Saturday, May 25, 2013

Swarm Chasers

This May, we've had very good luck catching swarms. So far, we've caught and hived four, and we're always looking for more. Whitney joked today maybe we could get a show on cable TV: "Swarm Chasers"!

A beautiful May honey bee swarm in an apple tree
With all this talk about swarms lately, people have been asking us a couple of questions again and again:
1) Why are your bees swarming?
2) How do you catch a swarm anyway?
Nice honey bee swarm on pine branch.
1) Swarms are simply honey bee reproduction. Healthy vigorous honey bee colonies with plenty to eat swarm, just like birds hatch eggs, horses foal and elk calve. The difference is of course you don't consider each bee's reproduction, but the reproduction of the colony. In the wild, healthy honey bees would swarm every spring in order to spread their kind. This is why many of the older generations remember finding "honey trees" in the woods. These were swarms from some beekeeper that had gone wild (feral). Today, unfortunately with colony collapse disorder and all the other threats to honey bees, wild honey bees are pretty uncommon.
Swarming is a sign you have robust colonies that wintered with good numbers and plenty of honey to eat.
Catching a swarm
2) catching a swarm is not actually as hard as it may seem - usually. Assuming the swarm is in a nice location (like the picture above) it's pretty simple to hold a hive box under the clump of bees and give the branch a firm knock. The bees will fall into the box and if you got the queen, you can then just leave the box near by and all the bees will file in.  You can then go back in the evening and take the box where ever you want the hive.
God Save the Queen!
Unless you saw the queen, you may not know if you got her. If you did get the queen, all the workers will point towards her and fan. This is how they spread the message of where the queen is, and is a very good sign.
I like to picture them all saying "God save the Queen"!
A more difficult swarm on a W. larch tree
Some swarms are more difficult to catch, like the swarm above. In this case the swarm was on the stem of a larch tree, with lots of branches to contend with. Whitney caught this one while I was out of town. With more than a little patience she was able to hive it by gently lifting the swarm in her hands and setting it in the box.
In the most difficult settings, a customized vacuum can be used to suck the bees out of a tight space and get them into a box. We did this a few years ago  when we found a swarm in our ceiling. Check out: Blog Post: A bee adventure
That's all for now, thanks for stopping by.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

A weed killing - beekeeper’s dilemma.

Are dandelions a wildflower, an exotic weed, or a honey bee forage plant?  What about knapweed, or Canada thistle? Not that long ago, I would have said without hesitation “exotic weeds”! And while most days I still feel that way, I have come to see these plants in a new light.
Early Spring Dandelion

I have been trained as a land manager, and a big part of that is noxious weed control. In my current position, I maintain a herbicide applicators license with our state Department of Agriculture, and administer the noxious weed control program on the state lands within our administrative unit. Roughly 65,000 acres. 
To that end, several times a year I go to training sessions and seminars to learn the latest trends and developments in the weed killing world.  Often this means listening to enthusiastic presentations about the latest and greatest chemicals the industry has to offer.  There are chemicals for everything these days, and if you take everything the vendors say as gospel, chemicals are the answer to all our troubles.

Luckily, there are more than just chemicals in the weed killer’s arsenal. There is also grazing, mowing, bio-controls (weed killing insects) and of course hand pulling. This is what we in the business call Integrated Pest Management (IPM).  As a weed manager IPM is very important, as over reliance on one method or chemical will result in a new generation of super weeds.   
So, we can all agree that noxious weeds are bad and must be dealt with. Or can we?

A beekeeper may see things differently. The first blooms of spring are hugely important to honey bees. This is a time when honey bee colonies are very weak and food sources are scarce. The end of winter / beginning of spring is when honey bees starve.  To a honey bee emerging from the hive on an early spring day and seeing (or sensing) a dandelion in full bloom and ripe with nectar, must be pretty amazing after months of cold weather and no blooms.
Later in the summer after all the native plants have long since quit blooming and bolted, knapweed and thistles continue to thrive. Long into the droughty days of autumn, these exotics provide excellent nectar and pollen that bees use extensively. These plants provide much of the honey we harvest in the fall; in fact many people actually prefer the honey from some very noxious weeds such as knapweed.

