Getting Inked is Nuts

How to Make Ink from Black Walnuts

In a recent article for Edible Jersey Magazine, I wrote about the health benefits of the native black walnut, and doing so, it took me back to the time I totally destroyed the floors at my parent’s house.

It was 1990-something, and for an art class project I was doing a study on natural dyes. I tried everything from coffee, bittersweet, pokeweed berries, wild carrot, cloves, paprika, and maybe a few other expired spices from the back of the kitchen cabinet. My favorite, however, was making ink from black walnuts.

The method I used came mostly from my mind, mixed with a little research and a few sweet cautionary words of guidance from mom and dad: “Don’t make a mess OR ELSE.” Of course, back then my selective hearing was really really good.

I began by letting a bunch of whole black walnuts get super rotten in a bucket of water. Pretty soon a bunch of worms set up shop in the hulls and I had to start over.

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To begin again, I gathered more nuts, and let them sit in water, but only this time not as long. I then strained the liquid that turned chocolaty brown and proceeded to boil it on the stove to reduce the moisture to try to get a darker color. I was only able to boil it for about an hour before my parents became suspect of a possible mess being made, so I had to quit and work with what I had. It was a decent deep brown pigment — not really an ink, more like a wash. I did end up spilling most of it all over my parent’s floor, where it can still be seen to this day.

Since then I knew I had to try again one day and knock this DIY art juice clear out of the park.

This was my chance.

But before I tell you all about it, I have to lay down some ferocious props about this tree that does it all.

The black walnut (Juglans nigra), is a native hardwood that is coveted for its beautiful timber. Years ago, farmers would plant groves of them as a future harvestable investment. Black walnuts produce a chemical called juglone that is toxic to many plants, making it very difficult for anything to grow near them (survival of the fittest, sucka’!). Lastly, you can eat their nuts, make ink from the hulls, and apparently they can also be tapped like a maple tree to make black walnut syrup. So the next time someone asks you what you’d take with you to survive on a deserted island, surprise your friends by adding a black walnut tree to your list.

So, for my second attempt at making ink, I did a little reading up on the subject and set forth.

For one, that substance I mentioned (juglone), can stain the heck out of anything, especially your hands. I collected them with some gardening gloves that turned out to have holes in a few of the fingers, so I got some weird looking hands. If you ever try this, and you’re a hand model, you probably want to wear heavy-duty rubber gloves.


So precautionary…

After I collected a bunch, I stomped on them one at a time wearing rubber galoshes to separate the hull from the nut. The nuts went into one bucket for drying, and the hulls I collected in another.


Dirty hitch hiker…

I then covered the hulls with water so that they’d oxidize, and then covered the bucket to let it sit. In about a day, the water with the hulls had turned a deep, dark brown. I let them sit for another two weeks before making the ink.

To make the ink, I strained the liquid (about two gallons) from the hulls and put it into a big old soup pot. Since I wanted to make really dark ink, I needed to boil it for a while so it would reduce enough, so doing this outside was perfect. Boiling anything over a fire is perfect. Especially when you just got new neighbors who now think you’re a spook.


I boiled it for a little over two hours until just about two inches of thick dark liquid remained. It was perfect — deep brown/black, and slightly viscous. I had to try really hard to not want to spill it everywhere to see who would get mad.


“Ma, would you be upset if I spilled this all over the floor and the rug?”

That’s pretty much all there is to it! Some folks suggest adding vinegar or grain alcohol to  help keep mold from growing. Others say to add whole cloves during the boiling process to make the ink smell good. Not that it smells bad — maybe a little winey/yeasty, but nothing offensive. If you’re worried about how your ink smells I know of a fantastic deserted island…

The ink came out beautifully! The pigment is dense and velvety, and makes a great writing ink or pigment that can be diluted with water. It also (sorry mom and dad), makes a great wood stain that will never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever fade.



Art and…SNACKS!








Fearing Roosters: Fearing Life

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When I was a dirty-footed toddler, I came THIS close (half-an-inch or so, depending on your browser) to getting my diaper kicked by a cranky leghorn.

