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, 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,

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.