Close Encounters (with Chickens, Hawks and Honey Bees)

Another 58 degree day in late January here on the East Coast was a welcome reprieve that saw honey bees flying and chickens clamoring to get out after being cooped up from days of rain.  When the rain stopped, I let the girls out a bit, their run being so muddy from all of the rain and the mild temperature that I felt like they needed to put their feet on grass for a while even if it was wet grass.

As I was cleaning their coop, I heard a flurry of feathers and fussing.  Now this is not uncommon.  Frequently, a properly dispersed gust of wind will send them into a tizzy like this, but their squawking sounded different to me, more urgent if you will.

I ran out to see the girls flying over to where I was, taking refuge under the bare blackberry bushes.  I stepped forward, slipping in the mud a bit, to get a better view of what set them off, just in time to encounter a hawk silently swooping down, claws extended, heading directly for the chickens.  I screamed and lunged forward.  I’m not kidding, I could have reached out and grabbed it if I had tried, I was so close at that point as we merged with very different intentions.  Barely avoiding a collision, it lifted up and gracefully flew away.  Hawks are hungry this time of year too and chicken makes for a tasty treat.

I was flustered, shook and angry.  That is to say, if you can appreciate how much I enjoy my chickens and want to protect them, but fully appreciate that this is nature.  Yet, I felt like an old man shaking his angry fist at squirrels ravaging a bird feeder as I yelled at the hungry hawk flying away.

Winter provides little food and naked trees provide enhanced vantage points for such predators.  On the days when we’ve had light snow, I’ve marveled at the many fox footprints just outside my fence, knowing they too are hungry.  Hearing the fox cries in the woods at night and that of their prey sends a shiver down my spine and I remind myself that the girls are tucked safely into our version of Fort Knox, but daytime free ranging does not come without risks which I was starkly reminded of with this close encounter.

What really resonated with me was the brazenness.  That hawk was half the size of my smallest chicken but would have made lunch out of her had it been a successful catch, or worse, left a decapitated chicken.  The other noteworthy item was that the girls did what they should do- recognize a predator and find cover.  That was reassuring but for the fact that there is little cover to be had in our backyard right now without the benefit of leaves.  Importantly though, this made me take note that I need to be vigilant when I have them free ranging this time of year and stick with our evening protocol when hawks at least seem to be less active.

 

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Happy chickens spent the afternoon cleaning the garden in the balmy, sunny weather and decided on their own when they were ready to go inside, runny to the door where I keep the treats and waiting for me to close the garden gate.

 

 

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I wasn’t fast enough for these two who jumped onto the roof to discuss their options, perhaps making sure I knew exactly where the treats were stored.

 

Yesterday the girls were able to get out more as the temperatures soared again.  Their detective work leads them to find tasty morsels tucked under decaying leaves and bits of greenery here and there.  The bed I planted with the chicken seed mix in late fall still provided some fun in the garden for them and they easily found parsley and kale still available.  The lettuce beds are off limits to them, but they try anyhow knowing there’s goodness to be had inside those cold frames.

 

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Ah, chickens….  “How do we get in there again?”  These girls are watching their sisters inside the garden, having managed to forget how to get in, becoming frantic as they watched the decadent winter foraging before them.

 

 

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Lots of garden clean up help.  They scratch and find all kinds of goodness under the decomposing leaves and surface of the soil.  This bed was filled with a chicken salad seed mix that I planted in the late fall.  They’ve steadily finished eating it but for a few pieces of green still holding on.

 

 

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Baby kale leaves tucked under these leaves led to a race to belly up to this particular salad bar.

 

 

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Honey found endive soaking up sun after the rains, but was quickly shooed away.

 

 

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Sophia snuck a couple lettuce leaves when I had my back turned, then saw her reflection in the glass pane and became quite interested in that beautiful hen.

