Cluck Blog

We were very pleased to offer our first-ever beekeeping seminar last week with Lisa Lewis.

Lisa not only creates the luxurious line of Cacklebee Apiary bath and beauty products which we sell here at CLUCK, but she is also a third-generation beekeeper, as well as an artist and landscape architect. As more than 2 dozen guests crowded around on a frigid January afternoon, Lisa talked about her way of keeping bees. There are many opinions and a lot of places to get information. Here is a brief outline of some of the questions she addressed:

Where do I get bees?

Because native wild bees are solitary and produce only as much honey as they need to sustain their families, they aren’t an option for beekeepers interested in producing honey. However, if your interest is simply in encouraging pollinators for the garden, there are many ways to encourage some of the more than 3500 native bee species to find a welcoming habitat on your property.

Lisa explained that honey bees are native to Europe and live in colonies of up to 70,000 individuals. You can order these honey-producing bees by mail from a number of sources, including Dadant & Sons, located here in Wisconsin. Lisa cautioned that you should be sure your colony has been certified as disease-free or you may be in the unhappy situation of having to watch many die and then having to kill any survivors so you can start over with healthy bees.

What environment do I need to keep bees?

What you really need is some space and some flowering plants. Living in the country isn’t necessary, and in fact, Lisa said, you may be more successful if you do NOT live next to farm fields for a couple of reasons. First, agriculture today often means monoculture, and a monoculture spells starvation for bees because except during the relatively brief period when that corn or soy bean plant is flowering there’s nothing in the field for the bees to eat. In addition, most farm fields today are sprayed with pesticides (which kill bees) or are grown from seeds treated with systemic pesticides, which may also kill bees when they drink the dew or other moisture from a leaf. Lisa’s bees forage in woodlands, gardens and nearby
Dane County parkland and thus have an enormous variety of flowers, shrubs, grasses and trees to make honey from. She believes it’s part of the reason her bees are thriving and producing large amounts of very high quality honey.

How much does it cost to get started?

You can find a basic starter kit from a supplier like Dadant and Sons for around $175, but you can easily end up spending $500 and up for one to two hives once you are fully engaged in your new hobby, including the hive, bees, medications,
clothing, equipment for harvesting the honey and more.

Lisa says it’s wise to resist the temptation to save money by buying a “used” hive or beekeeping kit from someone getting out of the bee business. You may be bringing home one of the many fatal diseases bees are prone to, which means you will have to destroy all your bees and burn your hive and equipment.

How dangerous or aggressive are honey bees?

Not so much, according to Lisa. Unlike wasps and hornets, honey bees are not very aggressive. If you use common sense, you can sit and watch them work all day with very little danger, unless you are allergic to bee stings. That’s an especially important message for your neighbors to hear. They already have bees in their gardens and yards and probably pay no attention to them. But once you tell them that you are keeping bees, you and your innocent bees may be blamed for every sting in the neighborhood, including
those from wasps and yellowjackets. Lisa advises that you should first educate yourself about bee behavior and then educate your neighbors.

How much honey do they produce?

Honey bees normally make more honey than the colony needs. On average, a colony will produce about 80 pounds of surplus honey each year. To harvest the honey, beekeepers use a honey extractor (typically a centrifuge-type apparatus), to spin the honey out of the comb. An extractor can cost several hundred dollars so it would be a good idea to find another beekeeper or a local group that wants to share. Some beekeepers take all of the honey from the hive at the end of the season and substitute sugar water for the bees. Lisa prefers to leave an ample amount of honey for the bees to eat. It helps them survive the winter and she gets more production in the long run.

What about diseases?

Honey bees are subject to various diseases and parasites. American and European foulbrood are two widespread contagious bacterial diseases that attack bee larvae. A protozoan parasite, Nosema, and a virus cause dysentery and paralysis in adult bees. Two species of blood-sucking parasitic mites are particularly troublesome for beekeepers and are currently affecting wild honey bees worldwide.
The honey bee tracheal mite lives in the breathing tubes of adult bees; the varoa mite lives on the outside of larvae and adults. These mites have killed tens of thousands of honey bee colonies in North America during the past ten years. Lisa chooses to medicate her bees, even though that’s not strictly organic. She believes that being more aggressive about disease while at the same time taking a more hands-off, “natural” approach to hive management and honey harvesting keeps her bees happier and healthier and ultimately leads to stronger colonies and more honey production.

