Wanna win some radio talk show swag?

August 16, 2013

What do you like about this blog?

I know, I know, it sounds as though I’m begging for pats on the back. I’m not, actually. This is about finding out what my blog subscribers are reading and what they’re not.

Just post a brief comment about what you like about what I write and you could win a prize! It can be as short as a couple of words or as long as a couple of paragraphs. No need to get fancy. However, be as specific as you can. Refer to specific articles that have appeared in the past couple of months in this blog–anything after June 1, 2013.

I’m going to pick the top three comments (sorry, I can’t reveal my criteria) and send off some swag to the “winners.” Among the items I’ve collected a radio show guy are

  • copies of Susan Werner’s excellent new CD, “Hayseed”
  • a very cool business card holder made of recycled lumber from Horigan Urban Forest Products, Inc.
  • a set of flash cards that feature some of the favorite plant communities of Roy Diblik of Northwind Perennial Farm
  • an odd assortment of horticultural and environmental books that are piling up in my living room
  • and more…

Comments need to be posted by Wednesday, August 21. If you have any problems posting on this blog site, please write to me at mike@mikenowak.net.

As always, thanks for your support of my work, and especially for caring about our little blue planet.

Ready, set…go!


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Helping bees, planting in straw bales

August 11, 2013

Skip the soil, just plant into a bale of straw! (Really!)

Quick question! What’s the difference between hay and straw? Time’s up! (Yes, I know. I don’t play fair.) Why don’t I just retrieve some information from Joel Karsten’s new book, Straw Bale Gardens: The Breakthrough Method for Growing Vegetables Anywhere, Earlier and with No Weeding:

When small grain crops like wheat are ready to harvest, the plant is cut off near the ground, and the seeds are removed inside the combine harvester via a complicated mechanism that separates the seeds from the stems…The plant stalks are flung out the back of the combine harvester and left as a byproduct of the harvested grain. Then, a baling machine goes out into the field and sweeps up the stalks, packing them into tight round or rectangular bales for collection and transport…

I wish I had a nickel for every time someone has asked me “isn’t straw the same thing as hay?” No. The answer is no, they are not at all the same thing…Hay and straw refer to different species of plants entirely, as different as a cat from a dog. Hay is usually baled grass or alfalfa and is green in color and is fodder for livestock, while straw is yellow or golden with little nutritional value but works well as bedding material for livestock. The confusion seems to increase the closer one gets to tall buildings.

Ouch! Are you talking about me? (I suspect he is.)

So, once Joel has explained the difference between a bale of hay and a bale of straw, he proceeds to spout heresy–namely that you don’t need soil to grow plants. A simple bale of straw will do…that is, if you can tell what it looks like.

While I poke fun at the guy poking fun at the non-farmers among us, his system is intriguing…and, apparently, it works. Joel lists some of the advantages:

  • 75% less labor
  • No weeding
  • Low input and start up costs
  • Extends the growing season
  • High seed germination rate
  • Impossible to overwater
  • Easy to move location
  • No crop rotation needed
  • Creates loads of A+ compost

And, hey, if the New York Times has gotten on board (and I’m pretty sure that a lot of those guys don’t know the difference between hay and straw), you know you have a good thing going.

The good thing about the book is that Joel walks you through all of the steps that will get you up and running with your own straw bale garden, including where to find bales of straw (did you even know that there was such a thing as www.strawbalemarket.com?), what to plant, when to plant it, how to water, how to fertilize, and how to deal with insects. The one thing he won’t tell you is how to deal with weeds...because there aren’t any! You’re growing in a bale of straw!

What a country!

It’s a pleasure to have Joel Karsten on the show this morning.

No puns about the “buzz”, just straight talk about our bees

It’s impossible to have any interest in our natural environment or local food issues without being stunned by the relentless parade of news stories about the death or disappearance of our pollinators, whether they are solitary like plasterer bees, leafcutter bees, mason bees, wool carder bees, digger bees, and carpenter bees or the familiar apis mellifera, also known as the Eurpoean honey bee.

Around 2006, beekeepers and researchers began talking about something called CCD or Colony Collapse Disorder. Here’s how the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service describes it:

In October 2006, some beekeepers began reporting losses of 30-90 percent of their hives. While colony losses are not unexpected, especially over the winter, this magnitude of losses was unusually high.

The main symptom of CCD is very low or no adult honey bees present in the hive but with a live queen and no dead honey bee bodies present. Often there is still honey in the hive, and immature bees (brood) are present. Varroa mites, a virus-transmitting parasite of honey bees, have frequently been found in hives hit by CCD.

This is not the first time that beekeepers are being faced with unexplained losses. The scientific literature has several mentions of honey bee disappearances—in the 1880s, the 1920s, and the 1960s. While the descriptions sound similar to CCD, there is no way to know for sure if those problems were caused by the same agents as CCD.