So what’s a beekeeping - weed manager to do? For me it’s a tough question, but for now I will continue to fight noxious weeds with every tool I’ve got. The damage to native ecosystems from noxious weeds is tremendous and costly in many ways. Noxious weeds as a rule are poor feed. They out compete native plants and create monocultures. Noxious weeds effectively remove thousands of acres per year from production of livestock and wildlife.  

That being said, if I ever get a chance to place some bee hives near a field with knapweed, I’ll do it!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Bees in the City, Part 3: Where to put your bees

I recently had the honor of writing a guest piece on my sister April's blog I [Heart] My Life.

In the first segment Bees in the City, Part 1: Are You Ready for a New Hobby? I wrote about beekeeping as a fun hobby, and share my thoughts keeping bees in the urban environment.

In the second segment Part 2: 4 Steps for Getting Started With Beekeeping I wrote about how a person could get bees and start beekeeping.

This post is written as a third installment:

Part 3: Where to put your bees.

Before you actually take the leap and start beekeeping, take a second and consider you're going to put your bees.

My Langstroth hives
Of course the bees themselves will fly where they want to, but where you put the hives is pretty important. Hives should be placed in a sunny, well ventilated spot, with the hive entrance facing away from the prevailing wind. Sunny locations with good air flow reduce moisture and mold in the hive, keeping the bees dry and closer to their optimal temperature (about 90 degrees F). Facing the entrance away from the wind will help the bees come and go without getting blown off course. Also, if you live in a windy spot like I do, don’t forget to put a weight on the hive lid, or strap them down. I once had a lid blow off in a spring storm, and my bees were subjected to a wet cold night in the open air – Bad News!

 Since I have backyard space, my hives are placed away from the trees, in a spot that gets lots of sun, facing east. My hives sit on stands approximately 6 inches off the ground, to allow air to move under the hive, but not too high to make working the hive difficult.
Full honey bee hives are heavy, and taking a moment to consider that before housing your bees is a very good idea. Langstroth hives consist of one or two deep deep boxes for the bees to live in and several medium or shallow depth “supers” on top for the honey. The term “super” refers to the upper boxes superseding the main hive body. In an established colony, the main hive body will weigh well over a hundred pounds and each super weighs about 40 or more pounds depending on how much honey is in there.
While you hopefully would not be moving the main hive boxes very often, if you are successful in bee keeping and get lots honey, you will be moving the supers.  A healthy colony can fill 3 or more medium depth supers in a season.
For neighborhood beekeepers with limited space, roof top locations can be the answer. The roof top is a generally unused space, with good sunlight and airflow. For many beekeepers rooftops also afford a nice amount of privacy – the only people who know about your bees are the ones you tell. It still seems a bit odd to me, but rooftop beekeeping is becoming common in big cities like San Francisco, Chicago and New York.
Since I don’t have any personal knowledge of rooftop bee keeping, I’ll just mention a few considerations to keep in mind. Access – don’t place your bees in a spot that is hard to get at. Weight – remember bee hives are very heavy and the last thing you need is to crash through the roof with your bees. Heat – bees don’t mind the heat, but working a hive on a blazing rooftop may be pretty uncomfortable.
Finally, one last point on hive placement: In the spring, when the bees leave the hive for the first time months, they have not relieved themselves since the previous winter. For me the first warm 50 degree days of spring are quite a sight with the bees emerging from the hive and cleansing. Cleansing is a beekeeper’s term for pooping.  Yes, the bees fly out and poop. About a quarter of their body mass. That means anything near the hive, especially in front of the hive will get spotted with bright orange bee waste. This is funny at first, until it’s all over your car. Or your neighbor’s car. Or their living room windows. I have actually heard of law suits stemming from this very thing, so it’s worth thinking about before it happens.
Honey bees returning from a spring cleansing flight.
I could go on, but in the interest of keeping things simple I’ll end here. 
I encourage anybody interested in bees and beekeeping to give it a try, but be warned. Beekeeping is fascinating and if your not careful you might get hooked!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Guest Post: Bees in the City

