Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Bumble Bees Love Borage

Pollen-legged Bumble Bee (upper right)
There's very little time to languish on the deck and relax these days as the garden is in full production. Not only is it necessary to tend to the plants, there's harvesting, then preparing the bounty. It all takes time, not that I'm complaining, mind you, but it leaves little time for other endeavors, like sitting on the deck watching the bumble bees, and blogging.

I've been fortunate to be sitting here in front of the borage plant captured in a wine barrel and witness the daily comings and goings of several baby bumble bees. It's peeked my curiosity about the fuzzy little insect, apidae bombus a relative of the honeybees I' am tending nearby. Like the honeybee, they feed on pollen and nectar. And like the honeybee, they sting. I understand, and not from direct experience, that their stinger isn't barbed, so they have the distinct privilege of being able to sting over and over. They make their nests in holes in the ground...not the elaborate colony concocted by honeybees, they often only house 50 bees compared to the honeybees tens of thousands. But my favorite fun bumble bee fact is that they can "buzz pollinate", that is, the frequency of their buzz releases pollen from plants, in particular tomato plants. I'm pretty smitten with their genus "bombus" as well.

Wikipedia informs me that bumble bees visit the same plant day after day. So the bumble bees visiting today are the same ones I've been seeing every day. Thus the bumble bees and I have got a steady relationship forming. These pretty little creatures leave scents on the plants they visit that discourages competition from other bumble bee foragers. Guess I can safely name them now. This little tidbit makes me even more intent on continuing my ritual of shooing my canine companion from his nightly pursuit of capturing baby bumble bees in his ferocious jaws.

It is truly awesome the amazing natural world that is as close as the edge of the deck. To imagine that we are an integral part of it is all the more awe inspiring. If more of our kind spent more time sitting on the deck observing the coming and goings of the insects, plans and animals we share the world with, we'd have a better understanding of our place in nature and feel less compelled to continue to contribute to its ruination.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Beautiful Broccoli, Entirely Homegrown Meal

Broccoli grows well in cool climates, hence it's a perfect crop for sometimes sunny, always cool, costal northern California. The broccoli bed was prepared with generous a helping of compost, another must.

Yesterday we harvested our first successful broccoli plant, yielding easily several pounds of broccoli. Last night's dinner was the result of the fruits of our labor:  yukon gold potatoes with broccoli, and strawberry rhubarb cobbler.

The broccoli not only looked spectacular, it was the sweetest and most flavorful I've tasted. The stalks are firm but not woody and the left overs will make excellent broccoli cheddar soup today. We'll definitely purchase these seeds (Premium Crop Hybrid) again next year from Nichols Garden Nursery in Albany, Oregon. Although we've ventured into saving seeds from our crops, since this is a hybrid plants from the seed will likely have completely different qualities than the plants we're currently growing.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Lavender Harvest

They say lavender has calming properties in addition to many other therapeutic uses. Harvesting lavender in and of itself was therapeutic. Deciding which buds to harvest, which to leave a little longer,  fingers scented from oils released from delicate wands, whorls of purple and blue in compact buds... it is an enjoyable, grounding activity.

As we have only a few plants, there won't be much to play with and make fun things like skin toner, lavender water, lavender pillows or sachets. This batch will be used for culinary purposes.


Saturday, June 18, 2011

Treasure Hunt

The benefit of having free range hens versus keeping them in a chicken run is probably obvious to most. Healthier chickens, more nutritious eggs, and fertilized pasture are the most obvious. There is a down side however, if you see it that way. For the past 3 days egg production has seemingly come to a halt, with only a couple of eggs each day in the usual places. The usual places are probably most unusual as we have let them pick their favorite nesting spot: some lay in the coop, some in the shed, and some in the garage.

Hidden Nest

The Hidden Entry

Blackberry Ensconced Quince
After combing the place several times and coming up empty, the local raven flock became suspect number one in the egg disappearance. No eggs in any of the nooks or crannies I could think of. This afternoon however, after watching "les girls" toddle off toward the tall grasses near the quince bush that has become ensnarled by blackberry vines, it dawned on me where the eggs had to be. Sure enough, a hidden cache of one dozen eggs lay in a nice little divot scratched out by the hens. On hands and knees, reaching deep into the brambles, my hand alighted on the very cool smooth surface of an egg.

