Wednesday, April 29, 2009

All Is Calm

My new Barred Rock chicks are growing by leaps and bounds. During our mini heat wave last week, I carried their cage to the chicken pen so they could watch their sisters forage for food. It is too cold for them to be outside this week so my dear girls have only the cats and Dave's and my feet to entertain them.

The older girls have have reached puberty as I heard many of them clucking yesterday when I offered them garbanzo beans as a treat. A web site has recordings of chicken sounds which I occasionally play for my housebound birds. They immediately stop chirping and turn their heads to listen.

Dave and I have been 'ignoring' the bees. Hopefully each queen is laying her quota of 2000
eggs a day. We will open the hives this weekend to check their progress and assess the conditions of the colonies. Needless to say, whoever opens the hives will be wearing the bee suit. We emptied a bottle of Caladryl on our last bee bites!

Beans has no interest in the new chicks. I cannot believe how much we worried about the first set of chicks being attacked by the cats. Mr. Darcy is not interested in reruns and barely glances at these birds as he passes by the cage.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Even More Bee Issues

Dave and I are competing with the Wongs to see who can rearrange things in their yard the most. The Wongs do it with their plants, we do it with our bee hives.

The morning after we moved the dark green bee hive to the top of the hill, Dave suggested that I paint the hive a lighter color. The bees in the light green hive seemed to be dealing with the heat better probably because the lighter color did a better job of reflecting the sun's rays. I agreed to paint the dark green hive to match the color of the other hive on the condition that we move it back to where we originally had it.

The next morning I toted the paint can and brush up the hill and I painted as much of the hive as I could with bees buzzing around me. It was so warm that the paint was dry within minutes.
I was tempted to bring the hive down the hill by myself, but I knew that this would be foolish as the foraging bees would not know where their home was. This job would have to wait until evening when the bees retire for the night.

After lunch Dave called to tell me that his friend went to release his queen and found that she was dead. We had planned to release our queens on Wednesday, but started to wonder if they too might be dead. We figured the sooner we knew the sooner we could order a replacement. The bees were already stressed. Why not stress them some more by ripping open their hive! Dave was out of town so I did the honors. The queen in the first hive was alive and active with worker bees attending to her through the screen in the tiny cage. I removed the cork and dropped Her Majesty among the 8,000 worker bees. Each hive started out with 12,000 bees, but by now we had almost certainly managed to kill off a third of them with our antics. I released the queen in the second hive too and she appeared ready to go to work laying eggs.

As soon as the bees had returned to the hive for the night, Dave and I carried the newly painted bee hive down the hill and back to its original spot. This time each of us got stung twice. I am getting used to it, but Dave is ready to set the hives on fire.

Below is a photo Dave took of our bees at work this morning. His comments to his dad are below.

I snapped a few pictures this morning to validate Shirley's statement that at least some of the bees seem to be earning their keep. If they behave I will put my plan for a huge pyre on hold...for now.

The yellow specks you see on the bee's legs are buckets of pollen!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

More Bee Issues

Dave -

The temperatures soared into the upper 90's this afternoon and both of our hives are sitting in direct afternoon sun. Most of the bees in the dark green hive were trying to cool off on the porch.
According to the book Beekeeping for Dummies, this is not a good sign - it is a waste of bee energy for worker bees to flap their wings to cool the hive. Shirley did some research and came to the conclusion that we needed to move the hives to a cooler location. But where?

Since most of our property consists of a hill, there are few areas in our yard that lend themselves to a beehive. Shirley wanted to take the easy route and relocate them next to the fireplace in our side yard. I nix'd this idea. After my bee sting experience on Saturday, I was in no mood to live that close to the damn bees. We settled on a place half way up the hill that receives dappled afternoon sunlight.

