The Voice of the Scripps National Spelling Bee

During the Scripps National Spelling Bee, your eyes are probably glued to a single microphone: the one on stage, which students grip each year as though their lives depended on it.

But behind another mic, just a few feet away, sits a man who’s been at every Scripps bee since 1991: the official pronouncer, Jacques Bailly, who won the bee himself in 1980. But his job is much more than reading a list of words. He’s something of an icon among the students. “A lot of spellers want my autograph, which is the best fan club you can imagine,” he says.

Below, Bailly divulges how the words are chosen (well, kinda — a lot of “what happens in word club stays in word club”); how those used-in-context sentences are crafted (sometimes, Scripps hires comedy writers to write funny ones); and the most evil word he’s ever faced.

Even though it’s not a full-time gig, the job requires year-round work. “It’s basically a joy,” Bailly says. “They did start paying me for it a while ago, but I’d do it even without pay.”

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“Spelling is kind of a gateway skill, like arithmetic,” Bailly says. “It’s nowhere near the destination.”

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The Snake Milker Who Doesn’t Wear Any Gloves

DSC_0027Only three or four people in the United States extract snake venom — the real deals, that is. Jim Harrison is one of them.

He typically “milks” about 150 snakes in two hours, or approximately a minute per snake; it’s kind of like an assembly line of venom. He doesn’t wear gloves — they hinder his dexterity — and while he’s “only” been bitten nine times in almost four decades on the job, his shortened right forefinger is due to a kickboxing mishap, not a snake bite.

There’s a lot that people get wrong about the job, Harrison explains. Plenty of people call him up, wanting to learn how to extract snake venom as a get-rich-quick scheme. But in reality, it’s a limited market, and the hardest part comes after the venom has been funneled into tubes and shipped out.

Harrison runs the Kentucky Reptile Zoo, where about 2,000 snakes reside, along with his wife Kristen. He proposed in 2004 while filming for the National Geographic show Snake Handlers in St. Lucia. “People think of venom and they think of death,” he says. “I think of venom and I think of life. It saves more lives than it will ever take.”

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The Airport Canine Ambassador

“I don’t know of any other airport in the U.S. that does this,” Liz Miller says. “People just flock to [Casey] on the concourse.” Photo: Miami-Dade Aviation Department

Casey, who is almost four years old, soothes red-faced wailing children. She gives harried businesspeople a moment of calm as they scramble to catch connecting flights. She shimmies and wriggles on the floor, delighting most within her line of sight.

Casey is the 69-pound golden retriever-in-residence at Miami International Airport. As the airport’s official “K-9 ambassador,” she and her owner, Liz Miller, volunteer for two hours on Mondays and Thursdays, helping passengers feel at ease and spreading goodwill on the concourse. It’s one of the airport’s unique ways of providing a rich customer service experience.

Beneath a silky sheath of golden hair and you-can’t-stay-mad-at-me eyes, Casey engages with passengers on an emotional level. “Airports can be so sterile and annoying,” Miller says. “You don’t expect to see a beautiful dog walk up to you. I think people are really touched and moved by that, and it chills them out a little bit.”

But Casey isn’t the only one working her magic. Miller, a former consultant and human resources director, is Casey’s human sidekick at Miami International (MIA), which spans 7 million square feet and services the most international flights in the United States.

Age: 58
Graduated from: Bachelor’s from University of Rhode Island; MBA from University of Miami; PHR [professional in human resources] certification
Based in: Miami, Florida
In the position for: About one year
Work hours: Mondays and Thursdays, noon to 2 p.m. EST; open to special requests
Previous jobs: Corporate lender; national and small business consultant; CFO and director of human resources for a private school in southern Florida

How did your skill set – HR and consulting – segue into volunteering with a golden retriever? Two years ago, I left my position as director of human resources and opened a specialty dessert sauces company, which had been my dream for quite a while. That left more time to focus on volunteer work, and volunteering at the airport was one of my first choices.