Their choice of spots for a nest is impeccable. Not only is it completely invisible to the human (or raven) eye, the quince bush provides the element of refrigeration that has kept the eggs fresh until I could find them. I am thankful to have hens that can free range, carefully choose their nesting spots, and provide me with an entertaining Saturday afternoon treasure hunt.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Honeybee Varroa Mite Inspection

The hive ladies got their very first powdered sugar dusting today. This technique is used to detect the presence of the veracious ferocious Varroa destructor, or varroa mite. The sugar knocks the mites off the backs of the bees and onto the bottom board. Removing and examining the bottom board gives a clue as to a hive's mite load.
Sugar Honeybees

Apparently these mites are omnipresent; all hives will eventually come up with them. It's early yet to expect to see many of them, but I'm pleased to report these ladies have come up with a clean bill of health. No detectable signs of mites!
Varroa mite hitching a ride on the back of a honeybee
Photo from Sciencedaily.com
The varroa mite parasite attaches itself to the honeybee and, like a leech, sucks on the bees hemolymph (blood). This weakens the bees and additionally makes them susceptible to viruses. It is thought that this mite is a key ingredient in Colony Collapse Disorder, the syndrome that is virtually killing off our bees.

How Much is Too Much Bee Business?

Yesterday our original, twice-swarmed hive saw a flurry of activity at the front of the hive. Bees landing on the front face, many bees hanging out at the entrance, bees seeming to not have a work agenda, like being heavily-laden with honey and coming in for a slow landing, or the pollen-legged type bringing flower protein to the colony. It looked as though there may be some robbing going on. There were even some bees much larger than I'm use to seeing coming and going. What is going on? My initial guess was that they were being robbed. And since our smallest weakest hive seemed to be experiencing the same activity lately and had around 15 or so dead bees on the landing, it seemed a plausible explanation.

Hive Covered With Wet Sheet
Launching into action, I swiftly reduced the entrance to the smallest possible size, and placed a wet sheet over the hive to deter any foreign subversive activity. Apparently the "home bees" are still able to find their way in while others are not. Within the hour crazy bee activity had ceased and the weather had turned back to normal Humboldt summer weather, cold and wet. So, I removed the sheet.

Was my assessment correct? There weren't dead bees all over and I couldn't really distinguish any fighting activity at the entrance. Was it just that we were experiencing a moment of nice weather for a change and even the drones decided they could come out for a quick look for those virgin queens some 60 feet above our heads? Such good weather that the activity was heavily increased from the norm? The big bees I saw, in retrospect were most likely our own drones since drones are probably not robbers...they're lovers, not fighters.

Oh the angst of an ignorant newbee keeper.

Life Before The Garden Cart?

I don't recall how I got much done before having a garden cart on hand to transport everything from bales of alfalfa to multiple bags of soil amendments to wine barrels. This barrel would have remained put under an imposing echium plant that was ensconcing it medusa-style. But Barbarella, our Barred Rock and Barney, our club-footed Rhode Islander were instrumental in the removal. They picked out all the bugs while I heave-hoed the soil and together we were able to remove much of the weight in the barrel before it was leveraged onto the cart for the transport. In this picture they are seen in their roles as transportation engineers.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Migratory Hive Covers: WTF?

Hive inspection yesterday didn't go well. Besides the disappointment of finding queen cups in two hives, both hives with migratory covers were all damp inside, a condition not to the bee's liking. I suppose the ultimate meaning of migratory covers is that it will lead to your bees migrating away from your hive. Lovely. Where was the warning label for that? There are warning labels for everything else, even things more intuitive. You know, like the ones on silica packets (do not eat this) or on Alice in Wonderland's little bottles (Drink Me).

Migratory covers are for big-time beekeepers, which we are not. It enables them to stack their hives side to side for transportation to big-time orchards, which we do not do. Guess we're going to have to invest in more telescoping covers for our beautiful but damp, soggy, windy, cloudy, cold Humboldt summer.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Chicken-Proof Gardening And a Gardener/Beekeeper's Philosophical Rant

This weekend among the homestead projects was cleaning out half-barrels of spent brassica plants, reinvigorating the soil, and planting herbs in their place. The barrels are just off the deck, close to the kitchen, and a little handier than trucking  all the way out to the garden for a snippet or two of herbs.

Chicken-proof Herbs
After planting the barrels I took a break to sit on the deck and survey the results of our labor over the weekend when I looked down at the aspiring herb garden barrels to find that one of the Evil Stepsisters (translation: Wyandotte hen) was clawing contentedly away in the dirt at the location formerly occupied by two echinacea starts. Starts that took forever to germinate and grow to their current two inches high. Oh my! That will learn me to take a break before a job is complete. One echinacea was salvaged, the other was nowhere to be found, likely in the belly of the hen who will give it back to us in the form of an egg...a really nutritious egg.

It is interesting to note the change in gardening philosophy that keeping bees can bring. In my former gardening life, the spent brassicas wouldn't have been occupying precious barrel space. None-the-less there they were still, all gangly, twisting their long flowering stalks lazily atop the deck, effortlessly attracting entire tribes of aphids.  By all rights any self-respecting gardener would have yanked them up by their heads, tossed them to the compost, and made way for something new and more productive.

