Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Mystery of Skyscraper Beehives

(For those of you who don’t know, we recently installed 3 beehives on the roof of NRDC’s green building in Manhattan. Here is a link to the Director, Peter Lehner’s (yes, a relative), blog about the bees.)

What I Like about having hives on the roof of a 12-story building:
The elevator

What I don’t like:

What remains a mystery:
If the bees like the altitude.

We know that a virgin queen on her mating flight will fly up to 200-300 feet in the air, where the drones fly around all day hoping for the arrival of a queen in need of insemination, so that they can fornicate and die. *
It seems incredibly random to me, but it has worked for honeybees for a few million years.

So what happens when they bees START out at 130 feet above the ground? In our three hives there are currently no virgin queens, only the 3 mated queens we installed with them. But things can happen. Queens can die or swarm. And then the bees will force-feed Royal Jelly to a fertilized pupa and create a newly designated queen, or 2 or 3. (Someone asked me if this was like choosing the next Dalai Lama. Yes and no. More yes than no.) And that new queen, a virgin, will go on a mating flight.
So here is the question: does she fly to a designated place – in relation to the sun and the earth - that she instinctively knows? Or does she fly up from her hive a designated distance that she is genetically programmed to travel? In which case, does that mean she will fly around at 400-500 feet above ground, futilely awaiting a lover? I figure that the rooftop of the NRDC building, being one flight up from the 12th floor, is somewhere between 130 and 146 feet high. Bees in nature often make their homes in hollow trees and I happen to know that the tallest trees in the world, the Giant Sequoias of California, can reach an average height of 165 feet. But I have never heard of beehives in Giant Sequoias, though there is no reason I should.
So I wonder: where in nature would bees ever find themselves coming home to a hive at that altitude? What are we asking of them in terms of thrust and lift? By placing beehives on a roof that high, are we thwarting apian sexuality?

*Because, poor things, like the worker bee’s barbed stinger, the male organ is barbed and so it stays behind inside the queen and rips away the drone's inner organs, wthout which he dies.
The other night found us both looking quite glamorous, CSB in his tuxedo – and what chicken farming beekeeper doesn’t want to spend a hot & humid June evening trussed up in black and white and studs?- and me vertiginous in Reine’s gold lame’s high heeled sandals, careening down Broadway to Scenic Hudson’s gala at Gotham Hall. For those of us who relish irony-in-general, and weird-juxtapositions-in-particular, what better place for extolling the merits of conserving wilderness and saving almost-extinct species of anteater than an early 20th century colonnaded Temple to Mammon?*

The next morning - seeking chicken feed - required a different wardrobe and took me to a very different part of town. From the Major Degan I exited into a surreal landscape known as the Bathgate Industrial Complex, and from there I drove past monolithic brick projects, past the Diana Sands School (And of course I had to find out who Diana Sands is or was: an actress who played Beneatha Younger in Raisin in the Sun, and Joan in Saint Joan, and died terribly young.), past the featured oxtail soup at the Tree of Life Café, past African Groceries and Hallal Meats squeezed between the biggest MacDonald’s I’ve ever seen and a BP gas station with a sign saying “We Apologize to All Pelicans” where the gas prices are usually found.
Finally I arrived at the Animal Feed store, which may sound simple, but I know people who have looked & looked and never found it, because it looks nothing at all like Petco or The Feed Store in Bedford Hills. At the apex of a triangle whose other corners are Bronx Gospel Hall and Iglesia de Cristo Misionaria, Bronx Animal Feed is a one-story windowless warehouse sheathed in corrugated metal completely adorned with murals and graffiti, such that it is impossible to distinguish which is which.
Inside it is vast, dimly lit, and appears to have everything you need to feed any type of fowl or amphibian or canine or feline. The owner or manager is a stately white-haired lady; the sales clerks are all young men with droopy drawers and backward baseball caps, and all terribly sweet.
The one who helps me smiles so broadly I notice his tongue stud and I have to bite my own tongue in order to keep myself from launching into my Why-A-Tongue-Stud-is-a-Bad-Idea–and-Will-End-Up-Costing-You-Thousands-in-Dental-Bills spiel. I am constantly shocked when a young person does not want to hear me on this subject. The only other customer was a man from Brooklyn. We shared a few chicken stories and then he told me that for 2 months last year he ate only food from his backyard, with the exception of salt, pepper & coffee. He slaughters the chickens in his garage. He said it would have been better had his potatoes done better.

