Tag Archives: urban homesteading

Damnit Chickens, You Win

The mystery began with shards of egg shell in the arena. I pondered the source and had suspicious thoughts about the usual predators about the yard. The dog seemed most likely innocent as this scene lacked the limp corpse that usually marked her interactions with small animals. A racoon snack? The hens, you may recall, had been sleeping in the trees for months at this point so a night raid of the coop might only turn up eggs. Perhaps a very vigorous someone who enjoys both collecting eggs and performing daring acts of speed and agility dropped an egg on his way to the house?

The mystery was solved some days later when I spotted this thief winging his way off with his prize:

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This whole super-extra-free range chicken situation was going from mildly worrisome (What will they do when it rains? When will the racoons wise up and start picking off the lowest roosting ones?) to frankly irritating.

Enjoying the fresh air.

Good night, bad chicken.

After deciding they preferred open air sleeping, the chickens began fancying themselves entirely feral and began making nests willy nilly all over the paddock. They got terribly good at it and sometimes we wouldn’t discover the hidden clutches for days. The crows, however, were not so impressed by the chickens’ egg hiding prowess and, faced with such bounty, took to just pecking out and eating the eggs right at the nest. If we were really diligent with our egg collection we could beat them to it, but really diligent has never described my relationship with the chickens. Meanwhile, proceeds of our 36 dollar bags of organic layer pellets and lovingly tossed kitchen scraps were going directly into making the next generation of genius crows. I had to take action!

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So I did it. I locked them up. A few of them I could lure into captivity with treats, but I figured not all would go so gently. I purchased the long, metal, chicken-catcher hook that I had always looked at with curiosity/apprehension at the feed store and slunk around the yard after the last 2 stragglers until I could slip the hook onto a leg and drag each poor thing into my clutches. Our coop was once a duplex sort of a situation for chickens and rabbits, but has been all chicken space since our last Angora rabbit died several years ago. As such, it’s not perfectly designed to be an all-the-time space for chickens. It’s long and narrow and has a wire floor them keeps them off the ground. They hated it right from the start, pacing the cage most of the time, looking longingly at the two loose bantams (uncatchable, I didn’t even try) who were still able to roam. I had convinced myself that this was the practical thing to do. We have our chickens for eggs! We will eat all the eggs! I let this sadness persist for a few months.

Until I couldn’t stand it anymore. Having unhappy animals just isn’t part of our deal, not worth it. For awhile I thought the answer was to build a fabulous new, larger coop that would showcase all the innovations I was discovering on line (a poop hammock under the perch! chicken-weight-operated rat-proof feeder!). Ben, however, thought this kind of job would realistically not happen until the Summer, which sounded approximately 50 years away.

Instead we just opened up the door. The ladies have never looked back.

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There has already been evidence of egg theft, but I have a new answer: more chickens! I figure with enough chickens we won’t miss the eggs too much. I also hope to soon have much of the detritus and hiding spots around the yard cleared out so that the nest box in the coop looks most inviting. I have some ceramic eggs in the nest which are supposed to help. And, sigh, I’m working on that diligence thing- collecting eggs more than once a day to stay ahead of my competition.

It’s all worth it when I pull into the driveway and see the gals loose in their Redwood habitat. I have always been enchanted by even the most banal of chicken behavior. I stop the car sometimes and just sit, taking in the awkward flailings of a dust bath or the precise, repetitive strike of a beak into a nook of bark. Great stuff.

 

 

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First Sting Down!

When I was first contemplating beekeeping I was pretty scared about signing up for being stung with any kind of regularity. I read accounts of beekeepers acclimating to stings over time and figured I was of somewhere near average fortitude so I would probably be okay. But it still scared me. What a pleasant surprise to discover that stings are pretty avoidable, if you’re careful. I am lazy about smoking my bees to keep them calm, so I rely on their inherent gentleness and a good bee suit to keep me protected. My usual system involves wearing paddock boots, their ankle-high, thick leather shielding the only part of my body that isn’t covered in protective gear.

A couple of Wednesday’s ago the weather was approaching the mid sixties and I figured it would be wise to do a cursory inspection of my hives. The mother of the queen in my far hive swarmed a few months after installing her with just a package of bees, so I want to be careful to give that colony as much space as they need to avoid another swarm. That far hive has been looking very active and the three medium boxes are too heavy to lift with one hand (a quick measurement of food stores is to feel the weight of the hive), so I wanted to see if they were ready for another box to move into. I believe it’s a little early to have a nectar flow in Oakland, but the torrential rains we had in December after such a long drought mean all bets are off. After all this time without a sting I decided not to walk into the next room and find my boots, figuring that my jeans covered that gap between my bee suit pants and my clogs well enough.