Enter the bee-minded gardener! Bees and brassicas apparently have coevolved. Bees need brassicas for the obvious nectar and pollen while brassicas need bees to assist in their pollination. They suffer from "self-incompatibility" (don't we all from time to time?): the pollen from one flower will only pollinate the flower of another brassica plant (no inbreeding here). This is a problem for them because their pollen is a bit on the sticky and heavy side and isn't readily windborne. Thus the bees and the brassicas enjoy a symbiotic relationship. Who am I to uproot half of a perfectly compatible partnership?

Monday, May 30, 2011

Oxymel: Honey as a Health Enhancement


Honey forecast for our hives post swarm(s): slim to none! So to celebrate, I made oxymel with another local beekeeper's honey. The Meyer lemon and the mint on-the-other-hand, are from the backyard. Next year if we're lucky (and add the second hive box in time), the oxymel will be made from  ingredients exclusively from the backyard!

Oxymel is an ancient Greek medicinal drink made of vinegar (the oxy portion) and honey (the mel portion). The ratio of honey to vinegar is 1:1 and you simply heat the honey at a low temperature in a stainless pot, add the vinegar, stir and let cool before transferring to a container. It will last indefinitely.

Hippocrates was said to have prescribed it for common colds as an expectorant, and as a general restorative. It's also been prescribed throughout time for other ailments such as: gout, sciatica, and pneumonia. Many cultures made similar concoctions, sometimes adding other healthful ingredients such as ginger, lemon, or mint.

Oxymel can be used by the spoonful as a medicine, or enjoyed in your tea or bubbly water for good health.

 "Let your food be your medicine" ~ Hippocrates

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Swarm Troopers

3 Hive Beeyard
Here's what our beeyard looks like as of Monday. The great self-dividing hive has swarmed once again. Monday must be a good day for bees as that's the day our secondary swarm alighted in our garden atop  a few prickly new raspberry canes. Poor choice of "layover" spots as the raspberry cane promptly "laid over" on the ground from the weight of the small swarm, making it a little more challenging to remove.

Small Secondary Swarm on Raspberry Canes
With three hives now, two with non-productive virgin queens, weather this week is critical to these young ladies getting out and visiting the drone den in the sky to get a proper mating. Without a mated queen and left to their own devices, these hives will die out as only drones (males) can be laid from unfertilized eggs. The forecast so far...rain, rain, rain...but possibly some sun tomorrow. I can only hope our new queens will be mature enough to be ready for their mating flight by then. If by some time next week we still cant find these queens (we checked yesterday without success) or signs of her (newly laid eggs), timing will be critical to combine these hives back with the one with the good queen so that the worker bees don't start laying eggs, a newbee keeper's nightmare.

Swarm Capture
Swarm Trooper

I'm fascinated with the inner working of the colony. While bees are individual insects, collectively they act as one organism in that they are dependent upon each other for survival.  One lone bee in the world would catch it's death of cold very quickly without it's hive-mates to cluster together with, unhitch their wing muscles and vibrate them to create heat, as just one teeny tiny example. Now that I am confident in handling the hives sans gloves, my hands can feel the heat they generate as soon as I lift the inner cover. No wonder mice overwinter in hives.

I'm reading "Honeybee Democracy" by Thomas Seeley, Cornell University bee professor. The book delves into the way in which honeybees collectively and unanimously decide where their new home will be after they have swarmed. His many years of studying their behavior has valuable lessons for we humans in collective decision-making. It is amazing what these insects can teach us.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Secondary Swarm Preparations Under Way

I took a long overdue bike ride to the Farmer's Market in Arcata this morning and when I returned there were a gazillion bees in the air flying about in probably a 75 foot radius, pretty big. My heart sank and I quickly realized me bees were swarming again. Needless to say, I'm not prepared and I didn't think this would really happen since I felt I was diligent in cutting out all but two queen cells from the hive. Within several minutes, they began condensing close to the hive and eventually landed on the south face of the hive in a huge cluster. This wasn't a swarm since they returned home, but it means they're preparing to leave again. How much excitement is too much excitement you ask?

Fortuitously, Marc assembled the hive his friend Rocky gave him last night so that he could start a hive at his house. It's not painted yet, but it will due in a pinch. Considering that, if we are lucky a second time to catch our own swarm when it leaves, we'd be phenomenally lucky if the three hives all end up "queen right", or with well-mated viable queens. More probable is that at least one hive will have no queen or an unmated queen and we'll have to recombine it in time with one of the two already established. That will at least give us a chance to paint the new hive and get it to Arcata. This is baptism by fire.

On a positive note, I went in and checked the new hive from the swarm on Monday and found the original queen with her little white dot. She has laid eggs on one side of one of the frames. There's not much comb built in there yet so she's probably waiting for the working girls to build more comb so she has a place to continuing with her motherly mission. Phew! Later today if the wind dies back I hope to inspect the original hive and see what in the world is going on in there. Crazy, huh?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Almost Queen

Today was almost good enough to get in to check the old hive to see how many queen cells we've left for them. Too many increases the chances that they will again swarm, a so-called "after swarm". We'd like to keep two in case one doesn't make it, it gives the hive a second chance to have their own home-made queen (rather than a bought queen). On Monday just after the swarm we checked and thought there were two, possibly three queen cells at the most. They contained larvae but they were not yet capped over with wax to pupate.

