The Hive, Part Three: Epilogue/Prologue.

The bees are dying.

All was, or seemed, well.  We had weeks where the bees were busy busy.  Collecting nectar, the clover in the field surrounding the hive a-buzz with 40,000 tiny beating wings.  Bringing in pollen, little globes of yellow and orange and chestnut brown attached to their legs as they arrived home from their forays.  Building comb, first white then yellow, filled slowly with honey and brood, alien geometry.  All the wild carrot species were in bloom, along with plenty more mid- to late-summer blossoms, a feast for the eyes and the insects.  We fed the bees a little sugar syrup to help them build their winter stores, as we had installed the swarm later in the season than was sensible due to delays from the breeder, and they lapped it up on overcast days or ignored it on sunny days.

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The weather has been changeable, very wet for a Burgundy summer, though with plenty of sun and heat interspersed with the storms.  This has limited the good foraging days for the bees (and for me, though it does mean mushrooms are popping up earlier than last year).  We have watched the bees intently, spending hours sat in front of the hive watching the comings and goings, trying to get a handle on what it all means, these waggles and leg-waves and circular flights.  They have been tolerant of our presence, only becoming antsy if we have taken friends to show them the colony and lingered too long.  All was, or seemed, well.

Then the daily activity on the landing board seemed to slow, little by little, until there were mornings, hot and bright, when the arrivals and departures were sluggish and sparse.  One afternoon, both of us in the field raking hay (wet, unusable, though we shall use it as a mulch for next year’s planned no-dig beds), there was a sudden fierce buzz. Approaching the hive, we saw hundreds of drone bees flying in tight loops.

Drone bees are the male bees; bigger, heavier than the workers, with domed eyes that meet at the top of the head like a crash helmet.  They have no sting.  They are the product of an unfertilised egg, meaning they have no father, only a mother.  If one traces back the number of genetic ancestors of a drone, a sequence is revealed; the Fibonacci sequence, that code that is found throughout nature, in the spiral of a shell, in the uncurling of a fern, numbers revealed in nature.  Drones have one job: to mate with a queen.  They do no foraging of nectar or pollen.  They do not nurse the larvae or tend to young bees.  They are all noise and sex.

Drones often fly in the afternoon, heading out to seek, and mate with, queens from other colonies, but we thought the number we were witnessing was rather large.  A quick look through the observation window revealed something worrying.  More drones, fewer obvious workers, and much more comb visible than normal, suggesting a general decline in numbers.  They were not dying of starvation, there was no obvious disease, no sign of varroa mites.  The possibility, which is today all but confirmed, was that we had lost the queen, that she had died, or been killed. When this happens, sometimes one of the worker bees will begin laying eggs, though these eggs are infertile, the worker never having mated (indeed she lacks the anatomy to do so).  These unfertilised eggs will only produce male drones, no workers, meaning that as the workers reach the end of their lifespans they are not replaced.  The population of the colony is not refreshed, the number of drones increases whilst the workers decrease. Eventually the hive becomes a male-only hive, and, as the males cannot reproduce or even feed themselves, they die.

The only way to confirm what was happening was to open the hive, which is not something recommended in natural beekeeping.  If we were to open the hive and see only drone brood, no worker larvae, this would be a definitive answer.  Our fear was that we might be wrong, that the queen may be alive and laying, and we were simply worrying because of our inexperience, bamboozled by the complexities of the bee society as we are.  Opening the hive, apart from being detrimental to the health of the colony, risks accidentally killing the queen.  Our very quest to save them might be their end.

We asked advice of other Warré beekeepers, which was mostly positive; the bees will be fine, don’t worry, keep an eye, don’t interfere.  So we did just that.  Watched.  Tried to not worry.  Watched and watched.

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A month on and the numbers of bees have reduced to the extent that we could count them, if that were not a macabre and depressing thing to do.  No pollen at all is being brought in by the few workers who are still going about their business.  Too many drones, smaller than they should be, are hanging from the comb in the hive, doing nothing.  Wasps and, we think, bees from nearby colonies are robbing the hive.  We have reduced the size of the entrance to make it easier to defend, but our bees seem disinterested in war, seem to have accepted the siege is lost.  We continue to feed them, now supplementing the sugar with pollen for protein, but every day there are fewer and fewer bees, more tiny corpses, and ML and me look at each other and despair.  ML sits by the hive in the evening sun, swatting at invaders.  I visit the hive less and less; it is too sad.  It feels as if we are presiding over a dying planet, witnessing the end of the world, and this is true, for the bees.