There is a concept in beekeeping called “bee space.” If you leave the bees 1/4″ to 3/8″ of space they will treat this as a thoroughfare and generally not muck it up with comb. More space than that, however, and you are inviting them to fill it with comb for brood or honey. There are many things to love about the feeders I have but they do violate the concept of bee space and usually result in crazy comb being built up into the cavern that allows the bees to access the syrup I add from the top. When I opened the far hive I broke apart quite a bit of honey filled comb, leading the girls to believe, with fair logic, that their precious stores were under attack. One thing led to another and a particularly devoted guard bee located the tender, black argyle sock patterned weak spot of this massive intruder. The sting itself was pretty much how I expected it to be- unpleasant, but better than the times I was stung as a kid. I’m a beekeeper now, I thought, this sensation is a part of the bargain! I brushed off the stinger, hustled back to grab my boots, and finished inspecting both hives. I did end up adding a box to the far hive- those bees are going strong! The near hive is about where they were in November. One deep box pretty full, but not ready for any more space. The near hive’s queen is the daughter of a queen who performed so poorly last year I had to kill her myself in hopes of saving the hive. We’ll see if things pick up as they should, or if it was a mistake to keep the genetics of that first queen going.

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I was feeling fairly smug about the sting as I went about the rest of my day, tearing away at the thicket of weeds that used to be the garden and generally trying to tidy up the property. I had my first sting and it was no big deal! I thought. I am going to write a totally nonchalant blog post about being stung and everyone will recognize I have become a super tough beekeeper sort of a person! Yay, me!

That evening, however, the situation took an unfortunate turn. The swelling and itching had begun in earnest. The first step after sitting for a bit was sometimes an exciting stab of pain and each step was, in fact, pretty darn uncomfortable. By bedtime I was gimping around somewhat dramatically and contemplating whether or not this injury would keep me from work the next day. As a nurse working in inpatient psychiatry, I value my ability to move quickly and easily if the situation demands it. We are, according to the instructor of the annual training our staff gets in managing violent patients, the most assaulted profession. I also felt that a severe limp would be somewhat unprofessional. I imagined myself cheerfully telling a patient that I would be right back with that glass of water/medication/lunch tray/etc. and then limping extravagantly away. My position is unbenefitted, however, and I really couldn’t stomach the idea that one bee sting was going to forfeit an entire day’s pay.

So, it wasn’t a super fun work day but between some anti-inflammatories and a very sexy pair of knee-high compression hose I got it done. I think I kept the limping to a not-embarassing level most of the time. Here is the average ankle on the left and her sausagey friend on the right after a night of rest broken by horribly satisfying itching sessions.

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A few days more and I was good as new!

In the end I’m not sure what this experience means. I have my suspicions, though. Perhaps I’m just not super tough. Being sensitive has its upsides, right? And maybe I will never be that fearless beekeeper that inspects hives in flip-flops and cut off shorts. I bet the honey will taste the same!

2013 Family and Farm Round-up!

I haven’t carved out the time for a blog update in forever and ever, so here’s a slapdash tour of the whole darn year to make up for some lost time. If you’re not my mother, you might just want to skim the pics. It got a bit looooong. Here goes:

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I got suuuuuper duper pregnant! If I had a nickel for every person who asked if I was having twins… I would tie them up in a small sack to tote in my purse and use to whack those people upside the head. Most especially those who followed with “Are you sure you’re not having twins?”

It was not a delightful 9 months. I will absolutely miss some things- the feeling of having a mysterious, kicking creature inside me and all the wonder and joy it inspired, but mostly the rest of it was rough. I had amazing, intense nausea and please-let-me-lie-down-on-the-floor-right now-to-sleep fatigue for the first 17 weeks, followed by some absolutely crazy making insomnia and pelvic discomfort for the remainder. I was so darn happy to have that baby for all the usual reasons, but also to end that pregnancy!

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But who wouldn’t go through that if it meant you got to have this guy in the end??! Baby R- way beyond worth it.

He’s in that exponential growth period of life these days, so looking at pictures like this one is a trip. Moments ago he was a grub and today he was ransacking our cabinets and burning holes through the knees of his tiny track pants in an all out crawl-sprint for Bonnie’s dog food bowl. Nuts!

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Yep, here comes trouble!

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O has proven to be a superb older brother. There have been some minor recent frustrations as R has gone from a largely sedentary guy that a big brother can interact with or ignore ad lib in the course of an afternoon’s play to a roving Lego hoover that must be constantly monitored to keep from destroying and/or being destroyed by a person’s favorite toys, but overall it has been quite a smooth transition. O is enjoying R so much he’s even had moments of lobbying for another baby (gasp)! R is one lucky guy.