How much work is it?

“I prefer to ask how much fun and satisfaction it brings” Lisa said during our seminar. But the work load is actually minimal if you just let the bees go about their business. You can spend hours every week fussing with the hive, but Lisa has found that using a largely “hands off” approach she spends roughly 2 to 3 hours a month during the slow months and 4 to 6 hours per month in the spring and early summer. She provided a helpful handout that outlined monthly tasks for beekeepers, and how much time and effort is needed for each season.

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Chickens may have their little down jackets to keep them warm, but our personal experience is that even down jackets are little defense against the dread polar vortex. Fortunately, some local chicken keepers have found ways to keep their birds happy and reasonably warm during this unreasonably cold spell, as this story in The Capital Times points out. (You can read more of the story on our In the News page or follow the link to Madison.com for the full article.)

But please don't burn down the coop! Every winter we see stories about people who have fricasseed their flock by the inappropriate use of a space heater or an unattended heat lamp. Most chicken keepers have put a lot of emotional energy into their chickens, not to mention a lot of sweat and money into their coops. It's not a good idea to put all of that at risk by a last-minute emergency attempt to add heat. Fortunately, there are safe and appropriate ways to keep your chickens warm. We are happy to talk to you about your own specific situation.

Well, 2013 is finally behind us and, it turns out that, just like all years, 2013 was a pretty funny year for chickens.

Chickens might be the most practical of pets. They don’t require a lot of work, they produce tasty eggs and, for some people, meat. But they also lend themselves to the weird and strange.

One of our favorites from the year was the story of the Australian woman who saved her daughter's blind hen from downing by giving her CPR – for 3 hours! Pretty heartwarming, but still a bit on the edge.

In the just plain strange category was the artist who converted an old police car into a chicken coop. We don't know if we should call it a chicken tractor or a chicken coupe.

And, if you're into celebrities, 2013 brought a bumper crop of A-list chicken coops. You can see who's keeping hens in our June 19 CLUCK blog post.

And then there was this heart-warming story from British Columbia: Orphaned Bear Cub Found Living with Chickens.

A severely malnourished and orphaned bear cub has been rescued in B.C.'s West Kootenay region, after it was found co-existing with hens inside a chicken coop. The Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter in Smithers, B.C., was alerted to the cub's whereabouts on Sunday, after the tiny bear was seen on a farm in the village of Midway. When found, Tinsel, as he's being called, weighed only 10 kilograms. Angelika Langen, who works with the shelter, said this was a first in the 23 years she's been rescuing animals. "Usually they break into the chicken coops and eat the chickens, not eat with the chickens," Langen said. It is thought the bear, now named Tinsel, was living in the coop for nearly five days.

Of course, our favorite “weird chickens” story of the year was the demonstration we hosted at CLUCK with Giene Keyes, who showed how she uses clicker training (operant conditioning) to teach her chickens to perform on command. If you missed the demonstration, we hope to bring Giene back in 2014 to show how much her hens have learned. You can read about her demo in this Wisconsin State Journal story.

The weird and wonderful world of chickens shows no sign of slowing down in 2014. Recently, we saw this story from Marketwatch, titled Trendy Hotels Add Beehives and Chicken Coops.


“Green” hotels have served produce from their own gardens for years, but some are taking it a step further. Across the nation, hotels are cultivating beehives and chicken coops to offer guests fresh — and (hipsters rejoice!) locally sourced — honey and eggs, as well as opportunities to interact with the wildlife (yes, even the bees). Fairmont hotels now have beehives installed on 21 of their rooftops, including those in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Vancouver, Dallas and San Jose, housing more than 2 million bees and producing roughly 5,000 pounds of honey each year. The Waldorf Astoria in New York has six hives abuzz with roughly 300,000 bees, and The Brown Palace Hotel & Spa near Denver has five hives and 150,000 bees.