What inspired you to bring Casey into that equation? Casey is our family dog, our fifth golden retriever. She went through obedience training and is a certified therapy dog. I took her to do therapy dog work at a local children’s hospital, where I saw her love of humans and how much she delighted kids. I thought that she’d be a natural doing the same kind of work with passengers at MIA. With about 105,000 passengers coming through the concourses daily – and lots of stressed travelers – the opportunity to make a positive impact there was huge. I thought Casey could do it.

Casey the K-9 Ambassador spreading the love. Photo: Miami-Dade Aviation Department

Do you typically approach passengers, or let them come to you? Both. People approach Casey and pet her, and sometimes end up on the floor with her in a lovefest. Other times, I watch people’s body language – they might brighten up when they see Casey, but don’t come over. So I’ll walk over and ask if they want to meet her. Usually, a child’s screaming and crying will stop when we approach.

Does Casey wear a uniform on the job? Yes: a cobalt blue vest with the words “pet me” on the back, and an official MIA security badge, just like mine. Casey even has her own business cards; a paid MIA employee responds to everyone who writes in. They sign off with Casey’s paw print.

You volunteer with Casey twice a week, but mentioned that you’re “open to special requests.” Like what? Sometimes, airlines ask us to see off a large group passengers at a certain gate. Other times, Casey will get an email from a family, asking if she can come in and greet them as they arrive, or before they depart. In February, we got to the airport at 8 a.m. to see off a family with five kids going on a ski trip. Casey started wriggling on her back, and all the kids got on the ground and mimicked her. We still get messages from that family.

One occasion you truly made a difference: I heard screaming at the international arrival gate. The source was a 2-year-old girl standing on her seat, kicking at her mother, who was trying to placate her. I knelt down next to her with Casey, and she immediately stopped. It was like manna from heaven. I quickly realized the little girl and her mother spoke Creole, not English, but the universal message of touch and calm and safety came across. When we got up to leave, I could see the other passengers saying thank you, thank you, thank you with their eyes. Another time, Casey pulled me toward a young boy who was traveling with his parents. She pressed her head against him, and he bent down to kiss her head. It was beautiful.

But not every traveler loves dogs. I’m really sensitive to that. I don’t approach little children unless their parents have given me eye contact, so I know the parent is receptive. I would never approach it if the parent was reticent.

Has Casey ever bitten a passenger? You think I would tell you if she did? (Laughs.) But no, thank God. Once, I misunderstood someone’s look, and went over to introduce Casey, but he put his paper up. I got his drift.

Do you work overtime during the summertime and holidays, when travel stress is at all-time highs? If we work more than two hours at a time, Casey will push against my knee. If I resist, she’ll pull on the leash and get angry with me – she needs a break. After those two hours, she falls right asleep.

Dogs: a baby’s best friend? Photo: Miami-Dade Aviation Department

Best part of your job: The visual thank-yous – like huge smiles from passengers – and the verbal ones. And the awe, the surprise, from passengers. Casey’s presence has a ripple effect: when I look up, I’ll see people standing and watching us 10 yards away, smiling and talking to each other.

Most challenging part of your job: For every two hours spent in the airport, I spend about five to six hours preparing or coming down from it. It’s a lot of energy being constantly “on”; it’s like a full day’s work.

What kind of preparation? Keeping Casey’s coat clean and groomed. It’s absolutely beautiful, and the softest thing ever. Then there’s getting myself prepped, and getting to the airport takes about 45 minutes. But it’s worth it.

What would people be surprised to learn about your job? A therapy dog’s tolerance level is about one and a half hours. Casey’s is two hours, but she’s doing a lot of walking and getting touched a million times – and doesn’t necessarily know where the hands are coming from. Part of my job is making sure she’s safe.

Any other pets at home? My sons. (Laughs.) No, not right now.

Where does Casey spend her off days? At Totally Dog Day Camp, a five-acre rural area a little south of [Miami]. Twice a week, a small school bus picks her up at 7:30 a.m., and she has her own seat – all the dogs do. The windows stay half-open so the dogs can hang out and bark and love life all the way to the camp. They’re let loose to run, play, and go on hikes around the property, which has a huge bone-shaped swimming pool. I pick her up from the bus around 5:30 p.m.

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
1. Be very comfortable working and engaging with a dog for a number of hours per day. Build a loving rapport through obedience training.

