Broody hen

Broody hens can be useful or a nuisance. “What’s a broody hen?” you may wonder. For those who are unaware, when a hen decides that she wants to hatch a clutch of eggs and proceeds to sit on the eggs day in and day out, THAT is a broody hen. Hens can become broody whether the eggs are fertilized or not. If you want to take advantage of this broodiness, you can obtain fertilized eggs or baby chicks and watch the wonder and fun that is a hen and her chicks. But if you don’t, then you need to “break” the hen’s broodiness.

When is it useful? Broodiness is useful when you want to brood another batch of chicks without the work–the mother hen does it all! No heat lamp needed, no cleaning of a brooder. Plus, watching a hen and chicks is just so…darn…sweet. I figured that if one of my hens went broody in a year or two, I would use it to save some work while getting replacement chicks. I didn’t count on it happening when they were 8 months old.

When is it a pain? It’s a pain anytime you don’t want it to happen. One of the issues with a broody hen is that she will stop laying eggs (not a big deal as I’m not a commercial operation with my 9 hens), but she will also stop eating as she devotes her time to sitting on a clutch of eggs, and will rip out the feathers on her abdomen to provide eggshell-to-skin contact for incubation. I had a hen who was broody for two months and became so darn skinny, she looked like a shell of herself.

So did I get fertilized eggs? Chicks? Or try to break her? While making contact with folks offering fertilized eggs on Craigslist and perusing pending baby chick deliveries at local feed stores (it is currently “chick season”) I decided to still try and “break” the broody hen, a Double-Laced Barnevelder who went broody a mere 2 months after she started to lay. “Breaking the broodiness” may sound mean, but it’s not. All you do is try and stop the hen from sitting on the eggs.

How did I know she was broody? I noticed that when I went to check for eggs, the hen, “Velma” would be in the nest box. I thought she was in the midst of laying an egg but 3 hours later she was still there (while other hens had laid their eggs). She wasn’t sitting there 24HRS a day until several days later and I KNEW she was broody when I went to collect the eggs and she did this:

 

Breaking the broody hen
There are several ways to break the broodiness, but I chose to combine two methods that worked for me in the past: tossing the hen off the nest whenever I found her there and setting her in a bucket of water (so that she floats). I decided if Velma remained broody two weeks after I started my campaign, I would get her some chicks. Well, the first day I combined the two techniques, I also kept her AWAY from the nest box by letting the girls out to roam. She stayed away for a while before trying to sneak back in. When I would find her sitting on the nest, I would put her in the bucket and hold her there–the goal is to maximize contact with the bare skin she uses to incubate the eggs. You are NOT trying to drown her!! The contact of cold water with her skin lowers her body temperature and lessens either the ability or desire to incubate. I ended up doing this several times over two days.

Only two days later, she was back to roosting with the girls. I thought I was in the clear until I saw her in the nest AGAIN, at which point I just tossed her off the eggs she was hoarding. In addition to the issues mentioned, another is that a broody hen gathers the eggs laid by ALL the hens: she moves the eggs from one nest box to another by hooking her beak over the eggs and pulling them over. The eggshells are quite tough and can withstand some serious force (especially these eggs–they’re like breaking rocks it seems), but Velma’s repeated efforts would occasionally crack an egg. If the egg cracks enough that the contents are accessible and a hen starts to eat the egg, it can become a serious problem to have an “egg-eater.”

Chicks or Eggs?
If the broodiness would not stop, I had settled on getting chicks simply because the chicks would be sexed. With fertilized eggs, there is a 50/50 chance of getting roosters–I did NOT need 6 roosters. And certainly not 6 roosters when other folks would be trying to get rid of their own roosters.
Thankfully, thankfully, she stopped being broody–Velma has been out and about with her coop mates.

Garden plans

We moved into this house after leaving a townhouse in Crofton. In that home, we tried to grow vegetables but the back yard was shaded and was suitable for the native shade-loving plants I planted. The front was the sunny part and it was a very small terraced garden. We grew our three tomato plants out there and some peonies (I LOVE peonies).

When we came here, we loved the vast possibilities presented by our 3/4 acre plot. We seemed to add garden bed after garden bed every year. I was joking that my husband planned to cover Eldersburg in raised beds. We went from two to 4 to 7 and added a berry patch with a fence to house my raspberries and blueberries. And since the goal was to grow as much as we could, the attractiveness factor of the garden took a back seat. We did try to make it pretty by lining the paths between the raised beds with pea gravel.  It WAS very nice for a short period of time. But without continuous weeding, the pea gravel turned ugly very quickly.