My mom would breathlessly tell the story of how she happened to look over just as he was running towards me, a look of determination on his beak, and his spurs shining in the sun, aimed straight for me.

Just before he was about to pitch a jab, my mom picked him up and gave him a drop kick only a soccer player could appreciate.

Because of this, as you could imagine, I had icy feelings about roosters for most of my life.

Fast forward many years later when we decided to add more chickens to our own backyard flock, and the off kilter, Craigslist-chicken-keeper, former marine selling hens from his poultry-dominated Matawan, NJ backyard said he’d give us this sweet deal:

Buy 12 hens, get a rooster for free.

“Free fear,” I thought, “nice!”

Now, this fellow swore that having a rooster was key to coop survival, and since we’d just lost nearly our entire flock to predators, we paused in consideration.

This Cooper Trooper had a bunch of roosters, and a neighbor who dodged eye contact in an obvious way as he went outside to fetch his mail. It truly was chicken central, and as he gave us the tour of the various breeds and little coops he had built, I could not help but notice that he eyed the ground like a chicken – head cocked to one side, bottom eye supremely directed.

“Me in a few years,” I surmised.

We accepted his offer for a huge Rhode Island Red rooster he called Gentle Ben, claiming he was a real sweetie pie.

“Yeah right,” I thought.

He stuck him in a rabbit cage and loaded him up in our Jeep. To our surprise he cock-a-doodle-doooooo’d the whole way home.

We had no idea what that meant.

Ben adapted to his new home seamlessly. He made trills when hawks flew overhead to alert the hens, who would then scurry under bushes out of sight.

He had this immediate and fantastic affable wisdom about him. He ate sunflower seeds out of my hand, and gazed into my eyes as I scratched his chin.

We took vacations to Paris, and read each other Rimbaud into the wee hours of the night…

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Ben single-handedly reversed my fear of roosters, and every rooster we’ve had after him has been kind as well.


Because animals have feelings! If they sense fear, it will set them on edge and they will react. This is the same for people, but animals can’t hide their social anxiety by pretend phone calls. They still hang on tight to their instincts.

It’s important to share this experience because so many people have said to me, wide-eyed, “You have a rooster?! Oh! Roosters are so mean!”

Yes, they are mean if you get up into their biz! Toddler Lauren was most likely baby-talking nonsense to that leghorn trying to pet his face.

Whether you’re a fox or a human – if you abruptly get into a rooster’s personal space, you can expect a territorial reaction.

check out this cricket-finding sweetie pie

But, if you relax and do your own thing and be a passive observer, they really appreciate that (who doesn’t?).

When someone shoves a flyer in your face for ½ price tickets at some awful comedy club near Times Square, do you:

Hug them?

Dodge them?

Punch them?


The point of the matter is that fear is such a holding back factor of having your own honest experience. Getting over my fear of roosters was a small, yet immediate example of how important it is to have your own insight before making a judgment. Plus, it’s a really wonderful ego softener to connect with fluffy animals.

One day they might even invite you in.




How to Survive Winter and Finally Enjoy it for Once is as Easy as 1-2-P

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“Winter totally blows.”  An old version of me might hear this, nod in agreement, and say “right on, man, right on.” A current version of me would dump smiles on this person and sing a song about how winter is a fantastic season worth exploring.  How did I learn to love winter?  By following the Five P’s.

What are the Five P’s?

  • Get Pissed
  • Gain Perspective
  • Get Poetic
  • Make a Plan
  • Experience Progress

Get Pissed

Getting pissed that it’s cold will help inspire you to do something about it. It’s not your fault winter is here, though it could have asked your permission first.

  • Get fired up. You know what getting fired up does? It keeps you warm. Stay pissed AND warm by getting outside and showing winter who’s boss.
  • To battle winter, put on several layers of winter-armor. Don’t be afraid of wearing more than one layer of socks or just one big winter hat. Double up. You’ve probably always wondered how many jackets you could put on at once anyway.

Gain Perspective.

