The Case of the Mysterious Molt

Summer is winding down and the best season of the year is just around the corner.  Canning is in full swing,  cooler nights will make for great sleeping,  local produce is abundant in home gardens and farmer’s markets and……………THE EGG COUNT IS DOWN AT CITY BOY HENS!

018“OK Honda……….What’s going on?  I’ve only ever asked you to provide this City Boy with 1 farm fresh egg each day.  So what’s the problem?  I know that you take the occasional day off, but this is quite a stretch!  What is it?  Was there not enough watermelon on those extremely hot days?  Did you not get enough vacation time at the cottage this summer? 105 Are you jealous because you 3 ladies now have to share the limelight with the honeybees on the blog? 070“Come on Honda….out with it!   You did sooooooo GREAT over the last 12 months since that most excellent day back in July of last year when you laid your very first egg while vacationing at the cottage.  Since that day, you’ve hardly ever taken a day off and I know I wouldn’t be stretching the truth by telling everyone that you laid over 340 eggs in those 12 months.  You are a champ among champs! You always lead by example and Lord knows, Swiffer could sure use some learnin’ from those examples!”

“So what’s the problem?  You know that school will be starting up again shortly and those teenage kids of ours will be looking for some farm fresh eggs in the morning.  You know it’s important that they start their day off right so that they can hopefully absorb some of the lessons that their teachers are teaching.”

“Oh…and by the way……what’s up with those eggs you were laying just before you shut down the factory?  Were you gettin’ bored laying those beautiful large brown  eggs each day?  Just so you know…..I’m not impressed with the crinkled light-colored eggs or those soft-shelled ones that Swiffer has taken a liking to eating!”  Well…As Desi Arnaz would say… “Lucy, you got some ‘splainin’ to do”.002

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It turns out that Honda is the first of my 3 hens to go into molt.  During this time, the hormone levels in the hen dramatically change and enormous amounts of energy are used to produce new feathers.  Because feathers are made up of around 85% protein, something else in the “protein using department” has to suffer and egg production always takes the hit.  As a result, hens in molt generally ceases or dramatically slow down producing eggs.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I was concerned in the beginning of this change.  At first, I thought Honda was sick.  You’ve got to remember that these hens are ISA Brown sex-links and they were bred to pump out eggs.  I’m not exaggerating when I say that these ISA Browns easily produce 340 eggs each in their first year of lay.

My biggest stumbling block  in not being able to recognize molt was that Honda was not loosing many feathers.  Sure, there were a few here or there, but nothing like I had read from other folks.  So after fretting for about a week (Ya…I’m ok with letting you know that I did worry about my chicken!) I contacted an acquaintance of mine who just happens to be a Chicken Vet.  Mike helped me rule out disease, suggested the strong possibility of molt and offered the following info on the change in Honda’s egg shape and color:  “The color is the last thing to be added to the egg, so the mottled egg, as well as the wrinkled shell indicates an interruption in her lay cycle….the egg didn’t travel through her reproductive tract at the speed it should have…..it went too quickly.  Eggs start out as membrane covered sacs of yolk and protein, then get filled with water and “plumped” out.  If the passage through the oviduct is too quick, the plumping out is incomplete, and this results in wrinkled eggs.  The excess speed also messes with pigmentation, explaining the color.”

In a nut shell, Mike was informing me that Honda was “rushing” her egg development on the days when her body was trying to muster up enough strength to create an egg during this stressful period. As a result, she ended up laying eggs that were either soft-shelled, crinkled, or lighter in color.  I guess this is a testament to sex-link hens.  Even amidst such  dramatic hormonal changes, my girl still tried her best to come through with the goods!

“Well Honda…..It’s been around 7 weeks since we’ve had one of your delicious offerings.  In case you forgot……here’s what you looked like when you were the starting pitcher at City Boy Hens………….  In the mean time…Rosie’s warming up in the bull-pen and Swiffer’s Ping-Pong ball contributions are lookin’ pretty good from here!  Oh…..and Mike….thanks again for your help.  You are “just down the road” from City Boy Hens.  I hope you’ll stop in and I can re-pay you with a beer or 2 and some homemade salami, olives & cheese.

