Whatever Did Happen to All Those Bantams Chickens?

The bantam chicks of 2012 were an ill fated bunch. There were the early mortalities from shipping stress, the cat attack, the skunk attack, the unusually high number of male specimens and the neighbors who did not appreciate the chorus of croaky attempts at rooster sounds.

Chicken dierama.

Chicken diorama.

Many returned to the soil on an abbreviated timeline, but a few are still with us. Four out of 28, to be precise. Four! Never again will we buy un-sexed bantam chicks. Not worth it.

Mille fleur

Mille Fleur d’Uccle

They truly are lovely paddock ornaments and I delight in the ridiculous sight of a mini fried egg, but even these girls may be rehomed soon. Laying is slowing down, so we will be “retiring” the old ladies of the flock this year. The replacement gals are in the tiny dinosaur stage of life at the moment (half feathered, fully awkward), being fostered by O’s kindergarten class. Once they are big enough to go outside we fear these flightly little bantams will be bad influences.

Silver Sebright

Silver Sebright, beautiful menace?

We had a wild night of terror a couple of months back- chickens freaking out, loud and feathery mayhem in the coop. It seems a predator must have been harassing them through the walls of the coop. A couple gals were quite wounded in some chicken-style friendly fire- bumping into one another during the crisis and being mistaken for the enemy. Since then all the girls have been suspicious of the coop but the above pictured Mille Fleur took matters into her own claws and started roosting in the redwood branches at night. Soon all the other bantams and both Ameracaunas were following her lead. Now we have a half flock of tree roosters. While I find this charming in some ways (trees full of hidden chickens! Ha!), it makes leaving for a weekend difficult (can’t lock everyone in for a few days) and I wonder how they will fair when the rains start. I fear the new babies will learn these tree roosting skills and that would be very inconvenient. So they may have to be Craigslisted. Sigh. Zero out of 28.

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Fall Bee Update, With Queen Pics!

Well, all those weeks ago the bees seemed to have come through the weird mini-swarm incident. The bees that clustered on the leg of the hive were all dead in a pile come morning (too cold?), but a few days later I checked inside the hive and things looked just like they did before the mini-swarm thing. On one of the few frames I pulled out to look more closely I happened to see the queen again, so that’s something. Mysterious bees! I have taken a more hands off approach since then, partially because I was worried I was stressing them too much and partially because that concern was just enough excuse to let the rest of life take priority.

Yesterday I wanted to take a quick peek to see how things were looking. I kept it short and sweet because the girls were feisty! I had this idea that I didn’t want them to unnecessarily gorge on honey, given the limited supply, so I didn’t use smoke. When I was smooth with my movements it was mostly okay, but any little bumps or jerks immediately resulted in that revving engine sound of pissed off bees and a few more angry ladies taking to the air in an attempt to sacrifice themselves to protect the hive.

The top medium super of the near hive.

The top medium brood box of the near hive.

The near hive had far fewer bees than before, but the top medium box was very heavy with honey and there was a small amount of brood in both the top and bottom boxes. I’m still fairly sure they don’t have enough honey stores to last the winter, so I will keep an eye on needing to feed them.

The colony in the far hive, however, was much smaller.

The top medium box of the far hive.

The top medium brood box of the far hive. Sad!

There were few bees in the top box but a fair amount of honey stored. The lower box had a small amount of brood and more bees, but not a lot. It seems that the amount of honey stored relative to the population might actually put them in better stead than the near hive in terms of basic sustenance, but I’m not sure about the chances of a colony this small.

The bottom box of the far hive.

The bottom medium brood box of the far hive.

You can see how the bees are clustering around the frames in the center of the box. This is where there is a bit of brood, so the bees are clustered here to try to keep this area at the constant 91-97 degrees needed to raise baby bees.