After you’ve completely exhausted yourself from getting all fired up, it’s an opportune time to relax into winter and begin your journey into appreciation.

  • Winter is a great time to observe sensory changes. There are a lot. Every day, take time to notice new smells and changing colors. Be an active listener out in nature – see what you can hear beyond the muting snow. If you practice curiosity, you will be rewarded with new perspective.  Which is knowledge. Which is power.
  • Also, it is very very very very very very important to never engage in weather conversation — regarding winter, or any other season.  Chances are, if someone wants to use weather as a scapegoat for their torrid emotions, the season they’re most likely to choose is winter.  And you don’t want any part of that.  It’s toxic.  Give them a very long hug to silence them.

Get Poetic.

  •  Document your observations. You can look back on them in the dismal dregs of January when you think the dandelions will never ever come back.
  •  Share your discoveries with others. Help a friend out of their RIHC (reclusive indoor heat cave), and take them on a nature walk to marvel at the sparklie icicles.

Make a Plan.

Winter can be long. Prepare for a drawn-out winter by sticking to a plan and exercising a concerted effort of daily appreciation.

  • Every day, no matter how snowy or rainy or how big the hail, get outside (even if it means wearing a hard hat). Getting out during the day is very good for soaking up some Vitamin D, which has been linked to alleviating depression and the winter blues…
  • If you get home from work and it’s dark out. Get a good head lamp and take a few laps around the block to get the blood moving. Fresh air does wonders for relaxing the post-work brain.

Experience Progress.

After a short bit of time you’re guaranteed to see results. Take a look in the mirror and discover how your winter-face is now softer, fuller, and maybe even a bit proud, as if to say “I did it!”

Give it a try. With a little change of perception, you may even find yourself looking forward to the next 3-day Nor’easter!


What’s up my Bee?

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I’ve rounded out my second year of beekeeping. Some beekeepers might follow this up with something like, “Phew! Thank goodness!” But in all honesty (knock on hive body), it seems to be getting easier. The biggest lesson learned was to let go. These patchouli thoughts have not always been at the forefront of my landing board.

This year I had two stressors that were most memorable. The first being one of my new hives was very strong. So strong that before I knew it, they had maxed out their space and I was suddenly met with the thought of swarming.   One day I rushed over to the fellow I buy my beekeeping supplies from and explained what was happening. “The top super is all filled, there are bees on top of the inner cover, there are queen cells all over the place, and and….”

I left his shop with a complete set of materials to build an entirely new hive and the dreaded mission of trying to do a split, as in his words, “It’s your duty, as a beekeeper, to manage your hives and keep them from swarming!”


A split is when you take a few frames of food and brood from the old hive, making sure you have a capped queen cell (the hive builds queen cells to have them at the ready if the old queen dies or they plan on swarming, upon which they take the existing queen along with them). You put all of this in the new hive, and cross your fingers, hoping for the best.

I got to work right away. I started gluing and nailing the supers together and assembling the frames and setting in the wax foundation. I painted everything with a quick-dry paint that had a built in primer to make things go quicker. I built the entire shebang in about 3 hours, with just about as many beers (the beers were very big. Just kidding, I’m a lightweight).

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Beer (Just kidding) Honey.

But then the next day after my panic levels diminished a bit I started to get nervous about doing the split. I worried I’d overlook the existing queen and accidentally add her to the new hive (which meant certain death.  A colony can only have one active queen, and they’d ‘out’ a second immediately). I worried I’d have two weak colonies. Most of all, I dreaded disturbing the brood chamber and ripping out frames in my debut of trying my hand at a split.

It’s worth noting that I have a pretty relaxed approach to beekeeping. I do minimal hive inspections, just thorough enough to make sure there are eggs (sign of a healthy queen) and no pests or disease. I don’t reverse hive bodies in the spring. I don’t re-arrange food and brood frames for winter, which some advise. Why was I rushing around to do something I was advised, when I hardly followed the rules anyway?

