I decided to give the double four-over-four-frame nucs a la Mike Palmer a try and ordered a set from Better Bee. Whether it was their milling or my hammering the boxes together, I don’t know, but the two top boxes don’t fit together well. With some careful placing, they do the job, but they’re not snug.

I took Queen Sam’s split out of her five-frame nuc box and shifted her into one side of the double nuc a few weeks ago. They filled out the bottom and top boxes in no time. A few days ago, I moved another split (for Queen Tatjana, a pure Russian from Dan Conlon’s Warm Colors Apiaries) into the right side and promptly ran into problem number two.  As I was working the bottom box, many bees insisted on sticking to the side of the other nuc’s top box. I had to brush them down quite aggressively, and even then too many to my liking were squashed when I put the second box on. I wouldn‘t have put that second box on, because the new colony still only covered three frames, but with this kind of outfit you can’t of course work with just one box on one, two on the other. If you do, it looks like this:

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And this is exactly what it looked like today.

I moved Sam’s people to the full hive you see on the left: they were more than ready for a lot more space. After inspecting all eight frames, I had not found the unmarked Sam. There she was: on the inside of the bottom box, hiding among a good three hundred bees who had also decided to hang out on the box. If that box hadn’t been attached to the other nuc, I could have easily picked it up and gently shaken them all into their new home. As it was, I was fortunate to have my hadny-dany queen catcher available and after much searching, spotting and losing her again, I grabbed her and moved her over. I had to keep that box open like that so the other bees could make their own way over there as well. (Forget about unplugging their entrance: too many foragers would have flown into the wrong box.) Luckily there was no wind because the contraption wasn’t quite stable. A few hours later, the nuc box was empty and I closed it up:

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It goes to show that one best has two colonies in one double nuc that are more or less on a par, but I think I will only use this setup as a true nuc, that is, one box with four frames each, for increase and mating purposes only. That avoids the problem with the ill-fitting top boxes and the bees climbing up them as you work the lower box.

Both splits so far have been off one hive (Borgia’s hive), and I have one more strong hive that I could split, maybe once, maybe twice. Time is running out, because the bees need the time to build up before winter. So far I have four Italian queens (Borgia, Constanza, Beatrice and Laura, who is the daughter of the superseded Bianca – she is in the house but not yet laying eggs), one Sam Comfort “mutt” (Sam, who is a beauty!), and now the new Russian, Tatiana, whom I’ve only glimpsed through the screen of her cage.

I’m hoping Sam keeps laying the way she is, then I may steal one frame of her young larvae and try my hand at grafting. I have all the tools and some of the know-how ready. For a cell-starter I may use the hive I want to split (I’ll remove Queen Constanza for a day and night, then give her back). For a cell-finisher I am planning on using the Cloake board above Sam’s palace… If it happens, it will be soon, so stay tuned!

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A quick update on Queen Bianca: alas, she is no more, but her daughter, whom I have named Laura, made her appearance and was laying eggs. She looked good enough to kiss!

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For now, a photo reportage of a find today in our front yard (“down there,” we call it), in a spot twenty feet from where the big King Stropharia resides.  I will be traveling for a week, so expect no posts during that time.

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And I am reading this tome, fascinating! Will write a review when I get back – hopefully I will have read all 600+ pages by then. Peter McCoy and his Radical Mycology, it’s the bee’s knees!

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DSCF7592I ordered two mated queens from Anarchy Apiaries which arrived this morning. Another beek in our group needed one for a queenless hive, so I gave one to her. I cleared the weeds out of the “Home Apiary,” made sure the platform is straight and sturdy, and set up a nuc box (“Hive 5”).

Then I headed to the Cow Common Bee Yard and went straight for the bottom box in my suspected swarm-ready hive (Hive 4). Going through, finding no open brood at all, only emptied brood cells back filled with LOTS of honey and still quite a bit of capped brood, as well as ten or more emergency cells (in the bottom box alone!), I am now assuming that the elusive Bianca perished, quite a while ago. The emergency cells, more than ten of them, were still capped and undamaged. I left all of those in situ.