*And I should mention that the dome of the Gotham Hall in question, formerly the Greenwich Savings Bank, features a field of hexagons filled with running Greek keys.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Spermaceti Beeswax dichotomy

Just now I am reading and enjoying Philip Hoare’s The Whale, though at times I am not entirely sure why since much of the book recounts Moby Dick and I have read Moby Dick several (twice, actually) times and love it immensely. (And if you doubt that feel free to read my very amusing story, No, I am not a Loose-Fish and Neither are You, in the Southwest Review, Vol. 91, #3, 2006, which is likewise full of Moby Dickian lore)) On the other hand, yet another aspect of my deficient education is that I never read Moby Dick in school or college, and so I was unacquainted with 20th century literary theory that explains that when the whalers take the foreskin of the whale’s penis and turn it into a “cassock” we need to understand that “cassock” turned inside out becomes “ass/cock” and hence alludes to homosexual activity amongst the whalers. I could never have figured that out on my own.

I have been equally interested to learn about the process of making candles from the whale, since it was the advent of industrial whaling in the 17th century that caused pure-burning whale oil to supplant beeswax candles as the light giver of choice.
Whale oil candles burn cleaner, purer and brighter. So I am told. And as for the difficulty of extraction, I suppose it is a matter of whether you would rather take your chances with 60,000 “virgin daughters of toil” (as Maeterlinck calls them) or a leviathan of the deep.
The complex process of making spermaceti candles came to America with Jacob Rodriguez Rivera, a Sephardic Jew originally from a Marrano family in Seville, Spain. He arrived in Newport in 1748 and upon arriving in America, Jacob and his family reclaimed their Jewish identity and were founding members of the Touro Synagogue, the oldest in the US (and a building frequently visited – and discoursed upon - by my mother when giving her justly-famous architectural history tours).
First you have to find and harpoon the whale. Spermaceti – up to three tons of it - comes from the head cavity of a sperm whale. With the head of the whale either alongside the ship or on deck, the whalers would remove the spermaceti with buckets passed through a hole in the head casing. This was then loaded into barrels. Back in port, in the bustling whale towns of New Bedford, Nantucket and Hudson, New York the spermaceti was heated up in huge wooden kettles to evaporate the water and remove the impurities. The result was loaded into woolen sacks that could be squeezed in a wooden press – I perform a similar process with yogurt and cheesecloth in my kitchen – and the spermaceti trickled out. As with the first press of olive oil which is considered to be the most virgin of all (Extra virgin – an odd concept if examined too closely) this first pressing is called “winter-strained” sperm oil and is the most prized.
In one of the many ways in which they differ from whales, honeybees can produce wax without first being killed. In the second stage of the worker bee’s short life (a mere 5 weeks), the wax glands on the ventral side of her abdomen come into maturity so that she can secrete the wax she will use to build the honeycomb. When she is using the wax she transfers it from her abdomen to her mouth for masticating into a pliable construction material.
Before the 19th century invention of movable frame hives by the Rev. Lorenzo Langstroth, allowing beekeepers to extract honey without destroying the honeycomb, all the honeycomb was removed from the hive along with the honey. But I assume that the ancients processed the wax more less as I do it in my kitchen: I heat up the capping wax with a little bit of water, skim off dead bug bits, pollen and other debris, and strain it into an empty milk container. Once it has solidified, I repeat the process and strain it through cheesecloth into another milk container. (Orange juice works equally well.)
According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, beeswax candles were the preferred illumination in Christian churches because the wax was produced by virgins. It goes on to say that the virgin worker’s beeswax represents “in a most appropriate way the flesh of Jesus Christ born of a virgin mother.” [Seriously.]
All over Europe, monasteries kept their own beehives, producing honey for sweetness and wax for holy light, all thanks to those virgins.
In its purest form, beeswax is ivory in color, but as the bees re-use the honeycomb for pollen it can darken in color, making it less appropriate for liturgical purposes. Along came Piscator Langstroth, uncle to the aforementioned Lorenzo. Early in the 19th century he developed a method for bleaching the beeswax so that it was even more desirable for use in church. He kept his method a secret and grew rich from it; biographers suggest that this impressed his young nephew and motivated him to take up beekeeping,imagining it to be a lucrative venture.
When as children we played with candle stubs my mother collected - we dripped wax onto our hands to create lumpy waxen multi-colored gloves, a favorite but rarely allowed pleasure - I don't think we ever thought about the bees who had worked so diligently exuding the wax from their mirror glands, masticating it and then creating the geometrically perfect honeycombs, and I am sure we didn't think about their virginity. We should have. It might have made the strange enterprise more entertaining, but maybe not.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A few survival tips

