Picture Sundays: A Native Bee Hotel

Don’t know much about this native bee house other than that it’s near Paris.

For more info on native bee habitats, see our post from earlier this year.

Update: reader Drew left a comment to say that this habitat is in the Jardin des Plantas in Paris which is attached to the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle (http://www.mnhn.fr/le-museum/).

Thanks to David Dalzel for the tip.

Radical Beekeeper Michael Thiele Ventures Into New Territory

Thiele with an unorthodox hive–picture from his website Gaia Bees.

One of the lectures I went to at the National Heirloom Exposition in Santa Rosa earlier this month has really stuck with me. It was a talk by radical biodynamic beekeeper Michael Thiele that, frankly, I walked into biased against. But by the conclusion I could tell that the whole audience, including myself, left deeply moved by what Thiele had to say.

The reason for my bias was that I was not too impressed with the two other biodynamic lectures I attended. One was just too pseudo-scientific even for my intuitively biased brain. The other lecturer, when asked why biodynamicists follow certain unusual practices such as burying dandelion flowers stuffed into the mesentery of a cow responded, “because Rudolf Steiner said so.”

Thiele was different. He is influenced by, what I believe to be, the true spirit of Steiner’s ideas rather than the dogma of his followers. Steiner, I think, would want us all to continue to use our sense of intuition rather than rely on what he said to do. Thiele balances what we know from science about bees with an intuitive relationship with bees as a whole, and complex, organism.

Continue reading…

What Do Microbes Have To Do With Homesteading?

So what are the activities that microbes make possible around the homestead? To name just four:

  • Fermentation
  • Beekeeping
  • Soil Fertility
  • Human beings

Pretty important stuff. In fact, new systems thinking, applied to our natural word, is demonstrating that things like human beings are really just symbiotic sacks of microbial life. An article in the Economist, “Microbes maketh man” discusses just how important microbes are to human health:

The traditional view is that a human body is a collection of 10 trillion cells which are themselves the products of 23,000 genes. If the revolutionaries are correct, these numbers radically underestimate the truth. For in the nooks and crannies of every human being, and especially in his or her guts, dwells the microbiome: 100 trillion bacteria of several hundred species bearing 3m non-human genes. The biological Robespierres believe these should count, too; that humans are not single organisms, but superorganisms made up of lots of smaller organisms working together.

Natural beekeeper Michael Bush has made the same argument about bees. Elaine Ingham has emphasized the importance of microbes in soil.

Mess with the complex interdependent relationships between microbes and people, soil etc. and you’re asking for trouble. This, for me, is the argument against things like GMOs, Miracle Grow or conventional chemical beekeeping. We don’t know enough, and probably never will know, how 100 trillion bacteria will react to our latest innovation. Best to be conservative when it comes to microbial life.

Looking forward to seeing more of this microbial paradigm shift in science.

Picture Sundays: Bike Rack With Bee Smoker

Bike Snob NYC predicted back in 2010 that beekeeping would be the new fixed-gear. Don’t know where I found this picture (Facebook?) but it looks like bikes and bees are achieving a kind of synergy. I think this is a custom rack just for that handsome Dadant smoker, which like the design of the bicycle, has not changed much in a hundred years:

Dadant smoker in 1910.

Does this mean that Dadant will come out with a titanium smoker?

Does the scent of compost make bees angry?

I think I’ve stumbled upon a strange phenomenon: the smell released by turning compost pisses off bees. Yesterday was the third time this has happened to me. I took a sting just underneath my eye and another one to my right hand when I was turning a pile located about 15 feet away from a hive. Coincidentally, the same thing happened to a friend yesterday: he got stung while working with compost near a hive. Ordinarily our bees are reasonable about living in a small yard with humans–they are not even very aggressive when I open their hive. But apparently turning compost near them is a different matter.

I look like I’ve been in a fight. Lots of Benadryl today.

I have a theory. Bees are incredibly sensitive to odors and use them to communicate. Their alarm pheromones alert the hive to predators such as bears and people. Bee alarm pheromone consists of many different compounds. Interestingly, a lot of these compounds such as n-Butanol and Isoamyl acetate are byproducts of fermentation processes. I’m guessing that a number of these compounds are present in compost, and that when you turn a pile the act releases a cloud of compounds that mimic the bee’s alarm pheromones, causing them to attack.

It turns out that other lifeforms like to mimic honeybee alarm pheromone. Some species of orchids mimic bee alarm pheromone in order to attract pollination services. Small hive beetles, who raid beehives for their pollen, apparently bring with them a yeast that causes a fermentation process that mimics alarm pheromones. The small hive beetle’s fermented alarm pheromone, in turn, attracts more small hive beetles who quickly overwhelm the hive. These sorts of deceptive, symbiotic and parasitic loops in nature really amaze me. 

