6 Green-Roof Myths – Busted!

I’ve had a keen interest in Green-Roofs for over 20 years and with the current changes coming in my life it may be the perfect time to explore this passion in more detail!

Bees Get “Buzzed” by Electricy and Caffine in Flowers

In response to my Bugging Out post a few days ago some folks have pointed me to some interesting reports on bee behavior.  It turns out that understanding the “birds and bees” is more complicated than we were taught by our parents (just as I suspected…)  Bees are using all of their senses when choosing which flowers to pollenate…and now scienctists are leaning that they also use electricity and caffeine!

Flowers get a Charge from Bees

The theory is that flowers that have a positive charge are more “attractive” to bees than those that don’t, and that positive charge is left behind by bees that have previously visited that flower.

“We think bumblebees are using this ability to perceive electrical fields to determine if flowers were recently visited by other bumblebees and are therefore worth visiting,” says Daniel Robert, a biologist at the University of Bristol, UK

According to Roberts, it’s been known that bees generate a positive body charge from flapping their wings and flying through the air, but they wanted to know if bees could pass on that electrical charge to the flower, and therefore attract future bees.

The team doing the testing first confirmed that the bees are positively charged (yes), then they confirmed that the positive charge is passed on to the flower (yes), finally they discovered that flowers that have a positive charge attract more bees than flowers that don’t!  Fascinating!  Since this is a new discovery it opens a whole new field of study when it comes to not only bees and pollination but bugs in general…pretty cool.

A flower's electric field (right, with associated electric potential on the left) helps bumblebees predict where to find the most nectar.Dominic Clarke / Ref. 1
A flower’s electric field (right, with associated electric potential on the left) helps bumblebees predict where to find the most nectar.
Dominic Clarke / Ref. 1

Bees get a Caffeine Buzz from Flowers

Did you know your local honey may contain caffeine?  Your local bees know!  It’s been found that caffeine found in the nectar of some plants, like citrus, can improve the bees memory, which helps them return to the most productive nectar producing flowers….as well as making the bee more active…creating “busier bees” if you will.

Listen to the March 8th Science Friday edition to learn more about the how electricity and caffeine influence bee behavior.

A honey bee, with pollen attached to its hind leg, pollinating a watermelon flower. Photo by Stephen Ausmus/ARS/USDA
A honey bee, with pollen attached to its hind leg, pollinating a watermelon flower.
Photo by Stephen Ausmus/ARS/USDA

Bugging Out

I’ve been inspired lately to attract “beneficial bugs” to my yard. Part of the attraction has been aesthetic (bug houses just look cool), part has been my desire to reuse every little thing that I (or someone else) would normally throw away, and part has been environmentally driven.


Last weekend while wandering around the local garden center, an intensely satisfying habit of mine, I found some interesting bug homes.  Since I’m planting espalier pear trees in my front yard I thought putting up some Orchard Mason Bee homes would be a good start.

Bee House


Using the leftover bamboo  (See Thinking About Planting Bamboo? Think Again….post from last fall) and a scrap heater vent part I picked up at the Rebuilding Center last year, I set about to build my own Mason Bee home.  Some tips, try to pick bamboo with a wide hole in the middle and relatively thinner walls.  Also, avoid the section of the bamboo known as the “sheath scar“.  I found that the little bamboo tubes will not fit together snuggly if sheath scars are on the resulting bits of tube.

Bee House Contruction

And I built a more general bug house from other HVAC parts, again inspired by some pre-built products I ran across during my wandering.

Bug Houses


If you are like me you have been sucked into an amazingly successful marking campaign for Cuties, an engineered mandarin orange. What is not to love? As sweet as a fruit can get without actually adding sugar, easy to peel, and no messy seeds! BUT (and isn’t there always a BUT?) These little modern miracles are not without their issues…as noted below via Smithsonian Magazine:

The mandarin’s perfection, however, dispenses with a relationship that’s as old as flowering plants. Like all citrus, Cuties produce seeds when they’re pollinated. To produce a dependable snack, Cutie growers must protect their orchards from bees and other pollinators via nets, physical isolation, or other means. Effectively fencing out bees from huge sources of nectar, this widespread farming practice may be a contributing factor to hive collapse. Developers of the Tango, another mandarin variety, have bypassed this issue by producing a completely sterile fruit.”

