uninvited guests

Bees in almond tree. (Photo courtesy of Allison Bean)

We had a case of hives here. Or hive. I came home Friday evening with my arms full of groceries to discover that my kitchen was full of bees. (Full is a relative term.) One bee is slightly alarming in the kitchen. There were about 50 bees. And when I went into the living room, there were about 50 more in there. The kitchen window was open and I know it’s swarming season (when a hive has grown too big,  splits and half leaves with a new queen to find a new hive). I could see bees outside the window, too, so I assumed there was a swarm outside the window and that some had come in by accident.

Silly me.

First order of business was to wave the bees outside.  Although I’m the last person to want to get stung, the chances are actually slim when they’re swarming. Bees sting to protect their hive, and without a hive, they’re not on the defensive. So we gently ushered them out with manila folders and a soft whisk broom (it’s not unlike the bee brush I’ve used when brushing bees off the honey frames). But as soon as we got the last bees out, more appeared. We finally discovered that they were coming from under the sink — from out of the wall. That was bad news, for us and the bees. We were in a bit of a panic — not only did I have a kitchen that was still full of bees (and full means 20 or more at a time), I had a houseful of family coming for dinner in an hour. And it was a Friday at 5 p.m. Not good if you want to call for professional help.

There’s a horizontal pipe under the window
where the bees were happily moving in.
That’s my kitchen window up there.

We managed to use duct tape to cover the hole under the countertop, and kept all drawers and cabinets closed. I called the landlady, the property management and my husband in short order. After more sleuthing, we found that the bees were buzzing cheerfully in and out of a hole outside the building, in the shingles where a pipe goes in. More bad news for the bees. It’s easy for a bee-wrangler to rehouse a swarm in a tree, but not so easy to get bees out of a building. Since it was a new swarm, only a few hours old, we had time to get them out before they built comb and started foraging.

A series of phone calls, however, made it clear that, since we’re renters, we didn’t have a lot of power or choice about what happened. We’ve just recently moved. We have basically no tools, and no yard at this apartment where we could set up a hive. We had no ladder. I called and contacted some of the bee people I know, but at that time of day had no luck, and they also told me that bees in a building were probably doomed. We had to relinquish it to the property management.

Everyone knows that the bees are in trouble, right? That we desperately need honeybees to keep pollinating all the plants so we can continue to eat yummy food, and all that? I was very anxious not to harm these bees,  and see them installed safely elsewhere. But circumstances were galloping out of my control. As a certified (certifiable?) eco-freak, I honestly felt sick at the thought of harming the bees. Like I had a baby unicorn in my arms and the power to have it live or die. And I was up against an avalanche.

Under the sink, all exits blocked, the buzzing grew louder and louder.

The landlady said no to having the bees extracted from the house. She didn’t want the siding damaged. The property management called a pest control company. The husband, trying to protect his family from a swarm of bees literally moving in under the sink, opened the door and sprayed Raid into the hole. My family ate pizza in the dining room and we kept the kitchen doors shut.

After dark, I crept in with a flashlight, on the advice of my beekeeper friend. I opened the door and looked inside. There were dozens, maybe 100 bees under the sink, but they were motionless. Hard to tell what was alive or sleeping. In the morning, when the sun hit the wall of the house, the buzzing began again under the sink. But we had a full day of activities planned, so we left. I didn’t want to be around for the bee annihilation to come.

But as it turns out, the pest company never came. The property manager’s weekend assistant misunderstood our problem and sent a plumber. The plumber sealed the entrance under the sink and outside as well, and the bees were trapped outside of the house. They couldn’t get in anymore, and they flew off. I think some must have died in the process, but they at least didn’t get destroyed, aside from the ones under the sink.

It’s an awkward ending, because I don’t know all that happened. It really illustrates how hard some of our choices are. Our best intentions toward Nature and the environment can come up against expedience, safety, and economics. People who can’t be bothered. People who don’t understand what is dangerous or not. I felt emotionally drained but relieved to find the holes sealed. As much as I love the bees, they can’t live in the kitchen. It just doesn’t work that way.

But to make it right with the universe, if such a thing is possible, I purchased a beehive for a needy family through Heifer International, and so did another friend of mine in my honor. So at least somewhere, there are two more beehives flourishing, and I hope this swarm found a better home.

