Pasture Standards for Laying Hens

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This weekend Kelly and I and our friend Dale attended the massive Natural Products Expo West, a convention where grocery and health food stores go to find the latest quinoa chip. While the vast majority of exhibitors are peddling highly processed vegetarian junk food, in recent years I’ve spotted a positive trend: pasture raised eggs and meat.

Having witnessed agricultural fraud first hand and even collusion from mainstream journalists (wish I could tell that story, but Root Simple would need an investigative division and lawyers), I’ve come to view animal husbandry claims with suspicion. With that in mind, I thought I’d take a look at the standards for pasture raised laying hens.

As usual, food marketing claims are confusing and often misleading. In fairness, assessing a farm’s “humaneness” isn’t a simple question and there’s no oversight from the government. The USDA does not have a pasture raised designation. Pasture certification is done by third party organizations. Thankfully the Animal Welfare Institute has a guide to animal welfare claims.

I thought I’d take a closer look at the designation I’ve seen the most, Certified Humane. One important thing to note is that a company can have the Certified Humane designation and not raise poultry on pasture. That said, the non-profit that adjudicates the Certified Humane label has pasture standards. Here’s an excerpt from those standards relating to exterior access for laying hens on pasture:

R 1: Pasture area
a. Must consist mainly of living vegetation. Coarse grit must be available to aid digestion of vegetation.
b. The pasture must be designed and actively managed to:
1. Encourage birds outside, away from the popholes, and to use the area fully;
2. Prevent and/or minimize heavily degraded, muddy/sodden, or worn areas;
3. Minimize any build-up of agents (e.g., parasites, bacteria, viruses) that may cause disease;
4. Prevent hens from coming into contact with any toxic substances.
c. The minimum outdoor space requirement is 2.5 acres (1 hectare)/1000 birds. Land used for cropping (except grass or hay) is not accepted as part of the Pasture Raised space allowance and must be excluded from space calculations.
d. The maximum distance that a hen has to walk from the perimeter fence of the pasture to the nearest door into a fixed or mobile house must be no more than 400 yards (366 m).
e. The pasture must be rotated periodically to prevent the land from becoming contaminated and or denuded, and to allow it to recover from use. A written rotational grazing plan must be in place. The written rotational grazing plan must be submitted with the application.
f. Water temperature must not be less than 50° F (10 C) or greater than 100° F (38 C).
g. Birds must be outdoors 12 months per year, every day for a minimum of 6 hours per day. In an emergency, the hens may be confined in fixed or mobile housing 24 hours per day for no more than 14 consecutive days.
h. Shade, cover and dust bathing areas
1. There must be sufficient well-drained, shaded areas for hens to rest outdoors without crowding together.
2. Cover, such as shrubs, trees or artificial structures, must be distributed throughout the pasture to reduce the fear reactions of hens to overhead predators and to encourage use of the pasture.
3. The pasture area must include patches with loose substrate suitable for dust bathing.

These standards seem reasonable to me though there are other things to consider such as de-beaking. Personally, I feel good about buying pasture raised eggs with the Certified Humane designation. But I wish that the USDA would step in and clear up the confusing and misleading egg labels such as “cage free,” and “free range.” as well as putting together a standard for “pasture raised.” I’m not holding my breath. On the positive side, we vote with our food dollars and those votes are beginning to be counted. Unfortunately, there’s going to be a few years of wading through the marketing manure and the current anti-regulation political climate.

Will We Keep Keeping Chickens?

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One of our eggs on the left and an egg from Vital Farms on the right.

I love our current flock of chickens. They’re a strikingly beautiful genetic mashup of Barnevelders and Americana hens that we got from the folks at Winnetka Farms (Craig was a guest on episode 56 and 57 of the podcast). They’ve proved to be a healthy, peaceful bunch who are still laying eggs after five years.

We let our hens live out their natural lives which can vary between just a few years and a decade or so. Lately, I’ve found myself pondering the day we have to decide to either get more chickens or close up poultry operations. There’s a lot of negatives for keeping chickens in our small, urban backyard. We have lead and zinc in the soil, so many predators that the hens have to live in what I call “chicken Guantanamo,” and a small irregular piece of property that makes using a chicken tractor impossible. While I built a generous run for our four hens, I really wish that they could wander more freely, but that’s just not possible where we live.

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Another big change that’s happened since we started keeping hens ten years ago is the wide availability of pasture raised eggs. As most readers of this blog know, the supermarket egg labeling game, “cage free” and “free range”, is a load of . . . chicken poo. Cage free and free range supermarket eggs are from chickens crammed in huge sheds. These chickens never see the light of day and live in appalling conditions. You might be able to get eggs from chickens that live outdoors at a local farmer’s market, but beware of unscrupulous vendors.