It wasn’t long, however, before many people began pointing fingers at the many agricultural and horticultural pesticides at loose in the U.S. and elsewhere. A group of insecticides called neonicotinoids drew scrutiny from many quarters. In particular, a member of that family called Clothianidin, which was introduced in 2003 and is widely used on U.S. corn crops, became a focus of the debate over what has been killing bees in record numbers. According to Grist.org,

On March 21, [2012] 27 beekeepers and four environmental groups filed a petition with the agency asking it to take clothianidin — the neonicotinoid causing the most trouble — off the market until a long-overdue, scientifically sound review is completed.

The EPA asked Bayer — the manufacturer of clothianidin — to conduct a study looking at its effects on bees and other pollinators back in 2003, but allowed Bayer to sell the pesticide under “conditional registration” in the meantime. Bayer didn’t produce a field study until 2007, and in spring 2010, clothianidin was quietly granted full registration. But later that year a leaked document revealed that EPA scientists had found Bayer’s study inadequate. “By that time, the pesticide was all over the country,” said Peter Jenkins, an attorney with the Center for Food Safety, the lead legal group on the petition. “We felt that what EPA did was illegal.”

Earlier this year, the Guardian reported that European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) had decided to ban three neonicotinoids – thiamethoxam, clothianidin and imidacloprid – for two years. Because the groupd determinted that they posed an unnacceptable risk to bees, the three will are banned from use for two years on flowering crops such as corn, oilseed rape and sunflowers.

Yet, the use of neonicotinoids continues unabated in the United States and a number of environmental organizations here and here are convinced that neonicotinoids are the “smoking gun” in bee loss.

Not so fast. A study published this year in the journal PLOS ONE by the University of Maryland and the US Department of Agriculture (co-author Jeff Pettis from the USDA is on the show this morning), indicates that chemicals might still be a huge factor in bee deaths–but their interactions are complex, and fungicides might be implicated, which seems to have caught researchers off guard.

According to the L.A. Times:

Researchers found 35 pesticides, some at lethal levels, in the pollen collected from bees servicing major food crops in five states, including California, according to the study published online Wednesday in the journal PLOS One.

Levels for two chemicals were above the dose that would kill half a population within two days, according to the report. Pesticide residue was found on all the pollen samples, including those that the bees apparently collected from nearby wildflowers, according to the report.

The report highlights the diverse cocktail of agricultural chemicals to which domesticated bees are regularly exposed, some of which have been linked to weakened immune system responses in the insects  crucial to the world’s food supply. Most studies of domestic honey bees have examined exposure to a single chemical at a time.

“Bees are getting exposed to a lot of different products, including fungicides,” said Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an entomologist at the University of Maryland and lead author of the report. “What’s surprising is that it seems to weaken the bee’s ability to fight off infection.”

Meanwhile, it doesn’t help that 50,000 bees in Oregon might have died simply because of applicator stupidity, or that Canada is witnessing perhaps its worst bee die-offs ever. As a result, a pair of Democrats, Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Earl Bluemenauer (D-OR), introduced the Saving America’s Pollinators Act of 2013, legislation that would require the Environmental Protection Agency to temporarily suspend the use of certain insecticides in an attempt to stop massive honeybee die-offs.

In other words, there’s a lot going on. And it’s very complex. I’m not going to pretend that I have all of the answers. That’s why I’m extremely pleased to have four people in the studio today who will attempt to make some sense of this insect crisis. They are

  • Dr. May R. Berenbaum, Professor and Department Head of the Department of Entomology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • Jeffery S. Pettis, Research Leader in Bee Research, USDA Agricultural Research Service, Beltsville, Maryland.
  • Dr. Mark Whalon, director the Pesticide Alternatives lab, Department of Entomology, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan
  • Zac Browning is a 4th generation commercial beekeeper and honey producer. He is a co-owner of Browning Honey Co. Inc. With his brothers, he operates over 20,000 hives for honey production and pollination in Idaho, North Dakota, and California.

Bring Your Bag Chicago: keeping the momentum going


That’s the number of single-use disposable plastic bags consumed in Chicago EVERY MINUTE. It’s obscene, really, and it’s just the tip of the plastic bag iceberg in America.

If you listen to the show, you know that I’ve been working with a group called Bring Your Bag Chicago to reduce the number of single-use plastic bags in the City. Almost surprisingly, the City Council hearing on June 18 to bring this to the attention of aldermen and citizens was wildly successful.

But that was just the beginning. The proposed ordinance to reduce plastic bag use in retail establishments in Chicao will probably be considered again soon. Meanwhile, Bring Your Bag Chicago is working hard to let people know just how destructive it is for citizens to be cavalier about the use of these bags.

Bring Your Bag Chicago has started an Indiegogo campaign to raise money to fund the cause. Please contribute whatever you can.