I pulled two frames of uncapped honey and pollen and capped brood an put those, with the bees on them, in my Moving Box. I had to go rob Hive 1 (the sweet Borgia), of one frame of open brood – no eggs, though, and I shook off all the bees. The bees in a new nuc without open brood may abscond, so I needed that extra frame. Hopefully, though that brood aren’t their sisters, they’ll be protective and stay with them.

I closed up the Moving Box and brought it to the Home Apiary, added some empty honeycomb and some foundation frames, and after a couple of hours brought in “Sam,” as I am calling the new queen in honor of the great Sam Comfort, who reared her. I don’t think they liked her very much – yet! – as they were swarming the cage and either licking or biting it. Kissing it? Who knows!

I did consider bringing her back in and waiting a few more hours, or another night, but it was getting late in the day (the hive was already in the shade), and it was threatening to rain, maybe thunder. Also, all day the queen and her five attendants had been buzzing like crazy in their cage. So I pushed the cage into the wax of a frame, rubber banded it to be safe, and left. She should be safe inside the cage. They’ll take a couple of days to eat through the candy plug to get to her, and hopefully that will give them time to get used to her. After all, that’s how it’s done when they make packages.

But I’m thinking I’d better start working on the queen rearing part of this operation!

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{UPDATE 6/13: A quick look a couple of days ago showed no eggs, no queen, but I did not despair and decided to wait a couple more days. I went in today and saw… are those eggs? Yes, they’re eggs and… there she was, the queen, the gorgeous, humongous queen called Sam that I hadn’t really been able to see so well when she was in the cage. Loooooong abdomen extending beyond her wing tips, and the workers around her practically bowing to her as she regally passed. Okay, I may exaggerate. But she is a beauty, and is laying, and I am so happy.}

On Thursday I enjoyed no less than three hours visiting my four hives. The idea was to inspect, do a varroa mite sugar roll and assess if the bees need treatment, check for swarming, and assess which hive(s) I could split.

Hive 1 (Italian Queen: Borgia), was doing well: good population, all types of brood, eggs included. I didn’t see Borgia herself, but there were many fresh eggs, so the hive is queen right. Their mood was good too, so I did a sugar roll. I tilted a crowded brood frame toward myself and rolled the rim of the mason jar down over the backs of the bees. They fell right in, but I had to be fast to keep them in! Still, after two tries I had about half a cup.

about half a cup of bees?
about half a cup of bees?
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all sugared up

Just look at that field! Who wouldn’t want to enjoy three hours in that field?

No mites came off them at all. That made my hard decision about treatment easy. I will keep monitoring. I returned those ladies, all sugared up, to the hive. Only one had perished. The rest went right back in.

Hive 2 (Italian queen: Constanza) was a bit worrying: less people, and I also spotted only a few eggs. Also no Constanza, and I was looking for her. For each hive I was going through frame by frame, recording what I found on my data sheet, so it was taking me a long time. I decided not to do a sugar roll. The brick atop this hive was replaced vertically: a flag.

Hive 3 (Italian queen: Beatrice) was a bit light on population but looked good brood wise. Lots of eggs. I even spotted Beatrice herself, cowering in the corner of a frame, not very queen-like. But the brick went back on, lying down.

DSCF7516Then came hive 4 (Italian queen: Bianca). Even visually, walking into the bee yard, she was clearly the heaviest in population. As I started my visitation of each frame, a suspicion was soon confirmed. These girls were getting ready to swarm! No eggs at all, and no less than six massive, occupied, but as yet uncapped swarm cells.

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Look at those big grubs, swimming in royal jelly.

I cursed a little, because it looked like perhaps I had wrecked the queen cells by moving the frame. If I damaged these to-be-queens, then this hive would be queenless, because there were no more eggs to make a new queen from, and wrecking the swarm cells may not stop them from swarming.

