Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

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Root Cellar

My name is Garth Brown, and since the first of this year, my brother Edmund and I have been living entirely on food we’ve grown, hunted, or foraged, and we intend to keep it up for all of 2015. Well, we’re also allowed to barter and receive gifts in limited circumstances, but so far, this has netted us one gallon of milk and a container of yogurt, so we’re on our own for the most part. We both have wives who are very supportive, and they, too, eat largely food we’ve grown, but they just didn’t feel called to give up coffee.

We share a farm about twenty minutes from Cooperstown in central New York, so we have plenty of land and livestock, and we have a large vegetable garden. This past fall we followed the plans from MOTHER EARTH NEWS to make a root cellar out of a precast, concrete septic tank to store our harvest. We had been using the basement of the old farmhouse, but it would inevitably get too cold or two warm, and we could never keep the vegetables damp enough. We hunt deer and turkey, as well as the occasional rabbit and squirrel, and we have ramps, wild apples, dandelions, and all the other forageable foods common to the Northeast.

Reasons for Pledging to Eat Locally

The first question people usually ask when they hear what I’m doing is why I would choose to subject myself to such a program. It’s surprisingly difficult to answer. I’ve been more self-sufficient every year since buying the farm, and in many ways it’s natural to take this to its logical conclusion. It just feels like something I want to do.

But there’s more to it than that. I’m interested in the questions raised by the undertaking. The more I planned and thought about what I would need to make it a full year, particularly starting in January, the more I realized how much I would inevitably rely on outside resources. I feed the hens all the table scraps, but they also get grain. The cows’ hay all comes off our land, but the machinery and diesel required to put it up obviously don’t. I save some seed, but certainly not for everything I grow in a given year. For these and many other reasons absolute self-sufficiency is an illusion, but by raising these points the experiment encourages thought about which items it really makes sense to produce individually and which should be made on a community level.

Learning to Produce Your Own Food

But I also seek a practical understanding of food production. How will I make up for a failed potato crop or to smooth out the lean period when winter stores are depleted but the new carrots aren’t in yet? Which crops maintain their quality in the root cellar? What’s the fastest way to get calories out of the garden in the spring? What items will I miss most, and what will I replace them with? (Actually, I already know the answer to this. It’s coffee and chocolate, and there is no satisfactory replacement for either of them.) How hard will it be to find willing partners to barter with, and what sorts of foods will they have? How much food will I be able to forage?

I hope you’ll enjoy following along as I seek to answer these and other questions that I’m sure will arise in the course of the coming year, and I hope you’ll suggest any topics you’d like to see addressed.

I’ll close with a little housekeeping. My brother, Ed, and I share a byline for this blog, and we will both be writing entries. For the sake of clarity, we will be using the first-person singular as I’ve done in this post even though this project and the farm as a whole are very much collaborative enterprises. If you are interested in a more day-to-day account of the year, we post four times per week to the blog on the Cairncrest Farm website.

I look forward to keeping you updated on the highs and lows of the coming year!

— Garth Brown

Photo by Amy Gray

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


Baby Chicken 

It’s almost that time of year again: when crocuses begin to nudge through the frozen ground, and birds begin their annual migrations northward. Can chicks be far behind?

Certain as spring follows winter, your local feed-n-seed store will soon offer baby chickens for sale: stock tanks softened with sawdust, warmed by heat lamps, and populated with downy fluffballs on legs, otherwise known as spring chicks. But for first-timers (or even for experienced chicken enthusiasts), selecting, purchasing, and preparing for your flock can seem like a daunting task. After thirty years of raising chickens, here’s my personal guide to ensure your new flock remains safely tucked beneath your wing.

The Brooder

Preparation comes first, and that means having a clean, secure place for your chicks well before you purchase (or hatch) them, commonly known as a ‘brooder.’ Now, it’s your job to think like a mother hen. Will the chicks be warm enough (a steady 95-98 degrees)? Will they be secure from predators (this means rodents, as well as the family cat or dog)? Do they have a steady supply of fresh water, abundant food, and clean bedding?