Honda gettin' busy!

Honda gettin’ busy!

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How Do Bees Make Honey?

063Have you ever thought about how bees make honey?  The thought crossed my mind a while back and I didn’t have an accurate answer.   I figured that since I was going to become a beekeeper, than I’d better become educated in this process.

Step #1 The Need For Pollen and Nectar

Bees and blossoming plants need each other in order to survive.  Bees seek out flowers for their nectar and pollen and in return end up pollinating (fertilizing)  the flower as they transfer pollen grains from within each flower or from one flower to another.

In order for pollination to occur, pollen must be transferred from the stamen (male part of a plant) to the stigma (female part of the plant). When pollen from a plant’s stamen is transferred to that same plant’s stigma, it is called self-pollination. When pollen from a plant’s stamen is transferred to a different plant’s stigma, it is called cross-pollination. Anybody else feel like they just got teleported back to grade 5 science class?

But, this doesn’t tell us how the bees actually transfer the pollen grains from one part of the plant to the other?  Well…bees are pretty hairy and the pollen grains stick to the 100s of hairs on their bodies.  Some have even argued that bees actually carry an electrostatic charge which helps the pollen grains to stick to the hairs on their bodies. These grains attach and then come loose as the bee moves within each flower or from flower to flower. Thus, pollination  (reproduction) is completed.

But,  the bees also intentionally collect pollen from flowering plants.  It is this protein packed food which is used to nourish their larvae.  Believe it or not, they actually transport the pollen back to the hive by way of tiny baskets (scopas) that are attached to their rear legs.  No…I’m not joking!  Take a look at the picture below from one of my bees.  Do you see the yellow stuff on her back legs?  That’s pollen!  It’s a great sign for beekeepers because it signifies that the Queen is laying eggs which are developing into larvae who need to be fed. 055 - Copy

So, how do the bees get the nectar back to the hive?  Well, first they have to draw it up into their body by way of a giant tongue (proboscis) which remains rolled up (kinda like one of those party favors that you blew on as a kid) until it is need to extract nectar.  This tongue, when fully extended, is around 1/4″ long.  Considering that a honey bee is between 1/2″- 3/4″ long that makes for a freakishly long longue!  To make a comparison, a 6 foot human would have to have a tongue somewhere in the 2-3ft. range .  These bees make Gene Simmons trade mark tongue look like a joke!

Below is a picture of my bees drawing up some honey that I accidentally spilt while inspecting my hive.  Check out the length of the tongue on the bee who is hanging upside down in the rear of the picture.  And still, that tongue is not fully extended!078 - Copy

Once the bee begins drawing up nectar via its tongue, it is deposited into her “honey stomach”.  In fact, bees have two stomachs; their honey stomach which is like a nectar backpack and their regular stomach.  The honey stomach holds almost 70 mg of nectar.  When it is full, it weighs almost as much as the bee, herself. Now……That’s impressive!   Imagine picking up and carrying a load which is equal to your body weight?  But to make it even more outstanding……..we want you to fly to between 100 and 1500 flowers in order to gather that weight.       I don’t know about you, but I am TOTALLY impressed.

Step 2: Back At The Hive

Once the honeybees return to the hive, they  pass the nectar on to other worker bees.  These bees actually suck the nectar from the foraging bee’s honey stomach! This is definitely one bit of info. I’m not sharing with my kids.  If they ever found this one out, our honey consumption would drop to near zero!

The “transfer” bees then “chew” on the nectar which helps to break down the complex sugars into a digestible food source which can be stored indefinitely within the hive.  Incidentally, did you know that the honey which was found in King Tut’s tomb is still considered edible after 2000 years. Talk about a natural preservative!