Did we do something wrong?  Possibly.  Could we have intervened?  Yes, but our interventions would have been unlikely to succeed this late in the year, and we are of the mind that if, as seems inevitable, the bees are on their way out it should be because of the natural rhythm of things rather than a clumsy, misguided helping hand.  Are we wrong about all this?  We have talked it over for hours.  I am still unsure.  And it is too late, in any case.

There are many positive things that have happened.  We have been laboriously dealing with a glut of tomatoes, green beans,  and courgettes.  We have canned the tomatoes, either simply chopped and cooked down, or then passed through a sieve and reduced to make a sweet, intense puree, and we have stored enough to last us until next summer. The courgettes we have frozen or sliced and dehydrated in the hot August sun.  Our aubergines and carrots have been a success, and a revelation in terms of flavour.  We have bought no vegetables for two months now, and have been eating well.  The chickens, odd birds, grumble and scratch and lay four eggs, every day.  This evening we are going to look at some sheep, with a view to buying two ewes along with their four lambs.  We’ll keep the ewes for breeding, and raise the lambs on for a year or so for hogget.  Our first meat animals, which raises a whole new set of questions and feelings. Sheep, less inscrutable than bees.  New lives coming in as others fade.

We will not give up.  We’ll start a new bee colony next year, learning from our observations and errors of this year to, hopefully, help create a strong colony.  This is our first real experience of failure, and it is not sweet.  But next year we will get it right.

The queen is dead.  Long live the queen.

 

Locavore Magazine.

Some exciting news – in between wrangling chickens and running away from wasps, I am going to be writing a regular column for Locavore Magazine.  “Who?” I hear you cry. Well, in their own words:

“Locavore is an editorial-led magazine, defined by beautiful photography and intelligent writing. Firmly based in the British Isles, we’ll also roam the world for the best local food stories and the most inspiring people.

Locavore will explore how food is found, grown, prepared and served. We’ll meet foragers, farmers, artisans, teachers and cooks, and learn about their ideas and what motivates them. We’ll discover flavour, variety, method, tradition and ritual.

We’ll look at community projects, networks and campaigns, and investigate the science and effects of modern agriculture and production. We’ll explore food philosophies that put the land, consumer and animal first and contrast these with a globalised food system that homogenises taste and commodifies nature.  And we’ll examine food security and sovereignty within a changing climate.

At 132 pages and perfectly bound, Locavore will be published quarterly and printed to a high eco-standard. It’s available via individual issue sale and subscription. The first issue will be published in March 2017, priced at £8.

Not just another trendy foodies’ magazine, we want Locavore to be the journal of local food, telling stories of slow, seasonal and sustainable eating, engaging in debate and delivering images and writing of the highest quality.”

Which sounds, well, marvellous.

If you should want to subscribe, or buy a copy of the first issue, I can offer a 10% discount. Simply head to http://locavoremagazine.co/shop/ and use the code loc01kj3104 when checking out.  This offer is valid until midnight on 30th April 2017.

Right, off to carry on planting shallots.

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Spring.

Spring, it seems, may finally be here.

It’s been a long, hard winter.  I have spoken of winter at length (thank you for your patience), but now my thoughts and my hands turn to warmer work.

We are still battered by the occasional gale, and in fact a great many trees in the area have succumbed to the winds in recent days, and the local rivers have burst their banks, turning fields into lakes.  We have managed to avoid the worst of this, have not (yet!) lost any trees, and the chickens now seem used to the occasional bath (although they still complain).  We have had no repeat of the now legendary Flood of 2016, and my daily clearing of the ditches and waterways around us seems to be paying off, paying back for the aches it causes.

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The fruit trees we planted are all waking up, little buds popping out along their branches, drinking in the March sunshine.  Daffodils are beginning to flower, tulips are pushing up through the earth, dandelions and daisies and bumblebees and butterflies, new life and hope.

We are visited by bluetits, goldfinches, robins, and the occasional nuthatch.  We have spotted lapwings and storks stopping by for a rest before continuing their migrations.  The buzzards circle in pairs, calling to each other and sending the chickens flapping for cover, tumbling over each other and trying to hide under me.