Brooders can be as simple as a large cardboard box with a heat lamp, or four half-sheets of plywood screwed together with a large hover. But unless these important details are settled in advance, things can quickly go awry.

Chicken Brooder 


When a chick hatches from the egg, it remains nourished and hydrated for a day or two, but quickly needs additional sustenance. As soon as you get your chicks home, dip their beaks into the water source to ensure they get an immediate drink. This gets them hydrated, as well as familiarizes them with the location of their water. Newborn chicks are both hungry and curious, so be sure to already have their feed (preferably a 21 percent starter mash) available in a small, shallow pan or trough. If possible, avoid purchasing a starter formula with antibiotic; it’s not necessary if you practice a routine of cleanliness, and I’ve never used them in 30 years.

Finally, keep feed constantly available for the first two weeks, reducing to twice-per day feedings thereafter. Also, introduce a fine granite grit (available in a separate pan, or sprinkled over their food) on day three to help aid digestion.


At roughly one month of age, your young birds will be feathered out, much larger, and eager to venture outdoors. Now, cleanliness and security are even more important… notice a theme here? Whether you’re raising chickens in your backyard, on a homestead, or farming miles away from your nearest neighbor, one thing remains a steady constant: everything likes to eat chicken. From raccoons and hawks to neighbors’ dogs, be sure to have a secure place for your chickens, especially from dusk till dawn.

Chicken Opener

There’s an old saying out here in the country: “Chicken wire keeps chickens in, not predators out.” Despite its name, it’s far better to use rabbit wire to fence your coop, a heavier, more reliably predator-resistant material. Commonly sold at hardware stores, I recommend purchasing a galvanized variety, and taking the additional step of burying the first 3 inches beneath the ground. This discourages predators from trying to dig beneath the fence (and they will!).

Additionally, be sure to frequently remove all the bedding from inside your coop, at least once per month. Throughout the course of the week, add a few handfuls of pine shavings (my preferred floor material), and thoroughly aerate it with a common garden claw or heavy duty rake. This will reduce buildups of pathogens, ammonia, and keep your hen’s feet much cleaner. It’s also great exercise for the farmer! By the way, old bedding makes superior compost, so keep a compost bin handy near your coop to reduce chores.

Build Experience

Start small, and start slowly. Like all living creatures, chickens enjoy company (I’d suggest always raising at least three or four together, never just one). But that doesn’t mean you need to have a flock of fifty to have a wonderful experience. You should, however, be prepared for some hard work, many mistakes, and yes, even the loss of a few hens. This is how we gain experience, and become better flock managers in the future.

Chicken In Grass 

Have Fun

It seems silly to remind ourselves of this, but with all this hard work, take my word— it becomes easy to lose sight of why we started our flock to begin with! Spend time with your flock each day, enjoying their antics and their funny ways of communicating. Take a moment to appreciate those amazing eggs at breakfast time and the incredible compost that’s fertilizing your flowerbeds and garden. 

More than anything, enjoy the simple grace of their presence and the shared connection to their fascinating world. At the end of the day, I’ve always found this is the greatest reward of all.

Forrest Pritchard is a sustainable agriculture advocate and author of the book Gaining Ground: A Story Of Local Food, Farmers' Markets, and Saving The Family Farm. Gaining Ground was named a Top Read by The Washington Post and NPR and is available in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Store. Forrest's new book, The Farmer In Your Kitchen, debuts September 2015.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


Snow covered creek

If you live in the eastern half of the U.S., chances are good that you're currently experiencing a foot or more of snow along with unseasonably cold temperatures. Here in the mountains of southwest Virginia, late February is usually a time to look for the first blooming crocuses, to prune perennials, and to start gearing up for the early spring garden...but all of that is impossible during our current deep freeze. How's the homesteader to keep herself happy and productive during the snow?