Because I am heading to the Arctic in a couple of months, a brother of mine thought it would be useful if I learned a few polar survival skills. To that end he suggested I read the excellent, In the Land of White Death, by Valerian Albanov. This is a tale told in clear and poetic language of a journey across the frozen Arctic Sea north of Siberia in 1914, which I would recommend to you even if you are not planning to visit the Arctic any time soon.
And here are a few of the very useful things I learned from Albanov’s narrative:

Polar bear liver eaten raw – even though delicious – can kill you.

Seal blood, however, can be used to make a nourishing and tasty broth.

Seal blubber, when lit, illuminates much better than bear fat.

Providing you have a seaworthy vessel, you are generally happy to encounter a polynya. This an area of consistently open water amid the ice pack, prevented from freezing over by prevailing winds and currents. It could also be a great word for Scrabble if you ever have 2 Y’s.

Eider eggs are almost as big as goose eggs and when cooked with duck fat, they make an excellent omelette.

Malitsi are heavy, sacklike, Samoyed garments sewn from reindeer hide, with the fur on the inside. Slipped over the head, they have crude openings to accommodate the arms and the face. In you don’t mind being cold and wet and uncomfortable – which, if you are traveling to the Arctic is a given – they can substitute for a sleeping bag.

Walruses are challenging. Just when you think you have them in your sights, they slither off the ice and into the dark and chilly water. Albanov found their bloodshot eyes to be especially repulsive.

When Albanov and Konrad, the only other survivor of the Brusilov expedition, were finally rescued on Franz Joseph Land by the Saint Foka, they regaled the crew with all the usual questions: What has happened in the world? Has war broken out? And then were shocked to hear the answer that yes, war had very much broken out following an assassination in Serbia.
Five years later in 1919, after surviving those six months of hardships, near starvation and rampaging walruses on the pack ice, Albanov died in a manner so mundane that it is not even sure whether it was typhoid or a railway explosion.

On the chicken front

First we thought there were many roosters among the chickens (Annie F perceived several masculine features in the photos we sent her) but only Alonso crowed and so we thought he was the only one. Until a week ago when Alonso got competition. Attila (an opera by Verdi) started challenging Alonso's coop supremacy with a lovely baritone crow. And neither of them kept to any discernible schedule, so we were serenaded with cock-a-doodling on a regular basis, too regular for the neighbors.
Yesterday, Alonso and Attila went to meet their maker, in Yonkers.
Silence and feminine clucking prevailed in the coop. Until this morning when Tuxedo crowed. And crowed and crowed. And crowed some more. He is indeed now the rooster in the henhouse and wants us all to know it. Poor Tuxedo will be heading soon to Yonkers.

And yes, I know it is considered terrible poultry faux pas to name one's chickens, especially ones that will soon be known as Guisado de pollo.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

On the controversial matter of literature in the bathroom

A couple of weeks ago in Deborah Solomon’s interview with John Waters in the Sunday Times, I read this disturbing exchange:

Is there anyone you would actually kill if you knew you could get away with it?

I find it repellent when people do yoga exercises at the gate in airports. I want to kill them.
That’s reasonable.
There are little things that get on my nerves, like people who have reading material in their powder room. When you go in someone’s house, and next to the toilet they have a huge basket of magazines, I find that repellent. I recommend against straining while reading.

