schoolyard for 11 years, and has seen how the program has evolved. For example, it took many years for the garden soil to recover from being covered with asphalt for many years. Additionally, the kids get to remake the garden each year, so the beds and planting areas have gone through many transformations. Kyle announced that the Chez Panisse Foundation will soon be changing its name to the Edible Schoolyard Project (it appears that the change has been made). They are also building a new website that will have lots of resources and "potential for sharing" for those who want to establish a school garden or improve one that is already running.  

Foot in Mouth
Although only marginally related to the theme of education, a pair of edible shoes was the highlight for me. The shoes — handmade from untanned pig skin from a Chez Panisse pork supplier (Magruder Ranch, on Facebook) by San Francisco's Al's Attire— were at the event to pay homage to the 1980 film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. Herzog 'ordered' this unenviable entree by losing a bet with filmmaker Errol Morris: if Morris would quit procrastinating and complete his feature film, Herzog would eat his shoe in public. After Morris completed the film ("Gates of Heaven"), it was time for dinner. Fortunately for us, local filmmaker Les Blank captured the cooking, eating, and subsequent interview with Herzog on film, including footage of the shoe stewing at Chez Panisse, with Alice Waters helping Herzog give his shoe the proper treatment.  ("Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe" is one of the extras on the DVD of Blank's "Burden of Dreams," a documentary about the making of Herzog's "Fitzcarraldo" in the jungles of South America.)

At OPENeducation at least one shoe was used as flavoring in a Provencal soup of zucchini, green beans, tomatoes and other vegetables topped with pounded basil, garlic and Parmesan cheese.

All in all, OPENeducation was a superbly organized celebration with plenty of variety — both culinary and intellectual — in a conveniently compartmentalized venue that allowed multiple classes to be in session at the same time without conflict. The breadth of educational approaches at the event and their focus on youth-led demonstrations should be an inspiration to anyone planning a food festival.  

24/7 Chez Panisse
In the weeks leading up to the 40th birthday, the food media in the Bay Area was all Chez Panisse, all the time. You couldn't swing a bunch of heirloom cardoons on the internet or at the newspaper stand without hitting something related to the birthday. There were remembrances, commentaries about the restaurant's impacts, radio call-in shows and much more. The Berkeleyside blog has a roundup of some of the coverage and an extensive list of links.

Random link from the archive:  Wild Mushroom Souffle