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Friday, October 25, 2013

GMO…OMG!…From the Editor’s Desk…

contented bovines“…or of the force or the grace of nature as she appeared when left entirely to herself, without human interference.”

M. Proust, Swann’s Way

Just like colorful amanita mushrooms they’re sprouting up on every corner…campaign signs. Yes, it looks like a record crop of tomato stakes this season—and high quality wooden stakes they are, too—not those flimsy wire withes that flap about in the wind like elephant ears whenever a vehicle passes. ‘Tis the season of rhetoric, promises…admonitions,…recriminations,…ah, yes, we’ve heard it all before ad nauseam.

As I thumbed through today’s mail, I came across a glossy propaganda flier urging me, for the welfare of my family, to vote NO! on Initiative 522 which would require grocery items produced by GMO technology to be labeled as such. A young woman, a homemaker one assumes--definitely a brunette--is superimposed against an array of shelved grocery items. Chin in hand, a quizzical look on her face that seems to say: “There’s has to be a mistake on this grocery receipt slip I’m holding.” (Or perhaps she left her list at home and is puzzling over “I’ve forgotten something…I just know there was something else.”)

I-522: “ To label, or not to label” appears to be the controversy de jour of Washington State’s 2013 political circus. So who’s to believe: the long-haired blonde who reads labels when she shops as the bulbs dim around her (Sorry…The Ripple does not stoop to blonde jokes), or the brunette who casts a critical glance at her grocery receipt? And where, I ask, is the redhead for the swing vote?

The Ripple prides itself on steering clear of politics, but because our Valley has a good portion of acreage planted in herbicide-resistant silage corn, The Ripple invokes its editorial privilege in this post by addressing what appears to be the hot button of the political season’s thin crop of initiatives.

Let me, as the saying goes, “leap into the breach” with a few observations about “To label” or “Not to label.” First of all, I believe both camps do little to make a legitimate case for their respective positions on the issue. The labelers maintain it’s their right to know what grocery foodstuffs contain and how the foods they buy are produced; it’s a  freedom of information sort of thing. There is a new generation of consumers out there, young families with young mothers who are super vigilant about their family’s wellbeing and  diet and where their children’s nutrition is concerned are hyper-sensitive. They are the “more fresh fruits and vegetables, less processed foods” contingent. GMO is anathema to them--as if the word denotes “tampered with” or “contaminated.” Rather than using the “right to know” tack, it seems their cause might be better served by bringing some science to their argument, present some facts, some statistics, some rock solid proof that consumers should be leery of genetically tweaked comestibles. Besides, a label that reads “partially produced with genetic engineering” or “may be produced with genetic engineering” provides as much helpful information as packaging that states the container is“made from recycled paper.”

“A horrible truth in America: money talks. Not truth, not society, [not health], not art, but money, and when money talks, it doesn’t tell the truth, it talks money.

                                                                                   Garrison Keillor

On the other hand, the “Vote No” camp, instead of promoting GMO technology as a harmless and beneficial use of science, sidesteps the issue and zeros in on the financial burden to consumers, a red herring that twists the issue’s focus to fiscal health instead of physical health. The anti I-522 campaign has outspent the pro camp three to one. Why? Because, they say, they’re concerned about cost, but cost to whom? Well, cost to agribusinesses, of course, and the food conglomerates, the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association, all of whom have a bottom-line interest in producing and marketing their merchandise. The Office of Financial Management has projected I-522’s cost to taxpayers at three million dollars (three of four areas of expenditures are deemed “indeterminate”) over a five year span, a minimal amount compared to the expense taxpayers bear for transportation costs incurred by state government officials over the same period, it would seem. Such a minimal sum for a six or seven word label would hardly deter those shoppers who regularly pay more per pound for “organic” and “certified organic” produce at the grocery store. (The label on my gallon jug of milk tells me its contents come from cows not “treated with rbST”; I don’t recall the cost for this labeling ever being an issue.)