I placed an empty super with frames and foundation on the soon-to-swarm hive and hoped for the best. And you know what? It worked. They didn’t swarm, and they immediately began to fill up their new allowance of space.

But you know what’s so silly to me? This whole fear of swarming. Do you know why bees swarm? It’s because their healthy, robust, determined colony has run out of space and they need to do something about it. It is only really a freakout factor if you’re a beekeeper whose main objective is to harvest honey. If half of your hive flies away, there goes about $100 dollars in bees, and about $500 worth of potential honey harvest. But, if your main objective is not to harvest honey, then:


If your hive swarms, the best thing you can do is pat yourself on the back, give your swarmed colony an air high-five, and wish them luck in their continued success in starting healthy feral colonies (and hopefully not setting up shop in some asshole’s attic who will call the Orkin Man).

Screen shot 2014-11-18 at 12.47.29 PM“Die, Orkin Man!”

I may still try to do a split in the spring if I’m lucky enough to come out of winter with alive and well colonies. At least this is something I can plan ahead for, as I have an empty hive ready to go. Or, I might just set it up in the yard as a swarm bungalow getaway. We’ll see.

The second real stress that made an imprint was on the other end of the spectrum, as another colony I have became very very weak. In doing an early fall hive inspection, I noticed that I only had one full super of honey, and that many of the frames weren’t even full. I knew that I needed at least one full super to get them through winter, which was fast approaching. I invited a woman I knew from the New Jersey Beekeepers Association over to take a look and help me assess the issue. She advised that it was likely that this hive had swarmed (!), and the colony was in the midst of building the hive back up. She advised helping them out with some supplemental feeding. Though I don’t like to supplement feed, I understand that there are times you have to do what’s best for hive survival (especially since most of the fall flowers were on the outs) so I prepared a bucket feeder and fed them a heavy fall syrup (2:1) in which I mixed in a nutrient syrup (I’ve been using Honey-B Healthy which has amino acids and essential oils bees like, which stimulates feeding). This was tricky, timing-wise, and you really shouldn’t feed when the weather gets chilly. The cool air and syrup above can actually chill the bees at night and make them sick or die. I fed them for about 3 weeks steadily until the temps got chilly enough at night that I had to remove the feeder (the bees signify they’re done by stopping eating the syrup, and you can tell they’ve started to form their winter cluster. More on that in a bit).

Right before the weather got too cold to be able to open the inner hive cover (removing the lid releases heat), I did a quick peek and to my glad Gladys Knight feelings, all frames of the top super were filled up with enough food for the winter.

Screen shot 2014-11-18 at 2.26.03 PM           “Yeah aye yeah yeah hoo yeah ahhh yeah hay. Yeah.” 

So, what’s happening now? The latest news is that the drones have all been kicked out (the workers kick the drones out as they are no longer needed and would eat up precious food stores if they were allowed to stay. The drones main role is to mate with the queen, but there’s no sense in that now, so she takes a mating vacation over the winter months, watching re-runs of The Golden Girls).

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And (my favorite bee factoid), the colony has now formed their winter cluster. The winter cluster is when all the bees form a big sphere in the center of the hive. They vibrate their wings to give off heat, and the outer bees slowly rotate inward so they all get a chance to keep warm.

Are you thinking of penguins? I am.

Screen shot 2014-11-18 at 2.12.01 PMMe me me me me.  Me me me me me.

Best of all, the queenie gets to stay in the center of this ball-o-bees,  staying toasty and warm all winter long.

Talk about royal treatment!

  Screen shot 2014-11-18 at 12.36.08 PMMaking candles in homage to the queen.     

For Shizzle My Pickle

What’s cuter than a pickle? Other than maybe a baby turtle (also green), pretty much nothing.

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For me, pickles were a soggy afterthought to a deli sandwich, which more often than not, held its charm for a bite or two before being tossed into la basura.

However, these days, I’ve become pretty nuts about not letting food go to waste. What doesn’t get eaten gets mixed into new takes on old favorites the following day, and things like cores and peels or rotten forgotten fridge fossils go into the coop to be analyzed by our chickens.

