I went into my apiary a couple of days ago to replace the rotted through pallet that served as the stand for one of the hives. (One day in summer I happened to look out Amie’s bedroom window and saw that hive visibly starting to tilt, tilt, tilt toward the other hive. Throwing on just gloves, I ran out and saw that the pallet had just given way. I shored it up with a couple of bricks and a cinder block. Imagine I hadn’t looked out: that hive, three boxes high, would probably also have taken the other hive with it.) I was dreading it, because those deeps can be really heavy, and moving two of them, plus hive stand, while the bees were in full swing getting the last nectar in, was a little enervating.

Imagine my surprise to find those deep to be very light. Too light. No honey in them! They might have been robbed, or ate it all, somehow, since I last looked and found plenty of honey stores. I checked the other one and it was a heavier, but still not up to par.

So, time to feed these bees. Winter feeding is done with hard candy board; the bees can’t afford to waste energy evaporating the water from syrups, and if they don’t and eat it, they get dysentery. Another advantage is that candy board can be situated right above the cluster, where the honey should be, so the bees can more easily get at it.

Not having the supplies to make two 2″ high frames, I opted for two shallows I had lying around. I followed these instructions.

First up, fun with hardware cloth! O how I love hardware cloth. Wear gloves! I stapled the cloth to the inside of the super.

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Not keen on cooking the candy, I followed these instructions, but I added some Honeynbee Healthy.

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I spread a sheet of blank newsprint over the cloth. This is to keep the sugar mixture in the box while it hardens. The bees will chew through it. The blue box is to keep that opening for the bees and for ventilation.

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Then I put a large pollen patty in and spread the candy all around it. It gets heavy (this was 10 lbs of candy, 2 and a quarter cup of water, 1 tbs of vinegar and 1 tbs of HoneyBee Healthy), and the hardware cloth sags under the weight, so I put an old fridge rack underneath in case I had to move it before it got dry and hard – which took over 24 hours, with a fan right on top of it.

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While I was at it, I decided to add an insulating function to this contraption, but just sticking an insulation board above the candy (as in the video) seems to be inviting a humidity problem: the bees will keep the hive warm, condensation will rise, some will get absorbed by the candy, some will hit the inner cover, make an icicle and that will drip down on them – not a good situation. I did some research and liked the way Warre Hives have a loosely packed “quilt of wood shavings” that serves as insulation and ventilation.

So, I cut another strip of hardware cloth, folding the legs so it makes a “stand” about 2 inches off the candy board:
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Then the Solarize lawn signs, of which I still have hundreds, came in handy (again). I had fun with the box cutter, cutting the sign to the size of the inside of the super, then cutting out a “grate”. I then cut a piece of burlap to that size and stapled two sides of it to the “grate”.

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Flip it over and place it on top of the hardware cloth “stand” in the super. Sturdy enough.
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As an afterthought I added a loop so I can easily pull it up and out if I want to go in and check on the candy.

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Then cover with about 2 inches of wood shavings.

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I plan to put the inner cover on top of this, then the telescoping outer cover. It won’t even have to be warm to go in and check on the shavings (too wet: replace) and the sugar candy in winter without chilling the bees.

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Here it is, finally done, the new patio!

You may recall the old one, which was too small to be of use but, more importantly, installed so that with each flash rain that overflowed the gutter the rain was funneled into the basement. As a result, when the thing was demolished, we found a rotten sill. It turned out well, however. The rot didn’t extend to the rafters, didn’t even affect the entire sill, and there was no sign of termites. In fact, we got to meet a local, well-thought-of contractor who operates on his own: just the right man for several other jobs.

One of those being replacing the front door, the siding, and the big picture window, possibly with french doors.

But over the winter now (hard to think of winter since it’s 70 F outside) the main job is to design the front garden. I have a good idea of the desired effect (cf. this blog post). We also let the guys divert the roof runoff into an underground pipe, which exits at the spot where we’d like a wetland/pond, so we’re set up for that as well. And I’d like to better incorporate the apiary (all the way in the back left) and the veg garden (right of that). Then there is the trellis which will be built into the patio in spring.

I’m looking forward to having this extra “positive” space a a place of beauty, peace and gathering.

For weeks Ive been looking out for more tiny pullet eggs. Not a one. I thought the older hens had stopped laying and the pullets had immediately skipped to the big egg scale. Then today Amie was trying to round up all the escaped hens and ended up missing one. Where was Lucy? We looked and looked with the ominous sound of either a jay or a hawk above us. Then Amie laughed out loud and yelled “Mama, Mama, come see what Lucy is sitting on!”