Fencing off bees?  I don’t know about you, but that can’t be a good thing.  And this little snack is selling like gangbusters…which means farmers are pulling out other less profitable crops and planting these….which further reduces the habitat of our friend the pollinating bee.  Damn It!!!  I just can’t support that practice…which is why these tasty little snacks are now off my shopping list….and on my list is putting up a few more bee homes in my own yard.


Would You Like Some Rice With Your Arsenic?

“No thank you” would be my natural response had I been asked this question.  Seriously, this latest news regarding yet another poison in our foods, caused yet again by the overuse of  pesticides.

Last week in Portland we were in the midst of a festival called Feast, a series of events and lectures around the celebration of food, with a focus on Oregon’s rich foodie culture, talented chefs and amazing local bounty.  On the 1st night I was lucky enough to go see Mark Bittman, a renowned food journalist, speak about the “Future of our Food”.  The tickets were a gift so I had not done any research or thought much about what he would be covering.  I had heard his name but wasn’t able to connect the dots until I heard him speak.

In this short TED talk Mark Bittman touches on some of the content he shared in his lecture.   He’s funny, he has strong opinions, but mostly he is passionate about quality food – real food – not fake food.  What is real food?

Real Food = Any nutritious substance that people or animals eat or drink, or that plants absorb, in order to maintain life and growth

Nutritious = Nourishing

Nourishing = Containing substances necessary for growth, health, and good condition

What is fake food?  Fake food is something packaged up to look like real food, sound like real food, but not contain any real food (see below):

Watch this video – it’s 20 min long but if you only have a a few minutes listen to minutes 7-16, where he summarizes food production over the last 100 years.

So what does this have to do with arsenic in rice?  The subsidies and related growth of mono crops has infected our soil with loads of dangerous chemicals – including arsenic.  Even if you buy organic rice you are at risk.  See consumer reports study of infected products.  Why does organic rice have arsenic?  Because it’s being grown on land that was doused in it while raising a non-organic crop…because it’s in the water…and because arsenic is NOT REGULATED by the FDA.

I can’t imagine why it’s not regulated…isn’t it one of the oldest known poisons?  “Arsenic and Old Lace” anyone????

It’s in our water, it’s in our soil simply because it was used (and in some areas is still being used) as a pesticide.  Even organic rice has arsenic.  It’s unavoidable….but we can take precautions.

Here is what I’m going to do:

  • Try to figure out where my rice is coming from (if it’s coming from the South of the US it is being grown on old cotton land that is LOADED in arsenic.  Ever hear the phrase “cotton kills” – well it’s true in more ways than one
  • Always rinse your rice well before cooking
  • When you cook your rice you can do as they do in many Asian countries and cook it in 6 cups of water for 1 cup of rice and drain off the liquid
  • Limit your rice intake

We will be hearing how this study is “overblown” and we have “nothing to worry  about”….but do you really believe that?

My take-away…food has become really complicated…and I need to figure out my own “food policy”. What am I willing to put in my body?  What food production practices am I will to support?  I am not ready to give up Killer Burger even though I may be scared to find out where their beef comes from…but I am ready to take other steps.

One of the things I like about Mark Bittman’s approach is that we are all on a continuum.  We are somewhere between McDonalds 24×7 and a Vegan.  I’m in the process of searching for my balance.  I’m calling upon my moral and health values to guide me – information is key. I learned some new things last week and wanted to share them with you.  Use at your own risk!

Solar Evaluation

One of the projects I had planned for the summer was to investigate installing solar panels on my new garage.  I had this vision that I could come home, plug-in my car in (plug-in car required), and have it powered cleanly from the sun (sun required).

