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.

Bee Rescue Hotline


Backwards Beekeeper Kirk Anderson with the hot tub bees, via the Backwards Beekeeper blog.

First off: bee swarm seasons is approaching and, if you’re in the Southern California area and end up with a bunch of bees you don’t want, give the Backwards Beekeepers a call. The number is (213) 373-1104. I’ve put it on the right side of the page. When you call state:

How to reach you. Please give us a phone number that you will answer during the day. Bee rescue is a daytime activity
Your city Please be as descriptive as possible about where you are.
A description of the bees: Are they in a tree? How high? Do you know how long they’ve been there?

And if you’re not in SoCal, consider giving a beekeeper a call rather than an exterminator.

I’ve been really enjoying the Backwards Beekeepers website, especially the way bees reinterpret our built landscape by taking up residence in the strangest places. The latest beehive location is oh-so-California: a hot tub (pictured above). One of my other favorites–the bike seat bees:

Here’s a few other spots I’ve heard about from the BBers:

doll house

suitcase
electrical box
mailbox
tree
shop vac
attic
wall
file cabinet
meter box
bucket
pot
cardboard box
compost bin
garbage can
fence
and the East Hollywood garage wall bees I helped with

The bee’s creativity in finding new homes reminds me of the way skateboarders reinterpret dull city spaces as impromptu skateboard parks. Apparently architect Zaha Hadid tried to incorporate skateboardable features in her Phaeno Science Center until the lawyers stopped her. Too bad. When will we get around to deliberately creating bee spaces in our buildings? Well, maybe not the hot tub . . . ouch! But that’s what the bee rescue hotline is for!

Cutting a Beehive Out of a Wall

Bees in a wall!

Last week, along with two other “backwards beekeepers” Russ and Sue, we relocated a hive of bees that had taken up residence in a garage wall in East Hollywood. It was a “cut-out” in beekeeping parlance. The property owners did not want to exterminate the hive and we were able to give them a new home in Sue’s idyllic garden. Backwards Beekeeping guru Kirk Anderson sent us some tips via email. It’s Kirk’s view that feral bees have more robust immune systems than the pedigreed bees that most beekeepers order through the mail. So with good intentions we got about to, as Kirk puts it, “save the world.” Here’s how we did it:

Kirk told us to smoke the hive when we got there and smoke again when needed. Smoke makes the bees think their house is on fire and they rush to stock up on honey. Preoccupied with their sweet food stockpile they ignore the homo sapiens tearing their house apart. Russ got one sting, but the hive was pretty calm under the circumstances.

Next, we got all our tools ready and suited up in our white bee suits. A cut-out is a delicate combination of building demolition and surgery on a living entity. Like surgery, once you start you can’t stop. With a long butcher knife and some crowbars we peeled back the paneling to reveal . . . more paneling underneath! Thankfully it was ancient fiberboard that disintegrated as we tugged on it. The comb was not attached to the panelling and we were able to easily access the hive. Kirk had warned us to have the butcher knife ready in case we had to separate comb from the wall as we peeled it back. With the wall off we could see a mass of several thousand bees who had neatly built comb between two studs.

Russ and Sue then began to carefully cut out the comb from the wall cavity with the butcher knife and put it into wooden frames, using string to tie it in place (see Kirk doing this at the end of this Backwards Beekeeping TV episode). We focused on saving the comb with brood (bee larvae). These frames were then placed into a “nuc” box, a cardboard box that holds five frames in which we could transport the bees to their new home. We also had two garbage bags: one for empty comb and the other for honey comb to feed back to the bees once they got to Sue’s garden. The next time I do this I’m going to get some buckets for this purpose as the trash bags tend get stuck together with honey. Another lesson I learned is to bring a tarp. Taking a hive out of a wall leaves a huge mess of spilled honey, construction debris and dead bees.

Once we had the brood comb in the nuc box we noticed worker bees returning from field massing where their hive used to be. We put the nuc box with the frames of brood in it next to the wall and took a break. Russ gave Kirk a call and he suggested we spray the mass of workers with sugar water and use our bee brush to push them into a dust pan. The sugar water occupies the bees with cleaning themselves and makes them easier to move. Once in the dust pan they are easy to dump into the nuc box where, we hoped, the queen had taken up residence.

After scooping up as many workers as we could we taped up the nuc box and got ready to put it in the back of Sue’s hatchback. Recalling the story of a friend of a friend who had a nuc box full of bees overturn while driving a sedan, Sue and I decided to drive the short distance home wearing our bee suits (a truck would be handy here!). Even on the streets of freaky East Hollywood, the sight of two bee suit clad folks in a car attracted curious stares and laughter. During the short drive I noticed, through the screen of my veil, public access TV star Francine Dancer, in her wheelchair, going through a box of junk on Virgil. It’s moments like these that reveal Los Angeles as far more like the magical realism of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel than the celebrity spectacle the media disseminates.

Russ, Sue and property owner Jen

When we got back to Sue’s garden we put the frames into a hive box and dumped the loose bees in. While we won’t know for a while if the hive will take to its new home, we all felt a great sense of accomplishment. Hopefully, other urbanites around the world will take up beekeeping and put more exterminators out of work.

For more info on Kirk Anderson’s natural beekeeping methods see www.beehuman.blogspot.com.

Got a beehive that needs to be removed from your LA area residence? Get in touch with Kirk at kirksurbanbees.com.