And now, something that I wasn’t at all hopeful about getting, pics of the queen! Given what I was just saying about being quick so as not to stress the hives too much, I have some guilt about taking the extra time to snap these pics but I just couldn’t resist. Ah the trials of being kept by a new beekeeper. Poor bees. Thing is, nobody else here at the homestead has ever seen either of the queens and I really wanted to share. So, here she is!

Queen Bee!

Queen Bee!

Can you spot her? Look right in the middle. She’s is the largest bee in this picture (and in the hive). She has a dark, hairless spot on her thorax, a pinched waist and a much longer abdomen compared to the worker bees. Sometimes I’ve found her in the classic pose, with a circle of doting caretakers surrounding her, but often she’s trying to scurry away from the light and the worker bees are more of a jumble around her.

A frame from the far hive.

A frame from the far hive.

Can you see her now? Close to the top, on the middle of the visible section of comb. This is an example of how the girls have drawn their comb using just a starter strip of wax foundation along the top of the frame. This frame is flipped upside-over (as O would say), so the main attachment is along the bottom of the picture. This is a maneuver I can do in cooler weather with a light weight comb, but would be risky in warm weather with a heavier comb- the whole comb might flop right out. Lots of times the girls bring the comb all the way down and anchor it to the bottom of the frame, making it sturdier, but not in this case.

I’ve heard of estimating the weight of a hive by how many fingers it takes to lift the hive, so I gave it a go in order to have some reference point for future hive checks. The near hive is at two fingers needed to lift, the far hive at just one puny finger needed! This seems bad. We shall see.

We went to Idaho! And It Rained.

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Yep. Went all the way to Idaho so our little family plus my sister could look out windows at the downpour. Fortunately, not all fun is outdoors.

Momma's camera is fun!

Mama’s camera is fun!

Dominoes, magnetic blocks, motorcycle guy, hanging out in undies all day- fun stuff.

Dominoes, magnetic blocks, motorcycle guy, hanging out in your undies all day- fun stuff.

There was big person fun as well.

There was big person fun as well. I know, we’re so wild and crazy!

Fortunately our rental car had this inexplicable feature. When I texted B this pic, he said he saw it but felt too old to press it. Sigh.

Fortunately our rental car had this inexplicable feature. B felt too old to press it. I pressed it and nothing really happened. Sigh.

There was rejuvenation. Extra special Idahoian mineral bath.

There was extra special rejuvenation. As my sister wrote, “MIneral bath. Idaho style.”

This was my kind of fun: wildflower seeds!

This was my kind of fun: wildflower seeds!

B had planned to spend the whole week up there, working and mountain biking, but cut the trip short and retreated to sunny Lake Tahoe, California. The afternoon before he left he waged one last, wet battle on the thistle scourge that has become his newest nemesis. In California we have ivy and morning glory to test his mettle as a groundskeeper, in Idaho we have thistles. Before he left he scattered most of these seeds. They will have no care and nor irrigation, so it may be a total fail, but when did the large chance of failure ever stop me when the possibility of rampant flowers exists? I’ll report back come Spring.

Bees Absconding?!?

It has been a strange evening here on the tiny farm. I was downing a glass of water in the kitchen after some chaotic tomatillo salsa canning, when I heard B yell (he never yells!) from the front part of the house “Hey babe, GET OUT HERE! Something is going on with the bees!” Lured by the gorgeous light coming in through the windows, B and the boys were venturing out on the porch to watch the sunset only to find a sky full of bees.  I scurried out for a closer look and found the bees darting around in what seemed like giant circles in front of the near hive. Some bees were clustered on the front of the hive with some going in and many going out.

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What?!? The other hive was the one that was confusing me the last time I checked out the bees, and suddenly this hive was making trouble! Within a few minutes the bees were gathering on the limb of the Redwood tree that extends over the roof. I was relieved to see this. At least no neighbor would be freaked out by a swarm camping out in their back yard. Unsure of what to do or even what I was really seeing, I figured it would be worth a try to set up a place for these traveling bees to camp out in. This is why all beekeepers are supposed to have extra bottom boards, covers, etc. on hand at all times! Unfortunately I assumed I would not have issues like these until late next winter or Spring when swarming season starts.