This year, having a psychotically vibrant garden and working on an amazing organic veggie farm has yielded such a booty that I needed to take serious measures. “Waste not, want not” they say, and I want not to waste a gosh darned thing!


Screen shot 2014-07-29 at 10.51.27 PMBehold!

There are three things I dislike about them: The crap that’s in those packets of pickling seasoning found in grocery stores; the burning aroma of hot vinegar in your face; and the thought of using wobbly tongs to sanitize jars in scalding water. All seem to be a page out of Indiana Jones dream journal of daymares.

So when I learned about lacto-fermentation, a smile nearly pickled itself on my face!

No crap to add! No hot jars! No temple of doom!

The term lacto-fermentation comes from naturally occurring bacteria called Lactobacillus, which has the ability to convert sugars into lactic acid through the process of fermentation. This method of fermentation is especially noteworthy when it comes to preserving food, as lactic acid actually prevents the growth of harmful bacteria (so you can finally toss out your barf bag!). Beneficial live enzymes called probiotics are present in fermented foods which help break down material in the digestive tract and keeps your GI system in check. A healthy GI tract means a stronger immune system — so chow down!

Here’s the basic recipe:

– 3 Tablespoons sea salt
– 1 quart water
– Delicious veggies of your choice (enough to fill your jar, more or less).
– Delicious garlic (about 5 large cloves)
– Delicious fresh herbs of your choice (a few sprigs or leaves will do)
– A large jar (3-quart jars are pretty super rad).
– Patience, grasshopper.

First, dissolve your sea salt into your quart of water. Set aside. Next, peel your garlic cloves and slice them in half lengthwise. Place them in the bottom of your jar. Next add your herbs of choice (I used fresh basil). Now, add your chopped veggies (chop them so they’re about 1.” I used summer squash, cucumbers, radishes, carrots, cabbage, and shallots). Next, add your salt brine so that all the veggies are covered. Add a big veggie chunk to the top so that when you secure your lid, the veggies stay submerged under the brine. Screw on the lid, note the date, and let your pickle jar hang out on your countertop for 5-7 days, unscrewing the lid every other day to release gas from fermentation. You can taste your pickles after day 3 to see how they are coming along. Whenever they taste awesome to you, pop them in the fridge to bring the fermentation process to a slow halt. Consume refrigerated pickles within one month (they will last much longer than that in the fridge. It’s best to use your best judgement and discard if they start to taste weird to you).

Note: Certain veggies will take shorter or longer to ferment and soften. Summer squash and softer veggies will ferment pretty quickly. Carrots, beets and other root veggies will take a few days longer, so it’s good to taste your pickles periodically to check when they’re done.


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Fizzy Feelings…

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “What should I do with all that delicious brine after I’m done schnarfing my pickles?!” The answer is simple: use it to make salad dressing:

½ cup pickle brine
1 tablespoon mayo, or veganaise or soynaise or whatevernaise
shake or two of your favorite hot sauce

Mix all ingredients well and give your pal Romaine a holler.


Jewelweed — Nature’s Pinky Ring

When is a weed not a weed? When it’s a gem.

Before I knew it as Jewelweed (impatiens capensis; spotted-touch-me-not),  as a kid I referred to it as the Popsie Plant (cute, no?) because of how the oblong seedpods would ‘pop’ when you touched them, exploding their vibrant green seeds everywhere. Little did I know that this was the plot of the plant — employing curious animals like me to help disperse their seeds to ensure future generations.

Jewelweed can be easily identified in summer and fall by its succulent stalk and either vibrant orange or yellow trumpet-shaped blooms. They also attracts a bevvy of some of the most beautiful pollinators out there like bumble bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies because the nectar  is perfectly accessible to their long tongues. One of the legends of why it’s called jewelweed is because as water lands on its waxy, water-repellent leaves, it holds the drop’s shape, making them look like a jewels. But as I learned more about the plant, I discovered that it is a true treasure trove.

IMG_3920I Spy with my Poison I….