The hunt was on, then for the old queen. It didn’t look like they had swarmed already. They usually only take off when the swarm cells are capped. They also take a lot of honey with them, and this hive was still loaded. So Bianca must still be around. Having spotted her during my last inspection, white dot and all, I had good hopes, so I went through each frame a second time. She wasn’t in the honey super of largely not yet drawn out foundation, above the queen excluder. I couldn’t find her in the second brood nest (the medium with the swarm cells). And I couldn’t find her in the bottom nest box (a deep). The bees by now were rather ornery – who could blame them! I closed up.

DSCF7522 I hope to go back later today, before the rain, for one last effort to find Bianca and put her in a nuc. I’ll monitor the new queen situation closely – luckily I have two mated queens coming, from Sam Comfort’s Anarchy Apiary stock, so if I need one, they’ll be here Tuesday or Wednesday.

I walked across that beautiful field to have a look at the swarm lure one of our other beeks had put there: it was still empty… Bianca had better be home and up for a change of venue today!

{UPDATE} Couldn’t find her. I moved frame by frame into another box: no sign of her. I did find some more swarm/supercedure cells (hard to tell), capped and safe on the side of a bottom box frame, so if they swarmed/are swarming, there will be virgin queens. I also found a nice clutch of eggs of Constanza’s, so Hive 2 is probably fine.

It’s definitely a swarmy season. Here’s one frame in Hive 4’s neighbor, another beek’s nuc: riddled with swarm cells. Those four bottom ones are all full and capped and ready to go.

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Both my colonies perished over the winter. When I opened them up in early spring I found only a handful of dead bees (no queen, that I could see), and quite a bit of honey left. It was too late, the bee bodies were too decomposed, to send off a sample to the Beltsville Lab, where they would try to diagnose the cause of the demise (for free, too). So I can only speculate about what happened. One scenario is that on warm days foragers left to look for pollen or water and, for some reason (pesticides, mite disease), didn’t return, then a new group was roped into foraging, dispatched, didn’t return, and so forth, till there was only a handful left. Or they all left en masse, in a massive death exodus…

I asked my neighborhood beekeepers. The results alarmed all of us: some (strangely enough those with apiaries with more then six hives) did well,  but most of us with smaller apiaries has 50-100% losses. Altogether, of the 23 hives that I know of (kept by 10 backyard beekeepers), 16 did not make it: a 70 percent loss. And in 90% of those cases the same scenario played out: a handful of bees left, and lots of honey stores. This situation is alarming because we don’t know the causes, so are groping for solutions – with a wide-spectrum approach on all fronts (pesticides, acclimated bee populations, mite treatment, etc.) a big task for the usual backyard beekeeper, and especially for beginners. It is also unsustainable. We can’t keep buying bees and queens from the state of Georgia…

Time to do something.

As a first step I put all my thoughts down in a letter to all my neighbors in our local newspaper (copied below). Then I ordered no less than four packages (yes, those Italians from Georgia – one last time) and started sourcing local queens. I also successfully petitioned the Wayland Conservation Commission to let me, and any local backyard beekeeper, keep those bees near the Community Gardens (pollination services), which is also near the Sudbury River and large stretches of conservation land (lots of bee forage).

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My four on the right. The two double nucs to the left are a fellow beekeeper’s. The empty pallet in the middle soon gained another colony from yet another beekeepers. It’s a community yard!

I hived those packages on April 11 and they are thriving. Soon I will check for mites with a sugar roll – a new bee friend showed me how to do it properly, so I won’t have to repeat my one disastrous attempt. Then, if necessary, I will treat with the oxalic acid fumigator. I will also start the bees on rearing some extra queens from the Italians, and I’ll buy, beg, or borrow some other queens (local Russians, Carniolans, and mutts), for optimal diversity. And then I will split those four packages, and split again, and again, aiming to go into winter with around twenty colonies (half in Langstroths, half in nuc boxes – let’s experiment with that as well). The ones that overwinter will be split again and will be made available to the local beekeepers – no more packages and queens from Georgia for them either! Sorry, Georgia, but it isn’t working out.

Stayed tuned for lots of bee fun!