And on Sunday, August 11, Bring Your Bag Chicago will be represented at the Figment celebration at Garfield Park Conservatory. If you stop by, you will be rewarded with a FREE reusable, washable, 100% cotton campaign tote bag! Figment will feature 300 artists and volunteers and more than 50 projects and staged events. There’s collaborative fun for all ages and levels of participation.

Bring Your Bag Chicago organizer Jordan Parker stops by on the show today to talk more about this event and about ridding Chicago of the scourge of plastic bags.

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How effective is urban mosquito control?

August 4, 2013

Mosquitoes and West Nile Virus: To spray or not to spray

I saw a local news story on TV a couple of weeks ago when the City of Chicago announced that it would be spraying certain neighborhoods for mosquitoes. I don’t even remember which channel it was on. I only remember being fairly annoyed by the news reader who blithely announced that the City would be spraying neighborhoods to control mosquitoes.

Why was I annoyed? No mention of what chemicals might be used or how they might affect humans or other living beings. No sense that there might be any other way to handle the “scourge” of mosquitoes. No suggestion that folks who might disagree with this policy might have any recourse.

I can’t even remember whether or not “West Nile Virus” was uttered, though it probably was. Those are the magic words that usually justify any kind of spraying. The City helpfully explains that

While the spray is not harmful to people or pets and is routinely sprayed in residential areas across the nation, residents of targeted neighborhoods may choose to stay indoors and close their windows while spraying is underway, as an extra precaution.

If the spray is “not harmful”, then why should residents “stay indoors and close their windows”? Superstition? Just for fun? Something to post on Facebook?

I do give the City credit for putting out as much information about their spraying program as they have:

Weather permitting, the spraying will occur on Thursday, July 25, 2013. It will begin at dusk and continue through the night until approximately 1:00am, with licensed mosquito abatement technicians in trucks dispensing an ultra-low-volume spray.

The material being used to control the adult mosquitoes, Zenivex™, will be applied at a rate of 1.5 fluid ounces per acre. It is approved for use by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and is used to control mosquitoes in outdoor residential and recreational areas.

Zenivex™ has been used effectively to control disease-carrying mosquitoes and is non-persistent, decomposing rapidly in the environment. The rapid degradation of this product makes it an excellent choice for control of West Nile Virus-carrying mosquitoes.  The spray will be applied by licensed mosquito abatement technicians from Vector Disease Control International, a leader in the mosquito control industry. Guiding the crews through the streets will be supervisors from the Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation.

Now, me being me, I made a quick visit to Googleland and found this out about Zenivex™ E4 (emphasis mine)

This pesticide is toxic to aquatic organisms, including fish and aquatic invertibrates. Runoff from treated areas or deposition into bodies of water may be hazardous to fish and other aquatic organisms. Do not apply over bodies of water (lakes, rivers, permanent streams, natural ponds, commercial fish ponds, swamps, marshes or estuaries), except when necessary to target areas where adult mosquitoes are present, and weather conditions will faciliate movement of applied material away from water in order to minimize incidental deposition into the water body. Do not contaminate bodies of water when disposing of equipment rinsate or washwaters.

This product is highly toxic to bees exposed to direct treatment on blooming crops or weeds. Time applications to provide the maximum possible interval between treatment and the next period of bee activity. Do not apply to blooming crops or weeds when bees are visiting the treatment area, except when applications are made to prevent or control a threat to public and/or animal health determined by a state, tribal, or local health or vector control agency on the basis of documented evidence of disease-causing agents in vector mosquitoes or the occurrence of mosquito-borne disease in animal or human populations, or if specifically approved by the state or tribe during a natural disaster recovery effort.

The questions thus become: “How serious is West Nile Virus?” and “How important is it to target exactly one insect and inflict so much collateral damage on other insects?” and “Do we even know which other insects are being affected by mosquito spraying?”

These questions are asked in light of more and more evidence that certain types of pesticides are implicated in bee deaths.

In case you’re wondering, the highest number of deaths, 286, which happened last year, is 0.00009050632911392405% of the U.S. population of 316,000,000. While any death is sad, we’re not exactly dealing with pandemic numbers here.

An organization that is concerned with spraying is the Midwest Pesticide Action Center (MPAC), formerly known as the Safer Pesticide Control Project (SPCP). The name was just recently changed. In fact, if you log on to MPAC, you will be directed to the SPCP site. MPAC has a pdf about West Nile Virus that you might find useful. In it, they state

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Mosquito Control Association, the airborne spraying of pesticides to kill adult mosquitoes (adulticiding) should only be used as a last resort. Adulticiding is expensive, less effective, and can be harmful to both human health and the environment.

