A Painful Beekeeping Lesson

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Just a few of the stingers imbedded in my bee suit.

I spent the weekend in a Benydryl haze. When you make a mistake in beekeeping you get immediate feedback.

A freak summer storm descended on Los Angeles this past Saturday. Lighting strikes knocked the power out in many places and lit palm trees on fire. Unfortunately for me, the deluge softened the soil underneath one of the legs of one of my beehives causing it to fall over and knock over another hive. I didn’t discover this situation until 7 p.m. as it was getting dark. Kelly was out of town and I was alone in the backyard staring at a jumble of bee boxes.

Here’s what I should have done:

  1. Take a deep breath. Pause, and assess the situation.
  2. Come up with a plan.
  3. Gather all the equipment I needed.
  4. Smoke the hive boxes.
  5. Slowly and confidently put them back together.

Here’s what I did instead:

  1. Panic and run around like an idiot.
  2. Throw on my bee suit wearing just a t-shirt (thankfully I had pants on!).
  3. Skip the smoke and just start hefting the boxes around.
  4. Not only did I not assemble the needed equipment (smoker, lighter), I did not have the garage door opener to access that equipment. At one point I had to run through the house covered in angry bees to get the clicker.

Then I started moving the boxes without first smoking them (which I know is wrong, but I did anyways). A lot of bees came out to let me know they were unhappy. I felt the full and fierce anger of nature. I got the crap stung out of me through my suit. One of the things you learn working with bees is that a hive acts as one mind, one consciousness. When bees and humans are working together the relationship feels like telepathy. When we’re at odds it’s like something out of your worst nightmare. You’re struggling with a unseen, intelligent and very powerful adversary, one that feels very alien and “other”.

By acting hastily, I caused a potentially dangerous situation not only for myself but for other people and animals. Thankfully it was raining and dark and I was the only victim. It was one of those situations when I knew what I was doing was stupid but I did it anyways, propelled by a needless hysteria.

What did I learn? When it comes to beekeeping, never panic, always think ahead and stay calm and deliberate. Use smoke if you think there is any chance that bees might get angry. Wear a thick shirt and pants under your bee suit. Call for help. Bee boxes are heavy and sometimes two brains are better than one. Maintain your equipment (I knew that one of the boxes was leaning but I delayed fixing it). Have your tools at the ready so you can just grab them when you need them.

Of course all of this is common sense. I guess the final lesson is that we humans have a special way of screwing things up. Bees? They plan ahead, store up food for a rainy day and keep focused.

Bird’s Nest

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I’ve been wishing I would come across an abandoned bird’s nest for a while now. They’re just such marvels, so clever, so sweet–one of my favorite things in nature, and that’s saying a lot. I imagined how I’d display a nest if I had one, how I’d keep it safe from the cats.

Then, the other day I found this one sitting on the coffee table on our back patio.

Just sitting there, right in the middle of the table, as if someone put it there on purpose, all strange and gorgeous. I assumed Erik had found it. And since the table sits under our grape arbor, and a few grape skins were in the nest, I figured the nest had been up in the grape vines, and Erik had discovered it whilst up on the ladder, trying to defend our grapes from sundry critters.

Nope. Erik knew nothing of the nest.

Logic tells me it must have jiggled out of the vines on the arbor — perhaps a rat dislodged it?– and it happened to land face up on the center of the coffee table.

But my heart tells me that it was a present.

I’m particularly fond of this nest because it is made up from pruned materials from our yard. In fact, I think most of it was filched from the greens bin that I let sit on the back patio for far too long this spring.

I see bits of twine from our bean trellis in there, and some grasses which look familiar. That ferny stuff around the perimeter are clippings from this asparagus fern that I’ve been trying to eradicate for fifteen years. (At this point, I admire its persistence so much that I can only bow to it as a respected enemy.) The fern is beautiful in this nest. The soft fluff in the middle may have been sourced from a silk floss tree about a block away.

The grape skins in the nest are interesting. Could be that the birds were eating grapes, but I doubt it. Instead, I imagine a lazy mouse lounging in the nest, sucking on our grapes in luxury and spitting out the skins.

Or the skins may have fallen into the nest once it was already on the coffee table. There is, unfortunately, a rain of grape skins onto our patio every night, as we steadily lose our war with the nocturnal creatures for our grapes. But that is the subject of another post.

Anyone have any guesses about what kind of bird made this nest? The bowl is about 3 inches (7.5 cm) across.

ETA: I’ve been looking at this great page of bird nests–it’s heaven for the bird nest enthusiast. So many types of nests! Wee little eggs! Baby birds! One bird even made its nest in a sweatshirt hanging on a laundry line. (That’ll teach you to bring in your laundry promptly):

http://www.thebirdersreport.com/egg-and-nest-identification

And as of now my uneducated guess is that it is the nest of a house finch.

Your Thoughts on Treadle Feeders?

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One problem with having chickens is the inevitable rat/mouse buffet that happens around the feeders. In addition to busting your feed budget, rodents spread diseases such as virulent forms of salmonella.

One of the suggestions at the poultry seminar I attended last week was using treadle feeders. Think of it as a Skinner box for chickens. Chickens walk up to the feeder, step on a treadle, and feed is dispensed. It beats having to wake up at five in the morning to put out food in a conventional feeder.

You have to teach your chickens how to use a treadle feeder. One of the veterinarians suggested putting something shiny on the feeder. Your flock will step up to peck at it and discover that the feeder opens.

There are two problems I can think of with a treadle feeder. One was mentioned by a fellow classmate. Squirrels figured out how to open her feeder. Damn squirrels again! But I don’t think I’ll have that problem, because I’ve never seen a squirrel in my coop.

An alternative that I thought of is a feeder on a timer which opens up when the sun rises and closes up at dusk. The only ones I can find like this are the kind hunters use and they just drop the feed on the ground, which is not ideal for chickens. This could be an Arduino project, but I don’t have the programming chops.

My other problem is simply choosing a treadle feeder. A cursory glance at the Interwebs revealed so many options that I’m confused. This is where you come in. Do you have a treadle feeder? How has it worked for you? What is your favorite model? Or do you think they are a bad idea?

051 Toilets and Poultry

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On episode 51 we listen to a comment about toilets from Eric Rochow of Garden Fork TV. Eric mentions a podcast episode of Tiny House Chat where they talk about composting toilets. Then we discuss poultry biosecurity lessons that “West Coast” Erik learned at a recent conference. So, yes, toilets and poultry! Take that Elon Musk!

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.