Hummingbird, Meet Broccoli

This is exactly why you let the purple sprouting broccoli go to flower.









This is an Anna’s hummingbird (Calypte anna), one of the most common (and yet, not at all “common”) hummingbirds in the Pacific Northwest. I’ve seen them in my garden year-round.

“No larger than a ping-pong ball and no heavier than a nickel,” says the uber-informative All About Birds, the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

They share more fascinating hummingbird facts:

  • Mostly green and grey, the male’s “gorget,” or throat patch, can shine with iridescent pink colors in the right sunlight. The color can extend over the bird’s entire head.
  • The males have a characteristic small white spot behind the eye.
  • During mating season, the males have a “dive display” in which they rise to 130 feet, then plummet down in a matter of seconds, stopping to hover a few feet in front of the object of their display.
  • Sometimes a bee or wasp will get impaled on the sharp beak of the bird, causing it to starve to death.
  • Their normal body temperature is about 107 degrees, but when it’s cold, they can go into “torpor” where their breathing and heart rate slows, and their temperature drops to 48.
  • They have tiny legs and can’t really walk or hop, but they can sort of scoot sideways when perched.


Project: Insulating a Worm Bin

I often joke that the worms  are my only pets, and to a degree, it’s true. I feed and care for the tiny red wigglers (Eisenia fetida) that live in bedding instead of in the ground and eat my kitchen scraps. This time of year, that means helping them stay warm on the coldest winter nights.

Here in Seattle, we often get our coldest weather in January, after which the Longest Spring on Record™ breaks bud in February. So I have to bring my garden through a month of cold. For the plants, that means an extra layer of floating row cover on the veggies that are surviving in the cold frames and cloches.

For the worms, that means insulating their box.

What to use

It’s as simple as wrapping the bin in some insulating material. You can use straw bales, bags of compost, or whatever you have sitting around that would keep out the cold.

I use half-inch expanded polystyrene (EPS) rigid insulation. It’s light, easy to work with, and provides just enough help. And it is weather-resistant, as it is rated for ground contact (used to insulate concrete) and to not retain moisture (used under the siding to wrap houses).

A 4-foot by 8-foot sheet is about $10, and can be cut to cover the sides and top of the worm bin.


As the photo shows, it is covered on one side with a metallic facing material. On the white side, it has a clear plastic facing. Both surfaces are weather-resistant. I install it with the silver facing in, hoping that the heat radiating from the worm bin will be reflected back into the box. There are other types of EPS without the silver facing.

Cut and tape

I measure and cut pieces to be roughly the size of the four walls and the lid. The four wall pieces are held to the box with duct tape, which can be cut and left on the pieces when I remove them. Thus you can reuse the material many times.

Cutting this product can be a little messy. I use a sharp utility knife, but it still creates a ragged edge, because the material is made of tiny chunks of foam pressed together. No doubt a contractor would have a special tool for this, but it’s not worth it for my limited amount of use. Cut almost all the way through the material, then flip it over and carefully cut the facing on the other side. Clean up the foam bits that flake off.

The ragged edges will tend to flake off a bit more as you work with it and store it. For a cleaner look and more longevity, wrap the cut edge in duct tape.

The top is set on the lid of the box and held down with heavy objects. This makes it easy enough to feed the worms without having to tape anything to the wooden box, as the tape would either pull the paint off the box or leave residue behind.


Two more tips

The worms have their own defensive reaction to the cold: they huddle together. In the winter I often find them in one warm mass in the center of the box. The collective heat will keep more of them alive. So to help your worms survive better in the winter, feed only rarely, and do it at the warmest point in the day. Dig a hole in the center of the bin and bury the food, covering it well.

Also, make sure the bin is completely full of bedding (leaves, straw, shredded newspaper, etc.). The bedding will also act as a great insulator.

bedded worm bin

The bedded worm bin, with a decaying pizza box to keep my plastic digging tool on top of the bedding.


If you’re just thinking of building a worm bin, check out the plans for a standard-size wood box (the one in my pictures) at the Seattle Tilth compost resources page. That section will educate you about compost, and there’s also a plan for an “off-the-shelf” worm bin that you can keep indoors.

For more details on caring for your squirmy pets, pick up a copy of Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Appelhof.


Radio Chat: Staying Active with Winter Gardening

What benefits do you get from winter gardening? I like the bracing effects of chilly winter air, the jolt of vitamin D on a sunny day, and the ability to see more birds in the landscape. Of course the most fun comes from continuing to garden – tend the winter vegetables, harvest the

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what’s next in the spring.

Recently I enjoyed a half-hour radio conversation on this topic with Pat Pauley, host of “Get Active” on Alternative Talk 1150 AM KKNW.

Listen here:



Next Question for Urban Farmers: To Bee?

I’ve long been fascinated by bees. So industrious, and so necessary. And the workings of the honeybee hive-mind are incredible, if perplexing. So when PCC Natural Markets asked me to write about the trend of urban beekeeping for their Sound Consumer newspaper, I told the editor I’d bee happy to!

Bee on sunflower

Honeybee on a sunflower

Many other bee puns ensued between us as we worked out the details. Three main themes emerged for the article:

1. Keeping honeybee hives is ceratinly a growing hobby in our fair city, and many other places around the country.  Did you know there are hives on top of the Four Seasons Hotel in downtown Seattle, as well as on top of Chicago City Hall and on the grounds of Michelle Obama’s White House (where they also grow hops, and make their own Honey Ale)?

