The Best Way to Get Bees For Free

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Free bees in my swarm box.

Since 2009, when our beekeeping mentor Kirk Anderson showed up with some bees in a shop vac, I’ve kept our bee stock going and helped other people establish apiaries in just about every way you can. I’ve cut hives out of walls (a lot of work that fails most of the time). I’ve trapped them out (a huge pain in the ass). I’ve captured swarms (easy, but they often take off the next day). The only thing I haven’t done is purchase bees. At about $125 a pop, it’s an expensive option considering they often don’t make it. By far, the best way to get bees is to invite them to settle down on their own. Here’s how to do it.

Build it and they will come
Set up your bee housing (Langstroth hive or top bar hive) and the bees might just move in on their own. It’s happened to me twice now in seven years. You should have your boxes ready to go anyway, since you can never predict the day someone will call with a swarm that needs a home. This readiness applies to tools too. Have all your bee tools in an easily accessible toolbox, always ready to go.

Where to set up your hives is one of the great mysteries of beekeeping. Here in Southern California they seem to prefer some sun and some shade. But I’ve found feral hives both in total shade and full sun. Your results will vary, depending on your climate, but they probably won’t do well in the bottom of a cold canyon or the top of a windy mountain.

swarm blox plansSwarm boxes
Instead of setting up a proper hive, bait a bunch of boxes and place them in your yard, in your friends yards and in random places and you might just capture a swarm or two. You can buy or make swarm boxes. Natural beekeeper Michael Bush has estimated that bees show up in around 10% of the swarm boxes he sets up. He also suggests hanging them up around 10 feet high for best results. I like swarm boxes that hold frames so that you can transfer the bees easily to your hive boxes without having to do a cutout.

And guess what? A bee swarm box and a birdhouse are pretty much the same thing. So get friendly with birdhouse enthusiasts.

Baiting swarm boxes
You can buy swarm lure, a kind of synthetic pheromone, but it’s expensive and doesn’t last long. Some folks suggest a cotton swab dipped in lemongrass oil and stuck in a medicine bottle with holes in it. Better, I think, is to mix wax and lemongrass oil and paint that on your frames.

Used equipment that once held bees is also a powerful attractant. Once bees figure out a good space they will come back to it.

Where to put a swarm box
Something that happened to us last week will show you how random and inexplicable bees can be when it comes to occupying a swarm box. I had a swarm box up on top of our shed roof, near our neighbor’s orange trees, because bee swarms have landed there in the past. But even though that box has been up there for years, bees never moved in. So, about a month ago, I finally took the swarm box off the roof and tossed in haphazardly, upside-down, in a large plastic pot that was half filled with chicken litter. I intended to throw the box out at some later date.

Then, a few days later, as a neighbor was telling me about his favorite climbing roses, Kelly called me from the porch, saying there was a”bee situation” going on in the back yard.  I ran up the stairs and behind the house to see one of the awe inspiring miracles of nature: a hive moving into their new home–that new home being the upside-down swarm box in the plastic pot half full of dirty chicken litter. Being bloggers, Kelly and I should have whipped out our smart phones to catch some video. Instead, we sat on the patio and watched the swarm buzz around for ten minutes before they settled in the box.

I put a bee suit on (swarms are usually docile, but it’s best to be safe) and took the box out of the pot and righted it carefully, setting it near my established hives. I’m going to give the queen plenty of time to settle in and start laying eggs –at least 28 days–during which time I won’t touch or look at these bees. Since I already have two hives, I’m going to give these bees away. Anyone want bees?

Have you had a swarm move in on its own?

Beekeeping Legal in Los Angeles!

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Thanks to the hard work of the folks at Honey Love, beekeeping in Los Angeles is now legal after a unanimous vote by the LA City Council. It was the culmination of four years of Honey Love’s lobbying efforts. The city planning department also did a great job of coming up with a common-sense revision to the city code. The new regulations legalize beekeeping in residential zones while requiring beekeepers to keep the bees six feet from the property line and have a water source.

There were more than a few obstacles to legalizing beekeeping in Los Angeles. Special thanks must go to Chelsea and Rob of Honey Love who diplomatically balanced beekeepers with different management styles as well as dealing with skeptical neighborhood councils and politicians.