The proposed location:

I thought I had the perfect spot…at least it appeared that way all winter.  What I forgot about, and what became obvious over the summer, is that my neighbor has a perfectly lovely tree in their yard that is shading my solar spot….and the tree is still growing!

The company giving me the quote ran what they call a Solar Access (the ability of one property to continue to receive sunlight across property lines without obstruction from another’s property) estimate for my location (tree shade growth not factored).  For you geeks out there here are the results:

Without the tree the numbers aren’t bad, an average of 86% over the year.  Who says Portland doesn’t get sun????  The estimated energy savings if I could achieve this level of solar access would be 2,482KW per year.  This would offset ~20% of my current usage.

The Cost:  This is where the rubber met the road….a 3kW system would cost me $17k.  The incentives are signifcant, over a 4 year period the total cost to install would end up closer to 5k.

The Final Analysis: Although this was never about the ROI, I had to crunch the numbers anyway.  Using the offset estimate, an esitmate of future electric rates, and the cost of the system after incentives…it would take 10years to pay for itself….which I found to be a bit depressing.

The Reality:  I don’t have 17k to spend right now (you will see why later) on what would essentially be a “statement” that I care about my footprint.  I have not ruled out solar (smaller system…bigger than a light and smaller than 3kW) for perhaps another spot in the yard but for now this project is “Closed”.

I’m still following the Solarize NE activities and am thrilled I live in a city with opportunities and groups like this one.

Want to be inspired? Pam Warhurst: How we can eat our landscapes

I watched this today and was truly inspired.  Watch…it’s worth the time…it’s motivating me to start planning for the garden expansion into the parking strips and the front yard…GRASS BE GONE!

Favorite quote:

“…and we have done it all without a flipping strategy document….”

Pit of Death, Thermodynamics and Karma

One of my earliest memories of Butte was the fight to save the Columbia Gardens. I barely remember the Columbia Gardens but what I do remember seems almost magical. I remember it as lush, green, and full of life. People laughing, playing and all-around having a fun relaxing time. There was a large, terrifying wooden roller coaster, an amazing hand carved wooden carousel, and a variety of other rides (deathtraps) to test your courage (sanity).

The park had been around since 1899, when the 68 acres were purchased by Senator W. A. Clark (one of “The Copper Kings”) in 1899. The park was sold to the Anaconda Company upon his death in 1925. The Anaconda Company (founders included the Hearsts, the Rothchilds, and the Rockerfellers) kept it running until it started to get in the way, both physically and financially, with their open-pit strip mining ventures. There was a campaign by the people to keep the gardens open but conveniently (suspiciously) enough, the gardens burned to the ground in 1973 and the dispute ended. But Butte had already been beaten down by then, in the 20 years leading up to losing the Gardens big chunks of the historic uptown area had been flattened or burned, and the working class ethnic neighborhoods of Meaderville, Dublin Gulch, and McQueen, were also gone. Jobs were gone, homes were gone, neighborhoods were gone, and bit by bit the town was being consumed by “The Pit”.

Columbia Gardens…Then
Columbia Gardens…Now

Berkeley Pit “Fun” Facts:
Created by:The Anaconda Mining Company in 1955
Size:5600 ft wide by 1600 ft deep
Water Volume:37 billion gallons (2007 data)
Status:Slowly filling with water at a rate of 2.55 million gallons per day
Current “Owner”:BP/ARCO (Yes – the same BP that brought us the Gulf Oil Spill disaster just last year)
Water Quality:The water in “The Pit” is highly acidic and contains high concentrations of arsenic, copper, cadmium cobalt, iron, manganese, zine and sulfate.
Goal:Keep “The Pit” a terminal sinkto contain the contaminated water from the nearby mining operations.

Berkeley Pit, Butte Mt

So what you  might ask is the big deal?  A big hole in the ground in the middle of nowhere is filling with water, so what?  It turns out that just as “The Pit” looms over Butte, it also looms over a large part of the Pacific NW.  To better understand this we have a talk a little bit about Watersheds.