The cat (Mrs. Badcrumble) was taken to the vet to be spayed, and is, as I type this, sleeping off the effects of anaesthesia, waking now and then to glare at me accusingly and lick her stitches, and I feel like a monster.  The feral cat population in the area is quite large enough already.

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We have started a lot of our vegetables now, and every windowsill in the house plays host to trays and trays of seedlings.  We are growing things we did not attempt in the UK, such as sweet peppers and aubergines, in the hope that the hotter, longer summer will produce good specimens, and ML has planted over 40 tomato plants, which we hope will yield well, so we can preserve enough by drying and canning to see us through next winter.

We have worked hard at improving the clay soil that we have, adding topsoil and well-rotted horse manure, and the pile of kitchen compost grows ever bigger.  I hope to get to a point where the soil is much improved and we can leave it alone as much as possible.  Soil structure is paramount, and any digging or tillage can ruin this, as well as causing loss of nutrients.  We are experimenting with permaculture and no-dig methods, and are planning a small forest garden next year, and we hope for a good harvest.  I have been attempting to coypu-proof the veg garden with chicken wire and rocks, and I will be glad if  they and we can be good neighbours.

There is a chap that ML’s dad used to work with who keeps bees, and he has promised us a swarm (he does not prevent his from doing so), which means we will have bees already adapted to the local environment.  They will swarm sometime in May, all being well, so we are preparing the hive with a final coat of linseed oil, we will rub grass on the inside to make it smell less of human, we will put some lines of wax on the top-bars to encourage comb production, and we will be stupidly excited when they arrive.

The variety of wildlife around the farm in astounding.  When I foraged in the UK I would trek from forest to field in search of spots for wild spring greens.  I had good spots for many edibles, but they were often miles apart.  But here, just on our own land, I have found wild mint, wintercress (bitter!), chickweed, nettle, dead-nettle, hogweed, crow-garlic, dandelion, hairy bittercress (neither bitter nor hairy, confusingly), common sorrel, and comfrey (with which we shall make a foul-smelling tea for the garden).  A bowl of some of these plants dressed in some good oil and vinegar is a welcome crunch, and a taste of things to come.  I have found a spot for wild garlic (I would searched far and wide for this as it is essential, luckily I have found a good patch some half a mile away, in the same forest that provided such a glut of wild mushrooms last year), and when we visited today to pick a little for dinner, we spotted a pair of Alpine newts.  This bodes well, I have decided.  I plan on making enough wild garlic pesto to keep us in easy suppers for the rest of the year, as well as lacto-fermenting some for kimchi or just on its own, a salty crunchy pungent hit of microbiome health food.

The birds sing, the signs are good, and if the coypu eat all my tomatoes it will be roast coypu and wild kimchi for dinner, with a glass of nettle beer.

Concerning Chickens (and a Recipe).

The mornings are cold.  Frost clings in sharp little lances to everything, the sky is a pale blue blanket, and we all shiver underneath.
dscf3960My morning routine is a chilly one; let chickens out, defrost chickens, feed chickens, stare at the sunrise until my eyes freeze over, drink tea.  I worry that the chickens are too cold, but the inside of their house is reassuringly warm.  We’ve taken to feeding them cracked corn in the evening as a last feed, as they digest it more slowly than pellets, and this helps keep them warm throughout the night.  The problem seems to be that they love the corn a little too much, and are beginning to turn a haughty beak skyward at the sight of their usual feed. Remaining strong and not giving in to their more ‘refined’ tastes is a battle of wills, as I am a softy.

They are eating a great deal more than they did when we first got them at the end of thedscf3954 summer, and they are still laying daily – a surprise, as the shortened hours of daylight should mean that their laying slows down during the winter months.  I am not complaining, although as chickens only have a finite number of eggs in them I worry about them running out.

A friend in the UK got in touch to let me know about the current DEFRA ban on moving chickens, and the fact that he has to keep his inside, due to outbreaks of bird-flu.  There is bird-flu in France, but far to the South and the West of us, and not yet in Saône-et-Loire, our département.  There is also a turkey festival in Marcigny today (no idea, I’ll tell you when I get back later), so the locals are clearly not too concerned.  I keep an eye on the news, and the chickens, and I worry.