A number of companies, such as Vital Farms and Red Hill Farms, have responded to consumer concerns and are marketing eggs raised on pasture. These pastured eggs are expensive when compared to the “cage free” and “free range” alternatives but probably cheaper than my feed and coop costs (though an accountant would argue I’ve already sunk the money into that coop!). And check out the yolk color in the photo above–the pastured eggs I’ve bought at the supermarket (during the winter–I don’t put a light in our coop) have a much darker yolk color than our ladies’ eggs. I should note that while I have spoken to Vital Farms sales reps I have not done full due diligence on any of the companies marketing pastured eggs.

I’m pleased to see our food system respond to the concern that motivated many of us backyard chicken keepers in the first place, namely the inhumane conditions in factory poultry operations. Perhaps the pasture raised eggs we can now buy at the supermarket would not have come to be without so many of us taking the extraordinary step of welcoming poultry back into the city.

What do you think? Do you keep chickens? Why?

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How to Remove Bees From a Tree

A Typical Natural Bee Nest from: Seeley, T. D., Morse, R. A. (1976).

A Typical Natural Bee Nest from: Seeley, T. D., Morse, R. A. (1976).

If honeybees lived without us humans, they’d naturally set up their digs in the hollow cavity of a tree. Honeybees like a dark and secure space with a small defensible entrance. A tree cavity is the perfect place to avoid a hive’s two main predators: bears and honey-hunting hipsters. Wander around a city or forest and odds are you’ll find a hive in a tree, definitely a hipster and maybe even a bear.

The difference between bees living in a tree and a swarm
First let’s distinguish between bees living in a tree and a swarm of bees. Most commonly, swarms are found dangling from a tree branch in a huge cluster. Swarms are how bee colonies reproduce. A swarm is just there temporarily and will take off in a matter of hours or days as soon as they find a place to rent. Occasionally, swarms will settle down and start building comb on a branch. See my post on swarms for more information. This post is about bees that have built comb and are living inside of a tree.

So what should you do about bees that are living in a tree? The best option is to do nothing. If they aren’t bothering anyone just let them do their business, which includes keeping your fruit trees and vegetables pollinated! And don’t let anyone tell you that they are “African” and need to be killed. The postmodern theorist in me wants to write a graduate thesis on the curious racism of this rhetoric, but that tome will have to wait for another post. Let’s just call this talk of “African” bees what it is: fear mongering that exterminators and vector control bureaucrats use to drum up business.

Trapping bees out of a kitchen vent.

Trapping bees out of a kitchen vent.

Removing bees in a tree
But let’s say, for some reason, you can’t let the bees be, and you’ve just got to get them out of the tree. In most instances, the only way to remove bees from a tree is by doing what is called a “trap out.” To do this a beekeeper makes a cone out of 1/8 inch hardware cloth that will act as a one way exit for the bees. Then the beekeeper sets up a bee box next to the exit and places a frame of comb that has eggs and brood (bee larvae) in it, taken from another hive. The bees in the tree will exit, not be able to get back into their old home and then, over the course of several weeks, move into the new box with the brood comb in it. If all goes as planned they will make a new queen in the box. The beekeeper will come back in six weeks, take the box away and then seal up the cavity the bees used to live in.

I’ve only done one trap-out and it was in a kitchen vent not a tree, but the process is the same. My one and only trap-out was successful but a lot of work. I had to come back at least every other day to make sure that the one way exit I fashioned did not get blocked by a dead bee.

If the entrance to the hive is large enough or can be made larger with a saw, it’s theoretically possible to do what’s called a cut-out. In a cut-out the comb is removed and placed in frames. Then the bees are either sucked up with a vacuum or gathered after nightfall. You can see what cut-out looks like in this post. I’ve never seen a bee colony in a tree with an entrance large enough to do a cut-out.

Fake beekeepers
I have said it before and will say it again. Beware of dodgy beekeepers that you contact through Google searches. They will make claims that they can “smoke out” the bees. They are lying. What they are actually doing is spraying a can of wasp killer while you’re not looking or they are forcing the bees to abscond, which is no better than killing them. Odds are they don’t know how to do a trap-out. Doing a trap out is a lot of work compared to a spraying wasp killer so you can see where the profit motive comes in. Unscrupulous, fake beekeepers can make hundreds of dollars a day. Please contact a reputable beekeeper through a referral from your local beekeeping organization. In LA you can contact Honey Love. I don’t do tree trap-outs.

Help! I’ve got bees in my tree and my arborist needs to work on the tree
Here’s what a beekeeper can do. The beekeeper comes after dark and gently smokes the bees to calm them down (not to “smoke them out”). Then the beekeeper blocks the hive’s entrance with 1/8 inch hardware cloth so that the bees can’t come in or out. Essentially, you’re locking up the bees so that the arborist can do their work the next day. After the arborist is done the beekeeper comes back at night, smokes the bees again and removes the hardware cloth.

What if I’m cutting down the tree or removing the branch the bees are living in?
In this case a beekeeper can can do the same plugging-up-the-entrance procedure as above. The next day the arborist will (carefully!) cut above and below the cavity with the bees. You’ll end up with a log with bees in it. This can then be taken to someone who wants to host a log of bees or back to the beekeeper’s apiary to do a trap-out under more controlled circumstances.

I hope you can see how the best option for the bees is to do nothing. Unfortunately, some people are just way too afraid of “bugs.” If only we’d look up from our screens occasionally to appreciate the amazing creatures we share this beautiful planet with.

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What is a Swarm of Bees and What Should I Do About It?

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Image: Mark Osgatharp.

In February my phone starts to ring with what I call “bee situations.” With that in mind I’m going to write a series of blog posts to explain some basic bee biology and what services beekeepers can provide when bees show up where they are not wanted. Most of what I describe will be universal, but some information will deal with the peculiarities of honeybees in a Mediterranean climate such as Los Angeles. Speaking of which, peak swarm season begins earlier here than in colder places and swarms can happen anytime of the year including our “winter.”

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Image: Wikipedia.

Basic Swarm Biology
Swarms are the way honeybee colonies reproduce. As with all matters related to the biology of the honeybee, it’s easier to think of a colony as a single super-organism rather than thousands of individuals. Swarming takes place when a colony decides to make a new queen. Once the new queen hatches, the old queen takes off with about half the workers. I’m oversimplifying here and leaving out the complexities of drones and queen mating, but thinking again of a colony as a super-organism, bee swarming is akin to a single celled organism that reproduces by dividing in two. I should note that many colonies, especially in Southern California, produce consecutive swarms but the idea of reproduction by division is still the same.

When the old queen and workers leave the original colony they have to find a new permanent home. Their natural preference is for a hollow portion of a tree. But they’ll take any dark enclosure with a small, easily defensible, entrance. In urban areas, in addition to tree cavities, they might choose the walls of buildings, utility boxes, compost bins and even the inner workings of hot tubs. But before a swarm can find permanent digs, they need a place for the swarm to hang out while the swarm’s scouts go off in search of the perfect home.

Where a swarm lands
When shopping for permanent real estate most swarms end up resting on a tree branch. But they can also pick an odd location, like a bike seat, a light pole or even a car bumper. So how can you tell when a bunch of bees are just visiting a spot temporarily? The answer is simple. Swarming bees don’t have any comb. They’re just hanging out in a big ball of workers with the queen in the center. If you don’t see comb, you know this swarm is just temporarily resting in that spot.

So you’ve got one of these big balls of bees on your tree/bike/fence/bumper! What do you do?
The best answer is to do nothing. Bees that have swarmed have no honey to protect and tend to be very docile (I’ll note an exception below). Odds are that they will move on in a few hours or a day or two at most. You don’t need to call anyone or panic.

The poignant thing about a swarm is that they only have a few days to find a home before they die of exposure and hunger. Swarming is a high risk, transitory state. Never fear that a bunch of swarming bees will end up hanging out in your yard permanently. They will move on, or they will die, and the time frame is just a few days.

If you absolutely must do something about it, please contact your local beekeeping association and obtain the services of a genuine beekeeper. Do not Google “beekeeper” as you will likely end up with a con artist (see my post on bee removal scams).

A reputable beekeeper will remove a swarm in one of three ways: by putting nuc box or bee box right next to the swarm and allowing them to move in on their own, by bumping the swarm into a bee box or other suitable container, or by using a bee vac and sucking them up. The beekeeper will then take the bees and install them in a bee box back in their apiary. My favored technique is to spray the swarm with sugar water (this keeps them distracted) and bump them into a portable “nuc” box. Here’s a video of our mentor, beekeeper Kirk Anderson, moving a swarm:

The con artist “beekeepers” will either spray them with poison, suck them into a vacuum and kill them or put them in a box and then just toss them out in a nearby park or vacant lot. And they’ll charge you much more than a real beekeeper would.

Bee temperament when swarming
As I already noted swarms are most often so docile that you can approach them without protective gear. But not always. A swarm that’s been hanging out for a long time without finding a permanent home can get slightly cranky. Note that I said slightly cranky. It’s not like they’re all going to suddenly attack you like a scene from that silly 1970s disaster movie “The Swarm.” More likely a cranky swarm will give you a gentle reminder to keep your distance–a sting or two. This is why I wear a bee suit when doing a swarm capture. But there is no reason to panic when a swarm shows up!

What is not a “swarm”
In an established bee colony, once a day every day, the young bees do what is called an orientation flight. During orientation, hundreds of bees come out and fly around in circles in front of the entrance to the hive. They are learning the location of their home so that when they become foragers, they will know where to return to. Sometimes this behavior is confused with a swarm, but it is not. Orienting bees will not cluster anywhere, and the orientation session only lasts a short while.

So if you see dozens but not thousands of bees flying around in circles, you are also not witnessing a swarm. There is probably a hive nearby and you are witnessing an orientation. Another possibility is that you might also be seeing wasps or hornets, not honeybees. Here’s what wasps look like and what you should do about them (hint: nothing).

Help, the swarm is African and we’re all gonna die!
Calm down. I can’t speak for all the bees in Africanized bee country (the southern part of the U.S., Mexico, Central and South America) but the bees here in Los Angeles that you see swarming are likely Africanized, but they aren’t killers. I will be dealing with the Africanized controversy in another post, but trust me, I’ve never kept European bees and have always kept the local Africanized bees and I’ve not found them to be overly aggressive at least here in Southern California. You can’t tell Africanized bees from European bees without a DNA test and I’ll note that there are plenty of aggressive European colonies too. But please don’t let anyone panic about the swarm on your tree because they are “African.” They don’t know what they’re talking about.

Help, I’ve got a swarm of bees and I’m calling Root Simple!
Here’s what I will and will not do. If a swarm lands in an easily accessible location and I need a hive or I know someone who does I’m happy to come pick them up as long as you are in central Los Angeles. If they are on a high branch, I can’t get them unless you’re an institution that owns a lift and you can get me up there safely. In that case just wait a few days and they’ll take off on their own. If you’re in the LA area and need a reputable beekeeper please contact Honey Love.

Those times the swarm sticks around
Very rarely a swarm that has landed in a tree can’t find a home and decides to start building comb right where they are (here’s what this looks like). This is a warm climate issue. Honeybees in the tropics build colonies like this. In our Mediterranean climate the odds are they won’t survive this strategy as it’s a little too cold here in the winter, and the rain can cause the comb to break and fall to the ground. When you have one of these freak exterior bee colonies you need to call a beekeeper to deal with the situation.

Have you witnessed a swarm? Have you seen a swarm where you work? How did you or your colleagues react?

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Paper Wasps: Your New BFFs

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We don’t spend nearly enough time admiring the works of nature, because we are too busy admiring ourselves. Sure, humans invented smartphones, but what is a smartphone compared to an acorn? The thing is, the more you learn about nature, the more you learn about it, the more it blows your mind.

All this summer I’ve been fascinated with Polistes dominula, the European paper wasp. In North America there is a native paper wasp, which is quite similar, but the non-native European variant is more the wasp you will  likely be dealing with in urban/suburban North America, because unlike their native counterparts, Euro wasps aren’t shy. They are the ones who will build a nest by your back door, or on the side of your mailbox. Paper wasps build those distinctive, easy to recognize papery nests made of many cells. There are other types of native wasps which build with different materials, such as mud. Honeybee colonies, of course, are made of wax, and in cold climates you’ll never see those just hanging out in the open air. Honeybees like to build inside cavities.

Polistes dominula really like our front porch, and every year we host a colony out there. The nest rarely exceeds the size of a tennis ball. This year, though, it is more than twice that size. This is our fault. We did not knock down the previous year’s empty nest, so they were able to reuse it and get a real jump start in terms of colony size. (Generally they don’t like to reuse nests, but can do so– in this case the queen started a new nest next to the old nest and annexed it as she built).

img_7454So the population of wasps is accordingly quite large, and perhaps a bit worrisome to visitors, who make it up our stairs only to be confronted with a large wasp nest by the door. Yet we have not had any bad encounters with our waspish neighbors. In fact, we’ve never had a single problem with our porch wasps ever, not one sting, despite the fact the like to nest a couple feet from our front door, despite the fact I hang laundry all around them, despite the fact that Erik’s favorite chair is just beneath them

They truly are peaceable creatures, which is why it saddens me when I hear that someone panicking about a wasp nest, calling the exterminator or heading off to the big box store for a can of poison. When I hear about this, I always want to bring up a few points:

  1. Paper wasps are, as I’ve said, peaceable unless their nest is disturbed. The process of trying to get rid of them is what makes them ornery.
  2. They should not be confused with yellow jackets, those reviled picnic crashers who are attracted to meat and like to hang out on the lips of your soda can. Those guys live in underground nests. Your resident paper wasps will not hassle you if you’re doing backyard grilling or enjoying lemonade on the porch. They don’t like our food.
  3. Wasps are seasonal creatures. They build their nests in the spring and the colony disperses in the fall. You can solve your wasp “problem” by simply waiting it out. If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you! Wait til they die off in the fall, knock the old nest down, and next spring, keep your eye out for any single wasps trying to establish nests in your space. That would be a queen trying to start a new colony. It is a lot easier to discourage a single wasp than to wait and deal with a full populated nest. But I never discourage them, because…
  4. Wasps are a gardener’s best friend! Sure, ladybugs are cute and all, but wasps are stone cold killers working for your benefit, like your own army of mini Dexters. Their favorite prey is caterpillars, e.g. your arch enemies the cabbage lopers and hornworms, but they are also fond of aphids. They swoop down on garden pests like tiny eagles–or flying monkeys–or homicidal Amazon drones– and drag their ravaged bodies back to the nest to the nest to feed their babies. Only the larvae are carnivorous. The adults live on nectar, so wasps are both pest hunters AND valuable pollinators. You want a healthy garden? Host a paper wasp colony.

These are my arguments for adopting a tolerant attitude for paper wasps around your house. Here are some more cool things to know about them:

Only fertile queens survive the winter. The rest of the colony disperses and dies. The fertile queens mate one last time in the fall, and then find some little nook in which to hibernate over the winter (this is amazing to me and I haven’t found any details about it yet.)  In the early spring she emerges and builds a tiny nest, like maybe six cells, to generate a first generation of workers to help her out.

These workers are female, as with the bees, and as soon as they hatch they get to work on enlarging the nest and feeding and tending the next generation of workers. So when you look at a paper wasp nest, this is what they are doing. The wasp nest is a fairly mellow place compared to the extremely crowded, restless interior of the honeybee hive. If you watch a wasp nest, mostly they just seem to be hanging out there, while a few come and go. What they are actually doing, as far as I can figure, is slowly masticating wood pulp to make new cells, or stuffing caterpillars down larvae mouths.  They are daylight creatures, so during the day the nest will only have a few wasps on it, whereas in the evening they will all come home and every inch will be covered with huddled bodies.

I’d love to take a closer look at all this, but as mellow as our relationship might be, I’m not sticking my nose inches from their nest! Someday, though, maybe we can set up a spy camera.

Here is one of those jaw dropping natural science facts: wasps choose the destiny of the developing larvae in the nest– whether will they be workers or “founders” — that is, fertile wasps. They influence this by vibration, by drumming with their antennae. These vibrations alter the gene expression of the larvae, pushing them one way or the other.

If I’ve got my facts right, the males are produced only with the purpose of breeding–like honeybee drones, they do not work. The wasp queen is mobile, so she can choose to mate with males in her own nest, or to go out on the town looking for love– and more often she chooses non-nestmates. Which I understand, because more than likely their nestmates leave the toilet seat up all the time.  Freewheeling males attract fertile queens by staking out key landmarks, such as trees, and marking the leaves and stems with scent. I believe they prefer Drakkar Noir.

I’m feeling a little bittersweet, sitting on the couch, admiring our wasps and knowing that their days are numbered by winter–even a winter as insubstatial as the one we have here in LA. The other day something unusual happened at the nest: suddenly, most of them were airborne and swirling in circles around our porch. This is something I’ve never seen before. I only noticed because I heard the “tip-tap” of wasp bodies hitting the glass of our front door. At first I thought they might have been attacked by a bird or something, and were all riled up, but after watching for a while, I realized they didn’t seem angry, and in fact, it reminded me of something the honeybees do called orientation. Whenever a new batch of workers is hatched in a hive, they all flow out of the hive and circle around it in a big cloud for a few minutes. They are learning how to recognize the hive so they can locate it when they go out in the world. It looks crazy for a couple of minutes, and then ends as abruptly as it started. It was the same case with the wasps– the party (?) lasted for only 15 minutes or so, but was pretty impressive while it lasted. I imagined it might terrify some folks, who would assume the wasps were swarming and up to no good. I wondered if perhaps they’d just hatched their batch of males for their fall mating, the last party of the year. Maybe those males were orienting, or maybe they were all dancing their last, joyous dance before the quiet of winter sends them all to sleep.

For a complete run down of the wasp life-cycle, the University of Michigan’s Animal Diversity Web provides a really detailed read.