Get Growing: A pup challenged by bees, bins and blunts 


For the Gazette

Published: 04-16-2023 8:33 PM

I noticed our new puppy, Luisa, checking out the compost bin in the corner of the yard. She was jumping into the air, batting her front legs and snapping her jaws. I tried to call her off, but she might as well have been closing in on a squirrel for all the attention she paid me. She was clearly going after something, but what? 

Approaching the compost bin, I heard a persistent buzzing sound. As I got closer, I saw dozens of bees swirling around the bin and lots more crawling in and out of the air vents. They seemed highly focused on their work. I kept a wary distance, having stepped into a nest of yellow jackets in that part of the yard a couple of years earlier. But I could tell these weren’t yellow jackets. I checked the internet for bee images. Most definitely, my compost bin was abuzz with honeybees.  

In my ignorance, I assumed that a rogue cloud of honeybees had colonized the compost bin. Maybe they had been attracted by the abundance of orange peels and other remnants of fruit and vegetables that the cold winter temperatures had thus far preserved from decomposition. I thought the dark, warmish cavity of the bin might be an auspicious place for the bees to build a hive and store honey.

I imagined the bin filled with honeycomb top-dressed with wilted lettuce leaves and coffee grounds. Not a pretty picture. 

I contacted several local beekeepers, figuring that one of them might be happy to collect a new colony and transport it to a more appropriate home. I soon got a call back from Rob Zywno, who owns Pioneer Valley Apiaries in Northampton. He was skeptical that I had honeybees because, as he explained, it was far too early in the season for honeybees to be actively building a new nest. He suggested that I take a photograph and text it to him.

Getting the bees to cooperate while Luisa continued her aerial pirouettes wasn’t easy, but I managed. Rob called me right back after I sent him the picture. “You’re right,” he said. “They’re honeybees.”

He allayed my fear that they might be building a new nest in the compost bin. He pointed out that bees are hungry after a long winter hunkered down in the hive. Most likely, the warm weather had brought them out of their hive to forage for food. Not finding anything in bloom, they zeroed in on my well-provisioned compost bin. 

Curious about where the bees had come from, Rob asked where I lived. When I told him I lived in South Amherst, he paused for a moment before exclaiming, “Those are MY bees!”

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It turns out he has hives less than a quarter of a mile away on a farm field that belongs to Amherst College. “Your bees are welcome to stay as long as they like,” I said. A cold front sent the bees packing, but I’m keeping an eye out for a possible return visit. The temperatures are soaring this week, but I haven’t seen any of Rob’s bees. They are probably finding fresher sources of food as buds burst into flower.  

It’s amazing how gregarious and generous beekeepers are. The other beekeepers I contacted also responded within a day or two of my messages. As I discovered, beekeepers are passionate about their vocation and seldom forgo a chance to talk about their work. Tending bees is for the most part a solitary business, after all. Writing this column has reminded me that my first of many cover stories for this newspaper’s former weekly magazine, “Hampshire Life,” was about a wonderful beekeeper in Gill named Clifford Hatch, with whom I spent several pleasant hours learning about bees and their fascinating social structure. 

Since the bees drew my pup’s attention to the compost bin, I want to share some important information I learned this week about compost and dogs. A couple of days ago, Luisa, one of the most athletic dogs I’ve ever known, began having difficulty walking or even standing up. She wove from side to side, rolled her eyes and shook uncontrollably. It was obvious she was having a neurological reaction to something.

My husband and I immediately brought her to the Veterinary Emergency and Specialty Hospital in South Deerfield. When we described her symptoms to the vet tech, her first question was whether the dog had access to any marijuana products in our home. No, we answered. We added that we take her on daily walks on the rail trail, where she ingests all kinds of stuff. 

A urine test confirmed that poor Luisa was suffering from poisoning by THC, the psychotropic compound in marijuana. There is no antidote to this, but most otherwise healthy dogs shake it off after a day or two. Dogs with severe symptoms may be hospitalized.

The veterinarian said this has become something of an epidemic since marijuana was legalized in Massachusetts. It seems that pot smokers often toss their butts along public walkways, not realizing that their trash is poisonous to other beings. 

You’re probably wondering how compost comes into this story. The veterinarian also asked, before the positive THC test, whether Luisa had access to the contents of our compost bin. It turns out that fungi that grow in decomposing plant or food material contain tremorgenic mycotoxins, which are poisonous to dogs, even in small amounts. (She mentioned that she had recently treated a dog whose owners had been adding spent marijuana plants to their compost pile. Talk about double jeopardy!)

Since we know that dogs will eat just about anything, the more disgusting the better, it’s important to keep compost bins or piles off limits to dogs. 

I must end this rather rambling column with a shout-out to pot smokers: Please dispose of your butts responsibly. Our dogs’ health depends on it. 

Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst-based lawyer turned journalist, has written the “Get Growing” column since 2016.