Trash and the Single Female

I’m not a single female. Happily married, see? (waggles ring finger.) But I’m the only female in this house. So why am I head-down in the trash can? How did taking out the garbage become a gendered job? Should I feel like I’m doing the gentlemen (Mr Husband and The Boy) a big fat favor when I’m taking out the trash? Should I get annoyed when it’s still sitting here in the kitchen? Who died and made me the Boss of Everything?

Uh. No one. Of course, I wouldn’t be alone in thinking that taking out the trash is the man’s job. Check out these marriage experts, and this one, and even these knuckleheads who have strong opinions about the Taking Out of the Trash. Looks like everyone has some thoughts on the matter.

Sorting trash. Yeah, that’s me.

 Amusing, but that’s not really our point today. I take out the trash as much as anyone else. It all depends who’s home when it’s full. But more important — it’s not just trash. We have a system of what goes where. Actual real garbage (which includes nasty bathroom stuff, old Bandaids and soiled plastics) is not much in existence at this house (apartment). We have a 1-gallon can in the kitchen that is lined with a small plastic grocery bag and is rarely even filled. One of us takes it down every week or so to the gray can. The gray can is usually pretty empty. We could get away with once-a-month service. Not so for the green and blue cans.

Everything else gets sorted and either composted or recycled. Broken glass? Recycled.
Electronics? Recycled.
Old clothes? Used for rags, then recycled.
Empty paint can? Recycled.
Paint can with some paint left over? Taken to Alameda County Industries for household hazardous waste disposal. (Free!)
Plastic bags? Collected and returned to grocery stores.

Look! Bottle caps!
Which one of you wise guys…?

Sometimes people (I won’t name names) put the wrong thing in the trash. Bottle caps, for example, are recyclable. Don’t throw them in the garbage. How long do you think it takes a metal can or bottle cap to decompose in “garbage,” aka landfill? About 50 years. More or less.

Probably more.

It’s easy to compost/green waste your leftovers and pizza boxes. Seems like everyone gets a green can at the curb these days, from whatever trash management company your city or area uses. We had two magnificent compost bins working at our last house, our Little City Farm, plus chickens, but I don’t find it too odious (odorous?) to take a load down to the green bin every day, now that we are apartment-dwellers. I have to leave the house anyway, right?

While taking out the trash may or may not be your purview at your house, I have always found it a simple starter-chore for kids. It’s a good idea to teach them young about recycling and what can go back into the earth (the circle of life, right?), and help carry it out to the curb. It’s not as if the need to recycle and reduce waste will go away soon. Good habits start early.
Better yet, though, is reducing, or pre-cycling, what comes into the house. Potato chip bags, with few exceptions, are not recyclable. Sun Chips (original flavor) has a biodegradable bag, and so does Boulder Canyon. If you can find these brands, it’s no problem to green-waste the bag afterward. If you’re buying Mylar bags or loud, crinkly plastic bag chips (Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, Doritos, et al), you’re in trouble. Not likely that your local center will recycle those, and they end up in landfill. And how many bags a year are we talking? The Potato Growers Association says we eat three billion bags of chips (of all flavors) per year. Three billion? That’s a lot of landfill. I’m just saying. Can’t control what everyone else does, but we can control what we buy and how we affect the landscape around us. Think about that next time you reach for a plastic bag of chips. And even though The Boy loves them, I avoid buying them, knowing I’ll still see a few bags in the garbage anyway (= what I can’t control).
I’m working on this with other products. I go to the meat counter and ask for paper-only wrapping instead of getting plastic-wrapped bacon, lunch meats or fish. Better quality and fewer preservatives means it eat sooner, too. It won’t last a month in the fridge the way nationally branded products encased in plastic might. Which leads to less food waste, which leads to less methane in the atmosphere. Slower warming of the globe and all that.
You get the picture. Think about what’s coming in through the front door, and you’ll be able to manage how it goes out the trash can even more. Worry less about who’s taking out the trash and more about what you’re putting into it. A full recycling bin bespeaks a generous heart. Or something like that.
All smiles!

progress and purpose

We’ve been busy at the Green House these days, painting with my Freecycled paint, or paint I purchased at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore, which sells rescued building materials. I look forward to painting our living room walls some interesting shades of green/sage, but they’re still working on the ceiling. Here’s what the living room ceiling looks like ( <--) after repairing the damaged roof, removing a desperately leaking skylight, and adding beams and trusses where there were none. (That’s right — none.) But now there are many, just the right number, in fact, to keep this roof up and over our heads for another 50 years or so. Falling trees notwithstanding (heh heh).