For starters, its thick stalk can be crushed up and the juice used to treat a variety of skin irritations like insect bites, stings, and can quell the vicious itch of poison ivy! In fact, jewelweed often grows nearby to this delightful shiny-leafed itch-factory, so if you suspect a brush encounter, look around and you may be lucky enough to locate the anecdote (to avoid taking this chance, click HERE for a salve recipe so you can always have it on hand).

IMG_3907Stalking up

Additionally, the lovely little bright green seeds that spring from the pod can be peeled to reveal a robin’s-egg blue seed you can either choose to eat or simply marvel at. The seeds taste like a mix of hemp seeds and pine nuts, and contains omega-3, and omega-6 fatty acids.

IMG_3913Bluebeard’s Treasure

So the next time you’re itching for treasure, rev up your flower power and scout out some jewelweed!


Lay Lady Lay

Friends come in many shapes and sizes, and mine don feathers, scales, and rosy mohawks.

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My first experience with chickens came to me in a story my mother often told about having a small flock when I was an infant, and coming within inches of the sharp spurs of a baby-hating leghorn rooster.  Ever since hearing this story, I felt obligated to cultivate feathery friendship — rooster talons and all.

I began reading up on chicken health a few years ago, and outfitted a small outbuilding in our backyard as a chicken coop. This required some time and sweat because you really have to ensure their home is predator-proof. Part of this entailed digging down a trench to pound posts into, and submerging wire fence about six inches below the ground to deter wild animals with a penchant for digging up a Chicken McSandwich. I filled in the trenches with dirt and a layer of gravel for extra support.  On the inside of the coop, I lay hay and pine shavings down on the floor, and my husband built and hung up a long roosting perch and a row of laying boxes. Our coop was a veritable chickie Taj Mahal, complete with a “Home is Where the Heart is” needlepoint with hens on it I scored at a yard sale. Little did they know they were moving into the hippest block in town.

We had put our order in for hens with a local farm in the fall, and in late spring, got a call that they were ready for pickup.  We rolled up to the farm with a big dog crate in the back seat of my Toyota.  The farmer greeted us with a mumble and we walked into a long dusty coop with pine shavings and feathers flying. He selected four gals, picked them up by their legs in one felt swoop, and popped them into the crate, commotion-free.  He gave us a hand-written receipt, a semi-toothed grin, said “good luck,” and we drove off with four hens, feeling proud and agricultural (we could tell our hens felt the same way — how could they not?)

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Yo ladies!

We set our four Rhode Island Reds in their new, pristine home, and watched them take in their surroundings.  They stood frozen in place, but after a few minutes, signaled their appreciation by pooping everywhere.  As dusk fell, they intuitively moseyed into their home, flew up on their perch, and began to coo themselves to sleep (a true sound phenomenon — like robots computing underwater).  We closed the door, and said goodnight.

The next day, we opened the door and let them check out the yard, scratch around in the grass, and look for bugs.  Satisfied with their contentedness, we headed out for a bike ride, then on to do our Sunday shopping.  We got back around dusk and discovered that there were only two hens on the perch.  We waited until it got completely dark, but still no sign of the others.  “Uh oh,” we said, realizing we had just been given our first farm death lesson.

Turns out, aside from land predators, chickens are also viewed as tasty snacks from the sky!  Feeling bad for our lonely gals, we trolled Craigslist for replacement pals and the following day, united them with 12 ladies of varying breeds, as well as a gigantic Rhode Island Rooster named Ben with four-inch spurs which the nice fellow we met gave us for free! I beamed at him on the car ride home, sending him this mental message: You and me, buddy, we will be best friends BEST FRIENDS!!!!!!

