Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Blue Bungalow Farm is moving!

The blog, that is. Not the actual farm.

For a while now I've been posting my reflections about urban homesteading at two locations: here and at Wauwatosa Now, where I'm a community blogger. From this point on, please read my posts only at the Blue Bungalow Farm blog at Tosa Now.

Thanks for visiting this page!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Fishy Trip to the Beach

One of our favorite perks of life in the Milwaukee area is easy access to the shores of Lake Michigan. We moved here in 2006 from land-locked Champaign-Urbana and soon formed a habit of visiting the lake, sometimes daily, to dip our feet in the water at Bradford Beach or walk along the shore at Klode Park in Whitefish Bay in search of sea glass and cool rocks.

Despite our love of the gorgeous expanse of Lake Michigan shoreline, we rarely wade further than our knees into the great lake's waters. Very few locals swim in the ice cold lake – partly because, well, it's freezing, and partly because of the unimaginable things one might find in the water. Like blobs of algae, garbage, maybe human and pet waste (really). Never mind the unseen poisons in the water thanks to industrial dumping by BP in Indiana and others.

At a recent trip to a Milwaukee beach, we confronted all of the above pollutants – including pet waste (someone's unleashed dog trotted by and peed in the sand right in front of us). But the most memorable pollutants were dozens of shiny little fish baking on the shoreline.

When we first arrived, we found a decent spot in the sand and watched our three girls run to the icy water to wade. Almost immediately, one of them was able to catch a fish with her bare hands. She brought her prize to us and I suggested that she temporarily place the small silver fish in a plastic cup lying in the sand so she could study it (the cup was one of many pieces of trash laying on the beach). She placed the fish in the cup and watched it float, belly-up. "It looks dead," I said, wondering if the process of being captured was too much for the creature to handle. She dumped the fish into the water. Then, a few moments later, she caught another fish. And then another. "Why are these fish so easy to catch, and why do they all look half-dead?" my husband and I wondered. We speculated that the "living" fish our girls caught were sick and about to join their dead brethren on the shore.

Of course, given the local lore about Lake Michigan pollution, our first thought was that the fish were dying because of something in the water. We grew increasingly squeamish watching our girls play in what we assumed to be a polluted lake. The longer we sat, the more the odor of the dead fish, along with sea gull feces, overwhelmed us. To make matters worse, biting flies surrounded us. Then that dog trotted along and peed. The dog pee was the last straw. We packed up and moved our party to Alterra on the Lake.

We were perplexed for days about the dead fish, wondering what caused this phenomenon. Any time creatures die en masse, humans speculate. Were the fish deaths caused by industrial waste dumped into the water? By global climate change? Is it an omen? My overactive imagination gravitated toward the worst.

Then came an answer to why this seemingly mysterious phenomenon is occurring. We learned from a WISN report that the fish are called alewives (Alosa pseudoharengus), a smallish, invasive herring. According to the report, alewife deaths are common this time of year. The die-offs are probably caused by temperature fluctuations in the water. Still curious, I did some googling and found a few articles on the subject of the alewife die-off, including a recent piece by the Associated Press and WISN's web coverage. Both reports claim that the deaths are a normal phenomenon that occurs with this invasive species every so often.

But isn't Lake Michigan so polluted as to be deadly to some of its fish? This is a popular assumption on the part of many beach-goers, myself included. I asked the DNR's Southern Lake Michigan Fisheries Supervisor Bradley Eggold about pollution and whether it harmed the alewives. His answer? It is "very, very remote" that water pollution is a factor in the alewife deaths. "Alewives are very sensitive to changes in water temperature, especially at this time of year," he said. "These water temperature changes occur every year. Other major reasons why these alewives die-off every year include 1) they are native to the Atlantic Ocean and therefore live in saltwater. They can have trouble regulating their salt/water in their bodies, 2) spawning stress and 3) low food availability."

Harvey Bootsma, Associate Professor of the School of Freshwater Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, agrees that pollution is "highly unlikely" to be a cause in alewife deaths. "This is a common occurrence on the great lakes, and it's almost always due to changing physical conditions in the early summer."

Temperature fluctuations, says Bootsma, are normal, and not necessarily caused by global climate change. "Alwives have been doing this ever since they entered the great lakes."

Regardless of what is causing the alewives to die, the fact remains that our beaches can sometimes feel as dirty as the nearby public restrooms (if you've been at the public restrooms by the lake shore on a busy summer day, you know what I mean). That goes for both the shoreline and the water itself. Although pollution may not be the cause of alewife deaths, it certainly contributed to an unpleasant beach experience. The amount of litter on the beach alone bordered on disgusting. All that filth on the shore made me wonder how clean the water is.