The light bulb in the middle is actually going to be a ceiling fan, repurposed from the dining room where it had no business being, as there are windows and a nice door already. You can see a window and part of the door below in the dining area.

While I was waiting for the plumber to show up the other day, I primed the wooden panel and trim, aka wainscoting, in the dining area. I didn’t think I had time to do it. But the plumber was late, then actually did not show up at all. So I got the priming done, and am going to call a different plumber. I used an old sheet (Thrift Town, bought for a bed, but full of cigarette holes, yuk!) instead of plastic for a drop cloth, and have been taking good care of my paintbrush. In the past, I would use it, forget it, find it all dried out and ruined, throw it away, buy a new one, repeat, repeat…. Funny how taking care of one’s stuff actually works for the good of one’s wallet and one’s planet. Simply amazing, in fact.

When the guys are inside, hammering, sawing and making noise and mess, I tend to stay outside and work on the garden-that-will-be. The garden area is a rocky hillside, to wit:

Challenge: to create a terraced garden out of a desert-like patch of sloping, infertile ground. I started with a compost corner (at right) to make some good dirt. Food scraps, green weeds and grass, dead leaves, and the addition of some wormy compost from my big garden in Alameda will help. I have harvested rocks from under the deck and around the house to make the rock-lined flower beds in front. I planted sunflowers in front of the deck, not sure if they’ll come up this year or not. I will be planting lavender in the next week or so, because they are very hardy, don’t need a lot of water or TLC, and they’ll attract bees and hummingbirds and add a nice scent to our cottage garden-to-be.
That cement slab is just a boring cement slab, not the top of the cesspool, but very big and heavy, so we won’t demolish it (yet). We started to make a mosaic out of random pieces of marble that are lying around the neighborhood (someone’s leftovers from a remodel, or an art project, perhaps?). When we get the top covered in marble, we’ll affix it with some grout and call it art. I have a potted dwarf lemon tree in a tub that will be lovely in that spot, as soon as I can get it into the car (it needs 2 people to life it, ugh.)

Here’s the kitchen door from the deck. I plan to paint it bright red or perhaps green — something cheery and colorful that will really say “cottage!”

The deck is quickly becoming our favorite place in the world — lovely in the morning and gorgeous in the late afternoon. The Stellar’s jays come for peanuts, the tiki torches burn with citronella at night, and it’s a perfect place for morning coffee or evening glass of wine. The only time it’s unbearable in summer is about 2-5 pm, when the sun beats down without mercy. You just sit there and melt into sweaty goo. That’s when its time to go inside for a siesta or run some errands. Or go jump in the river.

Meanwhile, back on the Isle of Style, my garden is going crazy with green beans that are purple and tomatoes that won’t turn red yet. There are tons of them, so I feel like there’s a ticking tomato bomb about to go off back there. Tick. Tick. Boom. Then it will be salsa, bolognese sauce and Caprese salad time. Looking forward to it. Big time.

I have laundry on the line right now and it smells so sweet. Cats are loving the heat, and prove this by staying indoors. Chickens prove it by refusing to lay ANY eggs for several weeks, yet continuing to eat their stupid heads off. They also continue to poo everywhere. Is there justice here? I think not. However, we are eating baby beets and turnips for dinner tonight, and when the sun goes down I will bake some banana muffins with the black bananas that died on the counter while I was painting wainscoting 60 miles away. The fridge turned out a pack of frozen spinach and a packet of tortellini, so I think we’re set for dinner this evening.

I wonder if a glass of wine on the Island patio is as nice as a glass of wine on a country cottage deck? Luckily, we don’t have to choose. Amen, amen.

judge not, and hot water

I’m back at my post after five days in the redwoods, where our little green house sits. This is the house we just bought, using bubble gum, baling wire, rolls of pennies and our winsome smiles. I’ve been masterminding its renovation, getting inspections and starting to paint, buying things like beams and plaster-patching mesh and oddments from the hardware department.

