The Birds and the BEES

I know, but I just had to take the opportunity.  I’ll blame it on my dad, a British mathematician-cum-money manager with a penchant for reprehensible, but charming word play (aside: by reprehensible, I mean that if you say you had a “smashing time,” he simply can’t stop himself from saying “smashing pumpkins”; by charming, I mean that he has a 60’s rock lyric to correspond to any sentence fragment you utter, period).  Mine is less word play, and more literal.  This story began with some birds, ended with some bees, and has absolutely nothing to do with sex.

My friend Jenny had her delightful niece and nephew, who I’ll call Sophia and Aiden (after 2011’s most popular baby names), visiting for the weekend.  She thought it might be nice to bring them by to show them the chicken coop, and I needed an excuse to clean the damn thing.  We’d recently hatched more chickens, and more grown chickens means a lot more shit, as well as a lot more eggs; suddenly, we’re getting around five a day!  So over they came, and I was knee deep in it.  We looked at the chickens, Aiden and Sophia came into the coop with me — I neglected to tell them I’d just vanquished a family of mice to their deaths at the chickens’ beaks — and checked them out up close.  Then Aiden said he’d heard I had bees, and would love to see them up close too.

I’m easily excitable.  And moved by curios children.  Especially when their curiosities overlap with mine.  Amidst all the excitement, I did take a moment to ask Aiden if he knew whether he was allergic to bees, and if he’d ever been stung.  Not only had he been, but Aiden is particularly with-it for 10 year old.  I mean, his wit and humor are more like a hip college-aged kid, and I want to say that I was lulled into thinking I wasn’t risking a child’s safety, but that of a self-determined young man.  His sister, who is more convincingly 6 years old or so, remained quiet, and she and Jenny were quietly standing nearby while I opened up the top of the bee hive to check it out.

When I first started learning about bees close to a year ago, I took a hands-on class with my childhood friend Kalle Cook, an engineer by training who has been making a living teaching bees.  Kalle has a pretty spiritual take on bee-keeping.  Normally, this kind of thing would be lost on me, but I find it one of the most compelling aspects of the practice (behind the prospect of harvesting 20-40 lbs of honey later this fall after relatively little work on my part…).  In my first encounter with bees, Kalle led a small group of us around a hive in Kent, California.  We started by meditating a little, grounding ourselves, preparing our energy to be less disruptive to the bees’.  And as skeptical as I felt, there was something so obvious about it as we finished and moved into the bees’ sphere.  But it was pretty warm, and we were being guided, and within a few minutes I had my unprotected hands covered by what had to be 50-100 bees, calmly inspecting my palms.  It wasn’t scary, and every time I’d ventured into my own hive, since, I felt much the same level of calm and reliability from my little bustling hive of workers.

Given all of this, you might be wondering what could have gone wrong that crisp January day?

It was relatively cold and a bit overcast, probably around 50 degrees, and the bees were buzzing in a very particular way.  The guy I got them from often refers to them as “pissy” when they don’t want to be bothered, or make noises indicating as much.  But this anthropomorphizes them too much for me — there is something more abstract, almost alien about their pissy-ness and everything else.  And, I was completely unattuned to it this time.

So Aiden and I are there, hive open, bees buzzing, and I realize that in my haste I’d forgotten to grab a couple of tools, including my bee brush (for gently brushing them off of yourself or other surfaces), and the “hive tool,” a metal crowbar-like implement with many uses.  So I asked Jenny if she and Sophia could go grab them from the house, about 50 feet away, which they thankfully did.  Just when they got over to the house, it started.  One bee aggressively (now I’m anthropomorphizing them) zoomed into my hand, stinging it and paying with his life.  In that second or two, between realizing I’d been stung, trying desperately to remain calm while it dawned on me just how fuct this situation could be, and when my fear and inner panic overcame me, things were pretty serene.  There was buzzing all around, Aiden looking at me bemused at my misfortune, and a moment of quiet before an all out, apian shit storm.

Suddenly, our heads where covered with bees.  I really don’t remember what I was thinking at that point, though I was annoyed at the partially built fence that was getting in the way of our getting away.  Aiden and I were shrieking and shaking bees and trying to move away, all the while dancing around doing what I think my friend Berkeley — who got me started with this bee thing — fondly calls something like “the bee sting funny jig.”  When the dust and bugs settled, and Aiden and I were safely near the house, it started to occur to me just how bad this might be.  Of course there were a couple of stragglers, bees that had either given their lives to make mine temporarily miserable, or ones that were still trying.  Horrified with myself, I looked at Aiden, who was in pretty good spirits: only one sting, on the cheek!  I started to count mine, not even realizing that some of them were hidden in the back of my head under my hair.

Within minutes, my lip was the size of a cumquat.  My eye lid was a little swollen, but it wasn’t too bad.  Aiden’s looked and, according to him felt, like a mosquito bite.  I went to sleep that night thinking I’d gotten off pretty easily considering the mess… until I awoke in the middle of the night.  It was dark, but I was pretty sure I couldn’t see.  Feeling around my face, it was pretty clear that things were effed up.  Then it dawned on me that I had to be back at work some time soon — and I’d just started a new job a few weeks earlier, at Facebook (Dad, not your cue for a pun!).  Luckily, it was a three day weekend, so I had a little time to recover.