As a side note, I’ve only had compost pile related bee stings at this time of year, when honeybee numbers are at their peak and pollen and nectar sources are getting scarce (summer is hot and dry in Los Angeles and not much is blooming).

If you don’t have a hive, I doubt random, foraging worker bees would go after you if you are just turning compost in your yard. But if you’ve got a compost pile and are thinking about installing a hive–or vice versa–I’d seriously consider keeping the two as far apart as possible.

Am I alone in noticing this compost/bee alarm pheromone issue?

How to Make a Native Bee Nesting Box

Back in the spring I made a native bee nesting box by drilling a bunch of holes in the long end of a 4 by 6 inch piece of scrap wood. I cut one end of the 4 x 6 at an angle so that I could nail on a makeshift roof made from a piece of 2 x 6. I hung the nesting box on an east facing wall or our house with a picture hanger.

I used three sizes of holes to see which ones would be most popular: 1/4 inch, 3/16 inch and 1/8 inch. All were moved into by, I think, the same native bee within days of putting up the box. This afternoon, when I went to check on the nest to take some pictures for this blog post, I was delighted to see a lot of activity. There were bee butts sticking out of the holes, as well as bees flying in and out. I think they are some sort of mason bee–extra credit to the person who successfully identifies the species:

They move fast, so I was only able to get these two blurry shots. No, they are not Chupacabras.

With the success of this primitive native bee box, I decided to make more nesting boxes to see if I could attract other solitary, native bees. I put this one together with some small pieces of bamboo that I found in a neighbor’s trash can:

I think there’s a great potential to create works of public art that double as insect nests. For a nice example of this idea see the “insect hotel” designed by by Arup Associates.

For general guidelines on how to build nesting boxes see this guide from the Xerces Society

We also have a project for a native bee box in our book Making It.

If you’ve built or seen a nice native bee box, leave a comment or a link.

How to Prevent Bees From Living in Your Walls . . . or Welcome Them In

I love and keep bees. That being said, I’d prefer not to have them living in the walls of the house. Now, a hive can live in a wall for years and cause no harm–forget about the horror stories told by exterminators (they are, after all, selling poison). But if you have to remove bees from a wall it can be an expensive job if done correctly. I’ve removed hives from walls and it’s both hard on the bees and the beekeeper.

Thankfully you can take a few easy steps to prevent a hive from moving into your house. Bees like dark hollow spaces–think of a dead tree or an empty stud wall. Here in LA many old houses, such as ours, have lots of cracks a bee colony would be happy to move into. Note the small hole I found on one of our walls that opens into an empty space between the studs (old LA houses often have no insulation).

So how do you keep bees from moving in? According to backwards beekeeping master Kirk Anderson., all you need to do is fill a wall cavity with a can of spray foam insulation.

Please note: do not do this if there is already a hive in residence! If that is the case, hire a beekeeper to cut or trap them out. Bees are very gentle until you disturb their living quarters. If you’re in Los Angeles you can call the Backwards Beekeper rescue line. If you’re not in Los Angeles, start your own Backwards group!

How to Welcome Bees Into Your Wall
Now, a more permacultural approach would be to design buildings in such a way to welcome bees into a wall.  Here’s an example of a hive box built into a stone wall in India:

Photo from http://ranichari.blogspot.com/

There’s a tradition of keeping hives in wall or niches in Europe and many other parts of the world. No need for spray foam or exterminators–just lots of free honey from your wall.

Bee skep in a wall in Kent, England.

Time to bring back this practice!

Note from Kelly: This might seem obvious, but you would be surprised how many people pay for bee removal or extermination and then do nothing afterward to correct the conditions that attracted the bees in the first place. Invariably the bees come back, because a house which looked good to one swarm will look just as good to the next swarm that comes along. Better, in fact, because it will smell of bees. Plug those holes and screen off all vents!

Solitary Bee Nests: Why Having Bare Ground is Good

Solitary bee nesting sites? Cat added for scale. Photo by Anne Hars.

Just as I was about to arrogantly suggest to my neighbor Anne that she mulch her garden paths, we spotted what I believe to be some sort of ground nesting bee activity. We found neat little holes scattered about the the middle of a dirt path. More appeared today.

According to Attracting Native Pollinators: The Xerces Society Guide to Conserving North American Bees and Butterflies and Their Habitat, 70% of solitary bees (not to be confused with honey bees) build their nests in open, dry spots of dirt. While I’m all for mulch to build soil and suppress weeds, the Xerces Society makes a good case for keeping a small part of your yard bare and thus open for native bee habitat.

In case these are the infamous Los Angeles sandworms, Anne plans on avoiding rhythmic walking in the backyard over the next few weeks.