Thyme seeds

Start some seeds. I'll tell you up front that this plan can backfire if you fill a flat with tomatoes in February, then have to install grow lights and shelves everywhere to make room once the plants outgrow their seed-starting trays. Good choices for getting a head-start on spring without producing leggy, unhappy plants (and unhappy human family members) include vegetables and herbs that grow slowly from seed and (hopefully) can go out in the garden before your frost-free date. Specifically, I recommend trying onions, celery, oregano, thyme, and chamomile now, with more options opening up in March.

Grape cuttings

Root some grape cuttings. Grapes are the very easiest plant to propagate using hardwood cuttings (read: dead-looking sticks cut out of the winter garden). While you can get pretty good success rates by simply sticking these cuttings into the soil in your spring garden, you'll produce a plant twice as vigorous by the first autumn if you instead start cuttings in pots inside during the winter. I cut pencil-thick pieces of first-year growth with at least five buds, soak them in water overnight, then push the cuttings into low-nutrient potting soil until they're halfway covered. Water the pots well, then set them on a heating pad for two weeks. After that, you can use the heating pad for your seedlings and can ignore your grape pots unless dry winter air requires you to water the soil. Finally, move the grapes to a sunny window and begin treating them like any other potted plant once leaves begin to poke out of the buds. Your new house plants can be set out into the garden after all danger of frost is past.

Making mini mushroom logs

Start some mushrooms. If you drink coffee (or live close to a coffee shop), growing oyster mushrooms on coffee grounds in a modified 5-gallon bucket is the way to go for indoors cultivation. You could be eating homegrown mushrooms within a month! We're not coffee drinkers, so are experimenting with some shiitake mini logs for indoor cultivation instead.

Roasted brussels sprouts

Cook something. A snowbound day is a perfect opportunity to poke through your winter stores. Are your carrots starting to shrivel in the root cellar and need to be turned into stew? Or perhaps it's time to thaw out one of those summer chickens, then brew up stock on top of the wood stove using the bones. Check out Farmstead Feast: Winter for the delicious, in-season recipes we depend on during the cold weather on our own farm.

Snow ice cream

Make snow ice cream. Okay, so this isn't as productive as it is just plain fun! If you tapped your sugar maples before this cold spell set us back into the dead of winter, you can even make snow ice cream with homegrown sweetener. Just fill a dessert bowl with clean snow, add 2 tbsp of milk, 2 tbsp of cream, and 1.5 tbsp of maple syrup, mix well, and enjoy!

What are your favorite ways to stay happy and healthy while the snow falls?

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page. 



Perhaps the most time-sensitive task this month is to plant the onion seeds. I use plastic trays on our kitchen table, in front of a big, south facing window. I cover the trays with clear plastic domes to make it warmer and more moist, and even though our house still gets down to the low 50s or even into the 40s at night, the seeds do just fine. I will also make a note to myself to remember in the fall to set a tub of compost and the trays in a snow proof shed, since it took several hours this time to shovel out two sheds at home and one at my neighbor's (plus my car that got stuck going over there) before I had gathered the things I needed.

Shovel Snow

With a whopping 4 feet in 10 days and more after that, at least we have something to do outside most days.

owl house

Build an Owl House

We had a pretty hard time last year with voles in our garden and despite the time and effort put in to trapping them we still lost quite a bit of produce. In lieu of a cat or dog we must rely on natural predators to help us keep the pressure down and one such animal is the Barred owl. Its natural nesting site would be a big hollow tree, but since our land was clear cut in the 1950s, any trees of the right size are not old enough to be hollow. Instead we built an over-sized bird house that might attract owls to move in and hunt for food in our garden.

Our owl house is built with spruce and has the dimensions 10-by-12-by-20 inches, with a pitched roof and a 6-inch-diameter entrance hole. Barred owl are shy and it's best to hang the house in the woods, 20 feet up.