There’s always quite a buzz at the Puget Sound Beekeepers Association meetings, their president Krista Conner told me, where membership is steadily growing. (If you’re interested in becoming a beek, as they call themselves, the free and open meetings always start with a beginner’s lesson.)

One of my former neighbors hosted a hive in her backyard, and the whole street benefited from the extra pollination, as well as the tasty honey samples. Bees, it seems, are the next step after chickens for urban farmers.

2. Honeybees aren’t the only pollinator on the planet. Well, gardeners know that, but to be more specific, there are other types of bees that can help fill the gap if there aren’t enough honeybees around (more on that topic in a moment). Here in the maritime Northwest, we can get help from the orchard mason bee.

This mild-mannered native bee is one of a type called solitary bees because they don’t live in colonies and make hives like social bees. They nest in holes in old trees (or holes in wood blocks or tubes that we provide for them). They exist in much smaller quantities than honeybees (a hundred would be a lot in a home gardener’s mason bee blocks compared to upwards of fifty thousand in a hive at the height of summer).

Mason bee house

Mason bee house. The tube on top holds the bee cocoons. After they emerge, they will encase their eggs in chambers in the wooden blocks, sealed with mud.

But they are much more industrious pollinators than honeybees, said Dave Hunter of Crown Bees in Woodinville, who’s also the president of the Orchard Bee Association and spoke to me for the article. More people are taking up the habit of hosting mason bees as well, and you’ll see bee supplies and cocoons for sale in local nurseries and hardware stores.

3. Bee populations are in trouble. Anyone paying attention to bees has heard of colony collapse disorder (CCD), which is the term coined by scientists to describe the mysterious dying-out of honeybees that has become such a widespread problem that it is threatening some of our crop supplies.

Massive quantities of bees in hives are shipped to prime agricultural regions, where they are unleashed to pollinate the crops at the right moment, then moved to other fields as the next crops come into flower.

On the West Coast, the itinerant bee workers get busy first in California’s almond orchards in early spring, then work their way north until they’ve hit the fruit orchards of Washington.

Some people insist that CCD is due to pesticides, an assertion that I investigated for the article. In fact, the European Union is considering a ban on suspected pesticides (see this Reuter’s report from March 2013). But in reviewing the work of USDA’s Agricultural Resaerch Service, the EPA and others, and through an interview with a leading expert, WSU entomologist Steve Sheppard, who has spent his life working with, studying and teaching about bees, I came away unsure that there is one smoking gun.

The explanation that seems logical to me is that the bee population is under a lot of environmental stressors, from the neonicitinoid class of pesticides to genetics to viruses to the menacing Varroa destructor mite. “It’s probably a combination of factors,” Sheppard told me, citing a recent paper that linked 61 factors that affected colony health and CCD.

There were also three takeaways that gave me hope for turning around our dwindling supply of bees.

1. Scientists are arming beekeepers with more knowledge and tools. Better hive management, treatment of diseases, and more diversity in queen breeding show promise.

2. Backyard beekeepers can help. Hosting mason bees and working with people like Hunter who plan to introduce orchard bees on a large scale to agriculture could eventually offer another path for farmers than renting honeybee hives.

3. Awareness of the problems caused by these pesticides might cause changes to their industrial use. Although there’s a movement in Europe to ban the “neonics,” Sheppard thinks it’s unlikely we’ll be able to do so in the U.S. However, application practices are getting a review.

The EPA is studying the level at which bees are affected, so my hope is they will revise their labeling to account for the sub-lethality on bees, rather than just base the allowable application on the lethal-dose level.

Also, one of the pesticides, clothianidin, is applied to the seed, but when the seed is planted, a powdery talc is used to lubricate the seed to get it through the planting machines. Sheppard says that talc, which becomes airborne in the fields, is super-toxic and has been shown to kill bees. If the application method can be changed, perhaps its toxicity would drop.

Gardeners and farmers must pay attention to the bee problem. The viability of some agricultural crops is dependent upon bees, but more than that, our ecosystem of pollinators and reliant plants has gotten out of sync, and it’s very likely caused by us.

Bees put the sweetness in our gardens, and not just by providing honey. My hope is that we will solve CCD and the honeybee problem, but also build a population of native bees for our gardens and farms that will help put the system back in balance.

Workshop alert: Do you want to learn beekeeping basics from the experts? Maybe find out how to make a “bee beard”? Learn that and much more at a WSU beekeeping short course on June 14-15 in Pullman. It will cover pest and disease identification and management, queen rearing and yes, a bee-beard demo.

Next Question for Urban Farmers: To Bee?

The beekeeping craze has urban farmers buzzing, and I wrote about the trend for this month’s Sound Consumer, the newspaper from PCC Natural Markets. It’s available in all the stores as well as mailed to members.

Here’s the online version of the article, which discusses honeybees and Northwest native Mason bees, as well as the sidebar where I explore the vexing problem of Colony Collapse Disorder.

And here are

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a couple of my close-up photos of a honeybee wallowing in sunflower pollen.

Bee on sunflower

Bee on sunflower2

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