Santa Monica Legalizes Beekeeping

Last night the Santa Monica city council voted to amend their municipal code to allow beekeeping on single family properties. Now, legalizing beekeeping is a bit like legalizing sunshine. Bees, after all, do their thing whether or not the government permits it or not. For every beekeeper in an urban area there must be hundreds of feral bee colonies living in walls, roofs and compost bins. Nevertheless, Santa Monica took a big step forward, joining cities around the world such as New York, Denver, Paris and London who have aligned their codes with the laws of nature.

Santa Monica’s amended code establishes a few rules:

  • Beekeepers are limited to two hives.
  • Hives must be registered with the City Animal Control Office.
  • Hives must be five feet from a property line.
  • Hives must have a six foot screen around them or be at least eight feet up (screening forces their flight pattern upwards).
  • Hives must be given enough space so they don’t swarm.
  • Hives must be requeened each year.
  • A water source must be kept nearby.
  • In addition, Santa Monica Animal Control officers were given new clarifications on their search powers when conducting investigations.

All of these requirements make sense to me except requeening and the arbitrary five foot distance (you have to screen them anyways so you’ve already got a six foot fence next to the hive box). And I can’t imagine how requeening, a practice I don’t agree with, will be enforced.  I also hope that the Santa Monica Animal Control officers have the proper level of law enforcement training needed with their new search powers. And it’s unfortunate that you still can’t keep bees on multifamily properties (assuming every tenant signed off on the idea).

Quibbles aside, the Santa Monica City Council did the right thing. Now, what other cities will jump on the common sense bandwagon?

Your Questions Answered

Patching into our Google voice number.

Got behind in answering our questions by phone–sorry! Here’s our belated reply:

Question from Liz: Do we have bees?

A: Yes, but not on our property. We keep bees the “backwards” way, i.e. naturally, without the many treatments and gadgets most beekeepers use. Bees are probably the easiest of all our crazy home ec projects. They don’t really take much tending. For more information on backwards beekeeping see www.backwardsbeekeepers.com. If you’re in the Los Angeles area, the Backwards Beekeepers hold a monthly meeting and maintain a Yahoo group. See the website for details. If you’re not in the LA area the Backwards website has lots of how-to videos starring the always entertaining Kirk Anderson.

Question from Katie: How do you keep chickens on a small lot? In a run or with a chicken tractor? How do you keep the smells down?

A: From our limited experience with our first flock of four hens, they definitely are happier when they have space to run around. I guess it depends on the disposition of the flock.  I had to enlarge their run when I found them pecking at each other. Our backyard landscaping is not open enough to use a chicken tractor, but that might be an option, though I’d worry about predator proofing it. We have a wicked raccoon problem here. As for keeping smells down, we use a “deep bedding” method–we throw down a very thick layer of straw or leaves, 6 to 12 inches, that we get at the feed store. I keep throwing straw in the run as needed. It kind of composts in place. I rake it out once a year and throw it on the compost pile. It does a good job of keeping smells and fly populations down. The thick bedding also keeps them busy–they like to scratch around in it.

Moving Bees Out of a Meter Box

Nuc box (new home) on left–utility box enclosure (old home) on right.

I got an email the other day from someone who had a beehive in his electric meter box, a popular destination for bees in this area. It was a very small hive that had taken up residence just a few weeks ago. The house was about to be put up for sale so I had to get them out pronto.

I brought along a cardboard nuc box–a temporary hive box used to transport bees. I smoked the electrical box (actually a wooden enclosure that surrounded the actual electrical box) to calm the bees. I cut out the small piece of comb and tied it in a frame which I placed in the nuc box.

Now came the hardest part of these hive “cutouts,” as they’re called: convincing the hive to move out of their old home and into the nuc box. Normally I would spray them with sugar water to immobilize them, brush them into a dust pan and dump them into the nuc box. But these bees scampered up into the inaccessible upper part of the electrical box enclosure.  I discussed demolishing the enclosure to get at the bees, but the homeowner was, understandably, reluctant to do that just before putting the house up for sale.