Plan Deer Isle Hostel and Homestead Educational Program 2015

Sharing what we know and our way of living is a great motivator for us. Since a few years we offer workshops and lectures on homesteading related topics and this year is no exception. Foraging and cooking wild edible plants with Tom Seymour, permaculture introduction with Maine-based Mid-Coast Permaculture, and Medicine Making from Garden Weeds are just some of the topics we'll cover. We'll also bask in the delights of summer, with an herbal spa-day and our big, annual summer party, complete with live music, bonfire and dancing.

Do Things We Don't Have to Do

If I ever wonder what to do with all this time I have while everything is frozen or covered with snow, I remind myself how I sometimes in say, August, wish that it would all freeze over or snow under so that I would get a break. It's fun to do things that aren't absolutely essential, like walking around looking at tracks in the snow, or shoveling out another path around the farm or riding our winter bicycle to town to drink coffee at the local coffee shop 44 North.

Enjoy the winter – it seems like it's here to stay for a while.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.



One of our hot water tanks broke. I can hear you saying, “One of your hot water tanks? How many do you have?”

We have three hot water tanks. The first tank is part of our Enerworks Solar Domestic Hot Water system. I installed this about 6 years ago. From there the water flows into a second hot water tank with an electric element. I use this as our “dump” or “diversion” load. When the batteries are fully charged by the sun I dump my excess solar electricity into this tank. So now I have a fairly big reservoir of hot water.

From there the water flows to our final hot water tank, which is propane. This tank basically doesn’t come on from about March to October. Since the water flowing into it is already hot from the previous two tanks, it doesn’t need to switch on.

Usually what happens is that one of us will be using hot water, washing the dishes for example, some day in the late autumn and we will hear the big “whoosh” sound that the propane burner makes as it lights. We make a big deal of booing and hissing and screaming and moaning and protesting. (Read more about that on my personal blog.) Somehow it feels like a huge defeat. We can go for so many months heating our water with just the warmth of the sun and then suddenly it seems we have day after day of cloud and there just isn’t enough solar thermal energy to heat our water. The big “whoosh” didn’t happen this fall. It wasn’t a huge problem since we still had lots of hot water. As soon as we begin using the woodstove for heat we load it up with kettles. We do the dishes with zero-carbon hot water from the woodstove. I shave with a kettle-full of water. We have baths filled with water heated on the woodstove.

Eventually we noticed that the water that was coming out of the hot water tap wasn’t very hot. This took a long time because the pilot light was on and the water was still warm. We didn’t need to use hot water from the tap very often.

Finally I clued in that the actual propane burner wasn’t coming on. I played with the temperature setting and you could hear it click on to signal to the burner to fire up, but it never ignited.

This began the process that is so routine at Sunflower Farm of trying to figure out how to fix something. We own the tank so it wasn’t just a matter of calling the propane company and asking them to replace a rental with a new one. If I had called them it could also lead to one of those hassles because safety codes change, and even though they inspected our place last year you just know the response would be "oh no, you can’t just replace that tank, you need a direct vent DC powered reverse osmosis LED programmed defibrillated gazingus pin powered over drive tank which will be $11,000."

So I started calling around trying to get the parts to replace it myself. This was when I learned that you can’t buy parts for a gas hot water tank unless you have a gas fitters license. And so on and so on and so forth.

This left us in a quandary. What to do. This happened in the midst of 27 other projects and since we were still able to enjoy lovely hot baths and lovely hot water for dish washing, etc. it was kind of easy to schluff it off.

Then the holidays were approaching and Michelle reminded me that our daughters and their husbands would be coming for a visit and they’re kind of used to regular showers and that whole life with hot water from the tap thing.

I was hatching a strategy for staggered baths … just the like pioneers! It was going to be a “Little House on the Prairie” Christmas! The girls would wear bonnets and big lacy dresses with crinolines and we’d make our own decorations, and oh, just like the pioneers there’d be one bath a week … for everyone …men first… women last. Ya, I knew that would never work in a house full of feminists!