I made a mental note then and there never to invite John Waters to my house, and if he ever happened to come over, to discourage him from using any of our bathrooms. This may seem like a draconian measure, given that John Waters appears to be a very amusing person and I enjoy the company of amusing persons, but in this matter of bathroom reading material I fear we might come to blows.
I bring this up because June happens to be BATHROOM READING MONTH (it is also Effective Communications Month, but we won’t be addressing that, for obvious reasons; and Surf Music Month, which is just plain heartwarming.) and in the spirit of the month I feel that I should own up to our household’s stance in the Décor slash Literary Taste discussion. It is this:
All our bathrooms contain reading matter, and not only that, but each bathroom contains reading matter on a specific theme.
The truth is, it never occurred to me it could be otherwise because in the parental home this is the way it is done and was always done.

It never fails to shock me to come upon some irrefutable evidence of how like my mother I am. Because we are so different.

If anyone ever asks me about my mother one of the very first things I will say, after alluding to her youthful beauty and seven suitors, is how unlike we are. She is self-contained; I am emotionally needy. She has a closet full of Chanel suits and matching pillbox hats; I am the Imelda Marcos of sensible shoes. She dislikes and fears dogs; my toes are – at this moment – being licked clean by Daisy & Bruno, the beloved barking spaniels. My mother can identify the warp, weft and provenance of any Oriental carpet from across the room; moths eat my carpets, and mock me. My mother can immolate herself on the altar of historically correct wallpaper and fabric; while I can only expatiate on varieties of early Christian martyrdom. My mother can- and frequently does – use the word fenestration with a straight face.

But to return to the trait considered so offensive by John Waters. Another example of how my mother and I differ: our bathroom reading material. Her downstairs bathroom offers an impressive selection of theoretically humorous books, among them, The Darwin Awards; Age Doesn’t Matter Unless you are a Cheese; Does a Lobsterman Wear Pants?; Bread Any Good Nooks Lately?; Pogo; Treasury of Atrocious Puns; Uppity Women of the Renaissance; Outhouses by Famous Architects.

Whereas our downstairs bathroom contains our collection of etiquette books, which could hardly be referred to as humorous, nothing being more serious than proper behavior. Some gems of the collection are:
Manners for Millions, by Sophie Hadida
Perfect Behavior, A Guide for Ladies and Gentlemen in All Social Crises*, by Donald Ogden Stewart (1922)
Children are People and Ideal Parents are Comrades, by Emily Post (1940)
Society Small Talk or What to Say and When to Say it, by A Member of the Aristocracy
Poise and How to Attain It, by D. Starke (1916), in the MENTAL EFFICIENCY Series
Hints on Etiquette and Usages of the Society with a Glance at Bad Habits, By anonymous in 1834
As well as Etiquette guides by Emily Post, Charlotte Ford, Miss Manners and the editors of Vogue.

*In which we learn: “A bachelor, accompanied by a young unmarried woman, when stepping accidentally into an open coal or sewer hole, removes his hat and gloves as inconspicuously as possible. It is never correct for young people of either “sex” to push older ladies in front of swiftly approaching motor vehicles or street cars. A young man, if run over by an automobile driven by a strange lady, should lie perfectly still (unless dead) until an introduction can be arranged; the person driving the car usually speaks first.

How different could we be? The fact that in my parents’ third floor bathroom – the one formerly used by my brothers – you can find every copy of MAD Magazine from 1960 through 1980, and that in my kids’ bathroom you can find every MAD Magazine from 1984 through 2000, in no way points to a similarity between my mother and me. No, it is simply that we have both raised children with excellent taste in journalism.

Or could it be that I have been mistaken in thinking myself a radical departure from my mother’s mold? Could it be that, recognizing I could never aspire to her elegance, glamor, poise and decorating savvy, and in order to spare myself comparisons in which I would inevitably fall short, I proclaimed myself to be an altogether other type of fish?

