107 Urban Beekeeping with Terry Oxford

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Terry Oxford is a rooftop beekeeper in San Francisco. On this episode of the podcast we discuss her natural beekeeping methods and her efforts to stop the use of systemic neonicotinoid pesticides such as Imidacloprid. Terry’s website is Urban Bee San Francisco. We get into a lot of topics including:

If you want 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. Additional music by Rho. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

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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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