I was even willing to make the concession that our guests wouldn’t have to share their bathwater. Usually Michelle has the first bath when the water is scalding hot and I have the second bath once it cools off a bit later. But this wouldn’t have worked for my daughters. In fact I believe they have made it abundantly clear to me on numerous occasions that the idea of sharing bathwater is a disgusting and unhygienic concept. I’ve done it for years and it hasn’t killed me yet. So okay, I was willing to fill the bath tub up with woodstove heated water as many times as necessary during the holidays.

Shortly before they were due to arrive I went down to the cistern below the kitchen, which we use as our root cellar. I was getting potatoes for our breakfast hash browns. As I came up through the trap door out of the cistern I was actually at eye level with the hot water tank controls. So I took a closer look at the burner and the controls.

I don’t know if you’ve ever had to start the pilot light on your hot water tank, but it’s a good skill to have. They go out periodically and it’s nice to know how to restart them. A pilot light puts heat to a thermocouple. As long as the pilot light keeps that thermocouple hot, gas continues to flow to the appliance. But as soon as the pilot light goes out and heat stops, the thermocouple shuts off the flow of gas. This prevents your house from filling with gas should the pilot light ever go out. That would be a very bad situation so it’s a pretty brilliant concept.

I had shut the pilot light off back in March because by then the sun was heating all of our water. I turned it back on in about October. I guess this past October as I was restarting it I turned the control enough to start the pilot light, but I didn’t turn the igniter control far enough to actually tell the main burner to come on. So, once I realized this I turned that knob a quarter dial, and voila .. Poof … whoosh … on came the burner! Eureka! Hot water! Disaster averted! I’m a genius! I fixed the hot water tank! Or, I’m an imbecile because I didn’t turn it on correctly the first time. Doesn’t matter! Crisis averted!

Needless to say I see this as a great learning experience. I’m forever telling people that as we try and get the house to zero-carbon we are using a decreasing amount of propane. Well, this year we made it to December 22nd without the hot water tank coming on! So I basically just need it for January and February! I can work on that.

There must be some psychological term for the pathological behavior that allows someone like me to feel like a genius when I fix a problem I shouldn’t have been so stupid as to have created in the first place. If I had more time I’d research the name of this online. But when I look at my To-Do list for the day I know there are some things I can fix pretty quickly if I just remember what I did to break them in the first place!

To read more about life off the grid at Sunflower Farm please visit Cam's website.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


barred rock

I can still remember the day my husband said, "let's get chickens". It wasn't a pleasant moment. You see, I had been tossing the idea around for awhile, but he was never very fond of it. It happens that way though -- until it becomes "his" idea, it's not fun for him. But the sad reality is that someone else had started talking about chickens, and now, all of a sudden, it was a wonderful idea!

Let's skip that part....

Now we have chickens....and they aren't always as easy and fun as some might think. But they are the best things ever. Chickens truly were the "gateway animal" for the beginning of our homestead. And over all, they are generally quite easy to tend to. As with everything, however, there's the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Our chicken journey began with two sweet little hens who needed a new home. Their previous owner had to move and could not take them with her. Therefore, enter me...with my brilliant idea. Yes, yes, we will take them and this will force Mountain Man to build that coop he bought materials for a month ago. Our two little hens lived in a make shift run with bird netting (JUST, bird netting) for almost 2 weeks. They were happy, though. And that's all that mattered. I can still remember watching one of them lay their first egg. Farm kid and I hopped around like two kids on Christmas, and Mountain Man rolled his eyes and wondered what on earth he got himself he continued building our large 8 feet x 8 feet walk-in coop. Finally, our coop was finished and two hens quickly turned into 5 hens...then 10 hens....then 25 hens....then 50 chickens....then some roosters....then some chicks...and...and....

And then we hit a road block....

Last summer we had over 50 chickens on our property, all free ranging on a 1/4 of our 1/2 acre plot of land. All housing in this 8-by-8 coop. And I wasn't getting one single all....nada. According to my math, I should have been getting several DOZEN eggs a day....and nothing...absolutely nothing....

We are now down to 20-25 chickens....more isn't always better. You see, the truth is, there is good and bad in everything, and we were about to find this out on our own.

The Good

• Chickens are fairly inexpensive when allowed to free range.
• They provide eggs for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You'll be surprised by how much you actually use the eggs you get. You'll find new and amazing things to make.
• You can sell eggs (even if just two dozen a week) and completely offset your feed cost, leaving you with potentially free eggs right from your backyard.
• Chickens are humorous and a joy to interact with. Depending on the breed, many will come and sit with you and lay on your lap while you feed them treats.
• Chickens can provide your family with meat on your homestead.
• They are as easy to tend to as the family dog — taking little time to feed and water each day. They really should only take less than 15 minutes a day to tend to if you have a small backyard flock. If you have a larger, more production-like flock, it will take a bit longer.
• There is an incredible community of chicken lovers out there. Most are pretty amazing and helpful in all situations — it's like an underground world I never knew about!

The Bad

• They are addicting. Really, don't think you can get away from the chicken addiction. It will find you and devour you! One chicken will turn into 100 chickens if you allow it to!
• Chickens must be checked over, weekly, to ensure they are healthy and parasite free. Chickens are like any other livestock, they are susceptible to sickness and bugs. And it is your responsibility to make sure they are OK.
• You have to clean the coop. If you have a little coop, you're OK. But if you have a big coop like us, it's never a fun chore. Especially in the Summer months.
• You will lose chickens to predators or mishaps, especially if you free range. We have been condemned multiple times for free-ranging, but it's livestock. We don't coop cows up in "runs" or small coops, so why can't our chickens roam free? Either way, it is inevitable. Eventually, at some point, you will have to deal with death -- whether it be in your first year, or your twentieth year.
• They can rack up a feed bill in the Winter months. But you must remember how amazing they are in the Spring, Summer, and Fall!

The Ugly

• They can get sick or hurt. And not just that, they can quickly spread their illness to your entire flock without you even realizing what is happening. They are susceptible to avian influenza (which cannot be spread to humans by birds). They are susceptible to foot and wing injuries. Are you prepared to help and heal whenever a chicken is ill or hurt? With the proper precautions, you most likely won't have to deal with sickness or injury on a regular basis, but sometimes, life gives us lemons.
• You might have to make the decision to cull a chicken. On our homestead, everything has a purpose. But if a chicken is sick or injured to the point where we cannot see the point in allowing it to live (because it can spread quickly or it is not worth the time and money), we must cull to save our flock or to put our bird out of its misery. This doesn't mean we give the bird a shot and it goes to sleep, though that is an option for many. This means that we, personally, kill the chicken ourselves — by ax or knife.
• You can bring sick or parasite infested birds into your flock and not realize it. Which is exactly what happened to us. We bought birds from a friend that were infested with lice, without us knowing. Which then infected the rest of our flock. It was a very long and tedious process, but we rid our coop and all of our birds of lice and parasites. They are as healthy as can be now, but it was not a pretty thing. Which brings me to my next point....
• You have to treat your birds with all natural or chemical treatments. And it's up to you to decide which it will be. We strive to do everything all natural, but sometimes, it's not possible if you want a "quick fix". I would say that 95 percent of the time we treat naturally, and the remaining 5 percent, for extremely hard situations, we treat with vet/chemical treatments (such as our lice outbreak). But the big question is, are you prepared to put the money and time into it? If your chicken has an infected goopy and oozing eye, can you handle it? If your chicken needs a foot surgery, could you do it? The sad reality is that there aren't very many "chicken" vets in most areas. You will be your own vet in many cases.