Butte sits at the headland of the Clark Fork river, the Clark Fork river travels  320 miles from Butte to Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho’s largest lake.  Water from Lake Pend Oreille ends up in the Columbia River…which happens to be the biggest river in the Pacific Northwest…which happens to run just a mile or so from my current home.  The Clark Fork is one of the largest water systems in the Columbia River Basin, there are 60 tributaries in total.

Columbia River Drainage Basin

Again, So what? Everything is under control right? The government is monitoring the water level in “The Pit”, the goal is to keep the water level below the water table and keep all the water that is currently in the pit, in the pit.  And surely with ARCO/BP in charge of the cleanup (monitoring) everything should go smoothly – right?  (GULF  OIL SPILL ANYONE?)

BP/ARCO is still mining copper in Butte.  They are mining copper from the leftover water and they are mining in the newer Continental Pit, alongside the Berkeley Pit.  The current plan, as agreed to the consent decree by the EPA, DEQ and BP/ARCO, allows BP/ARCO to let the water in the pit continue to rise, and for them to continue to mine, until it reaches a predetermined level, 5,410 ft.  At that point, estimated to be in 2019, they will run the pit water through a treatment facility to remove the metal contaminants before allowing it to discharge into the silver bow creek (headland to the Clark Ford river mentioned earlier).

Pit History

As long as there isn’t a big earthquake or  flood or any changes in the regulations agreed to by the government and ARCO/BP, then everything should be “A-O-kay”. I applaud Butte, the Government and BP/ARCO for addressing this issue at all…but….”color me skeptical”….I’m just not convinced that the current plan will be executed as envisioned…and even if it is….that it will hit all it’s goals. (GULF OIL SPILL ANYONE?)  Never-the-less, I have to trust that people are doing the best they can and that everyone involved carries with them a sense of responsibility to the current and future residents that live downstream.

Bringing this back around to my personal journey…envrionmental distaster areas like the “The Pit” and the wastelands around it,  in the past, have left me paralyzed with hopelessness, fear and dread.  I’ve handled these feelings by employing varying unsuccessful  techniques of distraction, disregard, and delusion.

As I said in my last post Why Biophilic Design, “I can do better”.   One of the first steps on my journey is to decide where to focus my energy. A very good friend of mine, whom I respect a great deal, explores and coaches people on how to recognize and change the way they create and transmit energy in their lives in her blog , Goss Coaching.  She discusses in great detail the concepts of catabolic (destructive) and anabolic (constructive) energy in our spiritual/mental lives.  I strongly encourage you to read her blog to learn more – it could change your life.

I’m an engineer by training, so the study of energy and how it’s transmitted has been an integral part of how I view life.  Catabolic and anabolic energy are the two main driving forces in nature.  Catabolic energy is released when matter decomposes, and anabolic energy is consumed by processes that create life, right down to the cellular level.  Again, from a scientific point of view the 1st law of thermodynamics (The Law of Conservation of Energy) states that “Energy can neither be created or destroyed.  However, energy can change forms, and energy can flow from one place to another.” (I did warn you there would be geeky stuff….)  In Buddhism, Karma, is the “The Law of Conservation of Moral Energy”.

These are very important concepts and will come up again and again in this blog.   But for the purposes of this post, it’s important to simply take away that you really have two choices when it comes to spending your energy.  You can spend it breaking this down (catabolic) or you can spend it building things up (anabolic).   Also, it’s known from science, that “like attracts like”, so doesn’t it stand to reason that we have a much better chance of attracting positive, rebuilding energy in our lives if that is what we are projecting?

One of my favorite authors/teachers these days is Pema Chodron (teaches the Shambhala Buddhist lineage), I will be liberally referencing her and her teachings throughout this blog. One of her primary teachings is to help people learn to take the very situations, people and events that cause us to shut-down and numb out and use them as tools to help us tap into and open up our ability for limitless love and compassion. I want to use my early memories of destruction based on greed, my life in Butte amongst the mining wastelands, and ever-present looming “Pit” as reminders that I can choose to take that destructive energy and turn it into something productive and beautiful.