The Practical Beekeeper by Michael Bush

“There are a few rules of thumb that are useful guides. One is that when you are confronted with some problem in the apiary and you do not know what to do, then do nothing. Matters are seldom made worse by doing nothing and are often made much worse by inept intervention.”-Richard Taylor

Michael Bush, in his new book on natural beekeeping, The Practical Beekeeper Beekeeping Naturally, begins with Taylor’s quote, which could just as easily apply to gardening or many other areas of our lives. Yet doing nothing is one of the hardest things for us Homo sapiens to wrap our busy heads around. Nassim Taleb is fond of pointing out the huge number of medical mistakes that could easily have been avoided by the doctor having the courage to not intervene with some needless procedure or pharmaceutical. Up until some time in the 20th century, in fact, you were actually better off not going to see a doctor.

Michael Bush’s The Practical Beekeeper is the new bible of natural no-treatment beekeeping. Bush’s non-interventionist approach is based on the work of Dee and Ed Lusby and is at odds with conventional (beekeeping associations and academics) reliance on chemical treatments, re-queening, artificial insemination etc. Beekeeping, in my and Michael Bush’s opinion, is one of those fields, like economics, where the experts have been thoroughly discredited by recent events–our current econopocolypse and, in beekeeping, colony collapse disorder. Of CCD, Michael Bush blames chemical treatments, directed at controlling mites and other issues, which throw off the microbial balance of the beehive. Bush’s emphasis in symbiotic microbial relationships puts his work in line with soil scientist Elaine Ingham and the pro-biotic movement in human health.

The Practical Beekeeper would benefit from an index (something said of our first book) and some editing for repetition, but those minor points aside, this is a must-have book for beginning and advanced beekeepers. There’s much good, practical information and I learned a lot reading this book on a long train trip. Bush has many interesting tips and tools that you can build yourself. And it’s the few books I’ve seen that tells you how to do swarm captures and cut-outs.

Bush’s website, The Practical Beekeeper also has an encyclopedia’s worth of handy info.

Free Postmortem Exams for Backyard Flocks in California

It’s too late for us now, but if I had another two chickens die in close succession, I’d consider rushing the bodies off to one of the California Animal Health and Food Safety’s labs run by the University of California Davis’ School of Veterinary Medicine.

A Root Simple reader who is a veterinarian tipped us off to this service. You don’t need a veterinarian (though you might need one to help interpret the results) and the service is free to those with less than 1,000 birds. All you need to do is get the body, as soon as possible, to one of four labs in either Davis, Turlock, Tulare or San Bernardino.

The backyard flock submission form is available at: http://www.cahfs.ucdavis.edu/submission_forms/index.cfm. The addresses of the labs are on the form. I’m sure that many other states offer similar services. Call your local Extension Service for details and leave a comment if you know about your state’s testing programs.

How to start a chicken retirement community

Mrs. Homegrown here:

So–here’s the story of another mistake we made. When Erik and I first got chickens we didn’t lay out a plan for dealing with the chickens as they aged. That was the mistake. Simple as that. Make your plans, people!

We learned how to slaughter chickens–we knew we could do it if we needed to–but we never really sat down and decided what would happen to our ladies when they stopped laying. We’re very good at procrastinating that way.

What happened is sort of surprising, looking back.

I’ve not eaten chicken since high school (or other meat, except rarely, fish). My objections have never centered around the morality of killing animals for food, but rather a long-standing objection to how the animals were treated within the industrial farming system. I wanted the chickens so I could have constant access to guilt-free eggs.

Erik was a meat eater up until we got the hens. Then he fell in love with their funny ways, fell out of denial, and realized where his tasty chicken dinners really came from. He went veggie–more or less.

Somehow we did a polar flip. While keeping chickens made him a vegetarian, it made me less sentimental. It’s not that I dislike them. I love having them around. All I can say is that somehow my relationship to them was clarified through experience. I’d sit out by the coop and think, “Yep, I wouldn’t mind eating one of those–and sure as heck they wouldn’t mind eating me, either.”

Meanwhile, Erik went all Buddha on me. He developed relationships with our four hens and would not consider culling them.

That meant we had a chicken retirement home on our hands–and a distinct lack of eggs coming in–and no hope on the horizon, unless it came in the form of a convenient hawk.

But now that the bell has tolled for two of our hens (and no, I am not jigging when Erik is not looking) we’re making decisions on how to handle future flocks.

An aside:

There’s no right or wrong in this cull-no cull debate, though folks can disagree vehemently on the topic. I’ve always said that if you’re a meat eater, raising your own meat is the finest thing you can do. If you want to keep hens as pets, that’s also totally legit.

I have to say that in the city, where we have limited space and laws against roosters and backyard slaughter, our hen keeping operations are always, by necessity, somewhat unnatural. For the most part, backyard flocks are disconnected from the natural cycle of mating and birth, and so also seem to end up disconnected from the cycle of death. It’s no wonder lots of us end up thinking of our hens as pets. Heck, a lot of us buy them at pet stores!

The two paths:

For Erik and I there were two paths. Either we’d decide to embrace carnivorism and resolve to treat our layers in a more business-like fashion, meaning we would not name them and we would promise to make soup out of them when the time came. Or we’d decide–consciously– to support our old layers in their retirement.  To do this, we’d need to develop a system that would allow us to bring in new layers, but still have room for old layers. A plan sort of like this one:

The Staggered Chicken Plan:

Note: Our current flock has taught us that four hens laying at their peak gave the two of us far more eggs that we could eat the first year, and plenty of eggs the second year and into the third. That’s how we came up with these numbers. If you need more eggs, you’d need more hens.

We start with three fresh pullets. At age three, when they slow their laying, we’d introduce three more fresh pullets. We would then have six hens and plenty of eggs, even if we have some die-off from the oldsters in their 4th or 5th year. When the second batch turned three, we’d get three more young ones. The first trio would then be able to spend their sixth through ninth years playing canasta or watching the telenovelas or whatever, and we’d still have plenty of eggs coming in from the younger birds. This plan is based on an assumption that most hens won’t live past nine though some do, of course. Hopefully the numbers will even out.
  
The decision:

What it came down to for us was whether we’d be willing to invest the time and money into starting a retirement community. Not only would we have to build a new coop to hold nine hens–as per the Staggered Chicken Plan–but also we’d have to commit to feeding all those useless birds.

Alternatively, we could keep the set up we have right now (which holds 4, maybe 5 birds at the most) and resolve to cull the hens. New hens every three years.

I personally was fine either way. I could see the advantages of each approach. But Erik (the big softy!) decided he didn’t feel right about culling the hens. Putting his money where his mouth was, he  agreed to redesign and rebuild the coop to keep his ladies off the chopping block.

So I guess we’re changing our name to Sentimental Farms! Time to design that new coop…

Kitten Meet Kitten: How to handle kittten introductions?

photo by Anne Hars

I’m leaving behind the gloomy chicken news of the last couple days to announce that we’ve been suckered blessed yet again by our neighbor Anne with a locally grown sustainable kitten. We are now officially “cat people.”

Everyone, meet Trout, a bouncy brown tabby boy with white boots.

We’ve had Trout for a couple of day and are trying to convince Phoebe (our older kitten) that this is not, in fact, the worst thing that has ever happened in the world. While in actuality, in her little 5 month old head, it probably is the worst thing that has ever happened.

So Trout is living in Erik’s office/guest room and I’m trying to introduce them bit by bit. I read the internet things that said he’d have to stay in the office for a whole week before Phoebe could even set eyes on him, but I don’t have the patience for that. So I’ve already hosted limited interactions. They go like this:
 
PHOEBE: Mwwwwrrrrraaaahhhhh. Hiiiiisssssssssss.

TROUT: WTF lady? Let’s play! Look at this tennis ball! Woohee!

PHOEBE: Mwwwrraaaaahhhhhhhh

Basically she’s fascinated by him, yet terrified at the same time. At first I thought it was all about territory, but she bolts and hides if he starts toddling her direction. And sadly, he has no common sense or social skills, so quite often wants to run up to her. My job as cat hostess (because really, what else do I have to do?) is to keep him entertained so she can watch him from a safe distance. Then, when even observation is too much, I whisk him away.

We’d be very interested if anyone has any tips.  Like I said, I’ve read what seems to be the standard procedure of the extremely slow introduction–separate spaces, wiping their scents on each other, exchanging rooms, etc. We’re doing that stuff already–in our half-assed way.

I’d be particularly grateful for some kind of “Kitten Make Friends” magick spell that I could invoke over their tiny stubborn heads. Anyone got one of those, lemme know.

Another Chicken Fatality

We lost another chicken last night meaning that we’ve got something infectious. I didn’t have the stomach to do a post-mortem exam, nor would I know what to look for anyways (chicken CSI would make a nice class if only there were someone to teach it). I thumbed through Gail Damerow’s Chicken Health Handbook, but I don’t have much evidence to go on.

I didn’t see any obvious symptoms other than a very small amount of listlessness just before both chickens died and a bit of what might be bloody diarrhea on the roost. Mrs. Homegrown disinfected the coop as best she could and I swept out the bedding. A heat wave last week may have weakened the flock and helped bring this on.

We are now down to two chickens, one of whom does not lay any eggs. Looks like we’ll be either not be eating eggs or we’ll have to buy them at the farmers market for the next few months.

Mrs. Homegrown here: 

I wanted to add that the remaining hens seem perfectly healthy.  If they drop over dead tomorrow, it’s going to be quite a headscratcher. They’re out happily roaming in our yard right now, all bright-eyed and perky. I’ve eyeballed them for signs of respiratory infection or diarrhea, and see nothing. All the poop under their roost looked fine.  It’s a mild day, as was yesterday–so I don’t know if heat was the culprit in either death. The possible bloody diarrhea that Erik mentions above consisted of a couple of  small dark stains on the roost. Hard to say what that was–if it was anything. All in all it’s quite a mystery.

It could be coincidence. Both of the deceased hens are of the same breed, from the same hatching, same store–maybe they were even sisters. They were very close. Maybe when one went the other followed, like devoted old couples sometimes do.

I say this just to keep hope that this isn’t some bacterial thing. It’s impossible to truly disinfect a wooden coop with a dirt floor. We’ll do our best, open it up to light and give it a good airing and hope for the best.

It looks like we might get a chance to start our flock fresh, and this time we’re going to do things differently. It looks like there are two paths we could follow–those paths, and the choice we make, will have to follow in the next post.

How Long Do Chickens Live?

This morning we found one of our hens dead in the coop. She’d died near the feed bin, which shows she was a true chicken right to the end. This is our first chicken death. I’ve been gone most of the weekend, but Erik says she didn’t seem ill, though in retrospect he thinks maybe she was little slower than usual for the past few days. The other hens seem healthy enough. There was no sign of predation or injury.

I suppose we’ll find out soon if there is some kind of infection that will take the remaining three. But for now we’re chalking it up to age and general frailty. This hen, Jane, was always the smallest and the weakest of the four, and lived a hard life at the  bottom of the pecking order. Poor Jane. She’s the hen I’m holding in that picture of Erik and I over at the right hand bar. None of our ladies like to be held, but Jane was always the most patient with photographers.

Our neighbor, Sue, has twenty years experience with backyard hens, and once she told us that she figured their average lifespan ended up being about 5 years. I’ve read that chickens have a theoretical lifespan of 13 years, but of course, so many die young of mishap or disease. Sue’s estimate always sounded sensible to me. Jane died at 4 years and a few months old.

How long have you had your chickens? Do you cull them when they slow down their laying, or do you have some Methuselian hens pecking around your yard? What’s the oldest hen you’ve even had? What do you think the average lifespan of a backyard hens is?

Of course, this leads to lots of interesting questions about backyard flocks, how and when to rotate in new stock, to cull or not to cull, the danger of naming, etc. I think all that will have to wait for another post, because it’s a big subject and needs its own space. Maybe we’ll do that tomorrow. Right now, let’s hear about lifespans.

Sunflowers and Squirrels

It’s a losing battle, the one we gardeners face against the squirrel menace. As the mammoth sunflowers we planted this summer approached the harvest stage, I tied some paper bags over the flower heads to prevent squirrels and birds from eating all the seeds. Mostly, it has worked. But, as you can see from the animation above, one pesky squirrel managed to figure out how to open one of the bags. Perhaps he used the adjacent tomato cage for extra leverage.

Maybe this bag worked because the Whole Foods logo scared the squirrels away with the thought of high prices and angry Pruis drivers.

I thought I had solved the problem by putting one of those ubiquitous and annoying cloth eco bags over the sunflower. Not even the City of LA logo on that eco bag scared them off.

So what to do about the squirrels? Tight bird netting on fruit trees works but is a pain in the ass to attach and remove. Commercial orchardists trap and kill. Hmmm. Along those lines it looks like we have yet another excuse to link to that squirrel melt video . . .

Homemade cat scratcher

I feel like I should apologize to non-cat people for all the cat-related content we’ve been generating of late. This should be the last cat post for a while. (At least until the widdle snugum wuggums does something adorable!)

We picked up this cat scratcher idea from Modern Cat. That version is much more polished than ours, in fact, it’s downright cute. Ours is also too small–we need to add to it a bit. But you can see how it’s made: strips of cardboard coiled up like a a cinnamon roll, duct tape at the breaks. If you go to the original, you’ll see how they finish the edges.

Easy. Kitty likes it.

The Cat Poop Portal: Litter Box Composting, Installment #1

View up the side yard, looking toward the back yard. The new bin is all pretty and shiny.

Mrs. Homegrown here:

I posted about cat litter composting a while back, and got lots of interesting comments and suggestions. If you’re researching the topic, I suggest you check out that post, the comments especially.

Since then, Erik and I have decided on the method we’re going to try. We’re just going to do straight up, classic composting, Humanure Handbook style. The only difference between this style and ordinary composting is that we’ll let this compost rest for two years before we spread it, to be sure the bad beasties die off. And in case they aren’t gone, we won’t spread the finished compost around edible plants.

No, this is not orthodox practice. It is not considered “safe” to compost pet waste–all the standard advice tells you not to– but we’re doing it anyway, because we trust time and bacteria and worms and our own composting skills to make good compost out of cat litter. Also, the standard advice is mostly in reference to a home’s one-and-only compost pile. You would not want to add cat or dog poop to your regular compost pile. It needs to be kept in a separate pile that is managed more carefully.

The biggest challenge in this scheme for us was figuring out where to put yet another compost container. Our yard is already overrun with barrels and bins. Worse, when we thought it through, we realized we needed room for not just one compost bin, but at least two, maybe three, because of the aging issue.You know, fill one up, set it aside, start on another. The barrels pile up!

The solution is our south-facing side yard. That “yard” is a 3 foot wide strip of sun-baked soil that no one ever sees. It’s divided from our neighbor’s side yard (also rarely used) by a hedge of tenacious jade plants. There is no access to the back yard from the side yard. It has been a wasteland for all the time we’ve been here. This year Erik put in two tiny raised planters there to see if he could grow hops on the side of the house. But it is still mostly unused, invisible space–perfect for compost bins.

The only problem was access. It’s an awkward hike around the front house to get to that side yard. It would be no fun to have haul the dirty litter over there. This is where Erik’s genius came to play. He decided to cut a hole in our back yard fence–a little section of fence convenient to our back porch– and make a small door that will let us dump the litter directly into the barrel, which sits on the opposite side of the fence. We’re already calling this the Cat Poop Portal ™.

The Portal from the back yard, looking down on the drum

 The specs:

  • We’re composting in a food grade plastic 55 gallon drum, which we found on Craigslist. It once held brown rice syrup. I prefer to use food grade plastics for compost, especially since we’re dealing with used barrels. Better food residue than chemical residue. 
  • Our drum is white because white was all that was available. I’ve heard white degrades more quickly than the blue or black. Don’t know if that is true, but I have also heard that the lifespan of the drum can be extended by painting or covering it with a tarp. We may do one of those things.
  • Erik sawed off the top of the drum, because it wasn’t the type with a screw off lid. Rather it had a bung hole configuration. (I’m still trying to become blase about tossing around the term bung hole.) This means we don’t have a lid. We’ll just put a piece of cardboard or wood on top, because we’re classy like that. 
  • We drilled lots of 1/2″ air holes in the drum, on the sides and bottom, for air flow.
  • We put a thick layer of straw at the bottom, before we added the first deposit of litter, to provide a little ventilation from the bottom. The barrel is sitting on soil, to allow worms and bugs access.
  • Once the straw was down, we added our accumulated litter. (Yep, that’s right, I’ve been saving my cat box cleanings just this occasion. Waste not want not!) See my thoughts below regarding types of cat litter. Then we wet down the litter really well, and covered it with a topping of clean straw, and topped the drum with a piece of wood. Let the decomposition begin!
  • Note:  Never place a place a poop-filled compost bin near vegetable beds, due to the possibility of bad bacteria leaching through the soil. Ours is remote from anything edible.
The holes inside the 55 gallon drum

Thoughts on the composting:

As I said at the beginning, this is pretty much straight up, normal composting, with the exception of a long aging period at the end. The Humanure Handbook is a good general guide to composting principles as well having special instructions regarding the safe handling of poop. If you don’t know how to compost, I’d start there. That book is widely available, and they have a free pdf on their website. See our resources tab. 


Our cat litter is compostable–we’ve been using both Feline Pine and Yesterdays News–pine and paper, respectively. Compostable litter is made up of a true carbon source–that means plant-based material: corn, wheat, paper and sawdust are all okay. Clay litter, or anything with chemicals in it, would not be appropriate for this. Clay is not toxic, it’s just that it wouldn’t ever break down into proper compost. I don’t know what the clumping kind is made of, so I avoid it–but if your clumping kind is made of unadulterated carbon material, by all means compost it. Litter with baking soda added isn’t a good idea, because it’s salty. Soil does not love salt. I also avoid anything with added scent, because the chemicals used in fragrances are not something I want transferred to my soil.

We’ll soon find out what the carbon to nitrogen ratio is in the typical cat box. The litter is a heavy carbon source. We’ll see how it is balanced by the cat waste (nitrogen), but I suspect we’re going to have to add green stuff, like kitchen scraps, to get it to heat up and decompose. Here’s how we’ll know: if there’s too much carbon (litter), the pile will just sit there, cold and unchanging.

Another thing I predict is going to be problematic about this new cat bin is that we’ll be adding too little material, too slowly. This means it’s going to be very, very slow pile. Mass creates heat. The best piles are big piles. This might have to be addressed by bulking up the pile with material from another source.

My final concern is odor. This is within whiffing distance of both our patio and the neighbor’s window, so we don’t want any cat box miasma drifting around. Initial precautions include covering the surface of the pile with straw, and covering the top of the bin with a board. We’ll see how it goes.

Stay tuned for updates…

Questions about cats

recharging for mayhem

As new cat owners we are puzzled by a few questions regarding cat behavior. Maybe you can help us?:

1) What do cats do all night long when you’re sleeping and they’re not?

2) What is the irresistible allure of the flat object on the ground for cats? (e.g. a piece of paper, a yoga mat, the map you’re trying to read, etc.) What makes them sprawl on said object and refuse to move?

3) Why must our cat make use the litter box when one of us is using the toilet? Why the sharing?

4) And speaking of the litter box, why is changing the litter so exciting for cats? Why does she rush to use the box the moment it’s changed? (Actually, the first time she watched me change the box, she jumped into the empty box and peed, soaking her feet. Now I really hustle to get the litter in there.)

5) And while we’re on bathroom matters, will the flushing toilet always be a source of wonderment, or will she grow out of it?

6) Would it be a very bad idea to push the kitty into the bathtub? She’s always balancing on the sides, looking at the water. It’s very tempting to give her a closer acquaintance with wetness.

7) What is it with cats and bags??? Don’t kittens know that kittens and sacks have a very dark history? Ours not only loves a bag, she likes to be picked up and swung around in the the bag.

8) How is it that our cat gets off on watching mice on YouTube when she has never seen a real mouse in her life? Does the distinctive rodent silhouette come pre-wired branded in their brains?

9) Why does our cat find headphone cords so irresistibly tasty? We’ve lost 4 sets so far. Now that she can jump pretty much anywhere she wants, I have to keep my ipod in a drawer.

10) Why is our kitten intermittently possessed by the devil? Why is my lip bleeding? 

And finally, the bonus question:

Why do cat people talk about their cats all the time?

Cat updates:

  • Did we tell you we decided on Phoebe for a name?
  • My allergies aren’t bothering me anymore. They seemed to get worse before they got better–though pollen may have been the real culprit. The stories of those of you who’ve overcome allergies kept me strong through the moments of doubt, and I came through the other side. Mind over matter!
  •  Phoebe has tired somewhat of Erik as her Sole Object of Affection, meaning I get some kitten love, too. Which is nice.