I had to buy a Simpson Strong Tie item with no name, just a number, to hold a large truss and joist in place. I had to buy four of them, in fact, and the one place was out of them and I had to go elsewhere and ask for it by holding out this odd-shaped piece of metal and say, “Gimme two more o’ dese tings.” Want to feel like a dummy? Walk around with unknown pieces of metal in your hand at hardware stores and ask for help from smug salesfolk. The metal-thingies have no name. But they are indispensable. And they cost about $4.50 each, by the way. (I’m not kidding about the no-name. No one knows what they are called. But they all know what to do with it. “Oh, yeah, we have those — wait here…”)

So — cha-ching! I’ve had guys digging into the septic tank and measuring our sludge. I had a creepasaurus with long fingernails inspect our house for termites. Finding none, he ardently tried to persuade me to inject poison into the soil up to 10 feet deep to keep termites out. Prevention, he says. For a problem that doesn’t exist. For only $2,000. Umm. No, thanks. A nice fellow came and changed all the locks. Another nice fellow walked on our roof and we made a deal. Two more took crowbars to our living room ceiling. The roofer came back and addressed his crew to the roof. They left behind a lightweight, yet solidly sheathed house with sparkling new rain-gutters. The little green house (which isn’t green in color, just in spirit) is so pretty now, I could bust.
We’re going to have a new ceiling, new baseboards, new floors, new paint, new light fixtures and a new garden… all underway as we speak, and much of it re-using what we have or what I found on Freecycle. I feel good about the green-ness of it all.
Which leads me to two topics. Judgement, and hot water. One might lead to the other, you’d think. Not necessarily. So there I am in the new house over the weekend, washing dishes by hand, conserving water carefully, using my soap swisher, biodegradable organic soap, second-hand dishes, handmade dish-scrubber and organic cotton knitted dishcloth. My new neighbor (the ones with the trash and hoarding problem) drives up in her minivan and proceeds to unload bushels of groceries in plastic bags: sweet cereal, lots of ramen noodles, Capri Sun drinks, tons of junk food, individually-wrapped snack items. I didn’t see a fresh vegetable in the load, except a large sack of potatoes. I didn’t see any milk.
I just washed my dishes and watched and counted the number of plastic bags and my mind sped along and I —- had to stop. Because who am I to judge her and her choices? Some kind of green goddess? Is it my job to tell a struggling single mother with myriad domestic challenges, not least of which is a husband who she’s just ditched who abused her and the kids and made all their lives hell? Without going into further details, the woman has enough on her plate. It is not my job to change her, to improve her, to show her my golden way. It is my job to love her. It is all our jobs to love her, and the other people around us who frustrate and challenge us. Isn’t it? It is. Go read your (insert holy book of choice here). Then tell me I’m wrong.
We made friends with our new neighbor and offered to help her clean up her yard when we get a Dumpster and she was so excited. We exchanged hellos a number of times over the weekend and it turns out she’s sweet as pie and really making great strides in her own journey. But even if she wasn’t a sweet Cinderella — even if she was boorish and loud and stupid and repulsive — it’s still my job to love her, not to judge her by whatever class, environmental or other status I live by/in.
And so, to hot water.
We are closer to the cycle of water in our new home than in the city, because the source of the water is the river, and the end result of where it goes it the river. Our septic tank percolates into the dirt, runs downhill to the creek that leads to the river. So what we put in, stays in it and will eventually, at the molecular level, get to the river and the ocean. This is a bit daunting. The responsibility is palpable. It would be so easy to slip and send something toxic down the drain — which is why we’ve made the house totally green. So I’m doing my dishes, per above, and I realized how often I reach for the hot water, versus just water, or cold water. Like — so much. I realized that we — I personally and we as an industrialized nation — are addicted to hot water. Must have it for baths! Must have it for cleaning! Must have it for everything! When I rinse off a dish or a vegetable or my hands, I always turn on the hot water. Why? Because it is easy and thoughtless. It’s always there. I tried to notice how much I reach for hot water over the past few days — because it maybe easy and available, but it isn’t free. And I admit, I’m a glutton for hot water.
Try thinking about hauling your water from a well in the yard. Think about walking 10 minutes to the river, then back with a full pail of water. Think about walking five or ten miles daily with one large jar on your head. Think about gathering the wood to heat the water, and when you would use the hot water in that case. And also think about the oil that is pumped x-many thousand miles from here and how far it is shipped, and what it does to the atmosphere to transport and burn fuel on a grand scale so we can use hot water whenever we want to.
When I put it into that context, I started paying more attention to when I really needed hot water. It turns out that cold water does just as much good in most cases as hot. You really only need hot water when you need to disinfect — such as washing diapers, or dishes, or washing your hands after going to the bathroom. But rinsing your hands after cutting vegetables doesn’t require hot water. Rinsing out a glass before refilling it — cold water is just fine. Rinsing dishes before the dishwasher, if you do that — cold water, because the machine will use hot to kill whatever germs are there.