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For the chickens it has been a year of declining productivity and tree roosting naughtiness. We got our newest round of chicks in the Fall to get a jump on Spring laying and all was going great until one of our young ladies started crowing yesterday. Another rooster! Sigh. The four standard size hens we had ranged in age from about 4-7, so it was time to also retire them to the big hen house in the sky (a.k.a. my friend Catherine’s freezer). I was more hands on in the slaughtering and dressing this time around, so I think in the future we’ll be keeping our old birds on site for our own stew pot. I’m also thinking of a more rapid turn-over plan in the future so that we have more consistent laying through the winter months. Catherine and I tried a couple of new techniques in processing the hens this time- using garden shears for the beheading and skinning rather than plucking the birds (Catherine doesn’t like the skin), both of which I highly recommend.

The chicken above, Amelia, will certainly be remembered. She was constantly in search of a better place to hide her eggs, a trait which led to many misadventures. The first time she went missing I just assumed the worst after a few days, but B, in a rather surprising moment of chicken tenderness, flyered the neighborhood with “Lost Chicken!” signs. Turns out she had just been on a walkabout and taken to roosting in a tree outside our neighbor’s bedroom window. The second time she was lost B found her splayed out in such an awkward pose in one of our compost bins that he was sure she was dead. A loud screech and panicked flapping set him right on that account when he went to pick her up, uncovering the 17 eggs she had been secretly laying and attempting to hatch. Often, though, it would be Bonny the Bloodthirsty who would find her after she had flown from the safety of the fenced chicken paddock. Three separate times the chase ended badly, but each time Amelia managed to escape death’s fluffy blond jaws. Some chicken!

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Here we find Bonny terrorizing other small animals across the West.

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Ferocious!

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As mentioned before, my fabulous dressage trainer Sue and Sebastian The Wonder Mustang absolutely kicked butt this year while I was busy being hugely pregnant and then hugely tired postpartum. I couldn’t be more pleased with Sebastian’s progress! Certainly some credit goes to him being a really wonderful guy, but the layering of well done dressage training over natural horsemanship foundation training is just dreamy. He is a pleasure to be around and he’s really learning to use his body correctly. He and I are even moving up to First Level this year! I took him to a show and rode him at Training Level in October. He was a total champ (as expected) and I managed to mostly keep my wits about me and steer the proper course, so onward and upward we go!

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That one is me! In full dressage show gear- Hah! I thought showing hunter/jumpers was silly with my wool coat in the heat of the Summer, but check me out now- white pants and gloves for riding horses. Who thinks that’s a good idea?? After finding that the dressage coat that fit me well was 480 bucks (AK! I could adopt 3.84 more BLM Mustangs for that price!), I dyed my old hunt coat black and put on silver buttons to emulate dressage fashion. Totally passable, I think. I had a lot of fun at this show. I can’t wait for our next one in February.

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B did manage to go skiing in the back country- once, last April. As a guy who grew up in the mountains, skiing all through the winters, B really recharges on these kind of trips.  Once is not nearly enough! Jeez. This life balance thing is tough.

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The bees! Oh, the bees. This first year as a beekeeper has been, well, very mixed. I have loved everything I have learned and the hands on care has been amazing, BUT I think most all of my bees are dead. I found that sad, sad fist-sized clump of dead bees surrounding the dead queen of the far hive after the cold snap in the late fall. I imagine they were just too small and weak to stay warm. At last check a couple of weeks ago the near hive had a smattering of brood on two medium frames and not a lot of bees. A few days ago I watched a sort of sputtering bee topple off the landing board and found that she had the shriveled little nubby wings that come from deformed wing virus- a sure sign that the mite levels in the hive are overwhelmingly high. The virus enters the bees through openings made when mites feed on their bodies.

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I guess it’s possible that they will come back, but I can’t help but think they’re pretty much done for. They have all the leftover stores of honey and nectar from the far hive and in theory there should be Eucalyptus to forage now, so we’ll see.

It’s hard to know what did almost everybody in, possibly a combination of robbing wasps (there were soooo many this year!), mites, and stress from me checking in on them as an eager first year beekeeper trying to learn the ropes. Next year I’m going to get packages of bees from a new source and be more vigilant in some ways (robbing screens on earlier, more intensive mite control) while less invasive in terms of hive inspections. I definitely love the practice of beekeeping, so I’m going to keep at it. The dry, dry California weather (it’s eerie, I can barely remember the last rain) will present a new problem in the coming year, however, with much less forage available. Please wish us luck, it seems we will need it!

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Of course the year involved a good deal of crafting. Between O and I there are always a project or two and various supplies littering the house. O is particularly fond of anything involving tape or string, but my only-for-work pens and any strap-like horse tack also do quite nicely when constructing elaborate art installations in the house. I got really into making paper flowers. This is my New Year’s wreath:

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So there it was, a loooong glimpse at Full Hearts Farm 2013. We send our best, best wishes and lots of love to all for the coming year!

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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!