For the Love…of Chickens, Honey Bees and Gardening

While the wind gusts outside and temperatures are still keeping us bundled up, we have turned a corner in mid February; spring is imminent once again.  At the Winter Solstice, honey bees began anew, those surviving the winter thus far coaxing their queen to begin laying eggs in preparation of the anticipated spring nectar flow.  While seemingly far away to us humans, the bees know spring is coming and that they need to be ready for this short but vital burst of activity that will afford them the nectar to turn into precious honey that will sustain their colony for the rest of the year.  As such, they need to rear brood and to rear brood, you need protein in the form of pollen.

 

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That’s pollen you see on some of the legs of my honey bees, taking advantage of the sudden burst of warm weather in early February to find skunk cabbage in nearby woods.

We’ve had some warm days interspersed with these cold ones and I was encouraged by the flourishing activity of my remaining hive as they flew out of their hive, orienting, cleansing and working, for which bees are well known.  My busy bees brought in pollen and searched for water.  Looking around, there’s not much blooming but these resourceful, smart honey bees found skunk cabbage blooming in nearby woods.  While not a key food source for honey bees, it is an important one as honey bees need pollen as a valuable protein source to build up their brood and feed to their young, revving up their volume for spring’s busy “all hands on deck” nectar flow.

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Open hive in February!  70 degrees!  I was greeted by this happy sight:  many honey bees and lots of capped honey stores.

It’s a good sign to see honey bees returning with full pollen pouches on these late winter days because it tells me that the queen is laying eggs for which the workers will need pollen to feed this batch of honey bees.  I took the opportunity to open up my surviving hive and that’s just what I found- a small patch of capped brood, my lovely marked queen from last year, prudently laying eggs for this new generation and lots and lots of worker bees.  I’m delighted to see that this queen not only made it through the winter thus far, but that she has plenty of company to keep the hive going.  I’m even more happy to report that they maintained a wonderfully calm disposition to my intrusions, suggesting that this hive has some of the genetics of my favored queen that I recently lost.

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All Hail the Queen!  (Bee, that is)!  See her in the center of her court with her elongated abdomen and the remnants of my white marking on her thorax?  She emerged from her queen cell in June and I marked her in September, using white paint to represent a year ending in the number six.  There is a color system for marking queens so that you don’t lose track of what year she began her reign.  She was the product of a supersedure meaning that the workers made their own queen to replace an older queen that was deemed no longer prolific enough to sustain the colony long term.

It’s not a time to cheer yet though, as winter is long from over.  As the hive ramps up their volume, their need for resources will dramatically increase.  This is the time of year that honey bees can easily run out of food and starve.  My bees seem to be in good shape with ample capped honey yet but I will keep a careful eye on them and supplement if necessary.  They did consume the pollen patty strips I offered and now they’re bringing in the preferred fresh pollen they’re finding.

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My remaining hive on a cold February day when high winds rolled in to remind us that winter is still upon us.  While I readily notice the lost hive when I look at my little apiary, I recognize the abundant life residing in the sister hive and feel encouraged as I venture into my fifth year of beekeeping.

Chickens are also sensing the gradual shift beginning with lengthening daylight hours.  All but the Welsummer are laying regularly and we are again flush with eggs, seemingly overnight.  Some of my girls went through early molting, losing feathers and stopping their lay cycles in the fall.  I increased their protein and waited patiently.

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Extending daylight hours gradually brings the sun up earlier now and provides more evening daylight as well.  This shift is well recognized by animals as evidenced by the bee and chicken activity.  Trees remain bare but interesting.  From a distance, an exciting hum is slowly, quietly dawning as we anticipate spring’s arrival.
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My spoiled hens eat warm oatmeal on cold mornings, often with added protein from wheat berries and other added goodness. 
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The girls are happy to exit their coop in the morning, despite cold, snow or rain since they have a roof and are often rewarded with a warm breakfast.