Recently, chickens have joined in the trendy hotel offerings, as two California-based resorts installed coops on their grounds this year. Calistoga Ranch in Napa Valley now has 12 chickens living in its reclaimed-wood coop (which also has chandeliers and framed artwork). Carmel Valley Ranch in Carmel Valley installed a chicken coop on its land last month “as a natural evolution of its growing farmstead experience that already includes Italian honeybees.” They also plan to compost the chicken manure.

What will 2014 bring? We predict that there will be more weird and heart-warming chicken stories and that more people will discover the joys of chicken keeping. We would love to hear your favorite chicken stories from 2013. If you have a good one, please share and maybe we will put it on our blog. Happy chicken new year, everyone!

With the worst of the already brutal winter bearing down on Wisconsin for the next week or so, we thought it would be a good time to review the basics of keeping chickens healthy and happy in the cold and snow. This story from Michigan State University has some very good, common-sense advice. The information is very consistent with that we have heard at our seminars at CLUCK, but it never hurts to review the basics.

The article covers feed, water, light, ventilation, bedding and boredom. Yes, boredom makes the critical list. All of the other subjects have pretty straight-forward answers or recommendations, but “cooped-up” chickens do get cabin fever and sometimes the results aren’t pretty. We get a lot of questions at this time of year about how to keep chickens from pecking each other, and what to do if they do start pecking.

Unfortunately, there’s no single good answer to behavioral questions. We recommend chicken toys, scratch blocks and plenty of space, but those aren’t sure-fire solutions in every case.

Water is also a big topic at CLUCK the Chicken Store these days. With our own chickens, we use a combination of double-wall metal waterers and UL-listed heater bases. We have used those for several years in the worst of winter weather and have never had a problem. The heater bases are great because they are thermostatically controlled and produce just the right amount of heat to keep the water thawed, but not heated. However, we recognize that the heater bases are kind of pricey and there are several alternatives.

Some of our customers have built what are commonly called “cookie tin” heater bases because they are made from the common cookie tins that many people have cluttering up the house at the Christmas season. They take a little bit of skill and very little money to build. We don’t know how well they work and we don’t sell them because they’re not UL approved. You can see how to make one here.

The low-tech solution is to bring your chickens fresh water every morning and afternoon. The Michigan State story has some good tips on what kind of containers work best for that strategy. Other people use heated dog bowls, although they can get dirty very quickly and often must be cleaned out every day. We also have tried the plastic waterers with built-in heater elements. So have several of our customers and everyone we have talked to has either returned the waterer or junked it. Enough said about that.

We haven’t tried a heated automatic water system, so if anyone has had good luck with that, please let us know. You can see a home-built example on YouTube here.

In addition to the Michigan State information, the University of Wisconsin-Extension has several publications that cover the basics of keeping backyard chickens (not necessarily in the winter). You can browse the UW-Extension Learning Store here.

Happy chicken keeping, and stay warm, everyone.

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It's a beautiful day in Paoli (although not a very good day for chickens, who don't like snow). We are open as usual. The plows have been out but the roads are still pretty rough, so if you come, please drive carefully.

Favarolle.jpgMost of us can’t remember the gifts of the traditional 12 Days of Christmas song beyond the “five gold rings” part even though we’ve probably heard the song a thousand times. So maybe this viewpoint from the current Atlantic magazine will help: the song recounts a menu of tasty poultry treats for a post-Christmas feast. (The 12 days of Christmas, of course, are celebrated after the holiday, not before.) It seems that feasts in earlier times were likely to feature all kinds of fowl, not just our current list of chicken, turkey and the occasional goose.

How about partridge in pear sauce, or a tasty brace of squabs? The Atlantic story goes on to speculate that the French hens might have been Faverolles, an early dual-purpose breed.