In order to make room for the hive, we had to level a 3 foot by 2 foot section for us to stand on to work the hive and another 4 foot by 3 foot section to set the hive on. We prepped the area for one hive and then waited until dusk when all the bees would be inside the hive. We blocked the entrance to the hive with tape, picked up the hive and hive stand, and started to climb the hill. Shirley was wearing tennis shoes with no grip and since she was walking backwards she claimed that she could not see where she was going. She started to slide causing the brood chamber to separate from the bottom board. Angry bees started coming at me - AGAIN. A bee stung my hand and I imagined a repeat of Saturday night. . . whack, whack, whack, whack. Watching me lose my cool, Shirley ordered me to leave. Since she couldn't carry the hive by herself, I headed back into the house to don the bee suit. I fumbled with the zipper that secures the hood for about five minutes before finally figuring things out. Invincible in my suit, hood, and gloves (like Superman and his cape) I rejoined Shirley who was waiting patiently on the hill. In no time at all, we had the hive situated in its new spot.

Shirley got stung on the forehead. Stoic that she is, she did not complain. "It is only a bee sting" . . . "It was only one" . . . "What's the big deal?" You won't hear those words uttered from this guy's mouth.

Wednesday evening we will do this whole thing again with the other hive.

Damn bees.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Bees Galore!

Dave -

Shirley and I picked up our two boxes of bees today. The process is pretty straightforward; it says so right in the beekeeping book! You open the hive, dump out the bees, close up the hive, return to the house, and enjoy a cold beer.
So where do I begin this story? Should I start at the beginning, when our friend Joe Mueller assured us that beekeeping was a fun hobby that made few demands on those wanting to tend a hive, or should I start at the end where I am writing this while nursing six painful bee stings?

This is really a story about a heroine. Shirley was solid gold today. Her role was to watch me, perhaps take a few pictures, hand me frames, and generally just support me, the master beekeeper. This plan didn’t last long. Within 30 seconds of opening the box of bees, a couple of bees got tangled in my hair and stung me. I tried to remain calm thinking this would have a similar calming effect on the bees, but then three more bees insisted on having their way with me. Enough! I moved away from the hives as quickly as possible but still ended up getting stung on the mouth and encouraged a bunch of them to pursue me in their maniacal desire to sting me to death. My cowardly departure left Shirley literally holding the bag . . . or in this case, the box. What a trooper. Even after being stung herself, she remained focused and completed the transfer of 12,000 bees from the box into the hive. I don’t know anyone who could have handled this with the poise and confidence that Shirley exhibited.

Click here if you would like to see more photos of the process of installing a package of bees.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Deja Vu

Does this scene look familiar? This is not a photo from my archives. These cuties are the new additions to the Madsen/Wong flock. They are Barred Rock chicks. I actually got to see the adult version of these birds while babysitting Maryann's chickens this past week. She has three Barred Rocks and they are truly gorgeous birds. I bought these chicks at Concord Feed yesterday seconds after the postman dropped them off. I was not the only one in the store anticipating the arrival of chicks. The chicks sell quickly so you have to stay on top of delivery dates or you miss out.

I also picked up a three gallon waterer and a 12 pound feeder. This will save me from having to carry water and food up to the pen twice a day.

Dave and I will be attending the Mount Diablo Beekeepers' Association's demonstration workshop this morning. We will pick up our two packages of bees and install them at dusk when the bees are less likely to 'run away.' We will take lots of photos and perhaps even a video to share in a subsequent blog.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

What's in a Name

As I mentioned in a previous blog, most chicken 'experts' advise you not to name your chickens. By naming them you become more attached to them and there is a good chance that you will not be able to butcher them if you are raising them for meat. Our girls are layers and we plan to keep them around for a long time so we felt that this rule did not apply to us.

Here is how we came up with the names you see in the above photo.

Mr. Darcy Chick is the name I gave to a chick that our cat Mr. Darcy bonded with when we first brought her home. This is not a very pretty, feminine name, but it is the one that sticks in my head.

Paula's friends came up with Elvis for the black and white bird with fringes on her feet. She looks like Elvis in his later years when he dressed in white and wore bell bottoms.

Polly is the name I gave to the White Leghorn (the only chicken in our flock that will lay white eggs) that Paula picked up at Concord Feed. She had stopped by the store to buy organic chicken feed and when she got outside she called to tell me how proud she was for not succumbing to the temptation to buy another cute chick. When I broke the news to her that my day old White Leghorn had just died, Paula turned around, marched right back into the store, and got a replacement. So, I named this bird Polly after Paula.