I came running and there they were, in a hollow in a little side yard, not even within the confines of the chicken yard fence: TWENTY-ONE pullet eggs:

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They’re definitely pullet eggs. Compare to the big egg:

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So, we have a nest box situation. I’ve two boxes for nine hens, which the books says is sufficient, but not for my flock. Also, these pullets seem to like a leafy, grassy nest, while the older hens always make it a point to clear out the boxes to the bare wood. I’ll need to make a special box for the pullets, preferably somewhere inside the coop…

I’ll have to chuck all these eggs. Who knows how old the oldest one is, and it’s been pretty hot (75F) these last couple of days. Amazing, though, they are all intact, even though they were just out there, unprotected.

In Transition and Permaculture circles we’re constantly talking about putting systems in place for when, that is, before, they’re needed. When I headed up the Solarize program in Wayland in 2012, this was my main motivation: lots of individual solar arrays on roofs so we have at least a basis for clean and decentralized electricity in times of emergency, if (when) the big grid goes down. It’s also part of my motivation for much of what we do here at the homestead: chickens, bees, garden, solar PV, solar hot water, rainwater harvest, etc. It’s not just a matter of physically building and installing and test -driving and improving these systems, but also of training oneself to build them getting the experience to get a yield from them, and then to be able to teach the skills to others.

The problem though is this: most of these systems are not yet needed. With any luck, they won’t for a long time, maybe not even in our own life time. Once an “element” is built – a favorite phase involving family and friends and fun problem solving – it needs to be maintained even though there are still much more convenient ways of getting the yield.

For instance, I could much more easily get eggs and veggies from the farmers market than having to deal with lame hens that need nursing and garden beds that need weeding. The water still comes out of the tap, so why am I scrubbing the algae from the water totes and struggling with low water pressure? There is still oil in our tanks or money to buy it, so why am I cold with the thermostat at 59F and why should I get up in the middle of the night to feed the wood stove? Why can’t I go on a long holiday without having to arrange hen and garden sitting? Why am I canning so much apple sauce! Often, the systems I like the most are those that don’t need maintenance, like the solar machines. Yes, I admit it, the living systems are often a drag.

It’s yet another skill, of course, and perhaps the one that most needs learning and practicing: to persevere in a difficult thing and to not give in to comfort and convenience just because we can buy it, or just because society still supplies it. It’s a skill to not turn a blind eye to the real costs of that comfort and convenience and to live a principled life, now and here.

The front of the house has been on our list for quite a while (cf. this blog post), and now we’re finally doing something about it. The little balcony up front
1) was too small, a mere 2 1/2 feet deep,
2) was darn ugly with cemented red brick and a cement rim,
3) had a flagstone floor that was wicked slippery when wet,
4) and most importantly, badly installed: its floor sloped toward the house. Whenever it flash rained and the gutter above it overflowed, the water went into the basement.

We hired a local contractor (he lives around the corner from us) and his crew came to demolish the old thing. This revealed this:

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After decades of water seeping through, the sill was bound to be rotten. Another contractor is coming to take care of this.

This is what the place looks like now, without the balcony:

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You can see the outline of the planned new patio. The idea was to have the new patio (15′ x 15′) at the same height as the living room floor, so that when you stand in front of the picture window looking out, the eye finds continuity and it would open up the living room. However, the slope up front is steeper and starts closer to the house than the picture may show, and it would take a lot more work, material and money to lift the patio to that height. Also, now we are warned against placing a stone structure against a wooden house,

So we opted for lowering the height of the patio to beneath the sill, so it rests against the cement foundation, which is sound. (The whole thing will of course also be graded away from said house).

The patio itself will consist of two steps of brownstone risers (13″ deep, 9″ high) all around, and the same material in front of the door, where there will be a third step. The inside surface will be yellow/light brown peastone. Like so:

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Lastly, at the front of the patio there will be a large trellis for grapes and other climbers. Eventually they will shade the living room in Summer. It will be offset enough so that the masses of snow sliding off the PV panels on the roof won’t crush it and the plants on it.

We’re hoping the whole thing – patio installation and woodwork on sill – will be done before cold weather and snow come along. I’m looking forward to a Winter of designing the new plantings and the patio furniture we want to build.

Aside from eating the lunch and dinner I prepared, I was busy in the kitchen for eleven hours (11 am to 10 pm) and it was wonderful. I had a lot of accumulated CSA produce to use up, and I’d bought a lot at the last Farmers Market in town. And then there were eggs. The result of a day of peeling, slicing, chopping, frying, boiling, steaming, stirring, sterilizing and canning with Arvo Part’s Fratres (*) on repeat:

huge stack of crepes, had with homemade peach butter and yogurt.

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20 trays of apples in dehydrator

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most time consuming of all: 24 8oz jars of applesauce (my friend A and I bought 120 libs of apples, each, at a local orchard)

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vat of sauerkraut (white cabbage from CSA)

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large quart of colorful kimchi (all kinds of radishes and beets from CSA)

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for dinner: big omelet with eggs (our hens), kale (CSA) and garlic (friend’s), huge salad of steamed beets (CSA), slightly boiled sweet corn (Farmers’ Market), fried garlic and kale and yellow beans (CSA), with a glass of wine (not local).