In the Good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchin, published in 1594, a recipe for “Chickens after the French fashion” recommends, “Quarter the Chickens in foure peeces: then take after the rate of a pinte of wine for two Chickens: then take time & parsly as small minced as ye can, and foure or fiue Dates, with the yolkes of foure hard Egges, and let this boile together, and when you will season your pot, put in salt, sinamon and Ginger, and serue it foorth.”

And, says the Atlantic, if you have a smug historian friend, he or she might have already informed you that it’s “colly birds,” not “calling birds.” “Colly” means “black as soot,” so the song’s authors might have meant blackbirds in this line.

And, the story suggest, the five gold rings – the only part many of us can remember from one Christmas to the next – could well refer to ring-necked pheasants.

After you had eaten this medieval version of 7-layer turducken, you probably would want to indulge in some dancing and leaping, piping and drumming just to work off the calories. Especially since there was no football on TV in those days.

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This is Tommy. He's a bantam Cochin rooster who came to visit Saturday along with the Backyard Chickens.com meet-up group – called the Cheeseheads, of course. That's not a mirror he's looking at; it's a feed sack and Tommy apparently fell in love with the hen on the bag. He stood there for about 20 minutes just staring at her and chirping. A funny guy and a real gentleman who hung around the store for about 90 minutes, perfectly at ease with all the comings and goings.

Remarkable thing about Tommy isn’t that he’s beautiful, placid and easy-going, but that he’s a rescue who “landed on his feet” so to speak. Terri rescues all kinds of creatures. She got him from a connection in Chicago who keeps a small flock in her backyard. One morning she found Tommy strutting around with her hens. Apparently someone was determined to get rid of him and just threw him over the fence. Fortunately there are people like Terri who recognize that every animal deserves a chance. In this case, her open door and open heart paid off big-time with one of those roosters you just don’t meet every day.

With the frigid weather we’ve been having, we’re not sure Madison qualifies for any kind of “best-of” list, but there we are in the November-December issue of Chickens Magazine (yes, there is a Chickens Magazine), listed among the “Top 5 Cities for Chickens” as chosen by the magazine’s readers.

The rest of the Top 5 includes Austin, Seattle, Portland and Raleigh-Durham. No surprises there, except maybe Raleigh-Durham. Ann Arbor made the “next of” list, but Chicago, Milwaukee and the Twin Cities were absent.

The interesting thing is that, while backyard chickens are a fast-growing phenomenon from coast to coast (and also in Australia), the actual number of backyard chickens is still pretty small. Last week The Capital Times (we can’t still bring ourselves to call it the CapTimes) reported that there were 197 chicken permit holders in the City of Madison, up from 12 only ten years ago. Just from talking to people who come into CLUCK the Chicken Store, we guess there are still just as many underground chickens in the city that don't show up on the chart. And of course that number doesn’t include all the flocks in Middleton, Fitchburg, Oregon, etc. But still, that's only a few hundred chicken keepers.

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That makes sense when you consider the numbers in the other Top 5. The Austin & Central Texas Backyard Poultry Meetup Group has membership of 1,800, but that includes an area with a much larger population than Madison or Dane County. The Portland meetup group has 1,400 members and Seattle estimates several hundred flocks.

Madison’s chicken permits have been increasing by about 25 permits per year over the past several years, so the chicken trend is still on the upswing. That makes sense too, because backyard chickens are part of a much larger trend: the desire to know where our food comes from and to gain at least some control over the quality of what we put in our bodies. That’s a trend that isn’t limited to Madison, Austin and a few other places.

People who have backyard chickens discover that chickens aren’t really just units of production, but are living creatures with personalities and independent lives that are quirky, interesting and real. That’s what puts Madison in the Top 5, even when it’s the bleak midwinter.

Need to buy a gift for a chicken lover? Or just someone who would appreciate something amusing, out of the ordinary or even a little weird. Look no farther than CLUCK the Chicken Store.

We're extended our hours through Christmas week. We'll be open every day from 10 to 5, Thursdays 10 to 7 and Sundays 11 to 4. We're trying to make it as convenient as possible.

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