The bees then deposit the nectar into the honeycombs where it continues to evaporates into a thicker syrup.  The bees make the nectar dry even faster by fanning it with their wings.  Once the honey reaches a moisture content of around 18%, the bees seal off each cell of the honeycomb with some wax.  The honey is then stored until it is consumed by the colony.  Incidentally, did you know that honey bees need to store around 100 pounds of honey in order to survive the winter?  Talk about the ultimate Prepper! As for the honey that you and I eat?????  Well….that will have to wait for another post when I will show you how I took off some honey from my own hive.056 - Copy

Honey Bee Trivia: 

Did you know that one honey bee will only make about 1/12  teaspoon of honey in her entire six weeks of life?  Maybe I’ve been taking that teaspoon of honey for granted that goes into my tea each morning.  Considering the above calculation, I consume the entire life’s work of 12 bees in a few gulps of tea.

Cited Work:

1) http://www.mbgnet.net/bioplants/pollination.html

2) http://www.pa.msu.edu/sciencet/ask_st/073097.html

3) http://animal.discovery.com/insects/question300.htm

Bread & Butter Pickles

015From what I have read, Bread & Butter Pickles originated in the Great Depression.  Since times were tough and meat was a luxury, thrifty folks came up with tasty alternatives for sandwich fillers.  On of these alternatives was the cucumber.   This vegetable was easy to grow and was successfully pickled so that it could be enjoyed in the non-growing seasons.  So….maybe the name came about  something like this…… “Hey Ester, what are we havin’ for lunch?”, said Wilbur.  “Well, since you ain’t got no job and you lost the pig in that card game…….all’s I got in the cellar are some sweet pickles from last summer.   Be happy that you got two slices of bread and a bit of butter to go with it.  Now eat that pickle sandwich before I take this skillet to your head!”    “Mmmmmmmm, said Wilbur.  That’s a mighty tasty sandwich.”  “Hey Ester, whad’ you call these there pickles you got in this here sandwich?”……  “I don’t know, you old coot.  Call’em whatever you want”. Well, in that case, I’m gonna’ call “em Bread & Butter Pickles!”……….And that’s how these pickles got their name.  Well….that’s the story I’m sticking with!

These pickles are easy to make and follow the general canning guidelines of most pickles.

Makes 5 Pint (500ml) jars.

Ingredients:

3 lbs. pickling cucumbers

3 medium onions, thinly sliced

1/2 cup  pickling salt (Don’t use table salt.  It will cloud your liquid and turn your pickles to an unpleasant color.)

6 cups cold water

3 cups cider vinegar

2 cups firmly packed brown sugar

2 tbsp.  mustard seed

1 tsp. celery seed

1 tsp. ground cloves

1 tsp.  turmeric

Directions:

001Weigh, wash and gently scrub all cucumbers.  Discard any cucumbers that appear spoiled.

002Cut approximately 1/4″ off of each end of the cucumber.  It is essential that you cut  the blossom end (not stem) because there is an enzyme at this end which will make your pickles turn mushy and possibly unsafe to eat.  The blossom end is located on the left side in the above picture.

Cut your cucumbers into 1/4″ slices and place them in a large bowl.

Thinly slice 3 onions and place them in the same bowl.

Add pickling salt to the water and stir until dissolved.  This make take a bit of stirring because the salt will not dissolve as readily in cold water.  Add the solution to your cucumbers and onions  and let it rest for 2 hours.  I occasionally give it a stir during this time period.004

With about a half an hour left of brining, fill your canner up with water about 2 inches higher than the height of your jars and bring the water to a boil.  This will take a bit of time.

Sterilize your jars in the oven at 225 degrees Fahrenheit  for 10 minutes and continue to keep them warm in the oven until they are needed.003

Place canning seals and rings in a small pot and begin to warm them up.005

In the mean time, add brown sugar, cider vinegar and spices into a large pot and bring to a boil.  Stir occasionally.006

Once the 2 hours of brining is completed, drain the cucumbers and onions into a colander.  Fill the bowl with fresh water and rinse again.

Put the drained cucumber and onion mixture into your large simmering pot and bring the ingredients up to a boil.