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(*) Maybe Part’s haunting music was the reason why everyone stayed away?

Joining the flocks after letting them spend their days in the large chicken yard together has been less dramatic than we feared. Still, in the mornings they start hollering to be relieved of each other’s close company around 6 am. I get up, pull on a sweater (that time of year), slippers and head out, a bleary-eyed zombie, and open the door for them, then go back to bed and to sleep. Not fun.

So I did some research on chicken coop door (“pop hole”) openers. I looked at many systems and products and in the end went for one of the more expensive but (I hope) less troublesome systems: the VSB motor that runs on batteries and by a light sensor made in Germany by AXT Electronic. I might get the timer, but we’ll see how the sensor works first.

I bought the motor, the rails and the door in one package from a US supplier, then got the outdoor sensor from AXT Electronic directly. It’s all pretty light and small:

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My install was going to be pretty straightforward. There is a lot of space in the coop, and no studs, etc. At first I thought I’d cover the pop hole that was already there, but it was too wide and, anyway, I thought it would be good to keep that one free (though closed), in case the electronic door stops working and the hens need to get in or out quickly. Also, since that new roost is pretty well stuck, it would have been hard for me to reach that area. Lastly, I figured that by moving the pophole and ramp to the other side, it’ll make access to the coop easier for humans.
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So I decided to cut a new hole. It took some effort as I had to cut through the box and the siding.
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Not straight, but it’ll do.

Whatcha doin?
Whatcha doin?

Then with the help of a bubble level, a pencil and my in spite of my perfectionist ambition to get it all level and straight, etc., I managed to install the rails.
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The instructions aren’t very clear, so here are some tips:
1) The “stops” mentioned in the instruction are the two screws you put into the bottom of the rails. When the door hits those, the motor will stop unwinding the cord. So make sure you install those bottom holes on the inside.
2) Make sure the stops are an inch or so below the pop hole you cut. That way, when the door is closed, an enterprising long- and nimble- fingered raccoon can’t get its digits underneath the very light door and pry it open.
3) Don’t install the rails extra tightly against the door: you want it to slide easily, but also don’t give too much leeway.
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So far so good. Then I installed the VSB box. First I opened the door to where I want it, then marked the highest point of the paper clip. I held the VSB so that that point overlapped with the bottom of the loop in the pull cord. It’s at that point that the VSB will stop retracting the cord (there is a tiny bead on the cord that pushes up the white lever, making the engine stop). Screwing it in requires a long drill bit.
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The distance between the bottom of the door when closed and the VSB can’t be more than 60 cm, which is about 23 inches. I was good.
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When I threaded the loop through the paperclip and let the door hang on it, it turned out the cord has some give, so I put in a knot to make the loop less long, giving the hens an extra inch.
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The sensor is threaded through a small hole in the bottom of the box and attached to the 5 and 6 pins. I put in the batteries, covered the sensor, and it worked! Here’s a 40 sec video:


I closed the box and guided the sensor cable along the open eaves of the coop. I taped it down on the inside and the outside (my hens like to climb up there) so they don’t get the idea to peck at it.
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Then I closed the other hatch and moved the ramp over.
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The real test will happen this evening and tomorrow morning: then I’ll see if the door closes not too early, not too late. If it does, I’ll need to adjust the sensor’s light sensitivity.

Beyond making my life easier, this kind of technology makes it possible for schools and businesses to have chickens without burdening custodians and volunteers. Wouldn’t it be neat for your neighborhood school to have chickens?

{UPDATE} It works perfectly: all chickens made it in at night, and this morning I was not woken up by their squabbling!

Our pullets espouse an escapist ethic. They fly up into the vines and no fence that I’ve put in place – the highest being six feet – has kept them in the chicken yard. Their adventures have led them into the vegetable garden, which is no big deal at this point, as most of the plants in there are done, but come Spring I won’t appreciate their visits.

They found the compost bins!
They found the compost bins!

They hang out under the raspberry bushes where I’m not keen on searching for their eggs. They are venturing further and further down the drive way, and soon the neighbors will have to swerve and the neighborhood dogs, some of which are just loose in the streets, will have themselves a nice raw chicken nugget.
So, enough of that. I became a Youtube expert in wing clipping and with Amie’s helped clipped those wings.

Victim number one: a Buff (I can’t keep the two apart):

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Ten flight primary feathers (I clipped only their right wings):
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Done, and the other Buff comes to investigate:
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The pullet jumped off and continued her scratching, no harm done. The primary flight feathers don’t have a blood supply, as you can see from the next shot: the shafts are a pure white.
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And some video:

We’ve had a couple of cold nights, in the upper thirties. Apparently, it’s beyond what an exposed colony can handle. I checked yesterday and except for a couple of stragglers, there are no bees left. I will ask my neighbor if he wants to climb up there and bring down that gorgeous comb.

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