Thank Heaven for Little Pollinators

When you are allergic to bees, you grow up rather fearful of hearing that unmistakable buzz made by bees’ wings.  Or at least I did.  When I was younger, I thought of these insects as shark-like predators, waiting to devour me alive and usually ran away, arms flailing and screaming, whenever one happened to flyby too close for comfort.

Over the past few decades, I’ve since come to recognise the importance of both shark and bee.  I no longer run, flail and scream when sitting in a buzzing garden on a warm summer day.  I might scream and flail if I saw a shark whilst in the ocean on a warm summer day though, but I digress.

Bumblebee on Geranium

The global worries about bee populations have been covered and recovered in the mainstream news, with the most recent scientific studies pointing to neonicotinoid pesticides as a significant contributor to the decline of honey bees.  This year UK groups launched bee and butterfly counting campaigns to raise awareness of declining pollinators and to help track numbers, species, and locations of various UK pollinators.  This summer also saw President Obama launch a Pollinator Health Task Force that will develop a national strategy to improve numbers of bees, butterflies and other pollinators.

I’ll admit, I’m not an insect person by nature or education.  And while I have heard and read about this pollinator decline, I’ve not really felt that it’s something of particular interest or worry to me personally.  I just hoped that scientists, governments and farmers would figure out how to make the problem better and then I wouldn’t have to worry about the vast economic and food security issues that could come from further pollinator declines.

That is how I felt before this year.  The change this year, is that I’ve been lovingly growing a multitude of flowering fruits on my south-facing flat windows and garden.  Grown from seed sown in March, April and May, I have tended to plants, shared some with friends, planted some out in my garden, and kept some inside in pots.  I’ve learned several lessons this season in the value of potting on seedlings, in timings of planting said seedlings outside, and also in the value of pollinators.

Last week my first poblano chilli started growing, and my husband and I let out collective cheers.  We’re watching it daily for signs of growth and readiness to pick.  We have also watched the three other poblano chilli plants on the same windowsill drop countless flowers.  A quick google search told me that lack of pollination was the likely culprit. So I’ve since taken a small brush to hand-pollinate the flowers, and I’ve put one of these plants outside.  I suppose the proof will be in the pudding for the poblanos.  But my windowsill cucamelon plants also have had flower-drop, whilst the ones outside are already fruiting with flowers still attached.  That’s enough evidence for me to change behaviour and keep up hand-pollination.

This unintentional experiment has really opened my eyes to the importance of bees and other pollinators. It has made the issue of pollination one of personal importance – as it should have been before anyhow!  Now, I shall regard bees with even more esteem and will take more interest in the science and policies of honey bee populations and pesticide use.

I’m still not a fan of stinging wasps though, but perhaps in another decade or two I’ll learn to love and appreciate them too.

Magical Mushrooms

I’m not sure if I gave my husband a Father’s Day present that was for him, or for me.  He’s been getting rather excited about the amazing health properties of shiitake mushrooms for a while, and I love to grow plants, so it just sort of seemed logical to get a mushroom block.  We, well OK I, have been squirting the block several times a day now for the past month, and we’ve started to collect a nice little bounty of shiitake caps.  It’s the first time I have ever grown mushrooms, and I’ve gotta say, it is really quite fun and easy.

My husband keeps saying that these shiitakes are like eating multi-vitamins, and he’s not too far off.  They are quite rich in B6 and other vitamins and minerals, in addition to being quite high in fibre.  I used to take B6 supplements when I was a kid and camping because someone said it helped repel mosquitoes.  I’m not sure it ever really worked, but surely it couldn’t have hurt.  So add that to the nutritional and immune system boosting properties of these little guys and you have one rather nice super food.  

Plus they are quite tasty!  We’ve been popping them on pizzas and into pasta sauces.  When nobody is looking I also finely chop them to add to mince to bulk up the meat and hide them from our picky son who refuses to eat any vegetable or fungus. 

The New Boiler – continued

Almost ready to turn onI didn’t realise how much of a big job changing a boiler can be!  The work began on Tuesday, and it’s still in full swing here.  It’s been a good learning experience, and I only wish we had decided to replace our old boiler earlier.  I’m really looking forward to using the new boiler, not least because it’s been COLD lately, and we’ve been without hot water for two days, and without central heating for a day.  But hey, we are saving lots of energy by not using the gas, so I really can’t complain.

When my lovely plumber offer to drag space heaters up my two flights of stairs, I told him “no”, as we’ve had the thermostat sitting on 13-15 degrees for the past month, so we can tough it out for 24 hours.  Apparently he doesn’t get any clients turning down his offer of portable heaters, because he asked me again before leaving and really wanted to make sure that indeed I didn’t want them.

I fired up my flower pot heater for the fun of it though and leave it on in my room! It radiates more ambiance than heat, but the ambiance is quite nice on a cold night!  Actually by the morning, after burning all night I can notice a difference in temperature in our back bedroom.  Usually the coldest room in the flat, this morning it is the warmest to a small degree.  The room has Georgian height ceilings and is fairly large, so I imagine in a smaller room it would actually make a warmer difference all with one little candle.  Well done wee flower pot heater!

I will need to make a top 5 energy tips for installing a new boiler.  I wish I had seen one when I was planning my boiler, as I might have altered our plans a bit if I had done a wee bit more research on the front end.   Well, you live and you learn eh?  But I’m sure that we’ll be very happy with our new boiler when we can fire it up tomorrow and finally take a warm 4-minute shower!