I worry that I am worrying about chickens too much.

dscf3923The fruit trees are all planted.  As I planted them, I pulled even more scrap metal from the ground, along with sheets of plastic, and an entire car windscreen.  Even here, in what seems to be a culture that works more closely with the land, people buy things and use things with no plan of how to dispose of them.  Manufacture, buy, use, bury in the ground and hope no one notices.  A microcosm of capitalism, in my field.

On misty mornings we spy deer and wild boar, and there is a black woodpecker who pecks away at the same tree, each morning, Morse Code patterns in the fog.

In the evenings we light the fire, and eat hearty, warming food, and delay going to bed as it is so cold upstairs we can see our breath.

There has been no recipe here for a while (I wonder how many of you, Dear Readers, want or follow my recipes), but there is one today.

Boudin-Noir with Apples, Potatoes, and a Honey Mustard Sauce.dscf3945

(serves 2 if you’re greedy like me)

This is a properly seasonal supper (yes, pig’s blood is in season right now), and a rich, filling, simple way to push away the chill of the day.

Ingredients

(for the sauce)

2 shallots, finely diced

250 ml dry white wine

250 ml stock (I used pork stock, because I had some in the fridge, but a good organic chicken stock will do nicely)

2 tsp mustard seeds

2 tbsp Dijon mustard

1 tbsp honey

The leaves from 2 sprigs thyme

Salt

(for the rest)

300 g boudin-noir (or black pudding – they’re not exactly the same, but close enough for us), cut into 2 lengths

2 large floury potatoes, cut into chunks

1 large eating apple, cored and cut into thick slices

1 onion, thinly sliced

1 clove garlic, minced

Salt

A handful of curly parsley, finely chopped

Quite a lot of butter

Method

Cook the potatoes until just tender, drain, and set aside.

In a small pan, cook the shallots in a little butter until soft.  Add the rest of the ingredients for the sauce and bring to a simmer.  Reduce by about 2/3 until quite thick, season to taste, and set aside.

In a large non-stick frying pan, melt a little butter and cook the boudin-noir until warmed through and a little crispy on the ends.  Remove from the pan, set aside somewhere warm, and cover.

Add more butter (yep) to the pan, and cook down the sliced onion until soft and just starting to brown.  Add the cooked potatoes, apple, and garlic, and fry until the apples have caramelised and there’s some lovely crispy bits on the potato.

Place the boudin-noir back in the pan, pour over the sauce, cover, and let it sit on the heat for a couple more minutes to warm it all through properly.

Season to taste, scatter the parsley over.

Eat straight from the pan, and try not to worry about chickens.

 

What We Learned From the Flood.

dscf3384When I was a child, we had an orchard.  I remember the day we moved in to that house like it was yesterday.  Me and my sister paced the length and breadth of the field, wading through grass as tall as we were.  We’d never seen so much space.  I remember dragging an old plastic sled around in the autumn, loading up apples for cider-making.  I remember picking ripe fruit from the branches, all crunch and sweet and juice like an ideal of apple. I remember climbing the trees in the spring, camouflaged in blossom.  I remember my Dad hanging swings for us to swing on, higher, higher.  I would lie in the tall grass in the summer, looking up at the blue sky, framed in blades, birdsong, buzz.  I remember.

The plan, such as there is ever a plan, is to create an orchard in the part of the field that adjoins our vegetable garden.  We will plant apples (of course), pears, quinces, cherries, plums, we will sow wild flowers, we will put the beehives here, and it will marvellous.

Winter is the traditional time to plant fruit trees, and our local garden centre had a ‘tree dscf3874day’ – special offers on trees, a talk on how to plant and tend them, a very lovely and knowledgable lady who helped us choose varieties that will pollinate each other and give a long harvest, rather than a week of oh-my-days-how-much-fruit?  So we bought two apple-trees (a Starking and a Reine des Reinettes), two pear-trees (a Conference and a William), one quince (a Portugal), and one cherry (a Sunburst).  ML’s brother loaded them up into his dscf3867trailer, and we took our new arrivals home to introduce them to the chickens and the cat.

After a day of digging holes, I went to bed, tired, sore, excited.  When the topsoil arrives, I thought (three tonnes of good earth; ours is a little clay-like), I can soak the roots of the trees, and get them in the ground.  I slept very well.