2. Put yourself out there and initiate contact with strangers. You need an ease with the public. This is a vulnerable position, and you must be able to read people’s body language to see whether they will be receptive to your approach.

3. Enjoy finding out about other people, and be a good listener. The dog breaks the ice, but the handler is the one who must engage in conversation and coax people out of their shells. It’s teamwork. If at any time I see a passenger looking really distressed or confused, I deal with that immediately and help solve his or her problem.

Casey’s business cards: no bones about it.

Check out Casey’s personal site, or email her at casey@miami-airport.com. Learn more about the MIA Volunteer Ambassador Program, where about 80 volunteers help to welcome visitors to the Greater Miami area.

For more animal-loving No Joe Schmos, check out the pet detective and the pooper scooper.

The Trash Talker: TerraCycle’s VP of Media Relations

"Every day is Earth Day at TerraCycle," Zakes says.

Albe Zakes is constantly surrounded by a shrine to garbage. The desks in his office are made from old doors, the walls from soda bottles, and the front showroom covered in recycled Astroturf. The desk dividers are made from vinyl records, and graffiti covers every wall.

But considering his job, the workplace makes sense: he’s in charge of media relations for TerraCycle Inc., which sells consumer products made from recycled waste. The company launched in 2001, selling worm poop as fertilizer to retailers like Home Depot and Wal-Mart. Now, TerraCycle recycles items like Frito-Lay chip bags, Clif Bar wrappers, and Capri Sun pouches to create tote bags, iPhone cases, and MP3 speakers.

Zakes first planted his environmental roots at the University of Colorado, where he worked for Hip Hop Congress, a group spreading social and political awareness through art, music, and poetry. Below, he talks about eating worm poop, a surefire way to get hired, and the grossest thing he’s ever made from trash.

Title: Global Vice President of Media Relations, TerraCycle, Inc.
Age: 26
Graduated from: University of Colorado Boulder, degree in literature and psychology
Based out of: Trenton, N.J.
TerraCycle’s annual revenue: $18 to 20 million projected for this year
Previous jobs: There aren’t any. I began interning at TerraCycle right out of college.

In your own words, what is TerraCycle? It began as a way to reduce garbage output. We collected waste and fed it to worms, then sold the worm poop to farmers in soda bottles, which gave us market distinction in the early years. Since we couldn’t make money just from the fertilizer, we expanded our product base. We try to challenge the way people think.

The Capri Sun lunchbox is made from Capri Sun wrappers sewn together.

How you got the job: Right after I graduated in 2006, [TerraCycle CEO and founder] Tom Szaky was on the cover of Inc. Magazine. I read about what the company stood for, and it called to me – so I applied for a job, and ended up with an internship that turned full-time.

How did you shape the PR department? Initially, we were required to make 50 pitch phone calls a day. I eventually convinced Tom that we needed to research people and contact them slowly, to develop relationships. I never allowed email blasts. I also make sure we treat everyone the same way, from a mommy blogger in Montana to the executive editor of Businessweek.

How did your activism in college affect your job choice? I felt that the environmental movement and people around me [at University of Colorado] were short-sighted and thought small; the resistance against working with big corporations felt like spinning our wheels in the mud. Then I read Tom’s interview about the “belly of the beast” – if you want to change the way things are done, you need to do it from the inside. You need to work with them, not against them.

What have you learned at your job that nobody else knows? What worm poop tastes like.

And it tastes like? Dirt. It’s high-nutrient, organic-rich dirt.

The walls of the TerraCycle office are covered with graffiti.

Why the location choice of Trenton, N.J. for your headquarters? I have to confess, it is the seventh most dangerous city in the country based on homicide per capita. But Tom, a Princeton dropout, needed to buy cheap factory space, and Trenton offered that. He bought out an abandoned space that was once used for The New York Times printing distribution.

Are you planning on moving anytime soon? We’re absolutely staying here.

What are your hiring requirements? We’re a second-chance employer, which means we’ll hire people regardless of who they were become they came to us – regardless of criminal records. That has definitely backfired; we once had U.S. marshals on our factory floor, and almost-knife fights. But then again, we have people who have been working for us for years.