"Almost" good enough weather was going to have to be good enough weather to check in on them as I was nervous as to just how many queens are pupating in there. Sure enough, the uppermost hive body contained three queen cells all on the center frame (the one that I had moved upstairs from the first box when I put the second one on two Saturdays ago). The lower box had one queen cell that I hadn't seen on Monday. How are these peanut shaped things that hang low from the bottom of the frame so elusive? I cut out the one cell in the bottom hive, and one from the upper, leaving two queen cells. The ladies will have to battle it out, or the one that hatches first will likely open the cell of her competitor and sting her to death. A kind of royal "off with her head" execution. Only she does it herself instead of directing minions to do the dirty deed as you might expect of royalty. Because we forgot to take a photo of the queen cells we left,  we went back in sans smoke to get a pic. Apparently we're not doing a great job of getting bees out of the way as there were not two, but three capped queen cells hanging there. Glad we forgot the picture as it gave us the opportunity to once again narrow the field for the royal competition soon to come.
Two Queen Cells Covered in Bees

The picture below is that of one of the queen cells that we opened after we cut it out. What a beautiful perfectly formed bee is this "almost queen". Sad we had to take her out, so to speak. As perfectly formed as she is, she was probably about 14 or 15 days old; only a day or two away from hatching. We can probably expect that, if we're going to have another swarm, it's going to be very soon.
She Will Never Get To Compete For the Crown

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Day After ~ Orientation Day

The bee yard is abuzz with lots of winged ladies taking orienting flights just outside the new hive. They're do this to learn where their new home is so that they can begin to go out and forage for nectar and pollen and find their way home. Since their original home is right next door I wonder if they're experiencing deja vu. Only problem...they're also conducting these flights in front of the old hive too. My best guess is that the bees from the swarm are drifting over to their old hive. If were lucky, really lucky, we'll end up with enough bees in each hive to continue their important work of feeding babies and storing food. I'm feeling lucky and don't expect to find a queen all alone in the new hive...those queen pheromones are simply irresistable.
Spider Eating Bee (Hint: Double-click for a close up)

This picture was taken yesterday when we noticed, in the midst of the excitement of swarm chasing, that a garden spider was feasting on one of our bees. It took a moment to reflect on nature's delicately balanced food chain and not take it personally that a spider was lunching on one of our bees. As the circle of life has it, that bee will nourish that spider that will in turn do wonderful things for that sunflower in our garden. That sunflower will give us visual pleasure for a time and in turn provide the goats succulent sustenance,  and maybe leave a few seeds for the chickens if they're lucky!

The cycles of life are self-evident in our little yard lately. Saturday we trimmed a holly tree that was casting shade on the garden only to learn that it contained a bird's nest with new born babies in it. Sadly they didn't survive the trauma even after we perched the reconstructed nest in the crotch of the same tree. Ravens quickly found and decimated what remained. Later that day we found a very much alive nest of baby birds in our chicken shed. One nest of baby birds perishes, another will live. And so it goes...

Monday, May 16, 2011


Beekeeping is not for the faint of heart. It isn't an exact science and knowing what they bees are up to and then how you'd like to handle it can keep you up nights.

Friday's hive inspection netted 5 or more queen cells hanging from one of the brood frames in the top hive box, a sign of either swarm preparation or supercedure. Most likely I waited a little too long to give them more brood space by giving them a second box to lay eggs and store honey and pollen. So the signs of swarm were there Friday. To try to prevent a swarm I squished all the queen cells, even though it felt odd squishing the larva of the little insects I've been trying so hard not to squish every time I enter their little "queendom".  But today they swarmed anyway and landed in a holly tree near the goat shed. Nice and low and easy to cut out, box up, and walk over to a newly set up hive. Good fortune!

Swarm in our holly tree

I was glad to have heard over and over in bee class that swarming bees are gentle bees. That greatly increased my comfort level of handling them. The discomfort comes with the myriad questions about the old hive and the new. Are the hives too close and the swarm bees will migrate back in the old box or allow bees left to tend the old hive to drift to the new? Are there enough bees in the old hive to keep the brood warm and fed? Do I have a virgin queen in the old hive or do I need to order a new one? If I do have a queen in the making, do I let nature take its course even though odds are much less favorable for the viability of the new queen your hive will make than one you buy already mated? It's enough to make  you lose an otherwise cozy night's sleep.