It was a beautiful evening for bee confusion.

It was a beautiful evening for bee confusion. The bees were one branch up from the one you can see here.

When I returned with a medium full of drawn comb (just pulled off the hive during the consolidation 2 days ago) I found the cluster was gone from the limb and perhaps settling down for the moment on the leg of the hive stand. Lots of bees were crawling around on the ground.  It was all very fascinating. And worrisome.

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With the outer covers from both hives I set up a makeshift spot for the bees to shelter in if the scout bees deem it worthy, but I’m not very hopeful. After settling the boys in to bed  I immediately looked online for some info on why bees might swarm so close to winter, and from what I gathered it seems to me more like absconding than swarming. I did not see any swarm cells in this hive, so I don’t think they have made or are making a new queen the way they would if they were swarming. Of the list of factors that might cause a hive to just move out entirely (abscond), my poor ladies have had most of the common stressors to at least some degree: crowding because I just consolidated the hive, hot weather making the crowded hive overheat, bad smells recently from the mite treatment, too much disturbance from the beekeeper, low food stores and a pretty intense wasp situation this year. It’s essentially a death sentence to fly off and try to start over this late in the year, so bees have to be pretty desperate to decide to leave. I feel sad about my part in that!

I’ll have a look again tomorrow and see if the hive seems to have anyone still home. Cross your fingers for us! At this point there is even the specter of Colony Collapse Disorder, but no sense in worrying over that until we have some more information. Perhaps if the worst is true and I have lost all these bees I can figure out how to make the far hive more comfortable so I might at least keep one hive going. If anyone has any thoughts on this new situation I’m again all ears!

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Winter Prep for The Hive

Fall has arrived here on the coast of California! Yes, it was 75 degrees yesterday, but it was a crisp 75 degrees! It felt like time to admit that my bees were not going to magically fill the empty box of comb that each had with honey and consolidate each hive for the winter. Apparently the girls have an easier time heating and defending a smaller hive in the winter, and my hives clearly had too much real estate. The consolidation process was pretty easy but the girls took great exception to being brushed off the frames of empty comb back into the boxes with brood and honey. To add insult to injury, I powder sugared them at the end. An assault!

This Passiflora edulis 'Fredrick" is hosting a bee fiesta!Passiflora edulis ‘Fredrick,”hosting a bee fiesta.

Both of my hives had very similar amounts of brood and stores for the winter (probably not enough- I’m still feeding). The far hive, however, had a couple of things that left me wondering. While the near hive had just one small section of drone comb on one brood frame, the far hive had sections of drone comb on three frames, and one of those was almost all drones. This is not a prime time for queens to mate and the bees, in theory, should be conserving energy for the winter and not raising resource sucking drones. On that same drone heavy frame I found 3 queen cups at the bottom. Although queen cups in this placement could mean swarming (which would not make sense, beyond it being out of season this hive had plenty of room and was not very strong) I have also read that sometimes the bees make these in case of emergency and won’t necessarily use them. I did some ruthless drone slaughtering (slashing across the tops of the drone cells with the sharp end of my hive tool until the puffy, white drone pupae were oozy and exposed) and left the queen cups. I saw the queen in this hive and she looked fine to my novice eye, but who knows what is going on in there. A laying worker? Bees confused about the season because I’m feeding them? I decided it was better to leave those cups in case the bees need to raise a new queen.  If any experienced beekeepers out there have any thoughts, I’d love to hear them!

Hey Now, That’s A Fancy Mustang!

People, the show was amazing!

Sue warming up the best Mustang at the show. Also, the only Mustang.

Sue warming up the best darn Mustang at the show. Also, the only Mustang.

Sebastian was his usual self. Calm. Obedient. Hungry!

His stall was full of hay! Clandestine hay is way tastier.