Wayland Earth Month: New Ideas to Help Bees, by Kaat Vander Straeten (Wayland Town Crier of April 15, 2016)

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Every year the national news about the pollinators gets worse (for honeybees alone, the Bee Informed Survey shows this year’s losses at 40 to 45 percent), and every year it is matched by our local experiences. Of the 23 hives that I know of (kept by 10 backyard beekeepers), 16 did not make it through this mild winter. That’s a 70 percent loss. The alarm bells are ringing and I’d like you to hear them, too.

But to most of you, the complex of stressors assailing the bees (explained below) may seem like one of those Big Ones that is not 100 percent studied yet, or inevitable, or so difficult that there is nothing you feel you can do about it.

Let me tell you, when year after year I open my hives and find most of my bees dead, I know it’s 100 percent a sure thing, and I know that it’s not inevitable, and that there is a lot we can do.

The problems are complex, no doubt about it, but science and beekeeper experience have identified plenty of opportunities to contain them. Here’s one. Some years I have found my bees dead of starvation with plenty of honey only 3 inches away, but the long-lasting “troughs” of deep cold prevented them from breaking their warm cluster to get to it. I wrap my hives with insulation, and this year I will switch to a hardier breed.

Every year I see an abundant nectar flow in spring, with good amounts of honey to “rob” in early summer, but I’ve learned not to rob too much, because late summer and fall nectar flows increasingly disappoint. This indicates the gardeners and landscapers in my suburban neighborhood favor bee-friendly flowering plants in the spring, but not in late summer and fall, and that they’re good at eradicating the late-flowering weeds like goldenrod. Fall honey is the honey these colonies need to survive winter. Feeding sugar is a Band-Aid we often use, and we are switching to bee breeds that eat less in winter.

We also see more “shotgun frames,” capped brood frames in which many cells have been emptied out. Often this means that the queen mated with one or more drones too closely related to her. She is now laying “inbred,” nonviable eggs. The nurse bees have a way of sniffing these out, and they get rid of them. When the beekeeper replaces that queen, she may find the next one is just as bad. That is because the genetic diversity of our bees is coming up on a major bottleneck. Parasites and viruses, pollution and loss of habitat have wiped out the genetically rich feral bees with whom our queens could mate, and commercial queen breeders use too few queen mothers (it is estimated that less than 500 queen mothers are used to produce around 900,000 daughter queens annually for commercial sale in the U.S.). Moreover they breed queens for honey production and gentleness, not for longevity. All this is not so easy to solve, but breeders are working on it, and adding diversity to the backyard apiary will help.

We also see increasing pressure from varroa mites. Imagine a parasite the size of a rabbit sinking its teeth into you, spewing all kinds of viruses and diseases into your body. That is “varroa destructor,” the pest that, in the ’80s, killed off almost all the feral and “kept” bees (those were hard years). Injudicious use of pesticides soon created “super-mites,” which we cannot get rid of. Beekeepers can use Integrated Pest Management and organic treatments. We can also switch to so-called “hygienic” bees, which groom each other of most mites.

The lost bees of Wayland may have suffered from any or all of the above – not acclimatized, lacking in forage, compromised by their breeding, weakened by mites and diseases. Marla Spivak, in a TEDtalk that I recommend, asks you to think back to the last time you had the flu. Now imagine you have to search a long time to find any nutritious food, and that when you find it, it is poisoned.

Our bees may, at the end of fall, have had the misfortune of foraging a patch of late blooming and exceptionally toxic flowers. Or they may, over the course of the year, have foraged several below-threshold toxic fields of flowers – below threshold for one dose. Usually the toxin in question is a neonicotinoid, a type of systemic pesticide used in monocultures of corn and soy and in gardens all over our town. This would have weakened their immune systems even further and/or messed up their orientation. And so they didn’t make it home.

The last thing I want is for this lineup to masquerade as “hopeless.” It truly isn’t. With our BEElieve beekeepers group, I plan to change my beekeeping practices and start raising a diversity of local, acclimatized, hygienic bee – a “Wayland Bee.”

May I ask you to stop spraying the neonicotinoids, to ask your landscaper to stop spraying them and your favorite garden center to stop selling them? “Neonics” come in two forms. The first is in a bottle that anyone can grab at the garden center or hardware store. If the list of active ingredients names one of the following, that bottle contains a neonic – Acetamiprid, Clothianidin, Dinotefuran, Imidacloprid, Nitenpyram, Thiocloprid, or Thiamethoxam. You can safely dispose of it by returning it to the store or by bringing it to Household Hazardous Waste Day at the Transfer Station, which takes place twice a year, the next one on June 18 (register here).

The second way you may be importing neonics is in seeds and plants. Neonics are systemic in that you need to treat only one part of the plant, or the soil in which it grows, or even just the seed, and it will suffuse the entire plant, including the nectar and pollen. More and more ornamental plants are being grown by a few ultra-large suppliers, and virtually all of them use neonics. Ask your garden center if the plant you like has neonics in is history. If it does, or they’re not sure, leave that plant on their counter.

But wait, there is even more you can do! Grow bee-friendly gardens that set out a nectar buffet from early spring to late fall. Join me in asking our town, the state’s Highway Division, and the utilities to plant low-growing flowers in fields, along roadsides and under power lines. You will be helping not just honeybees, but all the pollinators.

We can do this out of admiration for these amazing, hardworking creatures, and also simply because we like to eat. Without pollinators, we’d have no broccoli, cucumber, tomato, eggplant, lettuce, watermelons, apples, pears, almonds, cotton, and much less meat (alfalfa, the main livestock food, needs pollination). Let’s make it safe for the pollinators to feed themselves, meanwhile feeding us as well.

Kaat Vander Straeten lives in Wayland and has been a beekeeper for six years. She can be contacted at kaat@transitionwayland.org.

 

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Bearding

I just went into my two hives. One of them at least has overcrowded and hot – indicated by the massive bearding that begins in the late afternoon and continues through the night until the foragers go out again in the morning. They don’t abandon this way of keeping the hive cool inside even when it rains: scores of bees drown then. No swarming, though. Knock on wood! But if these hives survive the winter, I’d better be ready come spring!

I harvested 90 pounds of honey at the end of July. Considering these were first-year packages (on fully drawn-out frames, however), that was a gift. For the harvest  I used a bee escape built and lent to me by a friend. It was the first time I used it and it worked  great, on both hives (24 hours each). No more brushing angry bees off the individual frames, what a relief!

Today’s quick inspection when the hives were in the shade was pretty mellow. I just took a peek in the supers. There’s some honey in there, not much, and nothing capped. This was expected as the nectar flow has been bad, what with the drought. I had one and a half supers still dripping with honey from the harvest, so stuck one on top of each hive to let the bees clean out the frames. I’ll take them off again in a few days, before they start putting new honey in there or putting burr comb all over them.

Hopefully there will be another honey harvest after the fall nectar flow. We’ve had a week of good, mostly gentle rains, so hopefully the flowers will get going and flowing again.

I’ve become a much more hands-off beekeeper over the years. In my first year I used to go in every two weeks. Now, every time I prepare (lighting the smoker, getting into my gear in the backyard) and walk over to the apiary, I need to take a bit of a breath to calm my heart. Over the years I’ve come to realize that these are massive organisms I am messing with, often 50,000 bees busily doing their complex and enigmatic thing, who knows in what kind of mood, under what stress. That I am bigger may mean nothing to them: they’re 50,000, I’m just one. I often imagine what it would be like to accidentally drop a full frame or box, to go in at the very wrong moment, smelling of the wrong thing. Yes, there’s some fear there, but not the paralyzing kind, so I am not hands-off because of it. If anything, it makes my experience when I go in so much more intense and pleasurable. No longer thinking I am in control, but more there, with them, more respectful and awed (I for them, if they respect me, I wouldn’t know or presume), and more myself, too. So, if we realize Neighborwoods –  a bit more land – I think that I’ll build a much bigger apiary. Twenty, even fifty, hives, with room for queen and bee rearing,  now that would be life!