A quick check of the original hive showed no signs of a queen cell that was chewed through that would indicate there is a new queen on the loose in the hive. There were however, either two or three queen cups with larvae in them hanging at the bottom of the same frames with the original queen cells last week. If I'm sure there's no queen I can order a new one and have a greatly elevated chance of having a good queen for this hive. If there's one in there already the hive likely won't accept the new bought queen even thought she's their best bet. Finding a baby unmarked queen in there is probably much more than my unseasoned bee vision can be relied on to see.
Bee beehinds in the air fanning a message to their kin, "Queen's in here, c'mon in"

We were given the gift of a second hive in our first year. We debated getting two hives from the beginning. Opting for only one left us with lingering doubts wether we should have purchased two... With the fascinating blessing of this swarm we now have a second hive, one of the many gifts of nature, and we saved the $95 we would have spent on the hive... this swarm was quite a blessing on many levels for us... Also, handling the swarm successfully gave us a more intimate connection to our bees,  giving me the confidence to handle my bees without gloves, something that, after the initial installation, I've been timid to try again.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Goats in the Chicken Coop

Who would have guessed that we crafted a chicken coop more appealing to goats than chickens. Most likely the climb onto a bale of hay and concrete block in order to access the chicken-sized coop opening appeals to the very basic nature of these climbers. Being the dwarves that they are, they happen also to fit very nicely through the tiny door.  We've spent the first several days with the new kids kicking them out of the coop. To divert their attention, we've constructed a goat playground from bales of hay, a garden cart and a couple of saw horses and plywood left over from constructing the goat shed. Lots of running and jumping and kicking and twisting from atop the plywood platform. They can balance on their two front feet better than any trapeze artist I know. OK well yes, I don't know any, but if I did...

One lovely bonus is their love of the blackberry infested overgrown quince bush. They like succulent new blackberry shoots and leaves over almost anything you can forage for them. They like dandelion leaves over flowers. They like chicken scratch over ANYTHING!

Since chicken feed has too much calcium for goats we thought better of allowing them to gorge themselves on it. Geniuses that we think we are, we hid the chicken food under the coop where there was room only for small fowl.  Wrong again... these two darlings got down on their knees in order to shimmy underneath to dine with the flock. Bottom line, goats are intelligent creatures who can easily outwit their unwitting new family.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Goodbye to Google Ad Sense

I'm not really into advertising for other people on my silly little blog that probably only my parents are interested in visiting more than once. So the final straw in my decision to remove "Ad Sense" from the right-hand side of this blog came when the ad appeared this evening for "a career in chicken de-beaking via an on-line degree". Of all the crazy things that are probable, I"m sure a degree in chicken debeaking is not one.  Even if by some long long stretch of the imagination it were, I don't want to be the one to encourage anyone toward such a cruel career. Good-bye Ad Sense. My good sense says it's time you go.

The Bees Have Arrived

It's been a bizzzy day here. The bees finally arrived. We picked them up early afternoon and got a live demonstration of installation. Garrett, our class instructor, made it look easy. Fortunately the weather predictions for rain didn't come to fruition and we were able to put them in the easy way rather than the rainy day method.
Bee Loading Instructions in Bayside

Sideways Beekeeper

Two Bees Doing the "Come Into the Hive Over Here " Dance at the Opening 

When the time finally came to shake in our own bees to their new hive home, after months of anticipation, excitement became colored with just a little tinge of nerves.  Gathering everything together and popping the feeder can from the package uncorked and released the nerves; it was time to get to work. As odd as it was to get comfortable with bees crawling all over me, particularly exposed hands, the only jerking reaction came when one found its way onto the small of my back. Oops, no bending over without full beekeeper regalia I suppose.

After shaking the package for what felt like a long time, and closing up the hive with only a couple of squished bees (sorry ladies), the package with the reming bees was put directly in front of the hive to find their way in. After an hour there were still way too many bees in the package all clumped up. When what to my wondering eyes should appear but a queen that they were huddled around. We removed her and a few attendants and put an ad for her on Humboldt Beekeeper's Yahoo Group. Dan came on up to get her and, lo and behold, she was a he...a drone. He said it was pretty early to have a drone, but more possible as they came from the valley where it's been warmer. Heck, what do I know. Hopefully what a real queen looks like. After he left I zoomed back to the Yahoo Group and hit "delete" to remove any trace of my complete and utter ignorance.

Never Confuse Your Drone with Your Queen - Keep This Chart Handy!

It was so windy this afternoon that the bees left in the package outside the hive got chilled and stopped moving around. Being the overly emotional people we are about animals,  and apparently now insects too, we brought them in to the house, warmed them up by the fire, re-placed them in front of the hive after they started buzzing around once again. I hope they find their way to their new home. So, OMG, I have to open up that box again in four days to see if the worker bees have chewed their way through the queen cage to free their royal highness. I think I can do this...