A few more considerations: Washington State is the only state in this election cycle voting on a GMO issue. (A similar initiative failed in California where corporate monies overwhelmed the “Yes” contingent.) Why Washington State only is the issue’s battleground this time around is puzzling. If the initiative passes, not only grocery products would require labeling. I-522 mandates that any seed or seed stock produced through genetic engineering must be labeled accordingly, also. (In regards to seed: there is a class action suit pending against Monsanto Co. by the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Associates (OSGTA), producers of seed from openly pollinated crops. OSGTA’s concern is that genetic drift from GMO crops will taint non-GMO crops and fears that Monsanto will bring legal action against its members, claiming patent infringement. That GMO seed could affect the state’s economy is a concern I-522 addresses, as well. In recent months Japan imposed a temporary embargo on Oregon wheat, fearing GMO contamination.)

While innovation is a human prerogative (and passion), sometimes new technology brings with it unintended consequences: for instance, cellphone and other handheld electronic gadgetry have made our roadways, in my opinion, at greater risk for safety. GMO technology and its products may prove the same. Who knows? There just hasn’t been enough time gone by, studies done, to say for sure. And it’s not that easy to put one over on Mother Nature without some consequence or other. Soybean growers in the southern states have used GMO-Round-Up resistant seed to combat the omnipresent pigweed only to discover that a new, hardy R-U resistant strain has evolved. Soybean farmers now have to employ fieldworkers to remove the pigweed by hand, adding additional labor costs to their profits. A weed is by nature evolutionally programed not only to survive, but prevail and triumph. A concern of mine is how many new herbicides/pesticides must be concocted and applied to cropland to stay one step ahead of these New Millennium herbaceous pests and what effect will these new applications have upon livestock, wildlife, and human health?

That a few extra words on a package should cause such a firestorm of controversy borders on the ridiculous, a tempest in a teapot, if you will; however, for the consumer concerned about the diet, health, and wellbeing of their families, what could a little more information hurt?

As to where the editor stands on shopping, labels and labeling, let me share the following anecdote. During one ballgame Hank Aaron, the great “Hammerin’ Hank,”stepped up to the plate for his turn at bat. He dug in, settled into his stance, and was awaiting the first pitch when one of his teammates issued a warning about the position of Hank’s bat: “Hey, Hank! You’ve got the trademark pointed the wrong way.” Hank signaled “Time,” stepped out of the batter’s box, turned to the dugout and said: “I’m up here to bat, not read.”

Monday, October 14, 2013

Robbing the Bees…

honey cropI stopped by the espresso stand on Beebe Corner the other day. The afternoon was warm and the various fragrances drifting from the stand had attracted the hornets. As per hornet habit, they were on the hunt for a syrupy repast which bordered on harassment, an intrusion the pretty barista condemned by a scathing comment about “bees.” As I have been around honeybees most of my life, I am quick to come to their defense and as so often in the past tactfully explained that everything that barnstorms your head is not a bee. As the comely young lady was preparing my drink (non-syrupy, by the way), our conversation shifted from bees to honey. “It’s bee poop, honey, isn’t it?” she asked. Shades of Wikipedia. Honey? Bee poop? Valley bee poopAs strange as it may seem, this is not the first time I’ve heard such a thing from a member of the general public. Now I’m opposed to marketing honey as a “raw” product. (To me, “raw” implies “unprepared,” like “raw” chicken, “raw” fish; “pure” is the term I prefer for the unadulterated product.) Imagine trying to market the bees’ ambrosia as “bee poop.”

I shouldn’t be so hard on my young coffee server. What honey is and where it comes from, I’m afraid, remains a mystery to many consumers. I jokingly tell folks you just take a bucket out by the beehive and ask the bees to “fill ‘er up.” And I’m certain some may believe it, too.

