A House for Native Bees and Insects

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My favorite garden in Los Angeles is the one at the Natural History Museum. It resides in one of the more lifeless parts of the city, surrounded by a sea of concrete and asphalt adjacent to a park that’s just poorly tended grass and roses. The premise of the Natural History Museum garden is, “build it and they (life) will come.” During the four classes we’ve taught in the NHM garden we’ve witnessed that life: insects and birds in abundance.

In addition to lots of life-attracting plants, the NHM folks have created habitats for insects like the one in the pictured above. These cute little native bee habitats sit atop a 8 foot four by four. I’m going to steal the design for our front yard. As soon as I can get Sketchup working again on my computer I’ll draw up some plans and make them available.

In the meantime see the fact sheets on the Xerces Society website for specifics on building and maintaining insect habitats.

Strapping Bee Hives

Eric, of Garden Fork TV, posted a video response to my scary toppled hive situation. Langstroth hives are heavy and get tipped over by high winds, bears, teenagers and (where I am) earthquakes. Eric says:

Strapping your hives with ratchet straps, the good kind used by truckers, will reduce the chaos when a beehive is  knocked over.

We first started strapping our beehives as part of our bear proof the bee yard project. If the hives are strapped, the hives stand a better chance of surviving a bear in the beeyard. One can say that a ratchet strap won’t keep a bear from tearing open a beehive, but I’ve read where the strapping has helped save hives.

Read the rest of his post here.

John Zapf, our digital design podcast guest, came over to help me re-stabilize my own hives and they seem to have recovered (thank you John!). I need to make more substantial and termite proof stands in addition to strapping them. And in the comparison between Langstroth vs. top-bar hives, you can add tipsiness to the list of problems with Lang hives. I think I’m still in the Langtroth camp, but just barely.

A Painful Beekeeping Lesson

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Just a few of the stingers imbedded in my bee suit.

I spent the weekend in a Benydryl haze. When you make a mistake in beekeeping you get immediate feedback.

A freak summer storm descended on Los Angeles this past Saturday. Lighting strikes knocked the power out in many places and lit palm trees on fire. Unfortunately for me, the deluge softened the soil underneath one of the legs of one of my beehives causing it to fall over and knock over another hive. I didn’t discover this situation until 7 p.m. as it was getting dark. Kelly was out of town and I was alone in the backyard staring at a jumble of bee boxes.

Here’s what I should have done:

  1. Take a deep breath. Pause, and assess the situation.
  2. Come up with a plan.
  3. Gather all the equipment I needed.
  4. Smoke the hive boxes.
  5. Slowly and confidently put them back together.

Here’s what I did instead:

  1. Panic and run around like an idiot.
  2. Throw on my bee suit wearing just a t-shirt (thankfully I had pants on!).
  3. Skip the smoke and just start hefting the boxes around.
  4. Not only did I not assemble the needed equipment (smoker, lighter), I did not have the garage door opener to access that equipment. At one point I had to run through the house covered in angry bees to get the clicker.

Then I started moving the boxes without first smoking them (which I know is wrong, but I did anyways). A lot of bees came out to let me know they were unhappy. I felt the full and fierce anger of nature. I got the crap stung out of me through my suit. One of the things you learn working with bees is that a hive acts as one mind, one consciousness. When bees and humans are working together the relationship feels like telepathy. When we’re at odds it’s like something out of your worst nightmare. You’re struggling with a unseen, intelligent and very powerful adversary, one that feels very alien and “other”.

By acting hastily, I caused a potentially dangerous situation not only for myself but for other people and animals. Thankfully it was raining and dark and I was the only victim. It was one of those situations when I knew what I was doing was stupid but I did it anyways, propelled by a needless hysteria.

What did I learn? When it comes to beekeeping, never panic, always think ahead and stay calm and deliberate. Use smoke if you think there is any chance that bees might get angry. Wear a thick shirt and pants under your bee suit. Call for help. Bee boxes are heavy and sometimes two brains are better than one. Maintain your equipment (I knew that one of the boxes was leaning but I delayed fixing it). Have your tools at the ready so you can just grab them when you need them.

Of course all of this is common sense. I guess the final lesson is that we humans have a special way of screwing things up. Bees? They plan ahead, store up food for a rainy day and keep focused.

049 The Fierce Green Fire: Natural Beekeeper Patrick Pynes

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Our guest this week is organic beekeeper and gardener Patrick Pynes. I met Patrick through a comment he left on a blog post I did about Africanized bees. We talk about this subject as well as top bar hives and what it means to keep bees, as Patrick puts it, “beecentrically.” Patrick’s website is Honeybee Teacher. During the podcast we discuss:

  • Les Crowder
  • The language around beekeeping: “beecentric” vs. anthropocentric approaches to honeybees and “Bee-having” vs. “beekeeping”
  • Dealing with swarms
  • Golden Mean Top Bar hive, which you can see at backyardhive.com
  • Africanized bees
  • Aggression vs. defensiveness
  • Top bar hives and Africanized bees
  • Inspecting bees
  • Advantages of top bar hives
  • Eight frame Langstroth hives with foundationless frames
  • Diseases

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. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

Of paper wasps and scrub jays

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Another wasp colony, this one on our shed, probably related to the destroyed colony.  It’s a little blurry because I had no desire to get up in their business to take a better photo.

Stinging insects tend to send people into panic, especially if they’re yellow and black striped. After years of keeping bees, we’ve come to learn that many people can’t distinguish a honey bee from a yellow jacket from a wasp–and we won’t even start on the native bees. Yet it pays to be able to do so, because each is quite different, and we can interact peaceably with all of them if we know their ways.

Paper wasps, also called umbrella wasps, are those guys who build smallish, open celled nests in protected places, often the eaves of your house. Wasp stings are quite painful, but few people know that these wasps rarely  attack unless provoked. More, they are very beneficial in the garden, because they prey on insects which damage plants. So when they build nests under our eaves, we leave them alone, and never have any problems.

But keep in mind that they do have excellent facial recognition abilities, so if you ever hassle them (say with a hose set to the jet setting) they may not forget you so quickly.

With wasps, it pays to be diplomatic.

Unless you are a scrub jay.

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Western scrub jay, courtesy Wikimedia

I saw this amazing drama earlier this week. I wish I could have captured it on film. We had a small wasp nest in the corner of our patio roof. From my place on the living room sofa, I could see this corner through the front door. One fine morning a bold western scrub jay came to rest on our porch railing, then swooped upward and plucked a wasp off the nest and gobbled it up.

I was very impressed. I had no idea they ate wasps.

She ate a second wasp, delicately picking it apart on the railing, looking very self-satisfied. I thought the show was over, but it turns out she was just enjoying appetizers, because next she launched up and took the entire nest in her beak–random wasps still attached– and flapped off with it into the clear blue sky. Perhaps to enjoy the creamy center in privacy–or perhaps to feed her babies?

One wasp returned to sit forlornly in the place where the nest used to be.

I don’t often use the term bad ass, but that was bad ass.

And the moral? If you don’t want paper wasps in your eaves, do your best to attract birds to your yard. Especially brassy thieves like jays.

Here is a little bit more on paper wasps from the ever-useful Xerces society.