I asked Dr. Bootsma whether pollution in Lake Michigan is a problem. "The water itself is quite clean," Bootsma said. "There are some areas where there are localized problems, called 'areas of concern'. You can read more about them at" An Area of Concern (AOC), according to Environment Canada, "is a location that has experienced environmental degradation." This map indicates that in MKE the Milwaukee Estuary is an AOC, due to "significant contributions of toxic substances to the Milwaukee Estuary AOC from upstream sources" (e.g. the Menomonee River).

The bottom line is that it's fairly safe to swim in Lake Michigan water if you're not in an AOC – that is, if you can stand the cold. And it's probably not a big deal for kids to be catching half dead alewives in the water, as long as they're not handling the ones that have been dead for a while. But many of our beaches are filthy -- there's no doubt about it. The sand is littered with waste, as well as bacteria from the feces of abundant sea gulls who gorge themselves on our garbage.

What might we do about our filthy beaches and our AOCs? While some of these issues are perhaps too deeply rooted for us to change on an individual level, Bootsma suggests a few things average citizens might do to help clean up Lake Michigan: "1. Mercury comes from coal burning power plants and other industrial (and natural) sources…reducing energy consumption helps, and people should also be careful how they dispose of hazardous waste; 2. Some near-shore problems are caused by excessive phosphorus loading to the lake. Some of this comes from urban runoff, so if people apply fertilizer (or any herbicides or pesticides) to their lawns, they should do it sparingly. A video that highlights some of the work we have done in this area can be viewed at; 3. Water quality is sometimes affected by overflows of storm sewers or sanitary sewers, so water conservation methods (using rain barrels; disconnecting sump pump drains from the ditch) can be helpful; 4. Be careful about what we flush down the drain. Unused pharmaceuticals, chemicals, and paint should be disposed of properly; 5. One of our websites has more useful information on beach water quality:"

Seems to me that the simplest thing any beach-goer can do is to pick up trash off the shore. That and avoid feeding the gulls.

Beyond these measures, the DNR's Bradley Eggolt says it can be helpful to get involved through education and activism. Educate yourself by seeking out a range of sources on these issues. Then look for opportunities to become active. "The best advice I can give is to get involved," Eggolt explained in a recent e-mail. "Whether it is because you are a beach goer and want clean beaches or you are a fisherman and you want to catch salmon and trout, read and learn about the issues and attend meetings where these things get discussed… It could be a local fishing club, environmental group, nature center, etc. With that said, you would not have to join a group or go to those meetings, just read and get involved in whatever way that person feels comfortable doing."

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Transitioning with the A/C

Today I caved and did something I've only done a few times over the last four years: I turned on my air conditioner. It's not particularly stifling according to the thermometer, but after 24 hours with a heat index in the mid-to-upper nineties, it was steamy inside my house. The six of us (including one 90-pound, long-haired dog) were starting to wilt.

This moment of weakness seems an especially grave sustainability sin because it occurred, unwittingly, during Power Down Week, when local sustainers are challenged to "make their carbon foot print as small as they can" from June 25 to July 3. The week concludes with Energy Independence Day at Gordon Park in the Riverwest neighborhood of MKE. I've been away from my computer a lot these last few weeks, working on various gardening projects, so I missed the Power Down announcements on Facebook and various e-mail lists.

Though using my A/C (especially during Power Down Week) may hurt my eco-cred, I don't feel too guilty about it. Why? Because to me, this is what transitioning to environmental sustainability is all about. I fear that for some, sustainability can become a "more radical than thou" sort of exercise, a kind of competition to see who can tough out a higher degree of energy independence. Don't get me wrong – the fewer fossil fuels a person uses, the better. And events like Power Down Week offer fun ways to raise awareness about the transition movement. But the extremism required to suffer through a heat wave without A/C doesn't come naturally to most Americans, who have been coddled by comfort and convenience for generations. Can those blessed with A/C realistically be expected to revert to nineteenth century discomfort overnight? Judging by the responses of many of my A/C-loving friends to the concept, I think not.

Enter the transition movement, a philosophy that emphasizes weaning oneself off of fossil fuels. This is the concept behind Transition U.S., which posits that "life with dramatically lower energy consumption is inevitable, and that it’s better to plan for it than to be taken by surprise." It seems clear that fossil fuels like oil and coal -- extremely potent sources of energy that have powered the pace of human progress over the last 150 years -- are unsustainable resources, especially at the rate we are using them. And yet, to a certain extent it is unrealistic to ask Americans to quit their fossil fuel addiction cold turkey. That might be possible for a radical minority, but not for the masses. With this in mind, should the more radical among us simply shake our heads sadly and wait out the end of the modern world in our wind-powered eco-villages? Or should we take the hands of our less willing friends and families and help them baby step toward sustainability?