Biggest setback: Being tossed into a managerial job at a young age with almost no training. Hiring people is so difficult – some people look good on paper and do well in an interview, but then can’t deliver. It’s hard to figure out what’s bullshit.

How did you overcome that? With time. I set up weekly reports and meetings, and became more organized.

TerraCycle’s best-selling product: Historically, we’ve sold the most of worm poop. But another huge win was our line of back-to-school products for Target in 2009, which we sold hundreds of thousands of in one season.

Coolest product: Portable MP3 speakers made from recycled paper and various wrappers. [Sold at Urban Outfitters, Zumiez, Five Below, and elsewhere.]

Grossest thing you’ve ever recycled from trash: We’re working on using cigarette butts, feminine hygiene products, and dirty diapers. So one of my jobs was going around and collecting cigarette butts.

Watch TerraCycle on Oprah, NBC, CNN, and more:

What’s the process of using chip bags and cookie wrappers to create new products? There are two ways. With upcycling, the wrappers maintain their branded look – you can still see the logo. We use heat presses to fuse the wrappers together, put on bolts, and cut and sew the material together like you’d do with regular fabric.

And the other way? It’s closer to regular recycling. The wrappers and containers are shredded and melted down into plastic pellets and can be used for garden paving stones and garbage cans.

How many chip bags are used to make one garbage can? A 32-gallon outdoor trash can with a lid takes 1,500 chip bags.

Inside TerraCycle's offices, where the rugs are made from other rug remnants.

What does your office look like? It’s a shrine to garbage. The desks are made from old doors, the walls from soda bottles, the front showroom covered in recycled Astroturf with a mini putt-putt golf course. The desk dividers are made from vinyl records, and there’s graffiti on every wall – big, beautiful graffiti. The rugs are created from all different rug remnants, which can be a little nauseating.

What’s up next for TerraCycle? We’re moving to Australia and New Zealand, and then to Japan, India, and China next year.

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
Zakes suggests how to turn a green passion into a sustainable career.
1. Combine a degree in business with environmental studies or biology. Those business skills will always help – you need to be able to sell yourself and sell your company.

2. Instead of walking into a room and telling a potential employer what you could do, show them. Build your idea, and then walk in with a portfolio and present the materials and assets. Say, here’s what I would bring to the table on day one. If someone did that to me, they’d walk out of my office with a job.

3. Be willing to sweep the floors first if you really want to work somewhere.

Follow Terracycle on Twitter at @Terracycle and on its Facebook page. You can also find out more about how the company helps the environment. All photos courtesy of TerraCycle.net.

Check out more eco-friendly posts on No Joe Schmo >> Elizabeth Olsen, founder of Olsenhaus, makes vegan shoes from purely recycled materials.

The opera singer who compares singing to a hot fudge sundae

In a performance of Sleeping Beauty, Harmetz played the bad fairy.

Elizabeth Harmetz does more than 100 sit-ups per day to keep in shape for the opera.

Harmetz, a Los Angeles-based opera singer who also teaches vocal empowerment, says singing opera is like competing in sports – abdominal support, physical strength, and lung capacity are all important factors. In addition to the sit-ups, she schedules regular cardio workouts and practices singing for more than an hour each day.

Her repertoire includes playing Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady and Cinderella’s evil stepmother in Into The Woods. In an industry increasingly focused on youth and beauty, Harmetz remains optimistic in the face of rejection because of the sublime feeling of music taking over her body, she says. Which is much like a hot fudge sundae.

Age: Age isn’t given in this profession.
Graduated from: San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Master’s degree in vocal performance
Studying opera for: 22 years
Voice type: Soprano
Previous jobs: Resident artist at the Central Florida Lyric Opera

Did you sing and perform as a little kid?No. Since age 6, I wanted to be a musical theater star, but it was a secret dream. I didn’t tell anyone.

Mmm, finger-lickin' good. Photo credit: Flickr.com/Leslie Kalohi

But eventually, you did. I found a singing teacher at age 18 who introduced me to opera and told me that my voice was well suited to it. The energy it gave me – it was sublime.

What would you compare it to? A hot fudge sundae.