Then came the flood.

The next morning ML got up early to feed the chickens.  I stayed in bed for a few more moments, encouraging my stiffened limbs into some semblance of life and usefulness. Rising, I opened the shutters of our bedroom to be presented with a scene from a John Wyndham novel (specifically The Kraken Wakes – read it, it may stand you in good stead for the future).  The entire vista in front of the house had been transformed into a great silvered mirror, and the clouds above were dark and furrow-browed, moving too fast.  The chickens were huddled on a rapidly diminishing island in the middle of their run (should we have got ducks?), the cat appeared to be doing the backstroke, and ML was nowhere to be seen.dscf3892

I dressed hurriedly, pulled on my wellies, and waded out into the water.  It had not (yet) reached the house; panic did not (yet) set in.  ML reappeared from the lane that runs past the farm.  “We need to do something about this,” she said, and took me to the drainage ditches that separate the lane from our hedgerows, all along one side of the property.  They were clogged with branches and twigs and brambles and leaves, and rapidly filling with water.  So much so, in fact, that they could not cope with the deluge and eventually burst their banks.  The garden was underwater, the chickens were now balanced on top of one another, the lane became a river, and the water was gradually encroaching on the house.  I donned my overalls and plunged knee-deep into the ditch and began furiously pulling out the material causing the blockage, while ML did the same a little down-stream, in an attempt to encourage the water to pass us by, to not stay for tea.  It worked, to an extent, in that the water got no deeper, although neither did it start to recede.

I dug a ditch in the ground to drain the chicken run.  The chickens thought me mad, and told me so as I worked, but it was successful, and their island began to get bigger.

dscf3885I did this for seven hours (ML had to work).

When ML finished work, we jumped in the car and aquaplaned to Marcigny, and bought some sandbags.  We rushed back and used them to block up our driveway.  Miraculously this seemed to help, and the water in front of the house began to disappear, even as the lane became more submerged.

Satisfied that we had done all we could (would it be enough?), we went inside, closed the shutters, opened a bottle, and waited with crossed fingers.

We awoke to mist, but no rain, and the flood had all but vanished.  There remained a little water in the chicken run, and the holes I had dug for the trees were filled to the brim.  Well, I thought, that will delay the planting a little.

We are reassured to learn that this was an exceptional event, and that we need not buy a boat quite yet (although we are likely to have more, less severe, floods once or twice a year).

Five days later, no more rain, and the tree-holes are still full, the water having failed to drain away.  No good for fruit trees, who will do badly (die) if their roots are submerged for any period of time longer than a day or two (charmingly referred to as wet feet).

I do a little digging tour of the field, exploring how far down the water is.  It is similar in almost every place, and I am disheartened.  More work to do, then, putting some drainage in the field to we can grow more than watercress (I do like watercress, though am unsure I could live on it).  I am glad of the flood, we would have merrily planted the trees and then watched them wither and die (rather less merrily), if not for the warning the water gave us.  A silver lining, then.

I have found a spot in the field where we can plant the six trees we have, but we will then need to complete the drainage before we can expand the orchard as planned.

And the bees?  A hive on stilts?  Can I rig up a floating beehive?  Can bees swim?  Bee-snorkels?  All these questions (maybe not the last one) will be answered in the spring, when we get our hives and source our bees.

I remember those sun-dappled orchard hours, and we will get there again, but the path will be longer than it looked.  As it ever is.

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The Chicken and the Egg.

The chicken run is finished.  Finally.  It became something of a personal Hadrian’s Wall. (Hen-drian’s Wall?  Anyone?  No?)  This is the first fence I’ve ever built, and it’s a surprisingly satisfying thing to do.  We found a chap in a village about two miles away who makes and sells acacia fenceposts.  He has a massive yard full of different sized posts, whittled, or more probably chain-sawed, to a point.  He’s a man of few words (not easy to deal with on the phone), and I think we may have confused him somewhat.  We arrived in our little Clio and asked to buy as many as we could fit in without making the car look too much like a failed teenage tagger-on in a Mad Max film.  The farmer’s sons appeared and watched as we jammed pole after post into the boot, seats down, windows open, and they remained as taciturn as he, as we paid (a whole one Euro each), we waved, we drove off, wobbling slightly as I got the point of one post in my ear. dscf3577

All the fences around us are made of the same wood – it’s hard and durable and seems to turn to stone after a year or so.  We bought some wire from the local hardware store, and I set to work with a variety of tools for digging things and hitting things.