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Professor Ben

I got my wish.  Not only did we become best friends, he became the iconic hero of our backyard. Turns out, roosters are excellent guards against predators, and make a specific trill to alert the hens when danger is near.  When we let them out to roam the yard the next day, Ben made the trilling sound and all the hens ran for cover, hiding under the bushes.  Sure enough, we looked up and saw a huge hawk coasting over the trees, looking down with tasty snacks on his mind.  This is not even half of the reason why roosters (and Ben in particular) are heroes! They will also fight a predator, risking their own life, for the sake of the flock! A few times, we witnessed Ben fight hawks mid-attack, jabbing at them with his giant spikes! Another time, we saw him and a fox re-enact the famous knife fight scene in Michael Jackson’s hit song Beat It! The fox ran off, and Ben got away, un-scathed!


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Beat it, street predator! 

Though Ben was the champ by far, the more I spent time with my hens, the more I got to see their personalities come out — and they really all do have unique personalities.  Because of this, I’ve given up eating chicken, and every hen we have has a name. I help them find bugs and worms under logs, and they in turn lay delicious, healthy, nutritious eggs (some of which they keep, and hatch into chicks!)

Hens lay regularly for the first few years of their life. As they get older, they lay less frequently.  The time of year also determines their laying frequency, and they lay the most in spring and summertime, and lay very few eggs in the wintertime (which makes sense as you need warmer conditions for chicks if they were to hatch so they’d keep warm).


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Eggcentuated Eggcellence!

When it is chick-hatching season, hens will start to collect a “clutch” of eggs (a quantity of eggs — sometimes as many as 15!), which they’ll then begin to sit on for 21 days. Hens keep the eggs at a constant temperature (98-100 degrees) and humidity (45-65 percent), and use their beaks and feet to turn over their eggs a few times a day.  After a mere 21-days, fuzzy, cutsie, peeper cheepers are born!


Why are chickens awesome?

1. They provide food, friendship, and create adorable fuzzballs offspring.

2. They turn your food scraps into more food! (Jimmy, if you don’t want to finish your Brussels sprouts, it’s not a big deal anymore!)

3. They are easy to keep, and require little more than food, water, a space to roam, and a clean space to roost and next.

4. They are miniature dinosaurs.

5. This Guy:


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 Less hawk, more mohawk.

Miss Bee Haven

bees on comb
When I was a kid, my sister and I really liked to catch nature things, put them in containers and observe them. Our go-to was frogs, which we’d capture and keep in a kiddie pool filled with water and rocks. Each would be carefully examined, given a name, and later released. (Except for one I named Michael J. Fox.  He reigned the kiddie pool for several days until my mom suggested the idea that frogs had families too. “Mom,” I said, “He’s part of our family now!” showing her the elaborate castle I built for him out of rocks. Not convinced, I reluctantly let him go).

In the Springtime, red salamanders would get stored outside in an old goldfish tank. Summertime of course meant fireflies in jars in our bedroom, which we’d sometimes remember to release a few days later.

As we got a little older, we realized we needed a more challenging catch.  One day as we sat outside lopping the hair off our Barbies we looked around and saw lots of bees hopping from clover to clover.  Our subject presented itself.

We went to work, cupping a Cool Whip container over a bee as it landed, then slid a flat plastic sandcastle shovel underneath, trapping it inside.  Carefully, we dumped each bee, one by one, into the tank and then covered the top with a board.

Before we knew it, we had about twenty bees.  Bumble bees; honey bees; a few wasps; sweat bees, and about nine hornets. It was a very rough looking crowd.

Beaming at our new pissed-off looking friends, we remembered they needed to eat.  We threw in a few handfuls of grass and hoped for the best.  The next day we checked on them.  They were all gone and the board had been removed! Mom!!!!

Years since then, and still with a penchant for nature things, I revisited the idea of keeping bees but in a more reasonable, adult way. My interest started to unfold after suffering for years from allergies and being morally opposed to western medicine. The more I read up on the benefits of raw honey, realized that it was good for healing lot of things – not only is it antimicrobial, loaded with vitamins, and an excellent source of energy, it’s great for your skin and can also be used to treat wounds and infections — not to mention my sweet tooth!  I began using honey for everything, and would add gobs of it regularly to my breakfast. Pretty soon I realized I was going through a two-pound jar every two weeks. Two pounds of raw, local honey is not cheap. Every empty jar signified I needed more (and there were always empty jars).

