Notes from the (Urban) Field: An Amazing Bee Incident, and a Basil Rescue

By Mike Miller, senior SUST major at RU

It’s been close to two weeks since my last post on my internship work this summer at the Uncommon Ground, as I came down with a case of the flu that robbed me of my existence for a week.  I have some reporting to do.  The first thing I need to write about may be close to the coolest thing I have ever witnessed in my entire life, its not far behind my encounter with lighting.

Let me set the stage.

Upon arriving at the Uncommon Ground and a brief meeting with Jen about matters and tasks, Danny and I headed upstairs to work on building a trellis for one for one of the beds on the roof.  Upon getting up there we decided to check out the bees while we waited for Jen to come up and give us directions.  Danny, by the way, has spent a good deal of his time researching bees on everything from their activities to the plants that they use to survive.  He is working on making himself well versed in the field of bee keeping.  So checking out the bees is something he gravitates toward.

Dead bees (M. Miller)

Dead bees (M. Miller)

As we got up to the hives and started looking around, we quickly noticed that something was off.  There was a ton of activity going on with the hive,  and it was clear to me that something was amiss, though I know next to nothing about bees and their behavior.  There were bodies all over the roof beneath the hive and many of the bees seem to be badly injured.  I noticed that one bee was even missing a leg.  Danny began to realize we had a war on or hands, or at least that was his best guess at the time.

Bees stealing the hive (M. Miller)

Bees stealing the hive (M. Miller)

We began to notice that there were two types of bees at the hive.  There was one species which was lighter in color with a different type of wing span than the bees we had seen in the hive before.  Danny’s realization became ever more real.   We started to notice that the bees that we had just discovered were trying to enter the hive only to be attacked by the bees currently possessing the hive.  We found this odd, so we told Jen and she called the guy that takes care of the hives.  She left a message about our observations and we got started on building the trellis.

Time went on and we began to work out the logistics and begin assembly of the of the trellis frame.  We then got it in place and began securing the plastic square lattice to the medal frame of the trellis.  Not long into this part of the task, the coolest thing happened.  I looked to my right and noticed the sky filled with bees, thousands of bees flying through the air and approaching us, or so it seemed, at an uncomfortable (for us) pace.  The best way to picture this is by thinking of any horror move that involves a massive amount of flying creatures blackening out the sky.  It was impressive!

We all rushed down to the parking lot to watch the event unfold unclear of what was really happening.  Danny got on the phone with the guy who takes care of the bees, I’m not sure how that conversation went but it involved Danny gearing up as soon as possible and going over to the hives to investigate.  Jen headed up the stairs after him for a closer look.  Out of curiosity and excitement, I of course asked if the rest of us could head up the stairs to check it out.  She said yes and off we went.  By the time we reached the roof the bees had calmed down and reduced themselves to a swarm (a massive amount of bees in one area).  Danny eventually came back to where we were, and Jen then said something along the lines of “I know what you can write about in your blog post.”  Bam!

“Can I get in there and take some pictures?” I asked.   I realized this was my chance to get super close to this amazing natural event that was unfolding and I needed to be a part of it.  She said yes, so I threw on the mesh hat beekeepers wear and I headed toward the hive.  She told me to stay back a bit but I had one thing on my mind: seeing how close I could get.  I was wearing shorts and a short sleeve shirt, so I knew that things could get ugly if I wasn’t careful — but that wasn’t too much of a concern given the nonaggressive nature of honey bees.  I wanted to get a close-up of what was happening, so I headed right in.  When I got to the hive, it got super cool, because the massive swarm that was surrounding the hive was taking it over.  The bees that moments ago had occupied the sky were stealing the hive from the bees that called it their home.  It was incredible.  What Danny and I had experienced when we first arrived that morning was happening on a huge scale.

The bees that we were unfamiliar with were scout bees sent out by their hive, who had swarmed in order to find a new home.  The home they happened to find was on the roof of the Uncommon Ground.  After finding it a suitable home, apparently, they went back to the swarm and told them where to go.   The post-apocalyptic activity that we saw happen was them arriving to take over and take over they did.  There is something bittersweet about it considering the fate of the pre-existing bees.  Survival of the fittest at its best.