“Robbing the bees; taking off the honey; pulling honey”: I’ve heard  these phrases used in reference to removing the season’s honey crop. Regardless if you’re a beekeeper given to euphemism and balk at the term “robbing” to describe harvesting your honey crop, it is a necessary part of the fall routine. After all, we’re the caretakers of “honey” bees, aren’t we? The bucket joke aside, honeycombs must be removed and hauled to the extracting room. At harvest time, a honeybee colony is at near peak population, the honeycombs swarming with bees, 40,000 to 70,000 of them. They’ve worked hard for their ambrosia and cling to the combs, reluctant to part with a drop of their labor. So the bees must go.

There are several methods used to clear the bees from the extracting combs. To my knowledge I’ve used all but one. Make that two if there’s truth to the story that some commercial beekeepers summering their bees in Canadian fireweed and alsike clover found it economically feasible to “rob” all the honey, gas their bees at season’s end, and replace them the next year. Due to the current mite infestation and subsequent high colony mortality, I’m sure this practice, if indeed it were once used, would not  be a viable practice today. The methods I’ve used:

Brushing the bees from the comb. For the hobbyist with one or two colonies, this is perhaps the most practical. Combs are removed one at a time, and after a hard shake or two to dislodge the majority, a soft plastic bristled bee brush is used to sweep off the last hangers on. One at time the bee-free combs are placed in an empty box and set aside.bee brush

Escape boards. These “exit only” devices are placed beneath the bee laden honey boxes. The traditional “bee escape” consists of a metal or plastic sleeve that allows the worker bee to squeeze through two flexible metal prongs (two sets per escape device) and go about her business but prohibit her from returning to the comb.plastic bee escape Other escape boards are maze-like and once the bee is out, she can’t find her way back into the honey super. As a rule most honey boxes are completely bee free in twenty-four hours and once shed of their company can then be lifted off and taken to the extracting site. The escape board method is not foolproof, however. If any of the extracting combs contain brood or perhaps pollen, attendant bees, whose job it is to work indoors, will remain behind to tend to their business. Sometimes a bee corpse, a larger drone, perhaps, will jam the exit prongs. Using boards with two or three escapes allows the bees multiple escape points should one of the others become jammed. A cautionary note about the escape board method: as there is usually a nectar dearth when honey is removed, bees are quick to assume a  robbing mode, and if there is any top access such as a hive lid askew or a lid vent open, the beekeeper is in for a big surprise.When he goes to lift off that honey laden box, he may well find it light as a feather; the bees will have taken back what’s rightfully theirs.escape board

Fume boards. By using a fume board, the beekeeper “stinks” the bees from the honey combs. A telescoping lid lined with absorbent padding replaces the standard lid in this method. The padding is doused with an odiferous chemical whose smell repels the bees, drives them down out of the honey supers. I have used two kinds of fume chemical: first, a product called Bee-Go which I found especially foul smelling; when the unsuspecting nose gets a whiff of this product, its owner immediately inspects the soles of his shoes to see if he may have stepped in something. The second product, much easier on the beekeeper’s olfactory, uses almond extract to remove the bees. The fume board is best  used on a hot afternoon on hives located in full sun. Painted black to absorb the heat, the tin-covered lid is set atop the honey box at a skewed angle for a few minutes,  time enough for the bees to start their exodus without being stunned. A few puffs of cool smoke from a smoker encourages them to move downward, as well. The lid is then positioned correctly and in fifteen minutes or so, the honey super, now free of bees, is removed. I’ve had the most success with fume boards in Eastern Washington on ninety degree plus days; in our locale there’s usually not enough heat for this method to work efficiently.fume board

Bee Blower. Back in the ‘80s I had a busy little bee business of sixty some colonies. The first of August half that number I trucked up the Methow Valley to let the bees work their magic on star thistle. Six weeks later I returned to harvest the thistle honey crop. In those days I removed bees from the honey laden supers with a bee blower, a customized leaf blower of sorts that generated a stream of air in excess of one hundred mph. bee blowerThat blower has sat dormant all these years in the loft of my shed.  Whether out of nostalgia or because the previously mentioned methods take more time, I decided to haul the red blaster out the attic this fall and make short work of harvesting the year’s  crop. I changed the oil, filled the gas tank, and thirty some years later after a few pulls on the starter cord, the machine roared to life.