I am very excited to tell you all that accomplished blogger April Johnson Stearns (my big sister) invited me to write a Guest Blog (my first ever) for her blog I [Heart] My Life! This is a huge deal for me since she has a large devoted following and has been featured several times in her area's newspaper: The Santa Cruz Sentinel.
For this piece, I give tips for people interested in beekeeping, especially in the urban environment. Check it out an let me know what you think! Guest Post: Bees in the City

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Guest Blog: A Tiny, Peeping Spring Chick -- Just What the Doctor Ordered

This week we've got something special for you all: A guest piece written by April Johnson Stearns (my big sis)! April and her blogs I [Heart] My Life and Green Tea and Chocolate have gained a avid following online and have been featured numerous times in her area's newspaper.

A year ago April was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. Here she relates how for her and her family bringing three baby chicks into their home in the midst of the cancer turned out to be a wonderful decision.

I hope you enjoy this piece and take a moment to check out her blogs!
A Tiny, Peeping Spring Chick -- Just What the Doctor Ordered

If I said a chicken once saved the lives of my family, I wouldn't be telling you the whole truth.
Sweet Cecily
It was actually three tiny chicks.

A black and white Barred Rock, a so-black-she's-green Australorp, and quirky, beardless Americana.

To us, they are Kiki, Poppy, and Sweet Cecily. And they rule the backyard.

A year ago, getting backyard chickens for our urban home (not homestead mind you, just a simple home) was a dream I looked forward to. The idea had popped into my head the previous year, and had refused to budge (they say, once your mind has been expanded by an idea, it will never shrink back – doh!). At night, I lay in bed trying to picture chickens in our very urban backyard. We couldn't have many pets in our tiny postage stamp lot, but a few chickens, I was thinking, we could manage. Pets, eggs – win/win. The pet that makes you breakfast!

I'd received a few chicken books as Christmas presents that year and as I read through the winter I was simultaneously prepping my then-3-year-old on chicken farming dos and don'ts.

But then, right before spring, everything changed. I was diagnosed with aggressive, stage 3 breast cancer. I found the lump myself one evening and when I asked my husband to feel it, he immediately said, “What the hell is that?!” It was enormous and had seemingly come out of nowhere.

With the arrival of this malignant lump, everything changed. Chemo, surgery, radiation... I was diagnosed on March 12th – when I asked my brand new oncologist how long treatment would take he said nonchalantly, “I think we can have this wrapped up by New Year's.” New Year's?! It was only March!

Suddenly I felt like I could literally hear my dreams and this little life I'd created with my family crashing down all around me like sheets of glass crashing on the floor. In the days following my diagnosis, I was haunted. Late into the night, I'd sit in bed, staring at the moon-lit oak tree in the backyard, listening to the twin sounds of my husband and child breathing in their sleep. And I would cry. I cried for me and I cried for them.

Two weeks after my diagnosis, I started chemotherapy. Chemo bridged the span from winter to summer: 5 months of intravenous treatments. My hair fell out, I was tired, and sometimes nauseous, though thankfully I was never throwing up. Mostly I was tired. I took to napping daily.

Life in our house began to revolve around treatments – receiving them & recovering from them –  and doctor appointments. This is hard enough for grown-ups. Unbearable for children.

Something needed to shift our focus.

At this time, we received such an outpouring of support from friends & family, and even strangers. Everyone wanted to know how they could help. My husband's aunt was aware of my pre-cancer dream to have a little flock of hens. Being a carpenter, she set to work creating a lovely, little hen house for us, made almost entirely from salvaged materials.