*  *  *

Currently, the Uncommon Ground has been experiencing a transition phase, the spring crops are coming out and the summer plants are going in.  This means the addition of some major staples to any healthy diet.

Here is a short list of some of the summer crops that have been installed.

  • Tomatoes
  • Peppers
  • Egg plants
  • Snap peas
  • Pole beans
  • Bush beans
  • Cucumbers
After trellis and tomato installation (M. Miller)

After trellis and tomato installation (M. Miller)

Recent tasks that I have performed:

  • Harvested mizuna, spinach, radish, komatsuna, yukina savoy
  • Installed trellises for climbing plants such as cucumbers, beans, and tomatoes.
  • Amended the earth boxes for summer crops.  This means that we added organic fertilizer and lime to insure that the summer plants would get the nutrients that they need to produce healthy fruits.  If you’re wondering, an earth box is more or less a planter box that has a reservoir that allows the plants to drink as much water as they need to.  This means they are basically idiot proof when it comes to watering; all you have to do is keep the reservoir full.  To learn more about them check out their website here.
  • Thinned the hops plant with my buddy George.  We cut it back to about three vines.  A hops plant is one of the main ingredients used in brewing beer.  It is a plant that grows vines from what is know as a rhizome.  The vines then produce the hop which looks like large, green, elongated, jaggedly spiked acorn minus the brown top.  To get a visual of what the plants rhizome looks like, think of the roots of a small tree or Google it.  Hops are interesting because first of all, they produce a product; and second of all, they can be very aesthetically pleasing.  It is my project to make them be just that.  We cut the plant back to three vines because we want the plant to string up a wall and travel along the side of the building.  At first I thought we murdered the thing, but I think that its going to be fine.

On a different note…..

I had my first opportunity to put some of the knowledge that I have been learning through my internship into action this week.  There is a small plot of herbs on a corner near my house. As I walk by, I often look at it to identify plants I know and observe growth.  A couple of days ago I noticed that one of the basil plants was suffering from a pest issue.  I passed the “garden” a few more times and realized that the pest problem had exploded and the plant looked like it was a war zone.  Every leaf was mutilated.  This observation convinced me to help this poor plant out.

I started searching the plant for the culprit.  Luckily it was 12 pm on a Sunday and I found the villain right away.  See, what is attacking this basil plant is a slug; a slug who only comes out once the sun goes down.  If I had tried to detect the him (or her) during the day it would have been a bust.  Luckily this was not the case and I was able to put an end to this terrorist’s life.  Though I had killed the slug I knew the problem was not taken care of, since the basil plant was clearly being attacked by more than one of these slimy creatures.  With the knowledge of what was harming the plant now known I hurried home and became Chicago’s version of Jonathan Ames, if he were to specialized edible vegetation.   I cracked open my copy of The Gardener’s A-Z Guide to Growing Organic Food and stumbled upon a remedy to control the pest that is destroying my neighbors basil plant.

Damaged basil plant, with sign (M. Miller)

Damaged basil plant, with sign (M. Miller)

Upon discovering this information, I wrote down the solution on a DIY sign and stuck it in the garden in front of the basil.  A week went by and I walked back to the garden to check out if the caretaker was taking my anonymous advice.  To my surprise the sign was no longer in front of the plant.  Instead it was neatly tucked away in a corner of the garden with a large spray bottle containing a mixture of the solution I had written on the card.  This of course filled me with a bit of pride and made me appreciate the fact that my internship had provided me with the know- how to identify a pest and devise a solution.

Mike’s rule #1: Always get a hair cut before you start exposing your white winter neck to the rays of the sun.  If you choose to break this law you will end up with a sweet tan line.

RU senior Mike Miller

This guest post is from Roosevelt University Sustainability Studies major Mike Miller, who working as an intern at the noted Chicago restaurant, Uncommon Ground, which specializes in sustainable practices and home of the nation’s first rooftop farm. This is the second installment of weekly blogs this summer from Mike on the work he’s performing this summer during his internship.

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