This year, we plan to reconfigure the garden with new garden beds that will be surrounded by an attractive minimalist fence covered with hardware cloth, something similar in design to this:

It would be larger than this but the idea is the same: maximize garden beds by running them along the fence and make the beds more narrow to allow for easier weeding. Normally, raised beds are recommended to be 4′ wide. I don’t know who can weed such a bed, because I certainly can’t. Granted, I’m pretty short, but still, 4′ seems to be just too wide. The beds that would go along the edge of the fence would be 2′ wide.

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This is what it looks like currently:

Not very charming. Granted, we had pulled up two of the garden beds in the fall, knowing we were going to redesign. Yesterday we pulled up the fencing which involved removing the chicken wire apron that we extended into the grass, that was fun. That pile of leaves next to the new garden bed overwintered there nicely. With the fence down, the chickens had access to it and spent MANY happy hours destroying the pile and spreading it EVERYWHERE.

This is my berry patch: image

This angle is looking up toward the house, the coop and the above garden beds that are being worked on. The tiered square boxes on the left are where I had my strawberries. This berry patch also holds my blueberry bushes and the raspberry plants. I tore out the raspberries last fall as the variety, Heritage, was not as prolific or tasty as the new ones I planted.

The problem with having strawberries so far away from the house is that I would completely forget to harvest them. By the time I remembered, either birds or slugs had ruined them.

Through trial and many errors, I have learned my preferred growing/harvesting style: rather than having a huge bumper crop of one food in a short span of time, I prefer to have the ripening and harvest spread out. It suits our life better. If you get 15 pounds of anything in a week, you better have a plan for it! So June bearing strawberries are off the list. A few years ago I purchased Mara des Bois strawberry plants, the variety is an everbearing type which fruits from spring to the first frost. With the everbearing types, I have been able to harvest approximately a quart of strawberries every week. This is much more manageable.

In the space which previously held the strawberries and the raspberries, there will now be 4 currants and 4 blackberry plants. I mapped out the area to allow 3-4 feet between plants and from the fence.

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Now to get the holes ready.

 

 

Early season

This is a very unusual spring. About 2 or 3 weeks ago I heard of beekeepers checking hives and finding drones. DRONES! I checked a friend’s hive and found the same thing on March 12th. Finally had a chance to look at mine on the 18th and found drones, unbelievable. Last year I saw walking drones around April 6th. So the drones this year are appearing a month earlier. Everything is early except for the numbers of bees.

Flowers starting blooming a month earlier than prior years. This year, the maples started by the first week in March and were done by the 16th. Redbuds started blooming on Monroe Ave. on the 9th and dandelions were spotted on March 16th in sporadic areas. March 18th saw forsythia blooming in spots around our area. Bradford pears started blooming in Baltimore yesterday (22nd).

For contrast, in 2013 I posted April 8th as the Redbud bloom, the maples were almost done in my yard at that point and Bradford Pears in Baltimore on April 8th.

I suspect El Nino is the cause of this early bloom as the winter has been markedly mild.

I have a prediction: either the honey harvest will be non-existent (due to the disparity between blooms and foragers available), OR it will be very small and very early.

In addition to the drones, there were reports of queen cells in hives. That completely blew my mind. Well, check out my overwintered VSH nuc, a virgin queen who just emerged from a queen cell (found the laying queen as well):

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The virgin is in the above picture almost exactly in the middle. And below is one of TWO queen cells with nice, neat openings. This hive worried me when I opened it because it had fewer bees than 2 weeks ago, now I know why. There is a laying queen and 2 virgins in here. Interesting, interesting. image

 

Skunks AGAIN!

Last weekend I noticed quite a few dead bees in front of the hives. I didn’t think much of it as I had cleared out their bottom boards previously. The colonies finally started taking syrup in the hives and I had one colony left that needed a feeder. Wednesday, I went to exchange the screened inner cover for a solid inner cover on that colony and just as I lifted the lid, I was stung at least 5 times. Needless to say, I was surprised and thankfully wearing my veil. But I was wearing my work pants which offered no protection from stingers. I got stung 3 times on my lower abdomen (below the elastic of the bee jacket) and 2 more on my legs. I set everything down, went back to the house and put on my bee pants (after making sure I didn’t have any stray guards hounding me). After I finished doing what needed to be done–they were NOT happy with me, I had more stingers on my pants–I surveyed the fronts of the hives to see what might be going on. Their unusual aggressiveness coupled with a larger than remembered quantity of dead bees on the ground triggered a closer inspection of the carcass piles.

Among the even carpet of carcasses I found this:

Some of you may remember these “balls of bees.” Several years ago, I noticed a similar sudden aggressiveness only to discover these same balls of shrunken bees. Apparently, a skunk has been visiting and feasting. As a recap, to deter these beasts I had tried the carpet tacks on the landing board and motion activated water sprayer. The solution turned out to be placing a chicken wire fence around the hives. I still had it until this past fall. Needless to say, it went back up Thursday after work. I had to don my full bee get-up to do it and it was a nice, warm day… I was sweating by the time I was done.

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I laid tarp in front of the hives to help me identify any new balls of bees. I am happy to report that as of yesterday (Friday), there were no new balls of dead bees and I could actually walk out there without being warned by kamikazes.

Frozen bees?

I like to flutter about the web reading articles and various posts on bees. I pick up some interesting information (you need to be discriminating about the resource!) but often lose the source of information. But this time, when I stumbled upon a post talking about the same interesting tidbit I had read several years ago, I had to share!

This has to do with what bees do in winter.  People often ask –do the bees hibernate? Do they freeze? Do they die? I tell them that honey bees are still moving and living during the winter. They cluster around their queen to keep her warm and maintain warm temperatures on brood (if it’s present). To keep any one bee from actually freezing, they take turns by rotating the outside bees inward and the inward bees to the outside of the cluster. Only the queen does not rotate. Of course this is extremely interesting. But the piece de resistance is when I inform them of studies that were completed where colonies were placed in subzero freezers with ambient temperatures of -20ºF and the cluster still maintained a balmy 70ºF and more!  Found a reference to the same information:

Honeybees are neither freeze tolerant nor freeze avoiding. They die of hypothermia if their body temperatures are lowered to approximately 7 degrees C. In fact, they are endotherms. Like humans and other mammals, they control their body temperatures by producing internal heat, mainly by shivering their flight muscles. In addition, they huddle together into a large mass that conserves the heat produced by the individual bees. Individuals within the cluster move in and out between the center and the outside edge of the cluster. This combination of endothermy and clustering keeps their body temperatures well above freezing right through the winter. In one experiment, when the air temperature around the cluster was kept at 5 degrees C, bees at the center of the cluster had body temperatures of 35 degrees C and temperatures of individuals on the outside edge were approximately 19 degrees C. The center of the cluster generally stays between 30 and 35 degrees C even at outside temperatures as low as -30 degrees C.

From this excellent site: http://scienceblogs.com/lifelines/2011/07/19/cunning-cuttlefish/

I like that he spoke to someone who specializes in antifreeze properties in insects.

Graveyard

It hit 57 degrees today and the bees were out in FORCE! They were busy “cleaning the house” while they had the chance. Every hive had dead bees on the snow in front of it. I found several areas where the bees had clustered their sisters’ graves. You want to see this as the bees like to keep the hive clean–if you see NO activity and NO dead bees, there’s a problem.

As I walked by to check out the activity at the hive entrances at least 6 honey bees, probably more, landed on me. They seemed to be investigating me as a potential food source. To keep them from coming home “empty-handed” I provided them with two quart jars of sugar syrup for communal feeling, and set out some dry pollen for them to gather. I add a drop of lemongrass to the bucket edge of the dry pollen to help them locate it and to act as an attractant. A couple of dry plant stems provide a landing spot in the soft powder.

I also added pollen patties to the hives and refreshed their fondant stores which had been provided almost 2 weeks ago.

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This hive ate almost all of the fondant, yet they also have plenty of stores. But who doesn’t want a free meal? This is my ten frame nuc which was made from the pink hive. It looks very good.

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This is the pink hive, bottom box. They also had eaten their fondant. There were more bees in the top box and even more out and about. I didn’t pull frames, but I’m sure brood is present. Actually, there was brood in the hives about a month after typical “shut-down” time; I checked them in mid-November and they still had brood. If they were raising brood, they were using resources. Now that they’re ramping up production, I want to make sure I give them what they need. If they need it, they’ll use it! I’ll be checking them every week and refreshing as needed, and on warm days I’ll leave out the dry pollen and sugar jars. What I really want to do is look at the frames, we’ll see what wins: my impatience or the temperature.:)

 

 

Hesitant Hens

With the snowfall comes a personality change; my normally energetic and outgoing hens become “hesitant hens.” When the welcoming and familiar brown ground is covered by new white stuff, you get this:

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Chickens popping their heads out and wondering if that white stuff is okay…or not. “What’s this?? Where’s the floor!? How am I supposed to go OUTSIDE? THERE IS NO OUTSIDE!!”

So much coaxing is involved: mealworms, sweet talk, scratch, just to have them TRY to come out.

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They’ll come out all right–but only if they can float their way around the run. That’s Pancho (who started life as Francesca) on the branch. He flew–as much as chickens can fly–from the door to the roost with nary a toe grazing that snow. The girls would LAUNCH themselves from the pop doors–there were so many chickens on that roost than any addition would knock off a perching chicken.

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Finally! All that cajoling paid off. Except they were back inside in less than 5 minutes and the mealworms and corn/millet mix was still there… When they saw patches of brown, they would come out. Next year I’ll have to remember to save a few bags of leaves for them just for occasions like this.

Blizzards are good…

For updating a blog. We started hearing about a potential snow storm early in the week, this was upgraded to a blizzard a couple of days ago and the snow started just as I was coming home from work on Friday. By evening we had a few inches, by morning it was up to my knees.

The wind is incredible, the snow is blowing horizontally and there are very high drifts due to the wind.

We have the wood stove going, hot coffee and lemon scones served with homemade Meyer lemon curd…yum. I just came back from trudging out to the coop to retrieve the chickens’ frozen water bucket and was able to take a few pictures of the chickens and the bees.

In the past week, I managed to put some fondant onto the bees (I could see bees in the top box of two hives) and plan to make some pollen patties this weekend.

As for the chickens, the last 2 batches never cared for the snow and refused to step on this strange white stuff. I was wondering if the new chicks would feel the same way and apparently they do. I have seen them stick their heads out of the pop doors and a couple would even try to fly from the door to the space under the coop to avoid the snow! It’s very funny because they are NOT graceful since they can’t “fly” the way most birds do. I’d be curious to hear if other chickens also avoid the snow. WordPress has a new format for the pictures so I think you click on the pictures for the captions.

 

All this crazy wind blew snow into the chicken coop. Everyone asks me how the chickens are handling the cold and if my coop is heated. People are nuts. I have had a chicken die from heat (RIP Simone), never of cold. Chickens have very warm down under their feathers, just like the birds you see everyday. When they perch on their roost, they fluff out their feathers and cover their feet to keep them warm. Minimizing drafts while allowing plenty of ventilation (chickens exhale moist air just like we do) significantly reduces the risk of frostbite. Make sure they have access to liquid water and plenty of food–they use the digestion of food to generate heat.

I had to remove their outside water bucket since the deicer had stopped working. This left 5 gallons of ICE to carry into the house and muscle into a sink to defrost. Ugh. I have an alternative I’ll post about in a few days. Hope everyone’s bees do well this winter.

Harvesting honey for us

As the bottles dwindled you could see the panic in my husband’s eyes. He finally said “You better save us at least 7 pounds of honey! I had to curtail my use because we ran out so fast last time!” Oh brother. It’s true that the boys went through the honey quickly and now the new harvest seemed to go WAY faster than last year. I had sent out the Honey Harvest email to my neighbors, friends and coworkers and filled those orders. I gave some to sell at our bee booth at the 4-H fair and about 7 bottles remained at home. But then I remembered some of the nurses at work who would want some, then someone else wanted a jar and THEN the one jar I was saving for a new client, who had mentioned a few months ago that she wanted honey, turned out to be not enough as she wanted 4 jars… So I find that I’m in need of twice as many jars (14) as I had saved. Hm. I had a little left in the bottling bucket so I bottled that up which was at least another 3 pounds. I’ll know after the fair is over how much I have left. You know what sells the honey? Word of mouth. It’s incredible. I wish I could sing its praises but I don’t eat or like honey. So I leave it to the honey lovers. It seems to work.

There were some frames in the hives that weren’t completely capped: parts of one side or all of one and none of the other. I knew the bees wouldn’t finish capping them and I needed to start feeding so I took that off planning to use it for the household honey. There were 3 frames of drawn foundation and 4 foundationless frames. I planned to crush and strain the foundationless ones and let the drawn comb drain upside down. Here is what I did.

I used the pan on the right to hold the frames upside down.

I used the pan on the right to hold the frames upside down.

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You can see how the frames were unevenly capped.

Using a paint strainer

Using a paint strainer instead of filters just for ease. Wash these first.

Foundationless frame destined for crush and strain

Foundationless frame destined for crush and strain

Used a brace to make uncapping and cutting comb easier and more neat.

Used a brace to make uncapping and cutting comb easier and more neat.

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Lifting off the cappings to preserve the comb cells underneath.

Lifting off the cappings to preserve the comb cells underneath.

Placed the frames upside down in the oven with the light on to provide a little more warmth. Good idea?

Placed the frames upside down in the oven with the light on to provide a little more warmth. Good idea?

No, not a good idea. Should have left the light off. At least it was just 3 frames (that's why I didn't want to use the extractor). Oh well.

No, not a good idea. This is what it looked like when I woke up. Should have left the light off. At least it was just 3 frames (that’s why I didn’t want to use the extractor). Oh well.

Honey comb crushed. I'll strain this and save the wax of course. I need to start making candles.

Honey comb crushed. I’ll strain this and save the wax of course. I need to start making candles.

Strainer just waiting for the wax and comb.

Strainer just waiting for the wax and comb.

My iPhone cover. Isn't it cool?!

My iPhone cover. Isn’t it cool?!

Honey extracted from the frames left overnight in the oven.

Honey extracted from the frames left overnight in the oven.

I estimate this harvest session resulted in about 9 pounds of honey. That should hold the boys over. I don’t mind taking the chance on this honey fermenting since it’s just us (and I don’t think it will). But I wouldn’t sell it. I’ll bottle it tomorrow and make some biscuits!

Sometime soon I plan to make some blueberry mead, stay tuned!

Honey 2015

If you recall my adventures in removing the honey supers last year, you know it was a complete debacle with many, many casualties. This year, I had a plan to try the fume boards again with some notable adjustments to the technique after considerable thought:

1. Remove the queen excluders.
2. Go through the honey frames and remove any overly curvaceous frames which may otherwise block the bees’ retreat.
3. Place an empty hive body (with frames) below the lowest honey super to be extracted. This provides the bees with an empty place to actually move into, otherwise all of those bees would be trying to crowd down into an already crowded brood box.

I had everything ready, extra hive bodies, the sprayed fume board. And in the end, we ended up just brushing them off the frames. It was quite efficient and the bees were not even irritated. My husband would remove the frames, shake and then brush any straggling, I’d take the bee-free frame and quickly place it in an empty hive body and cover it up. After getting what was capped, we left a few frames that still needed to be capped and went through the top deeps. I only did this because I knew there were capped frames from the spring flow and the deeps were chock-full of food. We removed 2 deep frames from each hive. I also had 3 frames in the freezer from earlier inspections which I had set out to defrost with a fan to prevent condensation on the wax.

Once the frames were inside, we had the filters on the honey bucket, extra buckets, towels, etc. all ready to go. We only have the one cappings scratcher and despite feeling like the process was going to take all day, we were actually done in less than 2 hours! We weighed the buckets (which I had labeled with the bucket weight so we could have a more accurate weight measurement) and it came to a total of 88lbs of honey. Then the tedious work began. I then took the cappings bucket, which was filled with honey and wax, and proceeded to scrape it into a sieve set over an empty bucket; placed the sieve and bucket in a warm oven (via lightbulb only) and let the honey drip out slowly. After the honey drained out of the cappings, I took the wax and rinsed it in water. Then I scooped out the wax and let it air dry and would filter the honey-water (from the rinsing) and store it in the fridge to feed back to the bees. I did this with each batch of cappings (4x in total I think) and by the end of it, I had managed to reclaim 7 pounds of honey from the cappings!!! My husband couldn’t believe it. So this brings the total to 95lbs of honey which is about the same as last year.

I started labeling the jars, another tedious job, but necessary! Our club sells members’ honey at 2 events: the 4H fair and the Westminster Fallfest. The 4H fair is coming up next weekend and I plan to sell some of my honey there as it’s a multi-day affair. The Fallfest is only a one-day festival. The vast majority I actually sell to neighbors and friends. I’ve nixed the nice Victorian square jars I like so much in favor of traditional queenline jars. But I still found black lids to use for these as I really like the way black looks with the honey and the label. For the Victorian square jars that remain, I’ll use them for chunk honey as suggested by my friend Brad. And only sell to those who will return them to me!

FYI: I weighed the medium and deep frames before and after harvesting: the medium yielded 5lbs of honey and the deep yielded 7lbs of honey. These were evenly drawn frames, not bulging but drawn and capped nicely from end to end. The mediums yielded more than I expected and the deeps yielded less. I found this very interesting and will give me an answer for a VERY common question in beekeeping.