While she built the hen house, we debated whether it was a good idea to get chicks this year. Was it too much to add on a new venture on top of chemo? With my weakened immune system, was it safe for me to be around the chicks? Was another new thing really what our daughter needed?

One June morning, mid-way through my course of chemotherapy, we decided to take the plunge.

I'd done a little research on the more gentle chicken varieties and which ones tended to get along with each other. I decided on the Barred Rock, Americana, and Austrolorp. Of course they were not all to be had from the same feed store. That would be too easy, right? So on brilliantly sunny morning, my daughter and I drove 30 minutes into the mountains to acquire our first-ever chicken. In her car seat, my daughter held the little white box with the air holes. Inside, the 4 day-old chick peeped and peeped. Within five minutes, she was named Sweet Cecily. (All our chickens ended up being named from favorite fictional characters.)

We took Sweet Cecily directly to the second feed store, this one closer to our house, and bought fuzzy Poppy and tiny Kiki. And then we took our little flock home to a cardboard box with a heat lamp in the garage. There they lived for 8 weeks.

It became our habit to spend lots of time in the stuffy garage, holding the chicks, laughing at their antics, watching them explore, snuggling them as they fell into sudden, exhausted baby sleep. I have many happy memories of that time of sitting in a folding chair with my daughter in my lap, with a chick in her lap.

During this time I continued my chemotherapy. Right about the time we got the chicks, my treatments changed and I went through 3 infusions that were much more difficult than the previous drugs. I was more tired, more nauseous. I felt myself becoming mentally adverse to the drugs – I was just ready to be done (to this day I cannot look at red Kool-Aid because the medicine was this very shade of red).

But adding the chicks to our daily mix was always a blessing and never a burden. In the realm of livestock, chickens require very little care – nothing you can't squeeze into 10 minutes a day (on chemo even!).

And that chemo? Well, it did the trick – I had my last treatment on Aug. 8 (the same week the chickens moved from their now-cramped infant cardboard box out to their big girl spacious, custom-built, fancy-schmancy hen house). At the end of chemo, the lump in my breast was no longer palpable. And when I had a radical modified mastectomy in September, the surgeon found no evidence of disease either in the breast tissue or my lymph nodes.

In retrospect, getting those little chicks was the best thing we could have done during my cancer treatment. Having a sick mother is always stressful for children, but having a sickness that goes on and on is something else entirely. The chicks became the perfect distraction. Something to keep the mood light & fun – something to look forward to every day... Those chicks have grown up being handled. My daughter carries them around them yard, balances them on her swing, sets them on balls. She hugs them tight. They were just what we needed.

And when we got our first eggs at Thanksgiving... well, we had a lot to be thankful for that year.



April Johnson Stearns is standing right behind you. A work-from-home mama, April lives in Santa Cruz, CA with her husband, daughter, black cat, gold fish, three chickens of various colors, and two in-laws. You can find all her musings about parenting, cancer, (parenting with cancer), nutrition, and everything in-between at her two blogs (cuz she's an overachiever like that) at I [Heart] My Life and Green Tea andChocolate.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Go plant a tree. You'll be glad you did.