I realized I needed to do something to justify my addiction, so I signed up for a 3-day beekeeping course at Rutgers Environmental Complex in Bordentown, NJ. In taking this course, I learned I had some respecting to do.  Honey does not form overnight.  It’s an arduous process orchestrated by thousands of bees that work their striped derrieres off, risking their lives every time they leave the hive.  Not to mention that honey is their food, and is their sole sustenance to sustain their hive, and get them through the winter (which in the Northeast, can be harsh!).  I cut back on my honey consumption, and began treating it more like gold than Frank’s Red Hot.

I ordered my starter hive in the fall of 2012, and in between priming and painting it, read up (and nerded out) on beekeeping knowhow.  For example, did you know that the queen bee can lay 2000 eggs a day? Or, if a larger insect (or rodent) gets inside the hive to try to steal honey, the bees will kill it, then wrap it in propolis and wax which hermetically seals it. That way they can just leave it in the hive, and not worry about its removal.  Woah.

bees on outside of the box

I ordered my ‘package’ of bees from a local apiary, and waited eagerly for its early spring arrival.   The first week of April, I got the phone call that they were ready for pick up. I paid the beekeeper and was instructed to pick out whichever package I’d like.  I figured I was about to drive about 25 miles with 3 lbs. of bees with me in a car (with windows rolled up I was instructed, as not to agitate them), figured I should up the ante of this challenge. I opted for the package with a good cluster of 40 chilly bees clinging to the outside. Taking this as a sign that these rogue bees decided that this was the best box, carefully picked it up, said “I’ll take this one!” and carefully rested it next to me on the passenger seat.  For the most part, they stayed clinging to the box.  Until I got about 5 miles from home a few decided to fly around and check out the backseat of my car. If you think driving is fun, try driving with a box of live bees!

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Once home, I put on my bee suit, got my smoker and sprayer full of sugar water ready.  Smoke masks the alarm pheromones bees release that signal the other bees to take warning. The sugar syrup also helps calm them by giving them something to snack on. Both help keep the bees nice and calm.  I slowly removed the covering of my box of bees, pulled out the sugar syrup can (used to feed them while in transport), and pulled out the little queen cage (she was a beauté — long and golden!), and put her in my pocket for safe keeping (and to keep her warm).  Then, I held my breath.  I was about to dump 3 lbs. of bees into my beehive. Do you know how many bees that is?  400?  1,000?  Nope, 11,000 bees my friend.

bees installed

Somehow, after practicing in my mind over and over, everything went to plan. I gently shook the bees into the hive and left the package near the hive entrance so any stragglers could make it out on their own.  I pulled the cork out of the queen cage and placed in between two frames, put on the lid to the hive and stepped away.  Phew!  Bees were excitedly flying around me everywhere, glad to be out of their box.  A bunch landed on my arms and gloves and made their introductions.  I noticed they were looking right at me as if to say, “Who the heck are you?”

bees on comb and queen cup

It’s been one year now since I got my bees, and I’ve learned a ton.  They’ve been multiplying rapidly and I not have a pretty good tower of supers (boxes that contain frames of bees).   Each weighs about 35 lbs and is full of bees of all developing stages, propolis, pollen, water, and honey.  Every time I do a hive inspection, I become wide-eyed with wonder — there are colors and smells inside that you can never believe existed until you experience it for yourself.

looking through frames

One of the most amazing feelings I’ve gotten to experience is how I can read them, and they can read me.  If I move slow and carefully, they move slow and carefully.  If I feel hurried or tense, they are too and will fly about and look at me as if to say, “chill out!” Because of this, they are teaching me the value of moving slowly and carefully, to pay attention and to remain curious.  They seem to recognize me when I open the hive and lately I have not been using my smoker.  I can tell by the volume of their hum if they’re having a good day, or bummed because it’s overcast.  They’ve turned my sparse garden into a veritable produce aisle.

I am absolutely enamored with the treasure chest in my backyard.

me suited up all nerdy
Nerd alert!