Having many reluctant transitioners among my loved ones, I choose the latter option (though the former does have its appeal). That's one part of the reason I turned on the A/C today. Sure, part of it was because, after a sleepless night dousing my head in cold water every half hour, I reached such a point of overheating that I could not function normally. But instead of toughing it out until the cool air returned, as I've done in the past, I chose to use the perfectly good air conditioner I own, if just for a day or two. Doing so, I feel, helps keep me honest and human. It helps me to empathize with those who don't think they can lead more sustainable lives because they don't want to give up their creature comforts. It also helps me to strike a balance. I can enjoy the A/C when I really need it, while also turning it off as soon as the extreme heat passes.

To me, this is the essence of transitioning. The Transition movement is about using the resources we have more sparingly, more judiciously. It is about slowly adjusting to a slightly less comfortable existence. For me, transitioning means keeping the thermostat set at 63 to 67 degrees in the winter, instead of 75. It means mowing half my lawn with a manual "reel mower" and the other half with a gas-powered machine. It means using both rain barrel and municipal water to hydrate my gardens. And it means only turning on the A/C when there is a heat index above 95. Transitioning makes our conversion to energy independence slow but sustainable. It is a luxury we now have while energy is still relatively cheap and readily available.

Part of transitioning involves "powering down," a little bit at a time. Another part involves shifting from using fossil fuels to using sustainable energy sources. This can be difficult for those of us who lack the funds to purchase wind turbines or solar panels. Thankfully, we can support renewable energy to fuel our A/Cs, furnaces, lighting and appliances by participating in WE's Energy for Tomorrow program. For $10 a month, a household can help fund WE's use of renewable energy (biomass, hydroelectric, solar, and wind), reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 15,264 pounds annually (and reducing waste of limited fossil fuels). Our family just enrolled. We are thrilled to know that when we cave and power up instead of down, we're supporting renewable resources when we do so.

Want to learn more about the transition movement? Here are a few more resources you might find helpful:

Green Neighbor
Sign up for the Energy for Tomorrow program through the Green Neighbor website and get a $5 gift certificate to Alterra Coffee!

Sustainable Tosa

Transition Milwaukee

Wauwatosa Energy Committee

WPR interview with Patricia Benson, Board Member, Transition U.S.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Vanishing Bees

Growing up, I was absolutely terrified of "bees," the name I used for a variety of tiny monsters with dreaded, piercing stingers and stripy yellow and black backs. I was destined to get stung, I reasoned, if one of them came near me. As a child I was always afraid of any creeping, crawling thing, but my exceptional fear of bees and wasps was sealed when I was about seven years old. One evening, I bolted outside the second the last bite of dinner was consumed so I could ride my bike in the waning hours of daylight. As I pulled my bike out of the garage, I unleashed the wrath of a yellow jacket. It chased me up the sidewalk until my hero arrived: Jack, the burly tough-guy next door, who lifted one gigantic work boot and smashed the creature underfoot.

I spent my entire childhood running in this manner from bees and their kin. While conventional wisdom holds that a person confronted by a bee should stand like a stone, lest flailing arms and screaming scare an insect into stinging behavior, I held firm to my own belief that running was a more effective evasion method. And it did work for me – over the three and a half decades of my life I have never been stung.

I held on to my fear of nearly all creatures of the order hymenoptera for a very long time. That fear worsened as I grew up and read books like A Taste of Blackberries, in which a young boy dies from an allergic reaction to bee stings. My grandma is allergic to bees, so I figured that I might be, too. All the more reason to flee on sight of any yellow-and-black-backed insect.
A few years later, I met my husband, a man with almost no fear of bees. He spent hours as a boy trying to capture them with honeyed jars and, unlike me, was able to distinguish between a honey bee and a yellow jacket wasp. When we were hiking and confronted a fuzzy bumble bee, he'd try to pet the thing. I later had three children by this man, and amazingly, they displayed the same bee-loving behavior. My firstborn daughter so loved the little creatures that she continued to try to capture them as pets, even after she was stung.