Something people don’t know about your job: To be an opera singer is to be an athlete; you use your entire body, not just your neck up. So you need to be physically strong, with abdominal support and lung capacity.

What’s your workout regimen? I do at least 100 sit-ups per day, and cardio workouts regularly. My ribcage has expanded, and I’ve probably grown in height about 1.5 inches since I started singing opera.

Why is that? I don’t chronically compress my spine anymore. You use your whole spine to sing, so my torso is essentially like a big beer barrel. It expands from the waist to upper chest.

Harmetz (far L) played the piggy who built her house of sticks in The Three Piggy Opera.

Pre-show routine: I keep stress and talking to a minimum. I’ll do some gentle physical activity, like walking, and eat an early dinner at 4 p.m. Shows are usually right at dinnertime, but I can never eat for an hour or two before I perform.

First thing you do after a show: Eat. I’m very quiet.

Where were your first gigs? While getting my Master’s, I did lots of “gigging” at weddings and nursing homes – anywhere they’d pay me. That gave me a taste of the industry, so after school, I began doing solo concerts at upscale retirement facilities.

Do you still sing at weddings? Not as much. There’s too much classical crossover music.

Go-to songs: “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” from Show Boat, and “Musetta’s Waltz” from La Boheme.

Are those what you sing in the shower? I don’t sing in the shower – or the car, for that matter. Whenever I sing, I have to be very focused on the task at hand.

Watch Elizabeth as Cleopatra in Julius Caesar:

Dream job in high school: I wanted to be the first professional women’s baseball player. By 18, though, I wanted to be an internationally renowned opera singer.

Best part of your job: The sheer joy of being immersed in a character and a production.

Worst part of your job: Constant rejection. That’s the other part that people don’t think about – they don’t understand how challenging the industry is. It’s very hard to be older than 30 in this job, because most operas want that “young” perception.

Doesn’t your voice progress with age? That doesn’t matter as much anymore.

How do you stay optimistic? [Singing opera] is my calling, so I don’t have a choice. I’m going with the needs of my soul, and I also enjoy supplementing my income with teaching voice lessons.

As Cinderella’s evil stepmother (R) in "Into the Woods," at the Lyric Theatre in Los Angeles.

Is the saying “It’s not over ‘til the fat lady sings” actually used in the business? The fact of the matter is, most singers aren’t fat anymore. International opera companies are transmitting performances in high-definition to movie theaters, so looks are becoming more and more important.

Favorite Broadway show: That’s too hard – I’ve seen hundreds! The first one I ever saw, though, was Annie, with the original cast. That gives you an idea of my age.

Favorite singer: Patti LuPone.

If you had unlimited money and resources, what business would you start? A scholarship fund for older, struggling sopranos – people who age out of competitions.

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
1. Many large regional operas have young artist development programs, which are fantastic introductions to the industry. The cutoff age is usually 30 or 35. [Check out The Metropolitan Opera’s program here.]

2. Focus on opportunities that have impact and meaning. Playing at retirement homes brings people such joy – it’s a wonderful feeling. I also love performing with a group called Once Upon An Opera, which brings classical music to children.

3. If you feel that singing is in your blood, then never give it up. Never stop working on your craft.

All photos courtesy of Elizabeth Harmetz.

EVEN MORE No Joe Schmos who sing: The Elvis Impersonator and the Hot, Young, & Single Circus Ringmaster.

Saving the Rainforest in $8 Rubber Rain Boots

Jenny Litz doesn

For the past 15 months, Jenny Litz woke up each morning and checked for tarantula bites on her skin, cockroaches in her shoes, and poisonous snakes on the ground.

In the coastal rainforest region of Ecuador, where Jenny worked as a field research assistant, such things are commonplace. After interning abroad in Ecuador in college, she knew she belonged in the hot, rainy environment, which was a full 21 hours away from her home in Seattle by plane, bus, open-air truck, and horse.

She fell in love with the rainforest community and its barbecued cuy (more commonly known as guinea pig), so she returned to Ecuador to educate kids about deforestation and to study bird population patterns. “The rainforest is something everyone loves deep down and has a passion for,” Jenny says. “But people may not realize it until they see it.”

Age: 25
Graduated from: Western Washington University, degree in biology
Salary: Lived on a stipend of $200 per month (after rent: $60 per month)
Previous jobs: Lifeguard; worked at a plant nursery; substitute teacher

Jenny holding an umbrellabird, with a radio on its back to study its home range.

Ties to the rainforest: Since I was a little kid, I always loved the idea of the rainforest. In college, I realized the sad reality: the rainforest was being cut down at a ridiculous rate. Trucks take down huge tree trunks 24 hours a day. It’s very personal for me – I fell in love with this place, and don’t want to it disappear.

Why Ecuador? My junior year in college, I interned there for three months in part because I was minoring in Spanish. I worked with scientists from UCLA in a biological research station studying plants, which made me realize I didn’t want to study plants. I wanted to work with birds.

So you moved back after graduation? I reconnected with the scientists from the Center for Tropical Research at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. I volunteered in Ecuador on a tourist visa for three months and taught kids in rural rainforest communities about ways to coexist with their environment; their families were cutting down trees to make money, and the children were killing birds with slingshots.

Don’t the inhabitants want to preserve the rainforest? You’d think so. But they thought selling the trees was the most profitable use of their land.

Jenny with a group of children in the rainforest community, where she taught environmental education.

What was most striking about their way of life? [The people I worked with] lived in shacks with tin roofs, and their only source of running water was the river. But despite their poverty, these people shared everything. If they had one mattress for their entire family of 12, they gave it to you and slept on floor.

What happened after your three-month visa was up? I came back to the United States and acquired a two-year visa to work as a field research assistant in the Chocó region of Ecuador with a group from Tulane University.

Did you work with kids again? I studied migratory birds and their population patterns, which is where my true interest was. I spent half my days in the rainforest and half in the capital city of Quito.

The dirt road is four hours walking or on horseback.

Distance between the Chocó rainforest and Seattle: It’s a 10-hour plane ride to Quito, then a five-hour bus ride to the outskirts of the jungle. Then I got on an open-air truck squeezed with 40 people, chickens, and huge sacks of rice. After two hours on a bumpy dirt road, we arrived at the last place a car could get to, and from there took a horse or walked for four hours, wearing knee-high rubber boots that cost $8 in town.

That’s 21 hours total. If you do it all at once. I usually spent the night in Quito.

Ecuadorian delicacies: The guinea pig, called cuy, was delicious. I also ate rabbit once, which was dark, juicy, and cooked over a barbecue. Street vendors also sold tons of crazy different fruits, like fresh passion fruit.

El Mercado, the market in Ecuador, sold lots of fresh, cheap, and delicious fruits.

Anything you didn’t try? The skull soup, which was served with sheep’s head in it. You’re supposed to eat its brains.

Job responsibilities as field research assistant: Waking up at 4 a.m., hiking to the study site, and opening mist nets for the birds to fly into. We often caught four to 10 birds every half hour, and would then measure, examine, and release them.

Examine them for what? We attached a small metal bracelet to each bird’s foot to identify the species if we caught if again years later. We also took a tiny blood sample and removed two tail feathers from each bird, which served as DNA samples. The samples and data were taken to labs at Tulane for comparative studies on life spans and growth.

How many bird species did you encounter? There are 1,640 species of birds in Ecuador. In the area we worked in, there were 350. Our nets were only nine feet tall, so they didn’t catch birds in the canopy, like parrots.

Favorite bird: The endangered umbrellabird was emblematic of our project; almost nobody had ever studied it before this project. The feathers hanging from its chin looked like a long beard.

Measuring a toucan

Best part of the job: Being so close to the animals. I held toucans in my hands and felt the wind from bats’ wings just inches from my face.

Worst part of the job: Waking up at 4 a.m. every day and hiking in rainy, hot, and muddy conditions. The lifestyle in general is pretty hard.

Besides for the rain boots, what’s your jungle attire? High nylon soccer socks, convertible zip-off pants, and light, breathable tops. I always carried a backpack with a 1.5-liter water bottle and bugspray to avoid mosquitoes carrying Leishmaniasis parasites, which make holes in your skin.