Some previous owner of our farm has hidden a large amount of treasure in the ground, if treasure is springs and nails and bits of concrete, and the job of digging a trench to bury the bottom of the wire made me feel like Sisyphus appearing as a contestant on the Crystal Maze.

We’ve made good use of various pieces of stone and metal we’ve found lying around to help make the chickens’ house (an old brick tool shed), and the run, as chicken- and fox-proof as possible, although apparently there are weasels to worry about; basically carnivorous pipe-cleaners that are impossible to stop without hermetically sealing the whole of Burgundy.  I’ve also used a load of English lime tree branches that we were given, to make the fence a bit more attractive (for the chickens), and the gate to the run is made from some old kitchen cabinets donated by ML’s parents. Repurposing old rubbish and waste materials is where it’s at.

Some second-hand wooden chairs from a charity shop have been adapted using some wooden veg boxes we were given by our local greengrocer, to make some nest boxes and perches, and we bought some dust-free wood shavings for the floor.  We got a plastic feeder and a plastic drinker and some chicken-feed and some broken oyster shells (good for their calcium levels and their method of digesting their food) and some more wire to plug some gaps – the cost of starting a flock soon adds up, and we’ll need to get (and eat) a lot eggs before they pay for themselves.

But this is not the point.

When I was a child my parents kept hens.  I have vivid memories of collecting warm eggs on chilly mornings, and of the life they bring to a home with their odd ways and funny behaviours. We want to give them as pleasant, as natural, and as long a life as we can. We’ve provided a stack of logs and sticks in the run (they are evolutionarily a woodland bird) so they can hide and play.  All of this for an omelette.  When they stop laying they can peck out a retirement that many a Brit dreams of; in the sun of a rural retreat in France.

This morning we took a trip to the weekly market in Marcigny, where you can buy everything from slippers to sausages, and spoke to a guy there who was selling chickens. He had cages and cages of birds; chickens, ducks, geese, quail.  We talked to him about what we were after (good natured chickens, good layers) and he sold us four hens, all of them six months old and already laying.  They are vaccinated, and he told us about some more care and treatments to consider; using cider vinegar and honey as natural preventatives and medicines. We’ve got a couple of books and zero experience, so it’s heartening to realise that there is advice available from someone who feels as we do – look after the chooks well, show them kindness, don’t use too many drugs, and they’ll live long and prosper. And hopefully lay some eggs.

dscf3722Arriving home with four chickens in the boot of the car, excited and a little nervous, we pulled up to the chicken house and examined our preparations.  Is it good enough?  Will they like the shade of blue on the door?  I opened the box and gently lifted the hens out, one by one, and stepped back as they had a cautious look around.

We removed ourselves so as to minimise any stress, and the chickens popped out of the house into the run.  They started pecking at the ground and scratching away, doing all those things one expects of ones chickens.  They seemed to be taking it all in their stride.

dscf3752Except for one.  As soon as she was in the run, she made straight for the corner where we were standing, and stared at us, making a noise like I’ve never heard before, something like a mix of a creaking door and a submarine.  Which was odd.  She then jumped up, and onto the corner fence post.  A bid to escape?  Well, we’ll have to clip her wings if she continues to try, I thought.  I entered the run and grabbed her, placing her back down on the ground, and she seemed relatively unfazed by me.  I dscf3761decided to stay with her in the run to see what happened.  What happened is this: the hen marched up and down, submarine noises and whistles aplenty, and tried to escape four more times before deciding that I was much more interesting.  I sat on the ground and she clambered all over me, on my legs, on my shoulders, making those odd noises.  I thought there must be something wrong with her, she was so docile, and so I stroked her and murmured to her, like a weirdo.  Finally she settled down on my lap and seemed to be asleep.  After around five minutes she awoke, perked up, and the noises did not reappear.

The chicken got up and strolled away, seemingly, now, perfectly happy and content with her surroundings.  She joined her hen-friends and started chickening away.

And on my lap was a single, warm, perfect egg.dscf3772

Welcome home, ladies.