Liz is named after Paula's friend Liz Marsh. As you can see from the photo below, Liz looks just like 'her' chicken.

Paula had a coffee and tea tasting event at her house about a month ago. She asked her friends to come up with names for the chicks that she was babysitting at the time. Someone suggested 'Salt n' Peppa'. So, a black and white bird was 'christened' with that name.

Paula likes the sound of Amelia Bedelia, the name of the main character in a series of children's books, so I named one chicken Amelia and another one Bedelia.

Frederika was named after the gentleman (Fred) that I met at Concord Feed a few weekends ago. He gave us tar paper, nails, and shingles for the hen house. I promised I would name a chick after him.

Finally, Dave has a quirky sense of humor. He insisted that we name the two Production Reds Shake and Bake.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

All About Eggs

Around Easter, grocery stores practically give eggs away. Last night I came across a website that explains the differences in supermarket eggs. I thought I would share some of this information here. For the record, I did not verify this data so if you know something is not correct, please let me know.

First of all, the color of the eggshell has no bearing on the nutritional value of the egg. Instead, it is related to the ear or cheek color of the hen. Second, the color of the yolk is directly associated with the hen's diet. A very pale yolk means that the hen lives in overcrowded quarters, is underfed or lacks greens in her diet.

The supermarket eggs that you normally throw in your grocery cart come from 'battery hens.' These are White Leghorn hens that are crammed into small cages so they barely have room to stand let alone move around. Commercial egg farmers prefer White Leghorns because these chickens are super egg laying machines. They are provided food, water, and light 24 hours a day (the more hours of light a chicken gets, the more eggs she lays). The hens never see the sun or a rooster, they never taste grass, they never get to peck at the ground or take dust baths. In short, as the author of this website says, they live in Chicken Hell. As I mentioned above, the eggs from these birds are pale, higher in cholesterol, and for the most part tasteless. Of course, you may not know this if you have never eaten a 'real' egg.

Some people pay a premium for brown eggs because they think they are healthier. Well, sometimes those brown eggs are simply supermarket eggs that have been dyed brown so the next time you buy brown eggs check the carton. Real brown eggs tend to be healthier because the most common commercial brown egg layer breed - the Rhode Island Reds - cannot tolerate being housed in overcrowded cages. These birds have to be kept in runs which means slightly better eggs.

What about those fancy fertile eggs? A fertile egg simply means that a bunch of hens and a rooster have been crammed 'cheek by jowl' into a large run inside a building that is lit 24 hours a day. The rooster may or may not have mated the hen. Roosters, like the Rhode Island Reds, cannot be kept in battery cages. Fertile eggs are only slightly better than the white supermarket eggs.

Free range eggs are the same as fertile eggs without the rooster in the run. The hens live in cramped quarters in a building so they get no sunlight and never experience grass between their toes.

The Madsen/Wong eggs will be 'pasture' eggs since our chickens are free range birds with access to sunlight and grass and lots (and I mean lots) of room to stretch their legs. Our eggs will have a very dark yolk since the birds will be eating lots of plants. We will also feed them lettuce and spinach. I will also supplement their diet with organic chicken feed designed specifically for laying hens.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

And the Winner Is . . .

We would like to congratulate Brant Wong for submitting the winning entry to our unannounced contest "What Would Be a Better Name for this Blog?"

Brant decided that this blog needed a new title because its scope was expanding in new directions. His suggestion, chosen from no other entries, was selected for its originality, creativity, conciseness, and appropriateness. Brant will receive nothing for his outstanding suggestion.

Despite the fact that Brant is my adorable son-in-law, no nepotism was involved in this decision.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Busy as a Bee

Dave -

Chickens...chickens...chickens...that's all you read about. But wait, let's turn our attention to honeybees for a moment. We will be picking up two three-pound packages of bees in about two weeks. Before we bring these bees home, we will need two beehives.

First, a little history. Last year our honeybees absconded less than three weeks after we got them, fleeing from ants that were running amok in the hive. Shirley and I fought the ants as soon as we noticed them using various methods but each method proved ineffective.
Beekeeping lore holds that the most effective way to control ants is to surround the hive with a moat of boiling oil. Okay, I added the "boiling" part for effect, but ants apparently are repelled by used motor oil.

Being a projects-type guy I jumped right on this project, grabbed a hack saw and started cutting an old bed frame into pieces. My plan was to make two hive stands that would stand in cans of motor oil. I made excellent progress for about 60 seconds, then the saw seemed to just ride over the steel as opposed to cutting into it. I replaced the blade with a new one and my progress improved dramatically . . . for about 60 seconds. Apparently, either manufacturers are making bed frames out of high carbon steel or someone has figured out a way to make even the lowly hack saw blade cheaply, capable of cutting only the softest metals. Rich Grove came to the rescue with a grinder in one hand and his MIG welder in the other. What a guy! In the time it took me to gulp three cups of coffee, I watched him transform the bed frame into two hive stands.

Meanwhile, back on the homestead, Shirley was busy priming and painting the beehives. As soon as the paint dries, we will assemble the hives on the new stands, create the oily moat, and wait for the arrival of our 24,000 Italian honeybees.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Look Who's Doing All the Work!

Here is a view of our chicken's yard. The blue line that you can barely make out at the bottom of the photo marks the position of the horse fence at the top of the hill. The horse fence on the right and the wooden fence on the left show the other boundaries.

Dave has been one busy man. Bill drove Dave to Home Depot earlier this week to pick up 100 feet of horse fence which Dave installed in a day almost single-handedly. Yesterday morning he went to the Solano flea market to buy a special tool to attach the fence to the metal posts and yesterday afternoon, when I was ready to call it a day, he pulled out the paint and painted the hen house. This was supposed to be my job but since it didn't look like I was going to do it, Dave took charge. There is no stopping that guy!

I spent the afternoon attaching chicken wire to the bottom of the horse fence. My babies are now safe and secure so long as they do not attempt to fly out. As they get older, their body weight will keep them on the ground. With such a perfect home, why would they ever want to leave it?

Saturday, April 4, 2009

More Projects

My sister Kathy sent this photo to me and suggested that I might want to knit a few of these cute outfits for my chickens. If I start on them now, I might have them done by Christmas. Kathy doesn't see any purpose in these vests except, perhaps, to keep the birds from flying.

I am still working on the chicken fence. Dave finished installing the horse fence yesterday and I have been busy attaching a chicken wire skirt to keep the birds from sneaking underneath the fence in spots where the ground is not level. I also need to finish painting the beehive boxes for our bees which will be here in two weeks! So much to do. Dave has given up on the idea of me painting the chicken house. He will do that this afternoon.

I have been advised not to name my chickens but it is hard not to do so. Paula's friends came up with an excellent name for our Light Brahman. She has adorable 'fringes' on her legs reminiscent of outfits from the 70's. Though she is a female (we hope!), her name is Elvis.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Just Like Me

Most of my friends and family know that I lead a very regimented life. The more control I 'think' I have over my life, the more content and less stressed I am. My husband and children know exactly what I am doing based on what time it is. 3:00 A.M. Mom is drinking hot cocoa while reading The Harper's Magazine; 9:30 A.M. Mom is enjoying coffee time with dad; 1:20 P.M. Mom is taking a nap - don't call her as she needs her beauty rest; 5:30 P.M. Mom is drinking her tea while responding to emails; 9:00 P.M. Mom has called it a day.

You may be surprised to know that you can also set your clock by our chickens. They want out of the cage at 7:00 A.M. and they return to the cage all by themselves at 7:36 P.M.! No kidding.

I took this photo the other evening after the birds returned to the cage. They huddle in a corner and after some chattering (I imagine them saying "Be quiet. I am trying to sleep." "Move over, you are hogging all the space." "Did you see that bug I found?" "Pipe it down, already.") they become absolutely quiet. I miss their nightly talks now that they live outside. More about that in another blog.