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Chicken Killing Cone

This week we got a package in the mail. It was one that we ordered. Did we really? Yes, indeed we did. I can't believe I ordered this thing on Amazon and actually shelled out the money for it. It's not that it was that expensive, it's just the nature of the item, more specifically, what it is used for. You see, we have intent. Our intent is to raise chickens for egg production, nitrogenous chicken poop, and down the line...for consumption after their laying life has waned.

But how does one reconcile intent with action? In this case, our intent to provide for ourselves and live a sustainable lifestyle runs smack up against a belief that all life is deserving of respect. In other words, I don't' think I am there yet...there being the act of using this killing cone. I know I know...we homo sapiens (puts us more on an animal level saying it that way) have been outfitted to eat meat: we have enzymes in our belly to digest it and teeth made to chew it. All useful underpinnings in my heady justification for my meat-eating ways. But to be so close to the harvest of meat has created some really heavy internal dialog. Taking the life of a little creature that I have named and have enjoyed watching run around my yard for two years...it's just not something that I have been prepared for.

Several weeks ago, we had to take the life of one of our chickens that was sick and didn't get better after more than a month of trying. Trying translates into moving her indoors and having her share our house with us, forcing medicated water down her throat three times a day, holding and talking to her and having her become really comfortable as a lap chicken, rejoicing in signs that she was feeling better (like having the gumption to run away from us after we gave her a few hours of unfettered access to pasture), then saddened by the stark realization that she wasn't going to recover fully. We chopped her head off. Well, we is the proverbial sense, I was at work and got the moribund text just before and just after the difficult deed. Are we really gonna do this when our ladies are fit and happy?

Damn, nobody warned us about the other side of this equation. Even all the justification that I've heard from others haven't made this feel right. Like, for instance, the fact that our chickens are one of the most spoiled beings on the planet and in fact run our dogs out of the yard on occasion. The have a huge yard, all the food and cool clean water and, as Michael Pollan would put it, the opportunity to life out their full chicken-ness. I think it's easier to hunt and kill an animal that didn't exist side-by-side with you for several years. And to think that I scoffed at the craigslist add looking for a home for hens whose best laying days were behind them...a "no-kill" home, that is.

Vegetarianism is looking better and better.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Suburban Homestead Expansion

The old suburban homestead is expanding, hopefully not to suffer too many growing pangs, or copyright infringements as nobody I know has sought ownership of the words "suburban homestead" as the Dervaes Institute has over the words "Urban Homestead" (see Electronic Frontier Foundation's fight against the co-opting of this all too common phrase @ www..eff.org/takedowns/urban-homesteading)

Our little plot of land is richer by 12 baby chicks that now include 4 Cuckoo Marans, prized for their dark chocolate colored eggs. I'd like to have some Black Copper Marans, but they are rare and that's for another chick season. Meanwhile new coop construction is taking place on the south 40 to house the new additions as we're not ready to cull any of our current flock.

We've also just adopted two kids, baby Nigerian Dwarf kids that is... they will someday supply us with milk. They are still with mom and won't come home for 8-10 weeks which will give us time to concoct some sort of shelter for them as well.  We visited them today and were charmed by their playful antics as they climbed up on everything in sight, including one of the mother goats,  jumping off and kicking up their heels with a carefree exuberance. They are the picture of bliss.

Meanwhile, the rare sight of snow last Friday delighted us, particularly since it neither lasted all that long nor posed a transportation hazard. It was the celebration of bringing home our last set of chicks. It is spring which means everything is popping, and there is much to do...if only the weather would cooperate.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Brussel Sprout Recipe That Will Convert The Most Hardened Brussel Sprout Detractor

I'm a relatively recent brussel sprout convert. Our brussel sprouts are nowhere near harvest-ready yet, but I'm practicing so my recipe will be perfected by the time they arrive on the scene.

Try this easy citrusy delicious recipe served up with brown rice:

1 lb brussel sprouts, halved (quartered if large)
1 T butter
1 t olive oil
1 1/2 T capers
2 clove garlic, minced
1 big squeeze of lemon juice
1 t coarsely ground sea salt
(carrots were just hanging around and found themselves suddenly thrown in the mix for color)

Melt butter in a pan with olive oil, add garlic and saute on medium high heat for 1 minute. Add brussel sprouts and capers and cook about 5 minutes or until brussel sprouts are wilted but not mushy. Finish off with lemon juice and sea salt to taste.

Don't  overcook brussel sprouts as you'll diminish their nutritional value. Brussel sprouts are outrageously healthy and recommended for pregnant women due to their high folic acid content. I'm not pregnant, but I crave them as if I were!
A sante!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Humboldt Hens: Legalizing Urban Chickens

Humboldt Hens: Legalizing Urban Chickens

Legalizing Urban Chickens

Here's a link to a great research paper from DePaul University students in a Green Urban Policy class who interview staff from 20 cities after they legalized backyard chickens. Hopefully it will give more weight to those fighting to keep their chickens!