I ended up wearing sunglasses that Tuesday, both for comfort and to save the stares, since it was mostly the swelling around my eye that was gruesome.

And as for the bees?  The following February was unusually warm, generating what they call “strong nectar flow.”  It looks like they’re fine, and I’ll soon follow this up with some updates on the hives — there are now two, which I’ll explain later…

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I have no doubt that some people revel in the anachronistic side of modern chicken husbandry. It’s almost like you get more points for eggs that require you regularly to refill a waterer or feeder, and come home and “put the ladies to bed” each night. I gain no such pleasure. As it is, there isn’t that much that’s efficient about raising chickens for eggs; from a pure efficiency perspective, most urban homesteading falls a bit short. But unlike, say, lettuce or tomatoes, with eggs you don’t gain the efficiency of always-fresh, always-available produce for which you’d otherwise have to plan ahead or stop somewhere on the way home. And this time of year is worse than others, as the chickens don’t lay much while tearing through bag after $15 bag of grains (that’s the non-organic; over $30 for the good stuff), each of which weights 50 lbs! So, for this post I wanted to detail the several features of our coop which I designed specifically to avoid such tedium, and a few inadvertent design flaws that have not helped things.

The first, and by far my favorite, is the watering system. Most people use some sort of dish, some even refillable. In fact, our first was the top one pictured in that link, which is really a dog bowl, not a chicken waterer. This is an improvement over the pail/bucket varieties, which require refilling and hauling from wherever that happens. But all of these inevitably require nearly daily cleaning, as chickens are prone to evacuating in anything they can get atop of. And so it was that I resolutely determined to get our chickens on the nipple.

The catch was that we already had full grown chickens, and while the old adages about leading the horse to water and the old dog’s tricks are somewhat dubious, whoever thought them up should have tried teaching a chicken to drink from the nipple. When I bought the nipples, we had three hens. I bought 15, to make the shipping worthwhile; they’ve become a sort of house party favor when enthusiasts stop by. We’d started with five chickens, three from this 4-H mom-turned-business in Petaluma, and two which were hatched that same day in a friend’s flock. Of course, the latter two weren’t sexed (or vaccinated…), and of course one turned out to be a rooster, which we donated.

So we had four, when one day our Silver Laced Wyandotte up and died while we were gardening right next to her. I tried some experiments with temporary installations of the nipples, mostly consisting of my corralling a hen, holding her head, and forcibly tapping her beak against the nipple, causing water to dribble haplessly down her face. I suppose I could have tried really forcing them by completely removing their water for a few days and continuing the “training.” But I’d read that chickens learn better by example, and so we got some more, the idea being that the new chicks would learn from day one, and teach the others.

In some ways, this feels akin to having another baby in the hopes of teaching your bad three year old to stop misbehaving by example of an infant, but maybe I’m just being hard on myself. Either way, it worked! So what’s the rig that makes this magic happen?

It starts with a hose bib. The bib is always on, and connected to a length of half inch hose that feeds a bucket. The bucket stays permanently filled with a few inches of water, thanks to the repurposing of the buoy fount-valve that came with that dog/chicken bowl. The bucket has 3/4″ PVC coming out of it that snakes through a little hole into the coop, where there is a screw-cap end, and a single nipple. The nipple is colored red since apparently chickens see this color better (differently?) than others. As a final touch, I’ve spray painted the bucket and the PVC a forest green, so that they blend in.

As you might have guessed, feeding is the other chore I sought to minimize, and to do this I built a straightforward grain silo. The box holds two sacks (100 lbs.) of feed pellets comfortably, and the chickens can eat it at will. For some reason, the design does not accomodate layer mash (a finer grained version of layer pellets), as the hens spill and waste vast quantities of the stuff for reasons that elude me. The silo has an opening on top, accessible from the outside, into which I can pour the bags straight in.

To accomodate other feeding (greens, food scraps, and snails), I added a dutch door, allowing for a quick opening and tossing maneuver. Also, Barrie really has a thing for dutch doors…

Finally, I reinforced the floor of the coop with the same 1/4″ construction cloth mesh, to stop rodents from digging and under and joining the fray. The problem is, I didn’t account for the knots and other small cracks in the coop allowing the critters in. And in they are: I have several times now seen the chickens catch a mouse and devour it, all dinosaur like.

So what’s left? Well, there is one particularly inefficient thing about our hens: of the three fully mature hens, only one lays consistently. One was always spotty, but the other? She hadn’t laid for well over a year when we decided to hatch the new ones (you know, for drinking purposes…). We were particularly bummed about that, because she is an Americauna, a variety known for laying very pretty teal eggs. So when the chicks hatched (another story to be posted in time), and we sequestered mama hen and chicks in their little canton for protection, it took a day or two for this hen to all-of-a-sudden start laying. But, when we returned mama and partially grown chicks to the coop a few weeks later, she returned to her old, barren ways! From this, I can deduce either that a) she doesn’t like mama hen, or b) they are cramped, setting aside that we all know how industry chickens lay like champs in far shabbier hotels.