Adulticiding usually consists of spraying or fogging a pesticide from a truck or plane. The pesticide only kills those insects flying in the spray. Mosquitoes behind buildings
and under vegetation or other cover are not affected. However, pesticide residues are left behind on items left outdoors, such as children’s toys and furniture – and may
be tracked inside on shoes. Since adulticiding also kills insects that eat mosquitoes, it may be even less effective in the long term.

I’m pleased to have Ruth Kerzee, Executive Director of the Midwest Pesticide Action Center and Dr. Cort Lohff from Chicago Department of Public Health in the studio with me to discuss this important issue.

Greg Wittstock is The Pond Guy™ (yes, complete with trademark)

Did You Know that

  • One inch of rainfall on a 2,000 square foot residential roof generates 1,250 gallons of water that can be reused.
  • That same roof in a region receiving 30 inches of annual rainfall generates 41,000 gallons of reusable water.
  • The average U.S. household with a 10,000 square foot lot uses up to 3,000 gallons of water weekly for landscape irrigation.
  • Running a sprinkler for 2 hours can use up to 500 gallons of water.
  • Seventy percent of water used at home is used outdoors.
  • 66,175 gallons of water are used outdoors per household, per year.

All of those facts are taken from Aquascape, Inc., which is the brainchild of Greg Wittstock.

Greg Wittstock is a guy who is doing what he loves…which is pretty much the dream for all of us, isn’t it? At the age of 12, he took an interest in water gardens and pretty much never looked back. His innovations and his positive attitude ultimately resulted in the creation of the multi-million dollar business called Aquascape, Inc.

Their office headquarters in St. Charles is called Aqualand and it’s a 256,000 square foot office and warehouse facility that boasts the largest sloping green roof in North America. In fact, St. Charles recently adopted the title of Water Garden Capital of the World. The move came after the city counsel approved the idea proposed by Aquascape’s Chief Sustainability Officer, Ed Beaulieu.

Obviously, Greg is pretty good at selling water features. But more importantly, his business has moved forward in the realm of sustainability, to something he calls Rainwater Harvesting. For example, Aquascape notes that

  • Local water sources such as lakes, reservoirs and groundwater continue to decline despite regular rain events.
  • Demand is becoming greater than the supply and the rains that do fall on our ground are lost.
  • Rainwater is actually flowing away from the area it falls on due to development.
  • Water cannot soak into asphalt, concrete or shingles. It flows very quickly off of these surfaces and in the process it carries a variety of pollutants from dust and dirt to oils, fertilizers and pesticides.
  • This mixture flows quickly into storm sewers and in some cases, ponds and streams.
  • Highly developed areas can have 50% or more surface area covered by impervious surfaces forcing water away from the area where it’s needed.
  • Increased water velocity strips the aquatic vegetation from the shores exposing the soil to subsequent erosion and habitat loss.
  • According to the EPA, urban runoff is the number one cause of pollution in coastal environments.
    • Almost 50% of our stream miles, 45% of lake acres and 35% of estuary and bay square miles surveyed by the EPA are considered below the standards for fishing and swimming.
  • As rainwater run-off is carried away it does not have the opportunity to soak into the soil or groundwater reserves so our aquifers continue to lose water and new water is not coming in.
  • Wells throughout the country are going dry or have to be lowered to access the lower water levels.

Aquascape is moving to address some of these problems, not just in the United States but in other countries as well. That’s where the The Aquascape Foundation comes in. It’s a not for profit organization established in 2008 with a mission to create sustainable solutions for the world-wide water crisis. They accomplish that through using, among other things, Aquascape’s RainXchange® Rainwater Harvest System as a solution to bringing clean drinking water to places where people currently have no access.

Greg Wittstock, The Pond Guy, joins me on the show this morning.

Giving away 2 MORE tix to the SETF “Down in the Dumps,” tour

Last week, I gave away a couple of tickets to the Southeast Environmental Task Force‘s upcoming “Down in the Dumps” tour on Saturday, August 10 from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. I will be on board the bus leaving from the Chicago Cultural Center, so I hope you’ll join me. Here’s what you can expect to see…and smell:

It may sound nasty, but it really is a fascinating trip through the southeast side by comfortable coach bus, visiting a variety o f past & present waste sites (of which there many!) located in our area of the city.

We’ll tour these operations and learn how Chicago deals with garbage, sewage and waste treatment in general. This unique narrated tour highlights the Southeast Side’s overabundance of treatment facilities – huge landfills, recycling centers, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District wastewater treatment plant and sludge drying fields, as well as several former notorious illegal dumps.

The tour originates and ends at the Chicago Cultural Center downtown at Randolph & Michigan The regular cost of $35.00 is reduced for “early bird” registrants to $25 –which includes lunch at Phil Stefani’s Pier 37 Restaurant. This picturesque location is at the famed Harborside International Golf Course on Lake Calumet -a remarkable facility built upon a former dump!

Register by visiting setaskforce.blogspot.com — there you will find a PayPal option or call 773-646-0436.

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