I hauled the blower and a pair of sawhorses out to the bee yard and set to work. The blower has a corrugated tube, one end of which I twisted into the blower’s fan casing; into the opposite end I inserted a shop vac-sized crevice tool. As I removed a super, I upended it on the sawhorses, tipped it forward, and revved the blower engine to peak rpm. Then as I directed the stream of air between the frames, the bees whooshed out toward the entrance of their hive. Moving the crevice tool slowly up and down one frame after the other, I blasted the bees off the face of the combs.When the box was bee-free, I set it aside and moved on to the next. I was finished in half an hour’s time: six boxes full of honey…six boxes empty of bees. I had forgotten how well the system worked. (Another “windfall”: the whine of the blower drowned out the droning of hundreds of angry bees being “robbed.”) honey in the comb

“What method did you use to encourage the bees to leave your supers?” I asked Quenton during a recent visit to the Beez Neez Apiary supply. His answer supplied me with the only technique I have yet to try. “I took an empty box, set it on the ground, removed a super, turned it sideways and banged it up and down on the empty box until I knocked all the bees loose.” “Ah, you used the tough love approach, then?” I remarked. A smile crawled its way out of Quenton’s bush of a beard. “That’s what I’m all about,” he grinned.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Valley of the Dammed…

new controversyAs you know, readers, The Ripple has a nose for news…our mission: to ferret it out; however, this time of the year the news nose must have been stifled by allergies, the first fall cold, or onset hibernation because some local news has slipped under The Ripple’s radar. Last month I headed east to attend my mother’s ninetieth birthday celebration. Somewhere in the Goldbar vicinity I saw a sign draped over a fence. “The River Cannot Speak for Itself,” the sign read. “Well, of course it can’t,” I thought, “only a brook can babble.” As I continued on, I puzzled over the message and then recalled an earlier sign I’d seen tacked to a stake in a yard in town. Highlighted against a blue background, the message presented the universal ideograph for “No!” the red circle crossed by a red diagonal “Sno PUD dam.” Dam? I hadn’t heard about any dam thing. “Dam it,” I wondered, “Dam what?”

Upon my return from the 90th gala, The Ripple immediately summoned the research department and set it to task investigating this dam business. After peering under every rock and river cobble, the Ripple’s diligent research came up with the following dam information. Abiding by its mission to power up the public, our local Public Utility District is considering a dam business venture on the south fork of the Skykomish River. The Sky, a wild, free flowing montane watercourse, is on the Northwest Power and Conservation Council’s Protected Rivers list. Snohomish County PUD has loosed their legal team on the “Protected Rivers Act” language looking for, so to speak, “a chink in the dam.”SNOHO PUD, sifting with a fine toothed comb through the convoluted, bloviated legalese of the Act,  has mined the following fortuitous caveat that allows projects on endangered rivers if it can be proved their construction will enhance “fish and wildlife habitat.”

In March 2012 the Federal  Energy Regulatory Commission granted Snohomish County PUD a permit  to proceed with a feasibility study for a hydroelectric project on the Sky River upstream from Sunset and Canyon Falls. What the PUD is “looking into” is a weir-type inflatable dam (bladdering the river?) whose height could be adjusted according to water flow to a maximum of seven feet.