 

 

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Isabella unearthed this lovely, dark soil in the bed with the chicken salad mix where they like to scratch and eat.  Seeing this gorgeous soil stokes my excitement for spring planting.  Isabella is an Easter Egger and she went through an early, soft molt, losing some feathers around her neck.  She also stopped laying her lovely pale green eggs.  As you can see, her feathers have returned, but her comb and waddle are still pale, not as red as when she was laying.  With longer daylight hours approaching and new feathers, I’m hoping she will begin laying again soon.  For now, I’m grateful for her garden clean up contributions.

 

Given how muddy their run is, I scattered some straw and a wheelbarrow full of leaves into the run.  I generously clipped some endive, romaine lettuce, and parsley and tossed those bits into the run.  I sprinkled mealworms, scratch and leftover grains from  my husband’s last batch of beer to complete the offering.  It was “scratchapalooza” out there and those girls were happy!

 

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It’s important to keep chickens busy so they don’t get bored and develop bad habits like pecking at one another.  This thin layer of straw and dried leaves affords them a job as they search for goodies and will keep them busy for hours.

 

Given the warm weather, I began the dreaded task of taking the dead out hive apart.  This is not a straightforward process.  Honeycomb that has contained brood at some point in time is very appealing to wax moths, that will fly on warm days like today just like honey bees, flies and other insects.  It is important to freeze such frames to preclude any wax moth larva from taking hold.  Having seen the devastation of wax moths at someone else’s hives years ago, I take that risk seriously.  However, there’s only so much available space in my freezer and three medium boxes contain 30 frames.

About half of the frames were relatively empty but the other half were filled with uncapped sugar syrup that the bees stored up in the late fall and did not cap along with capped honey. What to do?

Since bees were already robbing out this food and it was not crazy as per a robbing situation in summer, I decided to let them clean out these frames.  Typically, feeding  honey other than the honey a particular beehive has collected is frowned upon as it can cause the spreading of disease, but I believe that this hive has been gone for some time now and that the activity I’ve seen on warm days was akin to what was going on today with neighboring bees taking advantage of the unguarded food supplies.  Given that I don’t have more room in the freezer and storing the uncapped frames with Para Moth will be a mess, I’m going to leave the frames with food to be continued to be stripped and cleaned of food for a few days.

 

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Honey bees scavenging for free, unprotected food.  Here they are eating sugar syrup that was stored up before winter but not capped, not at all concerned with the small cluster of dead bees on the nearby frame. Only the cluster above is dead, all the other bees are eating.

 

 

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These two honey bees are eating food, head into cell, cleaning out every last tiny drop.

 

 

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You can see the glistening sugar syrup here that this girl is eating.  This is easy food for them and they were not the least concerned by my presence as I maneuvered frames and removed half of them to freeze.  I’m hoping that this is an indication that they have some of the beloved blue queen’s temperament.

 

Which brings me to another point.  I don’t often open my hives in the winter for fear of chilling bees and brood, but if I did not know that this hive were dead, the activity out front would have led me to believe that all was good inside.  So cracking open a hive on a warm day in winter to add sugar, pollen substitute and/or take a quick glance to see what’s going on inside is a good idea, just don’t linger.

 

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This is the dead out hive but the activity out front would lead one to believe that the hive is making it through winter.  Had I not opened it last week, I would not be any the wiser.

 

When I opened the stronger hive, I found the bees on the pollen patty I recently added, moving about their hive.  I relocated it and took inventory of the honey available in the top box, considering adding sugar while I have the advantage of the warm weather to do so because winter is far from over and now that brood is back in the equation, food stores will go fast.  So despite the abundance of capped honey, I will add some bee candy, just in case.

 

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This is a piece of pollen substitute that I recently added to provide protein to new bees that will begin being born as we have now passed the winter solstice and the queen is beginning to lay eggs again in anticipation of spring.  I was happy to note that the bees were taking it.  I did relocate it closer down to the brood since it was warm enough to quickly move things around.

In a few days, I will take the rest of the frames from the dead out and place those in the freezer, storing all of the empty frames for new beginnings.  The benefit of having worked honey comb for new bees cannot be underestimated and thereby, this dead colony will be contributing to life again in the new colony that takes it’s place in the spring.

 

 

Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.  – Confucius

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