My solution is to build them an extension to their run, which I plan to do using some salvaged grape stake fencing I found on craigslist. But it won’t be covered, and I absolutely will not bind myself to putting them to bed each night and battening down the hatches. So, when I complete the fenced in run, I plan to treat myself to an automatic chicken door!

As for the design flaws, there are two significant ones. First, because we never planned on letting the chickens roam free, lest they eat and slash the rest of the garden to bits (or meet an unhappy end with Bodie the dog), I wanted to keep the coops walls airy and open. The problem is, when it rains they don’t have much protection. We’ve solved this by manufacturing some protective panels from a tarp, grommets and some carabiners, but it’s all quite clumsy. Ultimately, it would be nice if rain didn’t get into the main coop area.

Photo by Jake Stangel for Wilder Quarterly

The other major flaw is the access to roosting boxes, which are very conveniently chest high, but less conveniently covered by a top-hinged flap. The flap doesn’t easily stay open on its own, and the hens tend to kick up a lot of the bedding over the ledge, which I could make higher. In the photo, my arm rests on a bottom-hinged plank that gives access to the top of the grain silo. Crucially, the coops is tall enough for us to stand in, which is a must when you’re shoveling chicken shit.

There are moments where I think I’d like to tear it all down and try again… but that would be really, really inefficient.

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Before and After

Finally, I have a chance to share some pictures that have patiently been collecting iDust from when we first moved in, all the way through various stages of development, until now.  First of all, dig the realtor plants at the edge of the grass!  Second, while I do sort of miss the juke joint vibe of the garage we never once entered (it was physically difficult) — and for which we had a much less savory nickname on account of the barbed wire and cattle pen feel — I really am pretty thrilled with how it turned out.  So much so that, when I organize what is now so unceremoniously shoved in there, it’ll merit its own post.

The first step was removing the Eugenia trees that were sickly, huge, and dropping little red berries everywhere, and replacing them with insanely small Arbutus Madrones in the front, and Pittosporum Silver Sheen (why are plant names always backwards like this?) on the left, next to the chicken coop (in the photos further down).

The next step was to mark everything on the ground per the contours we’d drawn out, and feel how it would be to live with it.  I made myself walk within the boundaries in and out each day, to tried and imagine how it would feel.

The fence you see near the street was almost entirely reused: mostly for the coop, and the gate itself as a headboard for our bed.  There are a few things to point out in the above photos.  First, there is the large, black smoker on the left.  This was a free

Photo by Jake Stangel, for Wilder Quarterly

Craigslist find thanks to my friend Sylvan, who called me late one evening after we watched the Super Bowl together, and urged me to get it.  It didn’t occur to me to ask why he wasn’t going to get it, other than that it was pretty heavy.  So Barrie and I walked the 4 blocks at around 9pm, found it free for the taking, and spent the next hour hauling it, inch by inch, back to the yard.  I have since rehabilitated it (Rustoleum is amazing), and have smoked everything from pork shoulder to night smelt.  The other item is the compost tumbler, about which I was very excited when it arrived, and over which my enthusiasm has cooled substantially.  I may be missing something, but they aren’t as useful as I’d hoped.

The next step was to move some earth.  Andres Ventura, who had worked with my mother on her landscaping jobs, brought his crew and made magic happen almost instantly.  You can see the little Pittosporum shrubs on the left, and the even tinier Arbutus trees.  Barrie and I were pretty unconvinced that those little trees would grow in any reasonable amount of time.

Lastly, the patio was put down.  We had bought a bunch of different Talavera tiles and couldn’t decide how to put them down.  I almost managed to convince Barrie that we should use a randomizer to choose which went where as an homage to my background in Statistics, but in the end common sense won the day, though I have no idea exactly how we decided, other than that it happened in a hurry one morning before work.

Of course, we still had to put plants in.  Here you can see some of what it looked like just after planting.  Also, the new fence had been built, which includes the recessed, double-wide entrance just barely big enough to fit a compact car through to park in the landing area next to the garage.  The second picture from right shows how the plants grown in, and the new garage.

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Trading the Perfect for the Good

I almost feel that I should rename my blog to reflect this mantra; there are so many things I don’t do because they aren’t perfect, while Barrie lovingly refers to me sometimes as “80/20.”  But starting this blog, and posting this video, are a step in the direction of just doing.

I made the video from still shots with my recently acquired PlantCam.  I have had some trouble finding the right spot for it, but I guess the beauty is that I can move it around, almost like a director of a very, very slow-motion film.  I haven’t gone through the trouble of cleaning out the shots it took while on it’s back on our porch between mounts yet, and I’m still awaiting the Eye-Fi card I got for pledging (for the first time, shamefully) to KQED, which will hopefully upload the pics as they are taken automatically, though I’ll still have to figure out how to stitch them together from wherever they are.

When I get the process and code in nice form, I’ll add it here so anyone else can do something similar.  In the meantime, here is the first video:

The next phase — and I will definitely post code for this — is to add a visual of weather data (rain/sun) so that you can watch the garden react to conditions.

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