Isabella the Easter Egger was the first to molt and served as my benchmark.  It was interesting to watch the process as she lost feathers around her neck and tail in the fall, then the color of her comb faded and egg production ceased.  Her feathers grew back slowly, the first signs of which were quills poking through bare skin, prepared to house new feathers.  As soon as the feathers were back in place and daylight hours began to increase, her comb became bright red again, literally from one day to the next.  I asked her if I’d start to see her pretty eggs again when I saw this and she rewarded me with one of her lovely pale green eggs the very next day!

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Delighted to see the return of the pale green eggs from our Easter Egger!
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Isabella’s gorgeous plumage has returned along with a red comb.  Her comb went from a pale pink to bright red overnight and laying commenced the following day after weeks of pity for my cold girl with her bare patches of skin from her early molt.

For now, the girls have limited free ranging as we are plagued by the presence of a Cooper’s hawk.  After a recent near miss, I’m taking no chances, particularly as a good friend has lost several of her hens now to hungry hawks with easy vantage points through bare trees.  They don’t like it so I do my best to get them out for a few minutes here and there under heavy supervision, generally towards evening.  They love going into the garden and cleaning up for me and I find that to be a good spot for them since it’s confined and they tend to stay together.  I can move around them, watching the skies and tree line.

The garden is beginning to show signs of new life.  The first winter aconite recently emerged the day after a light snow fall.  I’m also seeing daffodil and tulips begin to send up stalks through the heavy dirt and mulch, albeit too early for my liking.  Spinach that looked bedraggled is gaining ground, my lettuce continues to provide and alas, weeds are slowly popping up in and around the vegetable boxes.

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First winter aconite

 

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This lettuce, or rather my family, has benefited greatly from the protection of a cold frame on days when temperatures are just too cold.  We cut, it comes back and we enjoy the crispness of winter lettuces.

 

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My garden clean up crew showed me that the warming weather is also favoring weeds.

Despite the bareness of most of my property, I still find beauty in the winter landscape.  I have learned to patiently wait to cut back many plants until spring, thereby providing winter interest in otherwise bare patches of soil and more importantly, provide food and habitat for animals.  I find these spent plants interesting, despite their lack of color, recognizing life within these plants exists below the surface and that the promise of spring is to bring these plants back from the depths of the soil where they too are anxiously awaiting warmer days.

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Remnants of my wild flower bed provides winter food and shelter for wildlife and a bit of interest in what would otherwise be a bare patch.
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This dried seed head from a spent coneflower now provides food to birds in winter.  You can see how some seeds have been removed.  It’s a delight to see birds eating what I used to toss into the compost.
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I walk past these old pine trees daily but tend to look down at my surrounding plants, searching for pollinators, insects and plant health.  In winter, with little else to view, my gaze turns upwards and I can marvel at the sheer size and longevity of these trees, humbled by my place in the world.

Bare branched trees provide greater vantage points not just for hawks, but for humans as well, allowing us to see where we may not the rest of the year and to take interest in things otherwise overlooked by the density of leaves, weeds, and brambles.  Breathing in the cold, crisp air is literally a breath of fresh air from our heated homes, altogether invigorating and insightful.

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This interesting find on a recent winter hike is a seed pod from a Paulownia tree.  These trees were planted in a damaged area that was once mined for copper.  Now a lovely woodland of these trees stands as a testimony to reclamation.  The exposure of the landscape in winter helps draw our attention to some of these smaller finds that may have otherwise been overlooked in the density of leaves, weeds, and brambles.
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These spent Columbine stalks rattle with tiny seeds and dried splendor.

 

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Slowing down and looking at my seemingly unadorned landscape afforded me this find:  not one, but actually two praying mantis egg sacs on this bush on my property.  Praying mantis are great biological controls in the garden and evident of a healthy environment since they are so susceptible to pesticides.  Each sac can contain as many as 300 nymphs that will emerge when the weather warms and go to work devouring other insects.  Unfortunately, they are not selective and will eat both beneficial and harmful insects, but they are nevertheless great to have in the garden.  This stands as another reason not to clear everything away in the fall.

 

Now, to figure out what deliciousness I’m going to bake with all of these fresh eggs for my Valentines!  Happy Valentine’s Day!

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    Nature is full of genius, full of divinity; so that not a snowflake escapes its fashioning hand.        – Henry David Thoreau

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