Last weekend I planted an apple tree. Maybe that does not sound like much, but give it some thought.
Planting a tree is one simple act that can have lasting impacts for many years to come. Not only does a tree provide the obvious benefits of shade and fruit (in the case of a fruit tree) but it can also provide countless other benefits. Trees convert CO2 into O2 (that's carbon dioxide into oxygen for the non science types out there). That ability by itself should be enough to make us all stop and say "wow" but there's more. Trees purify water, stabilize soil, provide habitat, feed wildlife, increase soil productivity, store carbon, increase property value, reduce temperature fluctuations, create mulch, provide jobs and fight crime.
Provide Jobs and Fight Crime? Yes, it's true. There are more jobs directly related to trees than the fabled auto industry, and it's been proven by the US Forest Service's Urban Forest Program that neighborhoods with trees have less crime than neighborhoods without trees. Trees are literally leafy green job making-crime fighters. Given that resume, if a tree ran for public office I think we'd all be better off!
The benefits of a tree are hard to realize immediately. In the era of instant gratification, planting a tree is a long term investment. It is a forced slow down. It takes many years for a seedling to grow into a tree. Fruit trees take 3 years or more to bear a crop after planting. But, what you may not see right away are the countless little things that tree is doing everyday. From learning to appreciate the seasons by watching the bud - leaf - bloom - fruit cycle, to reminding you to take a moment and water the trees, trees improve the quality of our lives everyday. One of my favorite things about spring is going out to my little orchard and checking the bud swell. How many more days until leaf burst? Until bloom? Until fruit? In the springtime at work, I am lucky enough to get to check on seedlings I've planted in years past. Conducting survival surveys it's called and it's an activity that can leave me excited and inspired, or downtrodden depending on the results. It's a harsh world for a young tree. The environment is full of hazards from deer and elk to drought to insects and disease, even a late frost can spell death for a seedling. The fact that any seedling makes it to tree is a miracle, but they do.  Both planted and naturally regenerated trees are growing everyday, in fact there are more trees growing in our country today than at any other time in recorded history. A fact that is not without it's downside when you consider overcrowding of our forests and fire hazard - but that's a topic for another post.
I have had the unique opportunity to plant thousands of trees in my life. From a childhood on a tree farm where spring planting was a right of passage, to my education and career as a Forester, to a homeowner with an interest in growing my own foods, I seem to be constantly digging holes for trees. And yet I still love it. To me there are few things more satisfying than revisiting a tree I've planted, and seeing it's growth. So my advice to you is: Go plant a tree. You'll be glad you did.
Counting the days until the bloom.


Friday, March 15, 2013

Surviving the Molt

Chickens molt annually, which is to say they loose their old feathers and grow new. This coincides with the changing seasons and shortened daylight hours, and typically occurs in the fall or early winter. Actually, they molt a couple of times from hatching to becoming chickens, but the most noticeable molt for me hit our flock this fall when our hens were approximately 1.5 years of age.
It is at about that age that chickens experience their first mature molt and quit laying eggs. From our high of 27 dozen eggs last July, we dwindled down to just 7 dozen in the month of November.  Because growing feathers takes such a great amount of energy and protein, during the molt many chickens quit laying, or laying becomes very sporadic. To make matters worse, the long dark nights of winter also cause chickens to reduce egg laying, molting or not.
It also seems that this is about the time many chickens meet their end. At about 18 months old a young hen is fully grown, the meat is tender and not yet tough, and she is about to quit laying. It is at this point when you have to decide if you are going to keep feeding an animal that is not producing, or if you are going to butcher and  raise new chicks in the spring. From a livestock producer's view point the choice is clear, however from the backyard chicken keepers perspective the decision is a tough one. While we do intend to raise meat birds "someday" it was clear from early on, these birds were not going in the stew pot.
You might remember from earlier blog posts that I had hoped our chicken flock would be self supporting. They should "pay their way" I reasoned, and up until this point they had - more or less. We sell our eggs to friends and the proceeds buy the feed. By supplementing with kitchen scraps and plenty of yard foraging, we had managed to keep the monthly feed bill fairly low. Until the molt. This fall we struggled to meet our weekly egg orders, and finally in November just had to tell our customers that "the hens are taking some time off". There were times when I thought we were suckers for continuing to feed chickens that had no intent to lay. I worried if they'd ever lay again. I was nearly convinced that we were going to be stuck with hens that merely wandered around eating ever more expensive feed until they died of old age.
But at last it seems we've all survived the molt.

Last week for the first time in what seemed like forever, we collected 5 dozen eggs. Our daily production has been ramping up for a while now, but I have been skeptical until recently. Only now do I truly believe that we are through. Through the molt, through the winter and back in business.
Spring is a time of new life and new energy. For our hens it is also time for them to get back to work!
Silver Laced Wyandottes resting on the dog house.
For more information on the molt and how to get through it check out this article by: