102 Beekeeping Controversies With Susan Rudnicki

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Listen to “102 Beekeeping Contoversies With Susan Rudnicki” on Spreaker.

Behind the headlines about bee die-offs is an untold story about the methods of conventional beekeeping. There is a sharp divide between mainstream beekeepers and natural beekeepers. In this episode we delve deep into the controversies over how bees are managed with beekeeper Susan Rudnicki. We recorded this episode in front of a live audience at one of Honey Love’s monthly symposiums. We get into a lot of detail on beekeeping methods, so consider this episode a kind of natural beekeeping 101. During the podcast Susan discusses:

  • Why are all the bees dying?
  • Treatment vs. non-treatment.
  • Why most advice is pro-treatment.
  • Keeping feral stock.
  • Africanized bees.
  • Mistakes.
  • How often to inspect.
  • Swarm prevention.
  • When to take honey in a Mediterranean climate
  • Dodgy bee removal services.
  • The “Complete Idiots Guide to Beekeeping.”
  • What’s wrong with package bees?
  • The difference between swarming and absconding.
  • That Flow Hive thingy.
  • Darwinian concepts in beekeeping.
  • “Scientific” beekeeper Randy Oliver’s change of opinion on feral stock: here and here.
  • Bee Audacious conference.
  • Foundation vs. no foundation.
  • Reducing entrances.
  • Queen excluders.
  • Screened bottom boards.
  • Straightening crooked comb.
  • Eight frame boxes.
  • The problem with organic treatments.
  • Les Crowder’s “Top Bar Beekeeping.”

If you’d like to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

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Your Urban Homesteading Vocabulary Word of the Day: Slumgum

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Some beekeeping jobs result in garbage bags full of dark, dirty comb. Such was the case, this past week, when I cleaned out an acquaintance’s hive that had absconded. In the course of processing that comb into wax I came across a word I’d never seen before: “slumgum.” Slumgum is the dark brown sludge made of propolis, larvae parts and dirt that you’re left with once you filter out the wax.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, we can thank my fellow Californians for this nineteenth century neologism. The OED cites the 1890 classic, Gleanings of Bee Culture, as the earliest occurrence of the word “slumgum,”

1890 Gleanings Bee Culture XVIII. 704/2 The cappings are laid on this perforated tin, and, when they melt, the wax and honey run through into the chamber below, leaving what Californians call the ‘slumgum’ on the tin above.

Awesome!

Slumgum tips:

  • Don’t throw out the slumgum. You can bait your empty hives with it. Bees love the smell of slumgum.
  • Don’t leave your slumgum outside like I did. It turns out that urban night critters such as skunks and raccoons also love slumgum. Some mammal dragged mine off and ate it!
  • Side note: check your library’s online digital resources. The Los Angeles Public Library offers the Oxford English Dictionary, and many more online reference resources, for free to anyone with a LA library card.

Stay tuned for a longer post on beeswax processing in the next month.

What Equipment do I Need to Keep Bees?

Of all the activities around our household, I consider beekeeping the most rewarding. The encounter with this otherworldly species, the pollination services, the honey and wax are worth the occasional sting. But what do you need to get started? I’ve seen some outrageously priced starter kits, not to mention the Juicero of beekeeping, the Flow Hive. By putting together your own set of equipment you can save a lot of money. Here’s my basic starter kit:

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Bee suit
There’s no reason you need to get stung! Dadant has an inexpensive integrated hat/veil jumpsuit that I’ve used for years. This suit is one piece, meaning that there’s no gap between your veil and suit for bees to climb up in and I like that it covers your whole body. Tuck the pant legs into boots and you’re good to go. Bees can still do a kind of half sting through the material, so I wear long sleeve shirts and long pants if I’m doing something where the bees could get angry, such as a removal job. Dadant sells more substantial and durable suits that which might be a good investment if you’re thinking of running a lot of hives or opening your own removal business. There are also more expensive ventilated suits for hot climates. But for hobbyists such as myself, the inexpensive Dadant suit is good enough. Get a size larger than your normal size. Too big is better than too small.

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Gloves
I’ve gone through a lot of gloves over time. I’ve used both rubber gloves and goat skin gloves. The rubber gloves come in handy where there’s the possibility of dripping honey such as when cutting bees out of a wall or doing a honey harvest. The goat skin gloves make for less finger fumbling. I suggest owning both.