While I was unable to go to the meeting yesterday, I did get to experience what it’s like to go in front of a hostile audience when I appeared before the Pacific Palisades Neighborhood Council to defend the code revision. It’s the first time in my life I’ve been protested. I had to face a row of high school students holding up blown up photos of people covered in bees (which were actually stunt people doing the swarmed by bees trick). I had a few flashbacks to my less than stellar year on the Culver City Junior High Debate Team and left the meeting depressed that a generation of children were being taught by their elders to be afraid of nature.

Despite these struggles, yesterday’s legalization is a positive sign that many people want to reconnect with the natural world. Everything is connected: heightened awareness of the plight of bees goes hand in hand with issues such as the overuse of pesticides and where our food comes from. It’s a great week for the City of Los Angeles.

How to Remove Bees from a Wall

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I found out through the social networking site Nextdoor, that a neighbor I know had a hive in a wall in the tenant’s portion of the duplex she owns and lives in. Since I’m on crutches for two months I enlisted the aid of John Zapf (a guest on episode 54 of our podcast) and also recruited the intrepid renter of the apartment, Elizabeth, who was more than happy to jump into a suit and help out. John did the bulk of the work while I sat uselessly on a stool and took pictures. This is a method beekeeper Kirk Anderson, our guest on episode 40 of the podcast, showed me how to do. This is not the only way to do it but, I think, one of the better and more humane techniques for removing bees from a structure.

Elizabeth actually witnessed the bees moving into the wall. When she first contacted me and told me this, I requested that we wait to do the removal until the queen had a chance to mate and start laying eggs (at least 28 days). This increases the chances that the hive will survive the move. If the queen is squashed during the removal the workers can create a new queen, but only if they already have a supply of eggs.

Gather your tools

The first step is to make sure all tools and equipment are ready: hammer, crowbar, smoker, bee suits, gloves, knife, sugar water, spray bottle, box and frames, rubber bands, burlap and matches.

Suit up
Bees are usually pretty mellow to work with but cutouts are an exception. After all, you are breaking and entering their home. This hive was small and not defensive at all, but I’ve done large cutouts where the situation was much more intense. For cutouts I like to use head to tail bee suits like these ones sold by Dadant. You need long gloves, too, of course, and you need to wear sturdy shoes, boots preferably. No skin should be accessible to the bees, because they will find it. Make sure everything is tucked in and zipped up before you begin.

While not the “killer bees” hyped up in the press, the fact is that the Africanized bees here in the warmer parts of the US are a bit more defensive than European bees. Even when you’re not doing a cutout, you can’t work with them in shorts and a t-shirt.

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John smokes the bees.

Lock up the pets

When I do a cutout I always make sure that any pets in the homeowner’s yard or next door are inside in case the hive gets really cranky. This includes putting chickens in their coop if there’s a flock nearby. And it should go without saying that any people who want to watch should watch from behind a window!

Always start with smoke

Never skip this step–it’s easy to do when you’re excited and ready to go. Take a moment to smoke the hive and be sure to wait a minute after you do so to be sure the bees have enough time to calm down. I like to burn scraps of old burlap bag in my smoker because it smolders for a long time.

Demolition

When I do these jobs I tell the homeowner that I’m going to open up their wall, make a mess and I’m not going to repair the damage. If you hire a bee removal service they should put the wall back. Since I only do this as a favor to friends, family or neighbors, and do it for free, I don’t promise repairs. I also don’t do work from ladders–that’s just too difficult for a free gig.

First John set about peeling off the paneling from the porch wall. You have to do this demo work carefully. Sometimes bees will attach comb to a wall surface and when you peel it off, the comb will fall out along with a lot of pissed off bees. John is trained as an architect, has construction experience and he did a remarkable job removing the paneling in such a way that it will be easy to repair.

Seeing an exposed hive is to witness one of the miracles of nature. Everyone I’ve taken along on a cutout has been struck by this moment.

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Cutting out

Once the hive is exposed we used smoke to herd the bees off of the comb. Using a knife, John sliced the comb off of where it was attached to the wall. The comb was then transferred to medium sized Langstroth frames and secured with rubber bands (you can use string as well but I like rubber bands better).  Basically, you just need to position the comb within the frame temporarily. The bees will take over once they are in their new home and extend the comb to the edges of the frame, so it’s properly attached. Then they’ll chew the rubber bands or string off and eject that human garbage from the hive.

The rubber-banded frames are then set into the new bee box, either in new permanent hive box, or a temporary “nuke” box.

Regarding the queen

It’s best for everyone if the queen is successfully transferred during this process. She’s hard to spot, so I don’t even try to look for her during the chaos of a cutout. I just pray I don’t kill her accidentally along the way. As I said above, the workers can make a new queen if they have to, but the transition is much smoother if the original queen is present.

You’ll know you’ve got her in a couple of ways. The first is that the workers are attracted to her, so they’ll be drawn to a hive box which has her inside, and will be more likely to stay in that box. A really good sign is that you’ll see workers hanging around the entrance of the hive, fanning it with their wings. This lets the returning workers–and you– know that the queen is in residence.

Rounding up the stragglers

Next comes the tedious task of convincing confused bees–who will insist on hanging out in cavity where the comb used to be– to go into the box. To do this we sprayed the bees with a sugar syrup made with a 50/50 mix of water and white sugar. This keeps the bees busy cleaning themselves so that you can gently brush them into a dust pan and transfer them into their new bee box.

Some people use specially adapted vacuums to suck the bees off the comb and out of cavities. You have to be careful if you do this as it’s easy to injure the bees.

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Once the comb and as many stray worker bees as you can coax out of the wall cavity were in the box, we positioned the box with the entrance as close as possible to where the bees were coming in and out of the wall, so that returning bees would find their new home. Then we took a break.

I came back later in the afternoon and “supervised” as Elizabeth brushed more of the confused workers who had returned from the field into the dust pan and then into the bee box. The bees must get on the comb as soon as possible or the hive won’t survive as the comb must be kept between 32º C and  35ºC.

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Collecting the box
You have to wait until nightfall to move the box to it’s new location. By dark, the majority of the workers should have returned to the hive from the fields and made their way into their new living quarters.

Before you move the box, lightly smoke the bees, shut up the entrance and carefully transport them. Since John and I both have hatchbacks, I take the extra precaution of placing the bees in a mesh bag specially made for moving beehives (they need air just like we do).

After the move

One the hive is in its new location I decrease the size of the entrance so that the hive has a better chance of fending off robber bees from nearby colonies.

Misconceptions
I’ve seen a lot of misconceptions about bee removal on the interwebs. No, you can’t “smoke” them out of a wall. And you should definitely not just try to plug up the entrance to the hive! That’s a great way to encourage a bunch of angry bees to punch their way inside your house.

You should also beware of shady bee removal services. It’s best to get a referral from your local beekeeping association. If you’re in LA, contact Honey Love for a referral. You can also consider just leaving them in place. As long as they aren’t stinging anyone there’s not really any harm in having bees in a wall.

Cutouts are very hard on bees and there’s maybe a 50/50 chance that the hive will survive, but at least it’s better than calling an exterminator and spraying poisons. Exterminators often don’t know what they are doing when it comes to bees and will not properly do any preventative measures to keep another hive from just moving in again. In short, when you’ve got bees call a beekeeper!

Update 4/8/2016: Good news! These bees are still healthy and strong in their new home in Lincoln Heights.

Why I Don’t Like Wooden Hive Stands

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Four years ago I built a wooden hive stand like the one above. I’m retracting this idea. Why? In short, termites. A healthy bee colony can live for years and once you find a place they like there’s no reason to move them. They are also really heavy, with a large colony weighing as much as a person. The problem with wooden stands is that even if you use treated lumber they will eventually succumb to termites, especially in our warm climate. Combine termites with playful young raccoons and you end up with a disaster. Let me propose two alternatives:

  • Cinder blocks are inexpensive, strong and last forever. It’s harder to do ant control with them but I gave up on that years ago. Healthy hives, in my experience, fend off ants themselves.
  • Buy or weld your own metal stands.

You may want to consider strapping the hives down if you live in a windy place or in earthquake country. See Eric of Garden Fork TV’s video on this. I also wish that I had small concrete pads underneath the hives.

Do you use a stand? What kind do you use?

A Neoclassical Native Bee House

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Inspired by the LA Natural History Museum’s bee houses on poles, I dashed off my own version in Sketchup. It’s an homage to Ian Hamilton Finlay.

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Kelly is supportive but skeptical. I’m hoping it can be a part of the reboot of our front yard, which we’re about to embark on. The plan is to remove unsuccessful plants and make the space more welcoming to wildlife. More on that in later posts.