What changed between your first and second trips to Ecuador? I eventually got used to the tarantulas in my room, the cockroaches in my shoes, and the poisonous snakes everywhere. I’d often see small gravesites on roadsides where someone had been bitten and killed on the spot by a snake.

Did you have reverse culture shock coming back to America? I was blown away. Everyone has a smartphone, and there are these weird squares you scan [QR codes].

What did you miss about America? My family, obviously. And Cool Ranch Doritos – Ecuador sold other types, but not Cool Ranch.

What are your current plans? I’ve been substitute teaching since I returned in May, and now I’m applying to grad school to study conservation ecology. I want to focus on tropical environments and complete my thesis in South America.

Greatest setback: I applied for a Fulbright grant in Ecuador and came back as an alternate. Getting funding is so complicated – my research depends on grants.

Have you ever felt in danger as a woman in the rainforest? Rainforest communities are very patriarchal societies. People there assumed [my boyfriend] Luis and I were married, and asked why I didn’t already have 10 kids. Women definitely don’t have equal rights, but I never felt in danger.

Photo credit: toursinperu.blogspot.com

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
1. Study a foreign language, then travel or intern abroad in your area of designated fieldwork. It changes your way of looking at the world.

2. Research people who are involved in your field of interest. Contact whoever is heading up a cool new project and ask about volunteer positions; don’t be afraid to make a cold call.

3. Look at and subscribe to online publications like The Wilson Journal of Ornithology.

Visit Jenny’s blog at jennylitz.tumblr.com and check out more exclusive rainforest photos on the No Joe Schmo Facebook page! Unless otherwise noted, all photos courtesy of Jenny Litz and Luis Carrasco.


Did you study abroad in college and want to return there post-graduation? If so, where? Comment below!

The Urban Honey Beekeeper

Photo credit: Matthew Sandager Photography

Think of them as your new pets. Your best friends. Your companions. You know, the kind of companions that might sting you – and then fly away, leaving their guts and stingers behind.

Go ahead, scoff. But Noah Wilson-Rich, the founder of Best Bees Company, transports tens of thousands of honey bees to hives across the greater Boston and Cape Cod areas. He considers them his pets. In fact, he’s received so many bee stings over the past five years that he barely notices them anymore.

Noah’s organic beekeeping service is the only of its kind. He develops and installs honey bee hives in gardens and on rooftops in urban habitats and revisits them every two weeks. The proceeds from thankful hive-owners contribute to Noah’s development of vaccines to help bees better survive the winters and avoid diseases.

Bees weren’t always Noah’s best friends. As a kid, he was terrified of bugs. Below, he explains his connection with them – as well as the science behind the “disappearing bees” phenomenon. Plus: you’ll never guess what wallet item he uses to remove stingers!

No, this isn't Noah. Just a fellow bee-lover. Photo credit: Reuters/Eliana Aponte

Age: 29
Working with bees since: 2006
Graduated from: Northeastern University, Bachelor’s degree in biology; Tufts University, Ph.D. in biology
Previous jobs: Clinical researcher, phlebotomist [someone who draws blood], and nurse’s assistant at Children’s Hospital Boston

Job description in one sentence: I deliver, install, and maintain honey bee hives for gardeners and property owners and the greater Boston and Cape Cod areas to raise money for my research to improve honey bee health.

Where did you learn about bees? I helped manage honey bee hives at the veterinary school at Tufts. I’m also a 2007 graduate of the Bee School at the Essex County Beekeepers Association in Topsifield, Mass.

I have a mental image of students dressed in black and yellow, buzzing around the classroom. I actually thought it was only gonna be me and a couple of weirdos in the class. But there were 80 people enrolled – all regular, everyday people who just wanted a little piece of nature in their lives.

What sparked your interest in honey bees? Initially, because of my background in medicine, I was interested in learning how bees could resist diseases. There’s an innate connection between humans and honey bees that’s existed for thousands of years.

Coolest thing people don’t know about your job? Watching honey bees is extremely relaxing. Hive owners just sit with a cup of coffee, watching the bees bring in pollen and nectar. It defies the common Omigod, bees! I’m so nervous! mentality.