On Monday I picked up my new bees – two packages. Before that I built quite a few extra deep frames for them. It was easy to do, as I had blogged the process before and just had to refer to that old post.

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Amie helped put the puzzles together:

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The reason I made new frames was that I had pulled quite a few moldy frames out of the dead hives. I had planned to throw them all out, even the ones with just that blue/green/white sheen on them. But then – after I made the new ones – I read that a bit of mold doesn’t hurt the bees. It may even inhibit other micro-organisms that aren’t good for them. So I rescued the least affected frames and set them to dry in a warm spot with a fan on them.

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The two new hives now have all drawn-out comb in their bottom deeps, and two frames of drawn-out frames in the middle of the top deeps, surrounded by empty frames. It’s always a good thing to exchange 1/4 or 1/3 of the comb every year, as comb accumulates pollutants. With the dried out box and the rest of the new frames, I’ll be ready for a third hive. Hopefully these two are strong enough and I can make a split soon!

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I sold some Fall 2014 honey today, then turned around and put that straight into the purchase of two packages (pickup mid April). Today was the first sunny day in a long time, and though still freezing, it felt warm. It definitely felt warm after a good 40 minutes of shoveling to get to my hives.

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I dug the hives out of the snow.

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One I knew was still alive. The bees had been flying, who knows why, and perishing on their snowy front porch. One got as far as three feet. When I started digging to get their bottom entrance free, one flew out – didn’t even make it half a foot. When I opened that one, I found a tiny cluster against the ceiling (under the burlap): probably not enough to survive, but I’ll feed them more sugar anyway. The other one was dead.

It’s been a while since I blogged. The reasons were house guests over the holidays with whom we gladly dug in like hermits, eating wonderful home-cooked meals, playing board games with the kids when we could locate them, and reading books by the fire. Also, we watched Sharknado 2: The Second One together. It’s a ritual, better not to ask any further. And we played with Google Cardboard.

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I also prepared a lot for homeschooling, which started yesterday. Here we are at the beginning of our first day:

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That’s my newest excuse (for not cleaning too): homeschooling is taking up a lot of time, but it’s a blast and both Amie and I have taken to it. We go from 9 to 3, learning awesome stuff – as you can see, I’m also adopting nine-year-old vocab. We started a home school blog where both of us post every day (so far), but because Amie is also writing there we decided to keep it private to those whom she knows personally. As a long-time blogger I know how fraught with difficulties public blogging is, One of the issues is not knowing who one’s audience is and, this way, she can picture her readers which makes it easier for her to write.

I’ll be sure to write about homeschooling here (the homestead-related angle) as I slowly get my head above water. Scheduling is a challenge, also creating pockets of time when Amie can work by herself so I can do “my own” things, like blogging and Transition work (and cleaning). Though, admittedly, a lot of what I teach in home school is also “my thing”. For instance, I’m revisiting my beloved Latin and learning about the Big Bang and first life and the evolution of humans, with my daughter. How awesome is that? Ha.

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One more thing I love about homeschooling is that there is no rushing out the door, waiting in line, etc. We keep a tight schedule (start at 9 sharp), but our first day, for instance, we remained in PJs.

During our hour of lunch and recess we visit the chickens, feed them, collect eggs. Today we did so in gently falling snow. It’s good to be out in the fresh air, and the hens are so happy to see us with warm water and kitchen scraps.

I just went to check on them. Our chicken coop door opener is a fantastic little machine and ultra convenient, especially in the mornings. But we do check on it every evening after dark to make sure it closed and that all the hens made it inside before it did.

The moon is just over the cusp of full, very bright still, high in the black, naked sky. The Pleiades twinkled through her light, though not so much the Milky Way (which we learned about today). The shadows were very crisp on the fresh blanket of snow, creaking under my boots. It is 8 F (-13 C), and falling, falling to a predicted -5 F tomorrow night (that’s – 20.5 C).

There’s only one chicken I’m worried about: one of the Buff Orpingtons. She looks scruffy and her comb and wattles are pale. The bees I worry about constantly. I’ll check on them after this cold snap.

Happy New Year, everyone.