Friday, June 11, 2010

It is a truth universally acknowledged that I need a solid eight hours of sleep, and if it is not universally acknowledged, it should be. Were it not for that universally acknowledged fact, nothing would please me more than to be awoken at 1 AM, as we were 2 nights ago, by flashing lights and voices in the driveway and the dogs barking at the excitement. You may well ask, What crisis prompted this intrusion upon our slumber? What imminent tornado, or census emergency, or political scandal, or fallen tree, or terrorist threat?
It seems someone across the street called the police to complain of the noise of barking dogs and alleged our dogs were the guilty ones.
But no, our dogs were fast asleep under our bed, inside our house. It was only when the police arrived, all a-clamor, that Daisy and Bruno set about barking. The local constabulary apologized but declined to tell us who it was that so glibly and wrongly accused our dogs of disturbance, and succeeded in disturbing us.
Then I couldn’t go back to sleep, because I was feeling persecuted. What so-called neighbor was falsely accusing us of harboring annoying canines? Had I done something to offend whoever it was? There are several other dogs around here, any of which could have been barking – though I had heard none. What made our accusers place the blame on floppy & benign D & B? And then, because it is a truth universally acknowledged that in the middle of the night small problems can inflate like a soufflé and multiply like fruit flies, I worried whether people who cause us to be awoken by the law in the middle of the night are the sort of people who find poultry objectionable. In the middle of the night, this does not seem so much a question as an implacable fact, and sleep was further postponed as I bemoaned the fate of poor Alonso the rooster. Currently, Alonso’s crowing is a mellow alto and allows me to fantasize that we live on Old MacDonald’s Farm. But soon it will grow into its full heavy-metal baritone, and I imagine that the neighbors will call out the National Guard.
Once I had imagined all the terrible things that could happen to the chickens, I started considering the problem of poison ivy. Then I began to itch, and of course the worse thing to do when your poison ivy itches is to scratch it, so I scratched it, because it was the middle of the night and I desperately wanted to fall back asleep. The scratching did not help. I have a pharmacopeia of putative remedies for poison ivy, including, but not limited to, Calamine lotion, Caladryl lotion, tincture of jewelweed, Zanfel, Technu, oatmeal baths, fermented llama urine, and Prednisone. And I considered them all as I lay awake. But the truth is that nothing works completely except almost boiling water. In fact, it is almost worth getting poison ivy to stand under a very hot shower and arrange for the water to hit the body parts afflicted with poison ivy. I am not sure how it works, but this not only relieves the itching but the hot water sets off a feeling of total pleasure, euphoria really.
It’s the sort of thing that makes me understand what it must be like to shoot heroine. Or makes me think I understand what it’s like. Or makes me imagine I understand, though it is unlikely I do.
After euphoria in the hot shower I returned to bed and read Barbara Pym.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A long weekend, another time

With the exception of attendance at the Memorial Day parade I spent this past weekend of remembrance deep in blissful nostalgia for old-time farming and beekeeping.