In desperation, I remembered something that organic beekeeper Michael Bush suggested, that you could use your smoker to herd the bees to where you want them to go. Sure enough, a few puffs of smoke brought the bees to where I could flick at them with a paint brush and catch them with a piece of newspaper as they fell, covered in sticky sugar water. After a few minutes of desperate flicking and sugar water spraying, much to my astonishment, down plops the queen. She landed, gracelessly, upside down and alone on the newspaper. Thankfully, she was uninjured. I couldn’t believe my luck. Just a few minutes earlier I thought that the homeowner would have to call an exterminator.

I put the queen in the nuc box and flicked the rest of the bees out of wooden enclosure–most of them took flight. I quickly plugged up all the entrances to the electrical box with painter’s tape and steel wool and put the nuc box on a ladder near their old hive entrance.

The moral of the story? Wherever the queen is, the rest of the bees will follow. Within minutes worker bees began fanning the entrance to their new home to alert the others to head into the nuc box. I took a long break to give foraging workers in the field a chance to join their queen in her new home. After the sun went down, I plugged up the entrance to the nuc box and taped it up carefully as the bees were to travel with me in a hatchback (not the ideal automotive choice for beekeeping duties). After an epic freeway journey the hive arrived at its new home in Altadena.

This hive is so small that their odds for survival at this time of year aren’t good. But at least they have a chance. Hold this young colony in your thoughts.

Fading into the Soft White

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Honeybees congregate on our floating row covers to die. Every day, two, three, four or five will choose to land one last time on this billowing white fabric that covers one of our garden beds. There they will cling while their strength wanes, until they fall off to be lost in the mulch.

I know worker bees don’t live very long. They work so hard that by the end of their lives, their wings hang in shreds. Their little bodies just give out. And I know that I should not think of them as individuals, but as expression of the will of the Hive. Still, there’s something melancholy about the way they ride these white waves. Perhaps their fading senses lead them to the brightest place they can find.

Colony Collapse Disorder “Solved”

Russell Bates of the Backwards Beekeepers keeping bees naturally.

Media coverage of beekeeping, particularly colony collapse disorder gets me a bit frustrated. This week saw the release of a study from the University of Montana, Missoula and Army scientists at the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, linking CCD to a co-infection of a previously unreported virus and a common bee parasite called nosema. As usual, most reporters failed to do their due diligence, except for Katherine Eban at Fortune magazine who explored the ties between the lead researcher in this study, Jerry Bromenshenk, and pesticide manufacturer Bayer Crop Science. See her work in a provocative article, “What a scientist didn’t tell the New York Times about his study on bee deaths.”

Aside from the glaring conflicts of interest (Bromenshenk is also developing a hand held device to detect bee diseases including the ones in this study), I think what’s missing in bee research, in general, is a whole systems approach to the problem. Not only are commercial beekeepers trucking their bees thousands of miles, but they are using miticides, not allowing the bees to form their own comb, limiting the numbers of drones, breeding weak stock and exposing the bees to pesticides such as imidacloprid (manufactured by Bayer!) to name just a few questionable practices. All of this bad beekeeping promulgates bees with weakened immune systems. The researchers may find a “solution,” but with weak bees some other problem will come along in a few years and we’ll be right back where we started. Meanwhile the big commercial beekeepers cling to pesticides as the cause of CCD since this thesis allows them to carry on without addressing all of the aforementioned practices.

CCD is nothing new–it’s happened before and will happen again until we start keeping bees in a more natural manner. To “solve” CCD with some kind of treatment regimen or a hand held detection gadget is a bit like the government propping up those “too big to fail” banks. Everything works fine until the next bubble comes along. I believe that the long term solution lies with folks like the Backwards Beekeepers, Dee Lusby and in the words of the late Charles Martin Simon. In short, work with nature not against her.

A Hotel for Insects

To celebrate 2010, the International Year of Biodiversity, British Land and the City of London sponsored a design competition for a “Hotel for Insects.” Arup Associates won with the design above. The rules stipulated that the hotel had to accommodate stag beetles, solitary bees, butterflies, moths, spiders, lacewings and ladybugs.

Read the full article here Thanks to Leonardo of the Backwards Beekeepers for the tip.

See some other examples of attractive solitary bee habitats at http://www.wildbienen.de/wbschutz.htm.  It’s in German, but the pictures speak for themselves.

Trapping bees out of a kitchen vent

With a growing awareness of the plight of honeybees more people are calling on the services of beekeepers rather than exterminators. And, thanks to a crash course in bee removal and relocation from Backwards Beekeeping guru Kirk Anderson, I’ve managed to help relocate about ten or so hives, giving them new homes with Los Angeles’ hobby beekeepers. Each removal has been different and I’ve made plenty of mistakes. But with each experience I’ve learned valuable lessons. Last week I started my first solo “trap-out.”

In a trap-out you make a one way exit for bees that are somewhere they aren’t wanted, in this case a kitchen vent. Foraging bees leave the hive but can’t come back in. Next to the one way exit you place a “nuc” box (a cardboard box that holds five frames) that contains open brood comb, cells with eggs and larvae, from another hive. The workers can’t get back into their old home, adopt the brood comb in the box and use it to create a new queen. The process takes at least four to six weeks since you have to wait for the old queen to stop laying eggs and for all the bees in the wall to make their way out. At then end of the six weeks the beekeeper takes away the nuc box, now hopefully full of bees with a new queen. After I remove the nuc box I’m going to open up the vent and clean out any remaining comb and honey. I’ve heard of opening back up the old hive and letting the bees clean out the honey, but I’d be worried they would move back in. And what happens to the old queen is a mystery to me. Different sources give conflicting information. She either flies off, dies or fights her way into the new colony.

The alternative to a trap-out is to do a “cut-out” opening up the wall and physically removing the bees and their comb. Cut-outs are traumatic for the bees and make an incredible mess of the house. The advantage is that the removal is over in one day at the most. In this case I decided to do a trap-out so that I could save the homeowner, on a fixed income, from the expense of having to replace the kitchen vent the bees are living in.

Her house, cantilevered over a steep hillside in the Hollywood Hills presented a few challenges. I had to work from above, leaning over the edge of the roof to attach the escape cone to the vent. One thing I’ve learned is to have everything fabricated and all tools ready before beginning any structural bee removal. You need to act carefully and decisively when you’ve got thousands of pissed off bees flying around. I made the cone out of 1/8 inch hardware cloth attached to a rectangular piece of the same material to block off the entire vent. I smoked the bees to calm them down. Next, I leaned over the edge of the roof and quickly hammered the cone in place with roofing nails. It would have been better to attach the cone early in the morning before the bees had left for the day, but logistically this was impossible for me. As soon as nailed the escape in place a large cloud of returning workers started bearding at their former entrance at the base of the cone. Another angry contingent pinged the front of my veil. Using rope, I lowered the nuc box with the open brood in it and secured it to a concrete block I placed on the roof. When I came back the next day the bees had calmed down and were starting to come and go from the nuc box. Some were still “bearding” at their old entrance.

There are two kinds of one way exits. You can make one by creating a cone, at least a foot long out of 1/8 inch hardware cloth with a 3/8 inch opening at the end. This is enough, usually, to throw off the bee’s precise orientation to their old entrance. They leave but can’t come back in. Alternately, you can use a Porter bee escape, a spring loaded device that lets bees out but prevents their re-entry. Each method has its advantages and disadvantages. Sometimes the bees figure out how to get back through the cone. In that case you can put another cone around the existing cone. The bees entering the second cone end up back outside. The disadvantage with the Porter bee escape is that its small springs can sometimes fail under the strain of thousands of workers passing through. My neighbor Ray, a beekeeper and airline mechanic, examined the two bee escapes sold by our local supplier. Not surprisingly, the English made escape was superior to a Chinese made model which had a poor connection between the springs and plastic body.

There’s a lot that can go wrong. In a trap-out that I’m helping Ray with underneath a poorly constructed concrete patio, the bees keep finding new ways to chew their way out. This could be interesting if we were dealing with a wall and the bees were to find their way into the house. With the patio it’s simply frustrating. The bees gave up on the brood and now we need to find more and wait another six weeks for the process to end. With my kitchen vent bees I blocked off the grill above the stove with metal screen and aluminum foil. Next time I’ll use sheet metal. The bees have chewed their way underneath the aluminum foil. The screen keeps them out of the house, but the foil is amplifying their buzzing. I’ve created an unintentional acoustic bee amplifier which is disconcerting to the homeowner! I also had to come back and rig up a sheet metal tray underneath the vent to catch the bits of comb, mites and dirt that the bees shed. While my trap-out seems to be working, I still have to keep my fingers crossed that the bees make a new queen and that she mates without getting eaten by a bird or squashed on a windshield. And Kirk is right, the process is more about managing the people than the bees. You have to have a homeowner who is willing to stick with a six week process and tolerate a box of bees strapped to the side of their house.

