Tom Theobald: Notes From the Beeyard 12-10-12 | TheFencePost.com

Tom Theobald: Notes From the Beeyard 12-10-12

Tom Theobald
Niwot, Colo.

The warm days continue, and if we get downslope winds the nights stay warm as well. Without the warming night winds it is dropping into the 20s.

The weather out here must have been a puzzle for the first settlers, because it is so unpredictable. Even though I've now lived here in Colorado for most of my life, I still marvel at the experience of going to bed on a 10 below zero night only to be awakened in the by the drip, drip, drip of snow melting off the roof. Those downslope winds may take the temperature from below zero to 50 above in short order and it must have been unlike anything those first settlers had ever seen.

The bees are flying on these warm afternoons. I did a couple of candle runs Friday and Saturday to get a jump on the holiday demand and I had to start early so I would be done before the day warmed up. It worked pretty well, I was finished before the major flight started and I only had one bee find her way in at the end of the run Saturday.

Miles kids me that I'm too soft hearted and want to save every bee and I guess I'm guilty of that. I realize that some bees will inevitably be lost in the handling and the husbandry, but I do try to keep that to as small a number as possible. This beekeeping is more than just a craft or a business for many of us, most of us maybe, it's a love affair, and we feel a strong responsibility for the welfare of our bees, this is why the high losses we are fighting against are so devastating and personal.

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But let's take that one wandering little bee that found her way into the Honey House. If I left her in the Honey House she would bat against the window until the sun went down behind the mountains and the temperature started to drop. Then the flying and batting against the window in the waning sunlight would cease, her fuzzy little body would chill, she would land and that would be her final resting place, for long before the sun rose in the morning the spark of life would be extinguished.

Or … by inconveniencing myself just a little, I could lean over the table that blocks easy access to the west window in winter, pull aside the curtain, open the window and wait until the bee found her way to one of the bee escapes at the top or bottom of the screen and soared off, a golden, fuzzy little droplet disappearing into the setting sun. By nightfall she would be back in the hive, snug in the warmth of the cluster. At least I like to think so. How could I go home and sleep in peace if I hadn't at least tried.

For the past two weeks big flights of Canada Geese have been passing over mornings and evenings and occasionally I hear the pop, pop, pop of shotguns off in the distance. Most of the thousands that commute twice a day between grain fields and reservoirs pass by high and unmolested, but a few wind up as dinner. When I was a youngster in Colorado the geese were not nearly as abundant as they are now, in fact I think some were being transplanted to boost the population. There doesn't seem to be any shortage now and frequently in urban areas there are too many. I love to watch those big Vs coming over. I remember waiting for the school bus on cold December mornings in Wisconsin when the lake hadn't frozen yet and the geese would come north off the lake right overhead, at treetop level, honking under a cold morning fog.

I have flocks of my own coming in now that the bird feeder has been up for six weeks and I enjoy watching them from the deck or the kitchen window as I do the dishes. In this warm spell the Juncos have deserted me, but they'll return with the first threat of snow. I think they prefer the foothills and they only come in the winter and even then they ebb and flow with the storms.

There are a number of resident Chickadees and as I sat quietly on the deck the other afternoon one actually landed briefly on my arm before it realized I wasn't a tree limb or a piece of furniture. For the first time in several years I have a small winter flock of Goldfinches coming to the thistle feeder and it will be interesting to see if they stay or if they are just delaying their move south because of the warm weather.

A new addition to the bird life is a small flock of about 20 little grey birds that look like a sleek, long-tailed version of a sparrow, Bushtits. They work the neighborhood and show up periodically, almost exclusively interested in the suet. They are nervous, hyperactive little birds and they only stay a few minutes before they are off for some other part of the neighborhood and I may not see them again until the next day. The suet feeder brings in two less common visitors, at least one Downy Woodpecker and a White Breasted Nuthatch.

The suet feeder was a problem at first because it attracted the Flickers. They would gobble down a block of suet in a day or two and it got expensive really fast. My solution was to build a creep feeder, using the same approach a rancher would to feed calves. I made a cylinder of light fence wire that has 2-by-3-inch squares. It is closed at the top with wire, but open at the bottom, and the suet feeder hangs inside. The cylinder is large enough in diameter that the little birds can land easily on the feeder and it extends down about 12-inches below the suet feeder. The smaller birds quickly learned that they could come in through the 2-by-3-inch openings, or if that was a little tight, up from the bottom, but the Flickers can't gain access.

Last, there is a resident flock of sparrows out at the chicken coop. Surprisingly, even though they aren't that far away, they haven't shown much interest in the feeders up at the house. They are waiting for me when I go out mornings and evenings to throw out some scratch for the chickens, and I suspect the reason they stay out back is because they have an all day food source more to their liking. My young friend Skylar's chickens and ducks are right over the fence, he feeds them outside, and this is apparently just what the sparrows like.

I used the creep feeder concept when I built the predator proof chicken yard. If you do it completely with chicken wire you have built a large sparrow trap. They will squeeze their way in through the mesh attracted by the scratch, but then can't figure out how to get out. So the lower fencing is chicken wire to keep in any chicks I may have, but the upper wire is the same mash I used for the suet feeder. The sparrows can come and go at will.

So far I haven't seen any raids by the Cooper's Hawk but I know we have at least one around and it is only a matter of time before it picks up on its own version of a "bird feeder." No raids by the fox either, but I haven't let the chickens out of my sight when I let them out. I hover over them like a mother hen. If I don't want to lose a bee how do you think I feel when I lose a chicken? This soft-heartedness isn't easy. It takes a real man to do it. ❖