Using a canning funnel, pack your mixture into your canning jars, leaving 1/2″ head space.  I found it easier to fill all the jars first with the “solids” and then distribute the liquid after.012

014  Using a non-metalic utensil, remove the air bubbles from the jar.  Add more liquid to the 1/2″ head space level if required.

Wipe the lip of each jar with a wet paper towel.  This will ensure that no residue is left on the lip of the jar which will prevent a good seal.

Using tongs, place your seals and rings on each jar.

Using canning tongs, carefully place each sealed jar into the canner and process in boiling water for 10 minutes.025

Using the canning tongs, carefully remove each jar from the boiling water and leave to cool on a rack.

Soon you will hear the successful ping of each jar as it seals.  Now tuck those babies away in the cantina or cold cellar until the colder months when you’ll need a reminder of the summer!  If you can’t wait until then……just give them a few days to flavor!023

Keeping Your Chickens Cool In The Summer

069Summer……….  A time to hopefully slow down, take a vacation and BEAT THE HEAT!  As I say to most people, I like the summer when there is no humidity.  Unfortunately, many summer days are accompanied by high humidity in Southern Ontario.  On those days, it’s hard to want to do much more than stay in the house where the air conditioner keeps us cool.

For the chickens…….it’s a whole other story.  Imagine someone telling you to go outside in 90 degree heat, continue your daily routine AND WEAR A DOWN COAT that must cover you from head to toe.  Oh…I forgot to mention…lay an egg while you’re at it!  Whew… I’m getting hot just thinking about it.

So….here’s a few tell-tale signs to let you know that your chickens are getting over-heated.   When you see them walking or resting with their wings spread out, you know they are hot.   When you see them this way, they are trying to expel some body heat from  underneath their wings.  This is definitely a place where heat collects on a chicken. If you don’t believe me, stick you hand under the wing next winter and feel how toasty that spot is on a chicken.

Secondly, they will continue to keep their mouth open as another way to dispel heat.  It’s kind of like the way a dog  pants when he/she becomes too hot.  Below is a picture of Swiffer who is definitely hot.  She has found a spot on the deck where she is attempting to cool off underneath a deck chair.

Holy @$#! It's HOT

Holy @$#! it’s HOT

So here’s a few things you can do to make your chickens more comfortable during the dog days of summer.

1)  Make sure that they remain hydrated by providing lots of fresh water.  You may be surprised at how much water they will drink on a very warm day.  The volume can almost double on such days.001

2)  Make sure they have somewhere to go in order to get out of the sun.  Our backyard has plenty of shade from large trees and the hens spend a lot of their free ranging time in this location on those days.001

3)  Substitute daily vegetable treats with some watermelon.   But, remember….the treat is only a supplement to the daily feed.  Too many treats and the egg count could go down.  As well, too much watermelon and you may have a chicken that gets the trots.  In the picture below, my hens breezed through the watermelon wedge in a few minutes.015

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4)  Withhold from giving any scratch on hot days.  On most mornings, I like to throw some scratch into the run because the hens do not have the opportunity to free range.  This thing called work  gets in the way. Anyways,   the scratch allows the chickens to do some foraging throughout the day.   But, scratch is high in calories and has the effect of increasing internal body temperature.  Hence, it is great to use on winter mornings and evenings to help your hens stay warm, but it is not a good option for hot days.

5)  Head up to the cottage for some R&R.  You’ll continue to get fresh eggs and the hens will get the chance to hit the beach.  What????  What else am I suppose to do with them?   Leave them behind????  For more on taking your chickens on vacation, click HERE.050

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6)  Finally, when the wife isn’t home……..let the girls in for a little free ranging in the comfort of your air-conditioned home!  Before you know it, they’ll be up on the couch consoling you as you watch  The Blue Jays blow another attempt at The Division Championship..  Ok……I was just joking about the chickens in the house.   ” I promise Hun, the chickens have never been in the house! I was just writing this for dramatic effect.  You know…..A great way to keep your reader interested…………………….  I know there was that time when Stanley (our dog) managed to open the screen door by himself …but I’m working on training him to close it!”.001