Holiday Chicken Sickness And Another Batch of Baby Chicks

One of our faithful layers is sick. She's listless and puffed up, definitely not acting the part of a healthy forager like the rest of her kin. This is not new to her; she fell ill on New Year's weekend just a month and a half ago. Her symptoms then seemed more severe. She wouldn't stop drinking water, and was again listless and puffed up. A call to the local veterinarian's office yielded the holiday on-call veterinarian who know less than I about poultry. They proffered the phone number of University of California Davis that has a poultry veterinarian. Really? On a holiday weekend? Sure enough they answered the phone and after I described the worsening symptoms the young voice on the other end informed me that it was serious and I needed to bring her right in. Really? 5 hours drive for a sick young layer? I don't think so. When I declined the generous offer and pressed for at least a little over-the-counter advice, the actual vet call me back a bit later. During the high anxiety wait, I combed the internet (oh yes I know one normally "surfs" the internet, but "combs" it for chicken information...it's apropos as well as anatomically correct). Some obscure blogs and poultry forums gave me a few ideas and upon sticking a nose to her open beak and smelling her sourly fermented breath, she was most assuredly the victim of an impacted crop. Apple cider vinegar, force-fed yogurt, and a crop massage while she was upended (suspended from Cosmo Bean's lap upside-down) seemed to help and by the third day she was back with the pack, indiscernible from her sister leghorns.

But it seems her 'crop failure' has returned, again on a holiday weekend. Perhaps she's allergic to holidays. More likely she ingested something rancid during the moving of the compost, or her crop is weakened from her new year's weekend incident and now is more susceptible to becoming easily bound. We do have quite a lot of high grass that could also be the cause. Whatever the case,  we hope she makes a quick and full recovery. These episodes have fostered much more knowledge about a chicken's anatomy whereas prior to the advent of the year 2011 I thought a crop was something that sprung verdantly en masse from the earth or a little stick to goad on a horse. Add one more definition: The storage pouch for food on a chicken before it enters the stomach. Interestingly enough the crop evolved in chickens and other birds that are easy prey to other animals so that they can quickly forage in open spaces and fill it up then get to safety then digest it's food later (this according to the University of Kentucky Agricultural Extension).

Meanwhile more chicken antics ensue. Yesterday we got our second batch of little poults. Now our miniature flock is 8 and consists of: 2 Giant White Cochins, 2 Buff Orpingtons, 2 Delawares, and 2 Bantam Silkies (one white, one black). It's chaos in that little tub right now. The 4 chicks we adopted last weekend are behemoths compared to the newbies. They've sprouted tail and wing feathers and tramp all over the littler ones.  The teeny black silkie elicits "oohs" and "aahs" from every visitor. We've been on pasty vent cleaning duty relatively often since we've gotten them. The stress of being cargoed half way across the nation probably is to blame. In fact our cochins are two of only a handful that lived through the shipping experience, the rest succumbing to asphyxiation. The person at the poultry farm neglected to cut air vents in the box, a deadly mistake. I pity Tom from A&L Feed who had the distinct displeasure of opening that package at the Post Office. We're still hoping to get some Americaunas and Marans to round out the egg color.

Our dogs are an interesting dichotomy when it comes to chickens. Cosmo is the perennial hunter and is as obsessed with the chicks as he is with the chickens. Riley on the other hand has assumed the role of chicken sitter, mother hen, or shepherd, you can decide what to call him. He lays by those babies day and night and growls and barks Cosmo right out of the room. I've never seen Cosmo stand down to Riley until now. Evidently he is serious about his self-appointed stewardship. He's even gone so far as to chase Cosmo completely out of the house.

Friday, February 11, 2011

I Know of Nothing More Adorable...

...than baby chicks! I had a little disappointment upon arrival at the feed store to find that there were no Americaunas, no Cochins, no Speckled Sussex as originally expected. They had breeds we have already (Buff Orpington, Rhode Island Red, Barred Rock) and after reading Robert Plamadon's website (www.plamadon.com) I'm down with the idea of getting different breeds in alternate years to help keep track of age without too much consternation (translation: work). But after all the anticipation,  going home empty-handed was not an option. Two Buff Orpingtons it is! Back tomorrow for Giant White Cochins. We were the proverbial kid in the candystore when taken out back to see the partridge blue laced red Wyandottes, a pint-sized version of the ones we have at home. It's hard to refrain from buying the entire lot of them....oh and the baby ducks (see what I mean).

Meanwhile, we are the stereo-typical  "mother hens" over these two little girls, checking chicks every 5 minutes. One was quite lethargic, sleeping, laying there with it's teeny tiny wings spread out like little floats on an outrigger canoe keeping it aloft on a sea of pine shavings. But this evening she's showing signs of life...after an  unauthorized feeding of Straus Family Creamery Blueberry Pomegranate Yogurt, the best yogurt on the entire planet. Probably a no-no and if one she is dead tomorrow, I'll feel good knowing she had a cosmic food experience before passing!

WWMPD? (Translation: What Would Michael Pollan Do?)

Are These Mary's Free Range Chickens?

Or Are These?
I'm curious now, and eating less chicken these days. Reading The Omnivore's Dilemma enlightens in ways that sometimes are inconvenient, like the inconvenience of no longer being able to ignorantly purchase "industrial organic" chicken. My local butcher, The Northcoast Co-op, apparently does not have a source of local free range organic chicken because it only offers industrially grown chickens. Well maybe, but I am suspicious none-the-less.

Last year they swapped out Rocky and Rosie chickens for Mary's because they felt they were better. After reading the chapter in Omnivore's Dilemma entitled "Meet Rosie, The Organic Free-Range Chicken" I have a better understanding. These fowl are raised under similar conditions as conventional chickens, sardined into housing, but offered a small 15 foot swath of grassy land to "free range" on. Knowing how my chooks quickly scratch the living daylights out of their once-grassy pen, it is highly suspicious that 20,000 birds haven't completely degraded the grass within the first hour of having it offered to them. Thing is, they don't use it. They don't get the generous offer of pecking grass, grubs, and other crawlies until they are 5 weeks old and quite settled in their ways. The grass is, as Pollan terms it, "ritual space".

Now my butcher offers Mary's Chickens. Mary's website does a darn good job of giving you that down-home small farm feeling. They provide a sweet video of interviews with the farmers who raise the birds with cute little chicks running around at their feet. But alarms go off in my head when I see them advertising a "vegetarian" diet. Since when are bugs a part of a vegetarian diet? But I want to hear from Michael Pollan if Mary's birds are truly free-range fowl that spend their days feeding on good grass or if most of their time is devoted to being stuffed into housing with way too many others, eating "organic vegetarian" grain. Michael, what say you? Meanwhile, until Pollan weighs in, here's Mary's website for you to make your own decision to eat or not to eat...that is the question: www.maryschickens.com

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Giant White Cochins
Excitement is building around here. Tomorrow A&L Feed receives it's first baby chicks. We'll be one of the first beating down the doors to get ours. In their wisdom, they've been building the excitement by advertising for a few weeks now, listing the different breeds on their website, giving chicken lovers like me time to do some research and make a semi-informed, but still emotional decision. Here's what they're offering: Ameraucanas, Speckled Sussex, Sicilian Buttercups, Rhode Island Reds, and Giant White Cochins. I'd love to add a few of each to our flock but I want mostly dual purpose birds and ones that are not flight, sorry Sicilian Buttercups. We think we've decided on a few Ameraucanas for the blue/green eggs they lay, a few Giant White Cochins, a few Rhode Island Reds, and a few Speckled Sussex. Notice how I don't exactly specify number...trying to balance reason and emotion and not overdo it. Somebody hold me back! Plus room needs to be saved for a few chooks that lay the deep chocolate colored eggs, Welsummers or Marans to round out the color spectrum of eggs. Since we haven't raised chickens from babies, our first batch were several weeks old when we got them, this will be a brand new experience. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Dirty Dozen Redux: Egg-o-nomics Takes a Dive

Last night's discovery set us back in terms of the cost associated with raising our own food. Fortunately it was not paired with the emotional setback of losing one of our layers in the prime of her laying life. We can't say we weren't warned however, the harbinger to the event being the observation that one of the leghorns was extremely dirty, particularly under her chest.

Here's what we found in the rarely visited back corner of the garage. There were nearly two dozen eggs that she's been depositing and brooding over. Based on the number of eggs, she's probably been hard at this now for three weeks. What's more,  this discovery came at bedtime for the girls and this leghorn showed no sign of moving from her makeshift nest. We think she's been sleeping here for three weeks with her eggs. This must have become sticky business for her as several of the eggs were cracked, their contents oozing out and painting the entire bunch in a yellowy-brown film. As puffed out as she was, the impossible task of keeping 21 eggs warm must have had its frustrations. She's probably relieved we finally found her cache.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Weekend Homesteading Projects

Cosmo Bean's project: deck stairs. We no longer have to hop down and jump up to get on the deck from the back yard. Guess I'll have to get back to the gym to get all that leg stretching exercise I'll now be missing. As you can see the chickens were integral in the process, lending moral support at the very least.

My project: constructing a wind barrier for the young apple trees that withered from the strong coastal winds last summer. I used green landscaping cloth, rebar for supports and my new favorite device, zip ties. It'll be interesting to see if the 3/4 inch rebar sways too much in the strong winds we get. We used 10 foot rebar and drove it almost 5 feet into the ground, still it seems it may be a little wobbly in the wind. Wondering why the tree is wearing a white cast? It's a thin spiral of plastic with breathe holes to (hopefully) protect the tree from whatever species of critter has been carving it's name around the base of the spindly trunk.