His stall was full of loose hay! Apparently, clandestine hay is way tastier.

Things started off with a bang when he got a second in his warm up class!

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His remaining two classes for the weekend were very large (21 horses each) and full of fabulous horses. The competition was fierce! Each ride was judged by two judges, so it was fun to compare scores and comments between judges. In the USDF Regional Championship Class there were 15 horses above 70% and 2 horses above 80% (that many rides with scores that high is raaaaaaare), so I was crazy excited that Sebastian got an 8th with an average score of 73.9%!

"People get so excited about these things. They must be edible"

“People get so excited about these things. Surely they must be edible.”

Watching him line up for the awards with all the giant warmbloods was hilarious. And made me so proud! Here’s the victory gallop (er, trot):

Trying to keep up!

Trying to keep up!

For The California Dressage Society Horse of The Year class there were two separate rides judged by 2 judges each, so in the end each horse’s score was an average of 4 judges’ opinions.

Suuuuper free walk.

Suuuuper free walk.

According to all those judges’ opinions, Sebastian and Sue are an excellent pair! After the first class Sebastian was in second place with an average score of 74.7. Whoo hooooo!

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In the end his average score among the 4 judges was 72.4%, earning him a 4th for Horse of The Year! What further blew me away was the the consistency of the comments. Lots of “lovely” and “willing horse.”

A very good boy.

A very good boy.

The best part of looking at the scores, however, were that Sue and Sebastian got a NINE on harmony between rider and horse not once, but TWICE!! Getting a 9 is crazy wonderful. Something that essentially never happens to the average rider, and very, very seldom to an amazing rider like Sue. And here it was- twice in one show! That is one special way to know you that you picked the right trainer. Oh yeah!

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So now Sebastian is home and riding him is such a joy. All the hopes I had for him going into training, to help him learn to move in the best possible way and mature his mind with lots of outings, have been greatly exceeded. Riding him now is like driving a sports car (albeit one with very eager brakes), as compared to the station wagon I sent to Sue. I’m even thinking that this dressage thing might be something that Sebastian and I can do together. I’m finding the precision needed to ride a good test to be both challenging and invigorating. It’s going to be my turn to start showing him in October. I must say it’s a little intimidating to show him in this new-to-me discipline after watching Sue ride him so beautifully, but I’m excited to try it out none the less. Here’s to at least not embarrassing myself next month at Greenville!

Little Mustang, BIG Horseshow

Well, the summer was fantastic for Sebastian, the wonder pony, and Sue, his wonder trainer. So fantastic, in fact, that we have decided to take him to the California Dressage Society championship show.

People, I am READY!

People, I am READY! Juuuuust as soon as someone tops off this hay bag…

Whoa. Big time stuff!

I’m so proud of what Sue and Sebastian have done this summer. He hasn’t magically transformed into a giant, splashy mover (although his movement has improved a ton) but what he lacks in flash he sure gains in consistency. He was always 1st, 2nd, or 3rd in his classes. His median score at the moment, going into championships, is a 71.2%. To a non-dressage rider that doesn’t sound that great (it’s not a C minus!), but in my intro to dressage showing this summer I have learned that that is a really good score! BTW, there is this amazing website, Centerline Scores, that lets a person totally nerd out on scores from dressage shows.

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I may, or may not, have looked up every horse in Sebastian’s class and found that, in fact, only two of his competitors have median scores higher than his. That consistency thing really works for him! I am keeping my expectations low, however. There are a good number of horses in Sebastian’s class who have gotten 78’s at past horse shows and everyone will be riding their very, very best. This show draws the fanciest horses from throughout the state and the classes are huge! No matter what happens, it’s an honor just to have him there and know that he earned his place among the European imports and soon-to-be six figure superstars.

Stillwater's Bastian, imported from Nevada!

Stillwater’s Bastian, imported all the way from Nevada!

The show is this weekend, September 19-22. Please wish us luck!