I first came across the term “weir” in the novels of Charles Dickens. A Dickens’ weir was where a character either drowned or was murdered…not the best PR for a weir anywhere, it would seem. As far as a watercourse obstruction, a weir is a “wannabe” dam. (Perhaps the phrase “water over the dam” originated from a weir-type construction.) As a dam thing, a weir is child’s play compared to the behemoth concrete structures like Hoover, Grand Coulee, the Nile’s Aswan and China’s Three Gorges dam on the Yangtze River. Rather than “dam” a river or stream, a weir is designed to impede the flow of water, create a reservoir behind it while allowing water to flow over the brim. (The small hydro dam/fish way on the Wenatchee River in Tumwater Canyon is a weir-type dam.) Historically, weirs were installed for flood abatement and irrigation purposes.

When dams like the two Elwha River structures on the Olympic Peninsula are being removed, it seems somewhat retro for any modern agency to propose erecting a new one. The weir dam according to the PUD would be low profile physically (only a foot of the rim would be visible) and is being floated as a benign, innocuous structure advantageous to fish passage (the PUD presents the dam as the “Sunset Falls Fish Passage and Energy Project”: note the priority billing of “fish)) and purportedly would spark enough hydro power to supply 10,000 residences with electricity. Salmon fry would enjoy free portage by truck around the falls and dam to continue on to the happy spawning beds above.

As you might expect, the PUD’s dam project has its staunch opponents. Critics maintain the “proposed” project is a dam site for the worse, its upriver location sure to reduce three wild, pristine cataracts to “mere trickles.” And then there’ll be that unsightly powerhouse at the base of the falls. The opposition—property owners, environmental groups, and recreationists—say the Sunset Falls Project will do far more harm than good, that returns in the form of power revenue will be minimal at the expense of considerable environmental harm.

I have some experiences with dams. As a kid I built  mud dams on irrigation ditches myself. The reservoir behind Douglas County PUD’s Wells Hydro Electric Project destroyed the last stretch of wild river on the Upper Columbia River; forty feet of water now cover my childhood home site, and dam building playground. That stretch of river is currently fouled by milfoil; the spring run of whitefish no longer exists; and a lake environment has replaced a wild river habitat. Thus experience tells me any blockage of a watercourse most certainly alters it. So where does The Ripple stand on this dam issue? Let me say this: the Sky and its moods, both serene and rambunctious, affect our Valley water table and can send water rushing into our backyards. How will damming of the this beautiful mountain river affect the hydraulics of downriver terrain? PUD maintains the Sunset Falls dam will ebb and flow with the river, allow flood debris to flow downriver unimpeded (Watch out!). Perhaps that’s true, but tinkering with a moody river can have unintended consequences. Am I onboard with this project? I myself would much rather our friendly Snohomish County PUD assist the Werkhovens and Qualco Energy in adding a second generator to the Valley digester facility, pad the power grid that way rather than muck up the Sky.

I encourage readers of The Ripple to educate themselves on PUD’s projected dam business. You can read the “against” camp’s platform at Articles in The Monroe Monitor and The Sky Valley Chronicle present more balanced information on this current dam controversy.

For your information, while all this dam stuff is percolating upriver from us and the Valley, there’s some dam building in progress right here under our very noses. Let me bring you up to date on the project underway in the Lower Riley Slough. The Paddletail Corps of Engineers has constructed a weir-type filtration dam just upstream from the Lower Loop Bridge. (This porous obstruction allows the current to seep and trickle—filtrate--through the face of the dam but impedes the flow enough to back up water into a swimming pool-size reservoir.) The Paddletails are journeymen dam builders and unlike their human engineer counterparts, use only natural materials found in and around the dam site.

Slough weir dam

Consequently the Paddletails’ dams are “green” and blend into the landscape—unlike the monstrous concrete structures that become national monuments and blight our scenic river courses and wilderness landscapes. In fact the Riley Slough project is so discrete, I’m sure most Valley residents are not a dam site the wiser that it exists. The other day I happened upon one of the engineers hard at work, surrounded by bobbing construction materials, enthusiastically sinking his teeth into the project. You might say he was as just as busy as the old saying declares.the beav...