I would like to report that the parade itself evoked a more bucolic, small-town life. But it did not: our parade needs help. It consisted of: about 6 old convertibles (and no doubt about it, they are lovely and well-loved old convertibles – don’t ask me the make.) with vets propped up in the back seat waving listlessly to the thin ranks of onlookers; one local marching band in fetching red wool uniforms and also in desperate need of a weigh-loss program – one of the larger trumpeters was so overwhelmed by the heat, inside his red wool uniform, that he required medical intervention; a nearby high school band that was so out of tune, out of step and mismatched that they couldn’t have been more out of tune, out of step and mismatched had they tried, and in fact that I like to think that was the case. One punk trumpeter managed to speak on her cell phone as she trumpeted. Also about 4 Boy Scouts, a few Girl Scouts and Daisies, the 4 remaining members of the Hastings Mothers Club and the Mayor and trustees.
So dismayed was I by this parade that I have suggested that the Ladies’ Literature Club should make an appearance in the next one, for whatever occasion. CSB has graciously offered to drive his truck while we ladies gather in the back – or perhaps he will pull us on a float – and read aloud while nibbling cucumber sandwiches. Probably wearing white gloves.
As for the weekend’s agricultural nostalgia, this was a result of two old books. The Keeper of the Bees, (1925) by Gene Stratton-Porter, was given to me by a friend who is moving and hence cleaning out her house and redistributing her wealth of books. I seem to be the recipient of choice when friends find any book with Bees in the title, for which I am grateful.
In The Keeper of the Bees, a badly injured WW1 vet leaves the hospital where he has been parked since the war without any great improvement, and takes to the road fully expecting to die soon from the sepsis of his gaping shrapnel wound. Instead, somewhere on the Southern California coast he happens upon a beekeeper in need of help. (The first of several serendipitous coincidences.) He gets the beekeeper to the doctor, and ends up living in his house and taking care of the bees in the beautiful blue garden by the Pacific, and of course recovering from his wound with the sunshine, salt water, good food and healthy work. The descriptions of the blue bee garden, the world of blue, with its violets, heliotrope, forget-me-nots, blue verbenas, larkspur, bluebells, phlox, blue vervain -because blue is the most perfect color and bees are the most perfect insects - filled me with a visceral longing for an early 20th California I never knew but now imagine and imbue with more beneficence than is reasonable.
He also becomes fast friends with a local tomboy, Scout (I am wondering if Harper Lee read this book) who teaches our hero everything he needs to know about the bees. Her knowledge of swarms and techniques for capturing swarms were especially good, and especially timely given that we spent much of yesterday tracking a swarm on the East Side of Manhattan (more on that later). There are two things Scout gets wrong about the bees, and only because in both cases the true story was not understood for a few more decades, making me wonder what we misunderstand now that will be better known a few years hence. Several things I am sure, but which ones?
Scout explains to Jamie that on her mating flight, the Queen mates with one lucky drone when in fact we now know she mates with multiple drones because this genetic diversity is healthier for the hive. But that was not fully understood until the 1950’s.
Scout also describes the dancing bees, and tells Jamie that they do this to cool the hive and entertain the Queen. We now know that the bees perform the “waggle dance” to give remarkably exact directions (in relation to the sun) to the pollen and nectar flow. But Karl von Frisch did not publish his research about the meaning of the ‘waggle dance’ until after WW2. He received the Nobel in 1973 for his work.

From bees and their blue garden I went to chickens in the Pacific Northwest. In The Egg and I (1945) Betty MacDonald relates how, as a cultured and citified young bride, she and her husband (a tall, handsome, ex-Marine) start a chicken farm in the mountains near Port Townsend, Washington. Her husband is passionate about poultry and, apparently, life without amenities. Their nearest neighbors are Ma and Pa Kettle, later to become emblematic as shiftless mooches and ignorant farmers with a surfeit of progeny.
MacDonald leavens the squalor and laziness of the Kettles with their hospitality. She softens the vagaries of her temperamental stove and long hours of chicken raising with the bounty of their garden and picnics at the beach. She regales us with the many diseases chickens are prey to. MacDonald is willing to try (almost) anything and is open-minded about her neighbors who regard reading as a terrible waste of time and probably dangerous to your health. And you know you are reading something written a half-century ago when she politically incorrectly has nothing good to say about the drunken, shiftless, wife-beating Indians, and says it without apology. I finished the book as they had just installed running water and electricity, and I imagined, assumed, a long happy future for Betty, Bob, little baby Anne and the ever-increasing flock.
So why did I feel compelled to look up Betty in Wikipedia? After 4 years of marriage and 2 daughters, in 1931 Betty MacDonald left Bob (the handsome, ex-Marine chicken farmer) and had no more contact with him. No further details were given. In 1942 she remarried Donald MacDonald (yep) and so it was while married to him – and chicken farming yet again - that she wrote The Egg and I enshrining those bucolic first years on the chicken farm with Bob.

I am happy to report that we have an electric heat lamp* for our chicks as well as running water from the Croton Watershed. But Alonso the rooster still crows and the honeybees still love blue flowers.

*In order to comply with all safety regulations and keep our Seal of Approval from UL, I addendo this just in from brother #2, he-of-all-arcane-lore:

In just the last two years, two barns within five miles of our house in New
Hampshire have burned down due quite specifically to electric heat lamps for
chickens, so this is NOT your usual ridiculous over-the-top warning about
bad events that do not actually ever happen (eg, the urban legend "if you
don't turn off your cell phone when fueling your car, you will die in a
hideous fire", which, in fact, NEVER actually happens–see

In other words, make really, really sure that nothing flammable, under any
conditions, cannot touch or even get near your heat lamp.