Meatless Monday

Fruit and vegetablesWhen I first told my 7-year old that we were going to start having Meatless Mondays, his reaction was “Ohh man, why do we have to?”  My answer was this:  “Firstly, we already eat very little meat, so making one day meatless on a regular basis shouldn’t even be noticeable to you kiddo.  And secondly, it’s better for the planet.”  He then huffed off and went to play with his Legos, promptly forgetting all about it and never complained again.  Kids!

Now, I am by no means a vegetarian, and I will freely admit that I love a nice rare steak, roasted duck and mussels from time to time.  But I know that eating meat has a larger carbon footprint, it really isn’t all that healthy and in fact some of it can be quite unhealthy, and it’s not exactly the cheapest option for eating.  So due to a combination of these reasons, we limit our purchasing of meats.  I think we’ve all probably heard jokes about methane farts from sheep on a particular southern hemisphere island.  But I never really delved into the nitty gritty details of why going meatless is a good thing.  So here’s a summary of what I’ve been reading this week.

Factoids on livestock and emissions

  • Livestock uses the largest amount of agricultural land when you consider grazing and feedstock growing.
  • 14.5% of all human-induced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is from the livestock supply chain (this fact is just sad and shocking!)
  • These GHG emissions come from methane (guess those farting jokes were real) and nitrous oxide as opposed to carbon dioxide (CO2).  The problem here is that methane and nitrous oxide are 25 and 298 times worse than CO2 in terms of being greenhouse gases.
  • 80% of all agricultural (including crop production and animal husbandry) GHG emissions comes from the livestock supply chain.

Wow, I’ve got to say that before looking into this, I honestly didn’t realise just how bad meat is in terms of GHG emissions. Needless to say I will not be buying any new meat products this week.  Now, not all meat is created equally, but I’m not going to delve deeper into this here.  That’s a more scholarly argument for folks like my friend getting a PhD in global food production supply chains and GHGs.  Perhaps a few folks out there don’t care much about meat and GHGs, so here are some personal health reasons why perhaps one might want to reduce their meat intake.  Since my mother had colon cancer, this is a reason that hits home personally and doubly makes me shy away from meat.

Meat and Health Factoids

  • Studies have linked eating processed and red meat to bowel cancer.  So the UK’s National Health Service recommends cutting red meat down to 70g per day.
  • Some physicians say you should completely cut out processed meats from your diet due to risks of cancer.
  • Processed red meat is also potentially linked to increased risk of heart disease.
  • Some fish and shellfish can contain high mercury concentrations, which are particularly bad for development of the nervous system in foetuses, babies and young children.  From a sustainability standpoint, there are very few fish that anyone in this wide world ought to be eating, as we have/are fishing the lion’s share of our fish to extinction.  But that too is a whole other blog/PhD topic.

So the main thing is to try and cut out all processed meat (hot dogs, sausages, lunch meats, and bacon) and to be a bit aware of which kinds and what quantities of meat you’re eating.  But surely eating an organically grown salad is easier than searching to see what kind of fish are low in mercury and more sustainably caught?

Here’s a link to a recipe for one of my favourite vegetarian dishes, from my favourite cookbook, to try tonight!  It’s the forth recipe down on the link.

Spicy Black Bean Salad with Chiles and Lime
Recipe from: Fields of Greens: New Vegetarian Recipes from the Celebrated Greens Restaurant by Annie Somerville, 1993.


Weekly Top 5 Tips: Heating and Hot Water

  1. Turn down your central heating thermostats to 15C or less for maximum weightloss and energy efficiency.
  2. Turn down your hot water tank or cylinder to 120F.
  3. Let the sun heat your home. We can’t all live in a passive solar house, but we can make sure to draw curtains on south facing windows in the morning and close them in the evening to let natural solar light warm the room and to help reduce heat loss in the evening.
  4. Seal as many draughts as you can to keep out the cold (and heat for those of you lucky enough to live in warm climates!)
  5. Insulation, insulation, insulation. Roll it out in your loft, spray it in your cavity wall space, put under your floors, sew it into your curtains, snap it onto your pipes, put a jacket on your hot water tank, paint and paper it on your walls. When doing any sort of DIY, try to think about ways to include insulation. Just like the supermarket says….It all adds up!

Pipe Insulation – cheapest easiest and best value energy saver

I’m not sure why I love pipe insulation so much.  Honestly, I have no stocks that I know of in pipe insulation companies, and I’ve certainly had no payments from them.  Perhaps my affinity is due to the ease in slipping it on and the cheapness to buy?  Also, it’s one of those things that you can actually notice working!  After you install it, you’ll notice that you don’t have to wait so long for your hot water tap to get get warm again.   The best time to install it is when you have a plumber out and your pipes are exposed, so you get as much covered as you can.  You can do it yourself though, so when you have a kitchen or bathroom remodel, make sure that you have some pipe insulation on hand to nip in during the plumber’s coffee break and insulate your pipes!  Or, if you’re not that bold, then ask for your plumber to install it for you.  But know that a meter of pipe insulation from your big home DIY store will only cost you a few quid!  So don’t let anyone charge you unduly for it.  If you don’t have any plumbing work planned and no pipes are exposed.

I bet if you look under your kitchen and bathroom sinks, you will see some copper pipes.  One of these will be your hot water, so for easy peasy insulation, just figure out which one if for the hot water (just run your hot water until it gets warm, then tough the pipes – the hot water pipe will be hot) and then slap some insulation on it and tape the seams with gaffer tape (aka duct tape).  It’s really that easy!  Hence why I love this stuff!!!

When we insulated our loft, all exposed pipes up there were insulated, but we have some pipes below our bathroom and kitchen sinks that have exposed piping.  So, with a few metres of pipe insulation, they are no longer naked and keep their (my) heat much better.