Still, I really enjoy the process. It combines a few of my favorite things, nature, heights, low-tech gadgets and diplomacy. I wish I could do this more often but we don’t have room in our yard for bees.

For more information on the trap-out process see, Charles Martin Simons’ article “Fundamentals and Finesse of Structural Bee Removal.”

If you’re in LA and have bees you need relocated call the Backwards Beekeepers rescue hotline at (213) 373-1104.

And lastly, while I love bees I would not want them in my house. Prevent what could be an expensive problem by making sure that small cracks on the outside of your house are sealed off.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Beekeeping

The Complete Idiot's Guide to BeekeepingWe’re very lucky, here in Los Angeles, to have the Backwards Beekeepers whose meetings are led by beekeeper Kirk Anderson, who teaches a radical form of beekeeping that includes:

  • Letting the bees form their own comb (most beekeepers use pre-made foundation).
  • Capturing feral swarms, rather than ordering bees.
  • Using no treatments of any kind.

The result is healthier bees with much more robust immune systems than their over-bred and drugged commercial sisters. But walk into most beekeeping clubs or supply shops, tell them you want to keep bees this way and they’ll think you’re crazy. And pretty much all beekeeping books have devolved into little more than timetables for applying chemical and biological treatments in the hopes of staving off all the problems that have plagued beekeeping in recent years. Even the organic beekeeping books are bad, substituting chemical treatments with gimmicks.

Finally, there’s a book that gets beekeepers off the treadmill of more and more drug treatments with ever diminishing returns. I heard that when the Idiots Guide publishers approached beekeepers Dean Stiglitz and Laurie Herboldsheimer they said they’d write the book but only if they could base it on no-treatment beekeeping. The result is the excellent Complete Idiot’s Guide to Beekeeping which contains everything you need to know to get started keeping bees. It’s the first book to describe no-treatment beekeeping and it also clearly explains the basic biology of the hive, no easy task. The book’s approach is summed up on page 139, “We keep a bunch of bees, don’t use treatments on them, and we don’t breed from the ones that die.” While not the only cause, standard commercial beekeeping practices probably play a big role in recent bee colony losses. Funny how the kind of common sense delivered in this book can seem so radical.

You can also read more about no-treatment beekeeping on the Yahoo Organic Beekeepers group and the website of Michael Bush.

Lessons In Beekeeping: Remember To Wear Boots

 Bees in a wall

This weekend I assisted beekeepers Maurice and Roger in relocating a very large beehive from a wall in an abandoned shed in the Hollywood hills. First we had to do quite a bit of demolition work, removing shelves and an old workbench. Then we carefully peeled back the wall paneling, to expose the bee’s comb. We smoked the bees to calm them down and proceeded to cut the comb out, putting the honeycomb into a five gallon bucket and the “brood” or baby bee comb into frames that went into the bee’s new hive box. We filled up ten frames of a “deep” hive box with brood comb. Once the comb was in the box, we sprayed the remaining bees, still clinging to the wall cavity, with sugar water. The sugar water keeps them busy cleaning themselves, temporarily immobilizing them and allowing us to scoop them up and pour them into the deep box. We took a couple of breaks to allow worker bees in the field to return to the hive. As they returned we sprayed them with sugar water and poured them into their new home. It was a long day. Demolition work started at 9 am and it was 5 pm by the time we put the box in the car to be taken to their new home at Maurice’s apiary.

What you can’t see in this picture is all the rat poo

Bees are very gentle creatures, except when you disturb their home. I got stung a bunch of times around the ankles and am now hobbling around the house. Like an idiot, I wore tennis shoes instead of work boots. I won’t make that mistake again!

Didn’t get any more pictures after this point as things got kinda intense

If you’re interested in learning more about how to rescue and keep bees, watch some of the videos featuring our bee mentor Kirk Anderson on the website of the Backwards Beekeepers at beehuman.blogspot.com.