Thursday, June 26, 2014

Broody Hen and Predator Corn

Cotton's clutch is confiscated.
Lest you wonder if I traded in my hens for bees, fear not.  There are nine laying hens now, and they continue as entertainment and egg producers. Oreo remains the senior citizen of the group. Thelma and Louise, the two black australorps, are still bossy and glossy and think highly of themselves. Pip is next oldest. She remains one of our best layers, with nice big blue eggs regularly appearing in the nesting box. Nettie, Rosemary, and Hazel all came to the coop together, and are doing well. Our two youngest hens are Cecily, the little barred rock bantam, and Cotton, the cochin bantam that Oreo adopted and raised.

Cecily and Cotton will be going to the fair with L this year. Cecily is one of the sweetest hens we’ve had. She loves to be picked up and carried around. Cotton has gone broody. That means that all she wants to do is sit on all the eggs and raise chicks. She’s not laying, not eating, not happy unless she’s on the nest. I take the eggs away every evening and she complains and gives me a disgruntled look as I reach beneath her to steal the unfertilized eggs she’s keeping warm. She shoots lasers at me with her glare, but doesn’t peck at me. I feel bad taking her eggs and sometimes don't get all of them, which means that on some days, I have a big haul and a sad hen.

Trying to coax her out of the coop yesterday morning after taking all the eggs, I decided to take a special treat to the hens before I left for work. We had two leftover ears of roasted corn on the cob. They were still sheathed in crispy charred husks, so I stripped the husks back but didn’t pull them off completely. I tossed one toward the back of the run, not considering that with the husks flowering out behind the bare ear, they looked a bit like a big-tailed bird flying through the air.

From the reaction of the hens, they looked like big-tailed PREDATOR birds flying through the air. Clucks erupted. Feathers flew. Nine hens took to the air in a chaos of panicked chickens. Then they crowded together in the corner of the coop, looking bug-eyed at the scary thing that had just landed in their run. They love corn on the cob, so I thought they’d rush the two ears.

Pip was the bravest among them, and she approached the ears cautiously. She practically creeped toward them. “Corn,” I said. “It’s corn, you guys. Not a predator.” They did not spare me a glance as Pip proceeded on her dangerous, sacrificial mission.

Standing as far away from the ear as she could while still within pecking distance, Pip snatched at the corn, prepared to flee. When it didn’t do anything, she tried again. The other hens watched. She began to get closer, visibly relaxed, and began to peck quickly, using her solo time to eat as much corn as quickly as possible.

Eight other hens left their safe huddle and hurried over as if to say, “Oh, CORN. Well, why didn’t you say so?” And then they stripped each ear perfectly kernel-less. And Cotton went back to her empty nesting box and waited for other hens to provide her with a new clutch. 

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Scent of Beeswax

Honeycomb built over wax foundation, which can be seen along the lower edge of this photo.
There is, in beekeeping, a sense of providing a place for the wild in the midst of everyday domesticity.  I spent Saturday morning putting wax foundation in frames for the bees, working on my back patio, as the bees gathered nectar from nearby cranesbill geranium and raspberry blossoms. Occasionally, a forager would come investigate my work, and I felt for the most fragile moment a sense of connection. We were all working together toward the good of the hive. They hummed like violins while I organized my supplies.

Within the traditional hive there are eight to 10 frames that bees build their comb on. They build with stunning geometric precision. Some beekeepers simply provide bars (horizontal wood slats that serve as guides) or empty frames and allow the bees to build comb as they like.  Others place “foundation” into the frames. Foundation can be made of beeswax that’s molded in the honeycomb pattern, or it can be honeycomb imprinted plastic or wax/coated plastic.

A single bee visits 50 to 100 flowers on each collection trip away from the hive, and bees travel the equivalent of twice around the world to make one pound of honey. It takes them eight pounds of honey to make one pound of beeswax. To try to give my bees a head start on wax production, so they can put their energy into foraging and hive strength, I have chosen to use wax foundation. I don’t really care for the plastic foundation, but every beekeeper has an opinion on foundation.

To put foundation into a wooden frame, I tap brass eyelets into the sides of the frames, then thread a fine wire back and forth across the frame. The wafer-thin sheet of wax will be placed against the wire, then the wires are embedded into the wax by heat. The wire gives the foundation stability and strength. It’s a slow process, and the smell of beeswax drifts up to me. It’s a scent that my DNA seems to recognize built on generations of humans who’ve benefited from the grace of bees.

Beekeeping is different than caring for livestock. My chickens depend on me for water and food. They range only as far as my fencing allows. I feed them, provide calcium for them, make sure they are in at night for safety.

But if I didn’t create a hive and place frames in it, the bees would still do what they do. They go where they wish to go. They raise their queen and gather nectar and pollen with or without me, and they aren’t domesticated creatures bent to my will. The only insects that produce food humans consume, they haven’t evolved over centuries to serve humans, in fact the opposite could be said. Humans have developed systems—different hive designs and methods—to fit the bees’ needs, not vice-versa. We have created ways to contain them for our convenience. But the beekeeper is a steward, not a director.

 I twist a wire around a nail and watch as a bee supervises my progress. She clambers over the stack of waiting foundation, drawn by its beeswax scent. Then, as if reminded of her own work, buzzes off to gather nectar or pollen—possibly to build more honeycomb over the foundation that is already in place. It is an industrious peace we share.