Overall, they are amazing. We love them, and I couldn't imagine life without them. They are incredibly self-sufficient, entertaining, and easy to take care of. The bad and the ugly come and go sometimes, but mostly, it's all good.

People often ask me, "is it worth it? can I handle it?"

And I tell them, "get through your first summer, and then you tell me if you think it's worth it or not."

And I'll tell you the same -- don't fall in love with chickens until you truly know that they are the right fit for your family. If you plan on having more than 15 chickens, get through your first Summer before adding more. Get used to chickens and raising them before taking on a large poultry project. Add to your flock slowly -- and most of all, enjoy it. These creatures, as simple as they are, truly do bring a satisfaction that is unimaginable. You take the good with the bad, and keep on truckin'!

Amy Fewell is a work-at-home mom, homesteader, blogger and writer. Her and her family live on a mini-homestead in Virginia where they raise Icelandic Chickens, standard Rex rabbits, ducks, and more! For more information about their homestead, visit them online at The Fewell Homestead.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page. 


How About a Real Treat for Those New Bees That Are Hatching Out Right Now?

It’s a balmy 60 degrees today and I just came in from preparing hive equipment for the coming season. I’m going through old frames and cleaning them up by replacing the foundation in some and tossing out some old plastic frames I made the mistake of buying years ago when I first got “stung” by this great adventure.

I rarely tell people what kind of equipment to purchase because everyone has their own goals and way of operating. Remember the only rule in beekeeping is that their aren’t any rules. Everyone will choose their own route. However, I sure do wish someone would have steered me away from the all plastic frames. Even after scraping them off and hosing them down you cannot remove the imbedded pollen and “gunk” that sticks to the bottom of the cells.

Now just why do you need to keep clean wax in your hives you might ask? Most beekeepers use chemicals in their hives to control Varroa. Wax absorbs these chemicals and consequently your bees are constantly exposed to low levels of chemicals intended for the mites. Even if you don’t use in-hive miticides the wax will become laden with the toxins the bees bring home from your neighbors yards (if you are in or near town) or nearby agricultural fields. When the comb becomes really dark its time for a change.

Brood comb will harbor all sorts of nasty’s. A few days after the egg is laid the larva pupates and spins her cocoon. Before she does she empties her digestive system into the bottom of the cell. After hatching the house bees clean up what they can but they cannot clean it all and the rest is sealed into the cell with propolis and wax. Layer upon layer builds up in these cells. After a few generations this comb will be nearly black and sealed within it will be any pesticides the bees were exposed to, nosema spores, foulbrood, etc. All this adds to the stress level of your colony.

So every few years you will want to replace this blackened comb and spring is the time to do it because much of the comb will be empty. That is what I’ve been working on today and this brings me back to my original thought. You want to purchase frames (I like the wooden frames) with removable foundation. Pop out the old one and replace it with new. Some folks like the duragilt foundation, which is a very thin sheet of clear plastic coated in bees wax. The bees do take right to it and I have used it with great success. However, most of the wax used to coat the plastic comes from commercial operations so you know its had some level of exposure to miticides and possibly some other chemicals.

Another way to go is to use Rite-cell foundation. It, too, is coated with wax but bees don’t always like plastic foundation so here is a surefire way to guarantee their acceptance of it. Today I put a piece of clean wax (gathered from my hives last season) in my solar wax melter to soften it. I then take the new foundation and rub it down lengthwise with the softened ball of wax. Some folks actually melt the wax and then brush it on, but I find rubbing it on to be the easiest. A thin coating of wax from your own hives and the bees will take right to it. It will also put a thin film of your own clean wax between your bees and the wax that came with the foundation.

Maintaining clean wax in your hives will reduce your bees exposure to toxic chemicals and other waste products that build up in the old wax. You want to own the frames that allow you to pop out the old foundation and replace it with new. A little spring cleaning will reduce the level of things your brand new bees being born this spring don’t need to be exposed to and make for healthier hive.

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