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Smoker
Dadant’s basic smoker has not changed design in a hundred years. It’s one of those objects, like the safety bicycle or the fork, that reached its design apotheosis a long time ago and doesn’t need to be subject to the whims of fashion. I own the cheapest model and have found it perfectly adequate. The more expensive models have a kind of cage around them to prevent you from burning yourself but I’ve never found this feature necessary.

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Hive tool
This is a small and deliberately dull crowbar. Bees stick everything together with propolis, so you need the little crow bar to pry stuff apart. I own the economy model. The end of the tool is dull so you don’t damage your equipment.

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Bee brush
You use a bee brush for flicking the bees away so they don’t get crushed when you put the boxes back together. In addition to being polite, this prevents the bees from setting off their alarm pheromone and causing a stinging frenzy.

Bee housing
Like meany topics in beekeeping this is one that divides families and friends. I’m not going to wade into the controversy here but I’ll just say that you should go with whatever interests you: top bar, Langstroth, Warre etc. I buy medium, unassembled Langstroth boxes and frames (without foundation) from LA Honey. The unassembled boxes are much cheaper than getting a kit. I use only medium boxes so that all my equipment is interchangeable and to reduce the weight you have to heft (a full box of bees is surprisingly heavy). Since I live in a place that never freezes I don’t have to use inner covers or worry about insulating hives in the winter. I’m in the no-treatment, natural beekeeping camp so there’s a bunch of other things that I don’t use such as queen excluders, foundation and mite-related gadgets. For more details on this natural approach I’d suggest taking a look at Michael Bush’s extensive website (he also has tips for beekeeping in cold climates). Without wading into the natural beekeeping fight, let me just say going au natural (so to speak) keeps costs way down. You could get even cheaper by making your own top bar hives but I was taught on Langstroth equipment and I’ve just decided to stick with them out of habit.

Stand for the hives
After a bad experience with the wooden stands that I made myself, I bought some metal stands. But you could save a lot of money by just using cinder blocks. The important thing to note is that bee boxes should be off the ground to prevent flooding and to make it easier to lift the boxes. Your stand must be substantial enough to support several hundred pounds as a hive gets really heavy and you really don’t want it to fall over!

Swarm kit
I also keep a swarm kit containing some of the stuff above and a few other items in a tool box that is in the garage and ready to go at all times. You never know when someone is going to call with a bee situation and you don’t want to run about gathering tools at the last moment. My swarm kit contains:

  • smoker
  • burlap to burn in smoker
  • matches
  • spray bottle with syrup made with a 50/50 combo of water and white sugar
  • pruning sheers for cutting tree branches
  • a roll of caution tape
  • bee suit/gloves/boots (most, but not all swarms are docile)
  • nuc box
  • mesh bag to put the nuc box in (especially important if you don’t own a truck!)
  • knife (for cut-outs)
  • Benadryl for when you get stung!

I strongly suggest having all of the things in this post on hand before you think of getting bees.

So beekeepers, what did I forget to include? Leave a comment!

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How to Remove Bees From a Tree

A Typical Natural Bee Nest from: Seeley, T. D., Morse, R. A. (1976).

A Typical Natural Bee Nest from: Seeley, T. D., Morse, R. A. (1976).

If honeybees lived without us humans, they’d naturally set up their digs in the hollow cavity of a tree. Honeybees like a dark and secure space with a small defensible entrance. A tree cavity is the perfect place to avoid a hive’s two main predators: bears and honey-hunting hipsters. Wander around a city or forest and odds are you’ll find a hive in a tree, definitely a hipster and maybe even a bear.

The difference between bees living in a tree and a swarm
First let’s distinguish between bees living in a tree and a swarm of bees. Most commonly, swarms are found dangling from a tree branch in a huge cluster. Swarms are how bee colonies reproduce. A swarm is just there temporarily and will take off in a matter of hours or days as soon as they find a place to rent. Occasionally, swarms will settle down and start building comb on a branch. See my post on swarms for more information. This post is about bees that have built comb and are living inside of a tree.

So what should you do about bees that are living in a tree? The best option is to do nothing. If they aren’t bothering anyone just let them do their business, which includes keeping your fruit trees and vegetables pollinated! And don’t let anyone tell you that they are “African” and need to be killed. The postmodern theorist in me wants to write a graduate thesis on the curious racism of this rhetoric, but that tome will have to wait for another post. Let’s just call this talk of “African” bees what it is: fear mongering that exterminators and vector control bureaucrats use to drum up business.

Trapping bees out of a kitchen vent.

Trapping bees out of a kitchen vent.