Having children who spent hours at play turning over rocks in search of arthropods piqued my own curiosity about all insects, including bees. So I bought an insect field guide and began to learn the difference between the "gentle giant" bumble bees and the aggressive hornets. I learned that the horrifying Ichneumon wasps with their excessively long stingers have no interest in humans (their "stingers" are actually ovipositors used to inject eggs into the insect prey they parasitize). The more I learned, the more my fear melted away. That fear was replaced by enchantment, curiosity, and fascination. My husband's macro-photos of insects, including various bees, helped me to see the beauty of their world. Here's one of his photos, of a bumble bee pollinating a flower:

Photographer: Steven T. Zydek

Soon, I became interested in honey bees in particular, due to their manifold virtues. Honey bees are amazing creatures. They are organized in a way that suggests high intelligence, though their human-like civilization is more innate than learned. Bees are crucial pollinators. Without them, many of our most prized fruits would not, well, come to fruition. And of course, bees provide us with delicious honey and fragrant, useful beeswax. The more educated I became about these creatures, the more I loved and respected them.

Naturally, then, I was disheartened to learn about the recent rise of what has been dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder. Honey bees, it seems, are disappearing. CCD is a mysterious and potentially disastrous dilemma. Bees aren't simply dying overnight, leaving their corpses in mounds around their hives. If this were the case, perhaps it would be easier to trace the source of the problem. Instead, worker bees – the small female honey bees that collect pollen to feed their young and care for the queen -- are simply disappearing, flying off in confusion and dying when they can't find their way back to the hive. The disappearance of workers ultimately causes a hive to collapse over a span of a few months.

Many theories have been bandied about as to why the bees are disappearing, from climate change to cell phone radiation to industrial beekeeping methods and even supernatural phenomena. A couple weeks ago a study was released that again pointed the finger at cell phones as the culprit, indicating that their signals are confusing and killing bees. So stated this article shared across social media.

But cell phones are not the real cause of CCD, say beekeepers interviewed in Vanishing of the Bees. We recently viewed a screening of the documentary at Unity Church in Wauwatosa. The film largely blamesneonicotinoid pesticides as the cause of CCD. These chemicals work not by being sprayed on the leaves of crops, but within the system of the plant (hence the name "systemic pesticide"). Theorists point to treated plants as having a detrimental effect on bees, who do not die instantly after exposure but bring tainted pollen back to the hive. Over time, larval bees, who have been reared on toxic pollen, grow up confused and disoriented and are eventually incapable of leaving the hive without wandering too far and dying.
Abroad, some beekeepers and apiarists are so certain of the link between systemic pesticides and CCD that they have worked to successfully ban neonicotinoids. Cf. and

In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency will not take a strong stance against neonicotinoids as the cause of CCD. They say research isn't conclusive enough to institute a ban. Why? According to the film, studies conducted by chemical companies stating that neonicotinoids were not harmful to bees (adult bees did not die within a few days of exposure to these pesticides) were submitted to and accepted by the EPA as proof that these pesticides are not causing CCD. Here's the EPA's statement on the issue.

Whatever the cause, if CCD continues it may have a devastating impact on humans, as well as bees. According to the film, bees are required to pollinate a third of the food we eat, from fruits to tree nuts and many things in between. Without ample honey bees, farmers are required to ship bees out of state to do the pollinating of select food crops, causing food prices to rise. Without any bees, we will simply not be able to enjoy many fruits, nuts, and seeds. Can you imagine a world without apples? Pumpkins? Sunflowers? It boggles the mind to think of the impact of the death of honey bees. In addition to the threat to many of our staple foods, Colony Collapse Disorder is perhaps symptomatic of environmental toxicity that is bound to have an effect on all life – human included.

What can be done to stop the death of bees? Until the cause of CCD is determined, it may be difficult to completely eradicate the problem on the residential level. That said, there are things any citizen can do to help protect bees. Find (or host) a screening of a documentary like 'Vanishing of the Bees' or the similar film Queen of the Sun. Plant bee-friendly plants in your yard, like sunflowers, pumpkins, and bee balm (Monarda). Cease from killing dandelions and clover in your grass – they are important food sources for pollinators like honey bees. Commit to keeping your yard chemical-free. Don't fear honey bees – they help us survive and make the world a beautiful and healthy place. They rarely sting humans unless bothered. Take a beekeeping class through the University of Wisconsin Extension's Urban Apiculture Institute. Lobby the government and the EPA to work harder toward finding the cause of CCD.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, educate yourself about insects. Know your bee and wasp varieties and avoid killing honey bees (if you see a swarm, DO NOT spray it with pesticides – most people fail to realize that bees are at their most tame when they are swarming. Call a local beekeeper and he or she will collect the bees for you). As citizens we have to stop believing the hype about "bugs" and learn to tell the difference between beneficial insects (without whom would mean certain death for humans) and true "pests."

Here are a few more bee-related resources: