Hens in the Orchard for Pest Control

hensinorchard

Photo: hencam.com

Author Terry Golson, who blogs at HenCam.com, sent along a great pest control tip in response to our thrip post–chickens, of course!

Chickens and orchards go together like gin and tonic. The hens take care of pests, clean up rotten fruit, add nitrogen to the soil and the canopy of the orchard protects the hens from hawks and heat. Plus you get eggs and meat. Permaculture in action.

The 1920s era photo you see above comes from one of Terry’s posts, Chickens in Orchards.

Bee Fever in Los Angeles

honey love photo

Photo: Honey Love.

This week’s LA Weekly has an article, “Could LA Become a Honeybee Mecca” detailing efforts by two groups, Honey Love and the Backwards Beekeepers, to legalize beekeeping in Los Angeles. The process, while slow, looks promising thanks to the hard work of Honey Love and sympathetic city councilman Bill Rosendahl.

The article also neatly sums up the radical “backwards” approach to beekeeping advocated by LA’s maverick urban beekeeper Kirk Anderson,

Anderson learned from apiarist Charles Martin Simon, who invented the concept of “beekeeping backwards.” Simon’s approach was stupidly simple: Give the bees a clean box, put them in it and leave them alone. If they get sick? Don’t medicate them. Let them die. Then get some more bees.

Amen. Selecting for strong bees is an approach that, in my opinion, holds the answers to colony collapse disorder.

I also like Anderson’s thoughts on mainstream beekeeper’s all consuming obsession with counting varoa mites. Anderson says, “To me it’d be like joining the Kennel Club and talking about my dog’s fleas.”

Looking for Chicken Coop Plans

John Zapf chicken run

Our chicken run–designed by John Zapf.

I got a note from Tricia Cornell, who is putting together a chicken coop plan book. There is a real need for this, so if you have a coop, consider sharing your design:

Hi!

I’m a chicken owner in Minneapolis. I was wondering if you could help me spread the word. I’m looking for smart, good-looking chicken coops to feature in an upcoming book.

If you’re proud of your coop, send pictures to [email protected]. Please indicate whether you would be able to provide building plans. (I have a budget to compensate builders for their plans.) I do *not* need plans to go with all the pictures, so send your pics even without them.

Then I’ll be in touch if your coop meets our needs. Please feel free to share this message with any chicken-owners you know.

A little bit about me: I’m a writer and chicken owner living in Minnesota. I’m the author of Eat More Vegetables: A Guide to Making the Most of Your Seasonal Produce, The Minnesota Farmers Market Cookbook, and the Moon guides to Minnesota and the Twin Cities. This is my first chicken-related book.

Thanks!
Tricia Cornell

How to Make a Bee Skep

skep

I was in a local thrift store a few years ago when, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted an intriguing object. It was a bee skep. Trying to keep clutter in our house to a minimum I considered not buying it. But I just couldn’t pass this one up. In my mind it goes into my pantheon of epic thrift store finds along with Mr. Spock’s Music From Outer Space and a classified 16mm film rocket test film from the 1950s.

Should you not be so fortunate as to find a skep in your local thrift store, Modern Farmer Magazine has a post on how you can build your own. Looks like a fun project.

How skeps are used
The following series of videos show how skeps are used. Part 6 documents the steps leading up to the honey harvest. It’s a labor intensive process. To get at the honeycomb, skeps are “bounced” over an empty skep to remove the bees. These bees are then combined with weaker hives and overwintered.

It’s easy to see, from the hard work and level of skill required, why the modern and much easier to manipulate Langstroth style hive boxes replaced the skep. And skeps are technically illegal in the US as state bee inspectors require hives with moveable frames that can be easily inspected.

There are some, however, who believe that skeps more closely resemble what honeybees choose to live in when left to their own devices, such as the cavities in old trees. We may see the revival of the skep . . .

Black Widow or False Black Widow?

some kind of widow spider

I have a family of widow-type spiders living in my outdoor worm bin. I like spiders and all they do around the garden, and have a no kill policy toward them in general. This particular situation, however, has had me a teeny bit nervous. They hang out on the underside of the lid of the worm bin for the most part, though I’ve seen them on the surface of the worm compost once or twice. Obviously my concern is that I will touch one when opening or closing the bin, or while burying my kitchen waste.

Believing these spiders to be black widows, my options have been either to be very attentive while around the worm bin–or to roll out the vacuum. So far I’ve opted for being careful.

The thing about these spiders is that they lack the identifying spots on their abdomens, but I remembered being told somewhere that not all types show the red marks, and that males never do. Was this true? Were there other types of spiders that looked like this? After weeks of tip-toeing around the worm bin, I finally got around to doing some research. My conclusions are not conclusive, so I’m coming to you, dear readers, for help.

Wikipedia’s entry confuses me a bit:

Not all adult black widows exhibit the red hourglass on the ventrum underside or top of the abdomen — some may have a pair of red spots or have no marking at all. Female black widows often exhibit various red markings on the dorsal or top side of the abdomen, commonly two red spots. However, black widow young are believed to have at least some sort of marking on their abdomens. Adult male black widows are half the size of the females, and are usually gray or brown rather than black and red; while they may sometimes have an hourglass marking on their ventral abdomen, it is usually yellow or white, not red. Variation in specifics by species and by gender is great; any spider exhibiting a red hourglass or a pair of large red round spots on the ventral abdomen with an otherwise black shiny body is an adult female black widow.

Here is how I read this: Not all adults display an hourglass…but females often display some sort of red mark. Young and males may or may not have some kind of mark, but not red…but be careful! Variations by species and gender are significant. If you see a black spider with red markings, be very, very afraid. That there is definitely a female black widow. But really, there’s no guarantees here that other less flashy spiders aren’t some kind of dangerous, either.

This is not reassuring.

But then on the handy page Frequently Encountered Spiders in California, I learned about the False black widow.

Another European invasive, this spider seems to be displacing our native black widows in urban areas.  This spider is roughly the same size and shape as a black widow, but is brown with a faint purple sheen.

I like this false black widow option a lot. The false widows don’t have a dangerous sting.

The spiders in my box are pretty shy, but insofar as I can tell, they are all sort of an eggplant color–not that true, bad-ass black of a classic widow. Nor have I seen any red marks. (That doesn’t mean that big mama with her red marks isn’t hiding somewhere.)

So, from this not-so-great photo, can anyone tell me if this particular spider might be a false widow, Steatoda grossa, or a male black widow, Latrodectus hesperus? It’s about 1/2 inch in size.

UPDATE 5/10:  After reviewing the evidence, I believe this is a false black widow. However, my trouble are not over, because it turns out that they do have a venomous bite, apparently somewhat like a mild black widow bite. Here’s the bite intensity scoop according to UC IPM: black widows: obviously bad; brown widows: mild; false black widows: moderate.

Root Simple Media Frenzy: Bees, Chickens and Road Kill

kpfk

Rob McFarland of Honey Love on KPFK.

I was on KPFK this week along with Rob McFarland from HoneyLove (a great organization that is helping legalize beekeeping in Los Angeles among many other projects). We were on to talk about why bees are dying off in the Central Valley and about keeping chickens in the city. You can listen to the interview here. I really enjoyed being on this show–we all sat around talking for an hour after the taping.

I was also on an internet news show called The Point chatting about eating road kill (something I know nothing about) and Ed Begley Jr’s reality TV show (guess I burned that bridge). You can watch this show here.

To each hen her own egg

Barnavelder Auricauna cross eggs

As of June we’ll have had our new hens for a year, and we’re very pleased with them. They’re unusual hybrids. They’re a cross between a Barnevelder, a pretty utility/show breed named after the Dutch town where it was developed, and the more popular Ameraucana.  We got them from our friends at Winnetka Farms, who raise Barnevelders and tried this cross as an experiment.

They’re very nice hens. Pretty. Mild-mannered. Quiet. There’s never any squabbling or pecking. And then are prolific layers of big eggs with big yolks. And here’s what’s interesting: Barnevelders lay brown eggs. Ameraucanas are known for their blue to green eggs. Our “Winnetkavelders” each lay a distinct color egg.

We posted about this when they started laying, but as the hens got older, their eggs became even more distinct, so I thought it worth another mention. All four hens look the identical, but their eggs are different, each expressing different aspects of their parentage. One is classic Barnevelder brown, one is speckled, one is light olive green and the other dark olive drab. The picture doesn’t capture the olives at all.

It’s useful to be able to associate each hen with her egg, so you know if there are any problems with her laying. Unfortunately, these four ladies look so much alike–and tend to visit the nesting box in pairs–so we haven’t been able to ID their eggs yet. Closer surveillance is required!

Continue reading…

Is Urban Homesteading Over With?


It seems that we’re back in a period of irrational exuberance. I know because I keep hearing about people lining up to buy crumbling 1,000 square foot bungalows in dodgy Los Angeles neighborhoods for $1,000,000. History tells us that during these periods folks ditch their chicken coops and vegetable gardens and head to the mall to shop.

I hope I’m wrong, that during our next economic bubble people will be more sensible. And the fundamentals have not changed, specifically the uncertain future of fossil fuels. I’m not trading my trips to the feed store for a shopping spree at Hot Topic anytime soon.

So I thought I’d plug a few search terms relating to urban homesteading into Google Trends to see what is going on. This is, of course, highly unscientific–Google Trends may just reflect media generated interest, not what people are actually doing. Here’s what I found:

Backyard Chickens

Many urban homesteading activities are seasonal–in spring people start searching for information on chickens and vegetable gardens, so you’ll see upward spikes towards the end of winter in the Northern Hemisphere. Judging from the results on “backyard chickens,” it looks like that it’s a trend that is growing in popularity. Some of this activity may be related to legalization efforts, but I’d like to think that it reflects a growing dissatisfaction with our industrial agriculture system.

Gardening

It seems that searches for gardening of all kinds–I tried “vegetable gardening,” “vegetable seeds,” “rose pruning” and “lawn care,” are down. I think this may reflect a demographic shift–an older generation dying off. We need to get young people gardening!

Bread Baking

No wonder I can’t seem to offer enough bread baking classes.

Bicycles


Cycling is down, but I’m sure this reflects disenchantment with Lance Armstrong and professional cycling.

Searches for “bike commuting” are up slightly.

It’s inevitable that media interest in home ec topics will decline when the stock market is up. Just remember how quickly vegetable gardens and chicken coops were abandoned in the 1980s. But I have a good feeling that the lessons of the last few years will stick better than they did in the 1970s. What do you think?