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.

Book Review: Attracting Native Pollinators: The Xerces Society Guide to Conserving North American Bees and Butterflies and Their Habitat

How can we save the world? Simple. Get everyone to read and understand the contents of a new book, Attracting Native Pollinators: The Xerces Society Guide to Conserving North American Bees and Butterflies and Their Habitat. Why? There’s the obvious–pollinating insects provide a huge amount of our food–but they also have a few unappreciated roles.

Without pollinators, plant communities that stabilize river banks disappear. Mammals and birds that eat pollinated fruits perish. But perhaps most importantly, by raising awareness of the needs of pollinating insects we can better appreciate the damage we cause through the use of pesticides. Do we really want to live in a toxic world? A world, like China’s Sichuan Province, so choked with poison that apple farmers have to climb ladders to hand pollinate trees?

And we’re not just talking about honeybees. Attracting Native Pollinators delves into the fascinating world of native bees, bumblebees, wasps, moths and flies, providing a detailed guide on how to tell these species apart, what their nests look like and, most importantly, practical steps that everyone from a homeowner to a golf course manager can take to improve habitat. For instance, one of the most important things we can all do is simply to provide areas of open, sunny ground for pollinating species, such as bumblebees, that nest underground.

You’ll also find instructions for building nesting blocks for native bees and subterranean boxes for bumblebees. There’s also extensive plant lists for North America including both native and common non-native garden plants such as rosemary.

In our own garden we’ve planted a lot more flowering native perennials this year. But I’m also inspired to get a conversation going about creating more habitat for pollinators in public spaces. Los Angeles is full of space that could be planted with drought tolerant, flowering plants to replace the thousands of acres of lawn (mowed weeds, really) and Home Depot hedges. Think about the habitat we could create with all those barren parkways. Who’s in to help? Let’s pollinate a revolution.

The Practical Beekeeper by Michael Bush

“There are a few rules of thumb that are useful guides. One is that when you are confronted with some problem in the apiary and you do not know what to do, then do nothing. Matters are seldom made worse by doing nothing and are often made much worse by inept intervention.”-Richard Taylor

Michael Bush, in his new book on natural beekeeping, The Practical Beekeeper Beekeeping Naturally, begins with Taylor’s quote, which could just as easily apply to gardening or many other areas of our lives. Yet doing nothing is one of the hardest things for us Homo sapiens to wrap our busy heads around. Nassim Taleb is fond of pointing out the huge number of medical mistakes that could easily have been avoided by the doctor having the courage to not intervene with some needless procedure or pharmaceutical. Up until some time in the 20th century, in fact, you were actually better off not going to see a doctor.

Michael Bush’s The Practical Beekeeper is the new bible of natural no-treatment beekeeping. Bush’s non-interventionist approach is based on the work of Dee and Ed Lusby and is at odds with conventional (beekeeping associations and academics) reliance on chemical treatments, re-queening, artificial insemination etc. Beekeeping, in my and Michael Bush’s opinion, is one of those fields, like economics, where the experts have been thoroughly discredited by recent events–our current econopocolypse and, in beekeeping, colony collapse disorder. Of CCD, Michael Bush blames chemical treatments, directed at controlling mites and other issues, which throw off the microbial balance of the beehive. Bush’s emphasis in symbiotic microbial relationships puts his work in line with soil scientist Elaine Ingham and the pro-biotic movement in human health.

The Practical Beekeeper would benefit from an index (something said of our first book) and some editing for repetition, but those minor points aside, this is a must-have book for beginning and advanced beekeepers. There’s much good, practical information and I learned a lot reading this book on a long train trip. Bush has many interesting tips and tools that you can build yourself. And it’s the few books I’ve seen that tells you how to do swarm captures and cut-outs.

Bush’s website, The Practical Beekeeper also has an encyclopedia’s worth of handy info.