Removing bees in a tree
But let’s say, for some reason, you can’t let the bees be, and you’ve just got to get them out of the tree. In most instances, the only way to remove bees from a tree is by doing what is called a “trap out.” To do this a beekeeper makes a cone out of 1/8 inch hardware cloth that will act as a one way exit for the bees. Then the beekeeper sets up a bee box next to the exit and places a frame of comb that has eggs and brood (bee larvae) in it, taken from another hive. The bees in the tree will exit, not be able to get back into their old home and then, over the course of several weeks, move into the new box with the brood comb in it. If all goes as planned they will make a new queen in the box. The beekeeper will come back in six weeks, take the box away and then seal up the cavity the bees used to live in.

I’ve only done one trap-out and it was in a kitchen vent not a tree, but the process is the same. My one and only trap-out was successful but a lot of work. I had to come back at least every other day to make sure that the one way exit I fashioned did not get blocked by a dead bee.

If the entrance to the hive is large enough or can be made larger with a saw, it’s theoretically possible to do what’s called a cut-out. In a cut-out the comb is removed and placed in frames. Then the bees are either sucked up with a vacuum or gathered after nightfall. You can see what cut-out looks like in this post. I’ve never seen a bee colony in a tree with an entrance large enough to do a cut-out.

Fake beekeepers
I have said it before and will say it again. Beware of dodgy beekeepers that you contact through Google searches. They will make claims that they can “smoke out” the bees. They are lying. What they are actually doing is spraying a can of wasp killer while you’re not looking or they are forcing the bees to abscond, which is no better than killing them. Odds are they don’t know how to do a trap-out. Doing a trap out is a lot of work compared to a spraying wasp killer so you can see where the profit motive comes in. Unscrupulous, fake beekeepers can make hundreds of dollars a day. Please contact a reputable beekeeper through a referral from your local beekeeping organization. In LA you can contact Honey Love. I don’t do tree trap-outs.

Help! I’ve got bees in my tree and my arborist needs to work on the tree
Here’s what a beekeeper can do. The beekeeper comes after dark and gently smokes the bees to calm them down (not to “smoke them out”). Then the beekeeper blocks the hive’s entrance with 1/8 inch hardware cloth so that the bees can’t come in or out. Essentially, you’re locking up the bees so that the arborist can do their work the next day. After the arborist is done the beekeeper comes back at night, smokes the bees again and removes the hardware cloth.

What if I’m cutting down the tree or removing the branch the bees are living in?
In this case a beekeeper can can do the same plugging-up-the-entrance procedure as above. The next day the arborist will (carefully!) cut above and below the cavity with the bees. You’ll end up with a log with bees in it. This can then be taken to someone who wants to host a log of bees or back to the beekeeper’s apiary to do a trap-out under more controlled circumstances.

I hope you can see how the best option for the bees is to do nothing. Unfortunately, some people are just way too afraid of “bugs.” If only we’d look up from our screens occasionally to appreciate the amazing creatures we share this beautiful planet with.

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What is a Swarm of Bees and What Should I Do About It?

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Image: Mark Osgatharp.

In February my phone starts to ring with what I call “bee situations.” With that in mind I’m going to write a series of blog posts to explain some basic bee biology and what services beekeepers can provide when bees show up where they are not wanted. Most of what I describe will be universal, but some information will deal with the peculiarities of honeybees in a Mediterranean climate such as Los Angeles. Speaking of which, peak swarm season begins earlier here than in colder places and swarms can happen anytime of the year including our “winter.”

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Image: Wikipedia.

Basic Swarm Biology
Swarms are the way honeybee colonies reproduce. As with all matters related to the biology of the honeybee, it’s easier to think of a colony as a single super-organism rather than thousands of individuals. Swarming takes place when a colony decides to make a new queen. Once the new queen hatches, the old queen takes off with about half the workers. I’m oversimplifying here and leaving out the complexities of drones and queen mating, but thinking again of a colony as a super-organism, bee swarming is akin to a single celled organism that reproduces by dividing in two. I should note that many colonies, especially in Southern California, produce consecutive swarms but the idea of reproduction by division is still the same.

When the old queen and workers leave the original colony they have to find a new permanent home. Their natural preference is for a hollow portion of a tree. But they’ll take any dark enclosure with a small, easily defensible, entrance. In urban areas, in addition to tree cavities, they might choose the walls of buildings, utility boxes, compost bins and even the inner workings of hot tubs. But before a swarm can find permanent digs, they need a place for the swarm to hang out while the swarm’s scouts go off in search of the perfect home.