You’ve never been scared of them? The beekeeper suit is like an invincibility cloak – it gives me confidence. But I still get stung regularly, which is never fun.

Noah wearing his beekeeper suit. Photo credit: Izzy Berdan

What does the suit look like? It’s a white onesie jumpsuit with full arms and legs, and at the neck there’s a zipper attached to a veil. The veil is mesh that surrounds my head and has a hole at the top made of harder mesh. It sits like a safari hat.

Why you should care about honey bees: Ecologically, they help plants reproduce by transferring pollen, which contributes to the fruits and veggies that humans consume. Economically, the estimated value of all the crops they pollinate around the world is about $15 billion annually. If honey bees are less available, costs of produce pollinated by honey bees will rise. We’ve already seen that with almond products.

Number of honey bees in each hive: Tens of thousands.
Number of bumblebees in each hive: About 100.

Tell me about the “disappearing bees” phenomenon. Just around 2006, when I started working with bees, news started popping up that they were dying from colony collapse disorder. Basically, that means thousands of older foraging bees were just vanishing from their hives – there were no dead bodies to examine what killed them. The younger and baby bees were still there, the queen bee was still laying eggs, and the hive looked healthy, with plenty of pollen and nectar.

Note: Beekeper suits do not actually resemble Lady Gaga's beekeeper hat. Photo credit: idolator.com

Why is that so bad? Without [the older foraging bees], younger bees are forced to collect pollen before their immune systems are fully developed. So those younger bees would bring back disease agents and bacteria to their hives – or so we think.

How do you explain the disappearing? Researchers are still furiously figuring it out. Three leading hypotheses are pesticides, poor nutrition, and disease. The strongest argument is for disease: when fungi and viruses infect the hive, it collapses.

Is there a way to help? Oral supplements and bee yogurt filled with probiotics can help strengthen their immune systems. Immune boosters are added to a mixture of water and pollen, forming a peanut butter-like consistency. The goop is shaped into paddies and placed into hives for consumption.

Hardest part of the job: Although I patented a vaccination for these diseases, it’s been impossible to get funding from grants. Best Bees Company is a way to raise money for my research.

Are your hive installation services in high demand? Right now, I’m managing 32 hives. I check on the hives once every two to three weeks, so I’m constantly traveling from Gloucester through urban Boston down to Cape Cod.

Charge for a honey bee hive: $975 for the first year, which is all-inclusive; $750 to $850 for each subsequent year, depending on location. We’ll replace the bees at no additional cost if they don’t make it through the winter.

I’m assuming these aren’t killer bees, then. They’re totally non-aggressive Italian bees. If you’re not a flower, they won’t care about you. Killer bees are from tropical habitats like Africa. Aggressive traits in honey bees were favored over time in tropical habitats because of selection pressure from predators.

Honey bees improve the quality and quantity of garden crops. Photo credit: gmo-journal.com

Benefits of a honey bee hive: The honey is delicious – just take out the frame from inside the hive, which will be covered in honey and capped with wax. Remove the wax, let the honey drip into a pan, and dip a spoon in. No processing is required since we don’t use any chemicals.

Little-known way to help a bee sting: Dribble vinegar onto a paper towel, and press it to onto the sting.

Little-known way to remove a stinger: The stinger still pumps venom after a bee sting, so the faster you can remove it, the better. Slide out the stinger with a credit card; your fingers can push the venom in with an accidental pinch.

Biggest pet peeve: Slow drivers. I have tens of thousands of bees in my car, people.

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
Noah Wilson-Rich gives the buzz on sustainable beekeeping practices.

1. Take a beekeeping course. You’ll not only learn how to become a beekeeper, but also become part of a community and a greater network. For example, the Barnstable Academy in Cape Cod offers classes on how to breed local queen bees instead of importing them.

2. Join your local beekeepers association. Unless you want to do research, you don’t necessarily need a background in science or biology. In fact, most of the people in the New York City Beekeepers Association are lawyers.

3. Remember, this isn’t a cheap hobby.

Visit BestBees.com to learn more about the Boston screening of “Vanishing of the Bees,” a documentary film about honey bees, their importance, and their baffling disappearance, on June 23.