Just something to think about on this (here) gloomy July day.

boxes, bells and whistles

Every day is a challenge when you’re trying to avoid plastic. Every. Single. Day.

Plastic is so ubiquitous in our lives that it’s hard to really see it all — it attaches itself to products like static cling, and is almost as hard to get rid of. At the beginning of the month I took everything plastic-bag-like back to the grocery store bin for recycling (these are bins near the front door of most grocery stores, where you can recycle your plastic grocery bags). I put other plastic bags in with the grocery bags — from other stores, plus other types of plastic wrap, baggies, etc. I figure I can at least try to get it recycled that way — if it ends up in landfill at their end, at least I tried. And if it does get recycled, I’m glad I made the effort.

I usually have a pretty large bag every month – though it does compress down pretty small. I will say that my household is at about a third of what we’ve had in past months, which is a plus — that means far fewer bags and plastics made it into the house. Our garbage can continues empty — aside from the one car-trash dump last week, our new smaller 20-gallon can is empty. Our recycling bin is full each week, and there’s been more in the green waste (city composting). So all of those are wins, and if I had remembered to keep score over plastic, I think I’d still be ahead.

I’d like to share this link that I got as an e-mail, for purchasing ball-point pens. These are the first to be made from 100% recycled plastic bottles, according to Pilot. If you’re going to buy ball-point pens, then they might as well be made from something recycled, and then recycled again afterward. Here’s the link: Pilot Pens on sale.

Another product I would like to praise is Annie Chun‘s, a line of Asian foods that has made strides toward better packaging. The instant soups have eliminated the plastic film wrap, and the containers are now compostable instead of plastic. The paperboard cover is made from recycled cardboard now as well. I make the point about Annie Chun’s because I notice that most ethnic foods are lagging way behind in terms of eco-sensitive packaging. Especially imported foods — I recommend avoiding them at this point, because foods shipped from afar are not  good for the planet (food miles), and foods shipped from afar in plastic or virgin paper wrap are even worse. Annie Chun’s is based in Marin County, by the way.

Pay attention to what you buy. It really does matter.

In other plasticky news, I am really enjoying my wooden and boar bristle toothbrush. I like it. It’s gentle but does a thorough job. Plastic bristles make my gums bleed. Enough said. Both Mr. Husband and self are now using the organic silk floss and it works just fine. It doesn’t shred as I thought it would. So that’s also good news. I’m also enjoying the different feel of a wooden comb and brush with natural bristles instead of the “scratch my head” plastic brush I had been using as both comb/brush. Who would have thought taking care of myself would feel so nice? (I also feel like saying “I coulda had a V8!” right now. [slaps forehead])

As the end of the month draws near and payday approaches, I will again have to look at what we’ve spent on food and how the budget was impacted. I haven’t yet made the call to cancel cable, and will take a look at bills and expenses later on to see how we’re doing. I do know that our food is delicious these days. Our bread is better quality. Our milk tastes better. Our cheese is better quality. Our meat is definitely better quality, and not purchased because it’s cheap or on sale. The junk food quotient has gone way down. Our beverages are healthier, too. And, amazingly, my family doesn’t hate me.

We’re very glad to say that beer and wine still come in glass (or aluminum), and so do quality small-batch sodas and juices. The San Francisco Chronicle had a nice little piece about glass vs. aluminum in Sunday’s paper. The upshot is that if it’s locally brewed or made, glass is the better option (Lagunitas Brewery or Sonoma/Napa wines, for my local peeps). If it comes from afar (out of state, imported), aluminum is lighter and therefore has a lower carbon footprint. Glass is infinitely recyclable or refillable, but it’s heavier, so that’s why local is preferred (fewer gas/miles to bring it), says the article. We celebrated by drinking a locally brewed beer Sunday.

How are you doing on your own plastics purge? Inquiring minds want to know.