Where a swarm lands
When shopping for permanent real estate most swarms end up resting on a tree branch. But they can also pick an odd location, like a bike seat, a light pole or even a car bumper. So how can you tell when a bunch of bees are just visiting a spot temporarily? The answer is simple. Swarming bees don’t have any comb. They’re just hanging out in a big ball of workers with the queen in the center. If you don’t see comb, you know this swarm is just temporarily resting in that spot.

So you’ve got one of these big balls of bees on your tree/bike/fence/bumper! What do you do?
The best answer is to do nothing. Bees that have swarmed have no honey to protect and tend to be very docile (I’ll note an exception below). Odds are that they will move on in a few hours or a day or two at most. You don’t need to call anyone or panic.

The poignant thing about a swarm is that they only have a few days to find a home before they die of exposure and hunger. Swarming is a high risk, transitory state. Never fear that a bunch of swarming bees will end up hanging out in your yard permanently. They will move on, or they will die, and the time frame is just a few days.

If you absolutely must do something about it, please contact your local beekeeping association and obtain the services of a genuine beekeeper. Do not Google “beekeeper” as you will likely end up with a con artist (see my post on bee removal scams).

A reputable beekeeper will remove a swarm in one of three ways: by putting nuc box or bee box right next to the swarm and allowing them to move in on their own, by bumping the swarm into a bee box or other suitable container, or by using a bee vac and sucking them up. The beekeeper will then take the bees and install them in a bee box back in their apiary. My favored technique is to spray the swarm with sugar water (this keeps them distracted) and bump them into a portable “nuc” box. Here’s a video of our mentor, beekeeper Kirk Anderson, moving a swarm:

The con artist “beekeepers” will either spray them with poison, suck them into a vacuum and kill them or put them in a box and then just toss them out in a nearby park or vacant lot. And they’ll charge you much more than a real beekeeper would.

Bee temperament when swarming
As I already noted swarms are most often so docile that you can approach them without protective gear. But not always. A swarm that’s been hanging out for a long time without finding a permanent home can get slightly cranky. Note that I said slightly cranky. It’s not like they’re all going to suddenly attack you like a scene from that silly 1970s disaster movie “The Swarm.” More likely a cranky swarm will give you a gentle reminder to keep your distance–a sting or two. This is why I wear a bee suit when doing a swarm capture. But there is no reason to panic when a swarm shows up!

What is not a “swarm”
In an established bee colony, once a day every day, the young bees do what is called an orientation flight. During orientation, hundreds of bees come out and fly around in circles in front of the entrance to the hive. They are learning the location of their home so that when they become foragers, they will know where to return to. Sometimes this behavior is confused with a swarm, but it is not. Orienting bees will not cluster anywhere, and the orientation session only lasts a short while.

So if you see dozens but not thousands of bees flying around in circles, you are also not witnessing a swarm. There is probably a hive nearby and you are witnessing an orientation. Another possibility is that you might also be seeing wasps or hornets, not honeybees. Here’s what wasps look like and what you should do about them (hint: nothing).

Help, the swarm is African and we’re all gonna die!
Calm down. I can’t speak for all the bees in Africanized bee country (the southern part of the U.S., Mexico, Central and South America) but the bees here in Los Angeles that you see swarming are likely Africanized, but they aren’t killers. I will be dealing with the Africanized controversy in another post, but trust me, I’ve never kept European bees and have always kept the local Africanized bees and I’ve not found them to be overly aggressive at least here in Southern California. You can’t tell Africanized bees from European bees without a DNA test and I’ll note that there are plenty of aggressive European colonies too. But please don’t let anyone panic about the swarm on your tree because they are “African.” They don’t know what they’re talking about.

Help, I’ve got a swarm of bees and I’m calling Root Simple!
Here’s what I will and will not do. If a swarm lands in an easily accessible location and I need a hive or I know someone who does I’m happy to come pick them up as long as you are in central Los Angeles. If they are on a high branch, I can’t get them unless you’re an institution that owns a lift and you can get me up there safely. In that case just wait a few days and they’ll take off on their own. If you’re in the LA area and need a reputable beekeeper please contact Honey Love.

Those times the swarm sticks around
Very rarely a swarm that has landed in a tree can’t find a home and decides to start building comb right where they are (here’s what this looks like). This is a warm climate issue. Honeybees in the tropics build colonies like this. In our Mediterranean climate the odds are they won’t survive this strategy as it’s a little too cold here in the winter, and the rain can cause the comb to break and fall to the ground. When you have one of these freak exterior bee colonies you need to call a beekeeper to deal with the situation.

Have you witnessed a swarm? Have you seen a swarm where you work? How did you or your colleagues react?

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