What Equipment do I Need to Keep Bees?

Of all the activities around our household, I consider beekeeping the most rewarding. The encounter with this otherworldly species, the pollination services, the honey and wax are worth the occasional sting. But what do you need to get started? I’ve seen some outrageously priced starter kits, not to mention the Juicero of beekeeping, the Flow Hive. By putting together your own set of equipment you can save a lot of money. Here’s my basic starter kit:

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Bee suit
There’s no reason you need to get stung! Dadant has an inexpensive integrated hat/veil jumpsuit that I’ve used for years. This suit is one piece, meaning that there’s no gap between your veil and suit for bees to climb up in and I like that it covers your whole body. Tuck the pant legs into boots and you’re good to go. Bees can still do a kind of half sting through the material, so I wear long sleeve shirts and long pants if I’m doing something where the bees could get angry, such as a removal job. Dadant sells more substantial and durable suits that which might be a good investment if you’re thinking of running a lot of hives or opening your own removal business. There are also more expensive ventilated suits for hot climates. But for hobbyists such as myself, the inexpensive Dadant suit is good enough. Get a size larger than your normal size. Too big is better than too small.

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Gloves
I’ve gone through a lot of gloves over time. I’ve used both rubber gloves and goat skin gloves. The rubber gloves come in handy where there’s the possibility of dripping honey such as when cutting bees out of a wall or doing a honey harvest. The goat skin gloves make for less finger fumbling. I suggest owning both.

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Smoker
Dadant’s basic smoker has not changed design in a hundred years. It’s one of those objects, like the safety bicycle or the fork, that reached its design apotheosis a long time ago and doesn’t need to be subject to the whims of fashion. I own the cheapest model and have found it perfectly adequate. The more expensive models have a kind of cage around them to prevent you from burning yourself but I’ve never found this feature necessary.

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Hive tool
This is a small and deliberately dull crowbar. Bees stick everything together with propolis, so you need the little crow bar to pry stuff apart. I own the economy model. The end of the tool is dull so you don’t damage your equipment.

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Bee brush
You use a bee brush for flicking the bees away so they don’t get crushed when you put the boxes back together. In addition to being polite, this prevents the bees from setting off their alarm pheromone and causing a stinging frenzy.

Bee housing
Like meany topics in beekeeping this is one that divides families and friends. I’m not going to wade into the controversy here but I’ll just say that you should go with whatever interests you: top bar, Langstroth, Warre etc. I buy medium, unassembled Langstroth boxes and frames (without foundation) from LA Honey. The unassembled boxes are much cheaper than getting a kit. I use only medium boxes so that all my equipment is interchangeable and to reduce the weight you have to heft (a full box of bees is surprisingly heavy). Since I live in a place that never freezes I don’t have to use inner covers or worry about insulating hives in the winter. I’m in the no-treatment, natural beekeeping camp so there’s a bunch of other things that I don’t use such as queen excluders, foundation and mite-related gadgets. For more details on this natural approach I’d suggest taking a look at Michael Bush’s extensive website (he also has tips for beekeeping in cold climates). Without wading into the natural beekeeping fight, let me just say going au natural (so to speak) keeps costs way down. You could get even cheaper by making your own top bar hives but I was taught on Langstroth equipment and I’ve just decided to stick with them out of habit.

Stand for the hives
After a bad experience with the wooden stands that I made myself, I bought some metal stands. But you could save a lot of money by just using cinder blocks. The important thing to note is that bee boxes should be off the ground to prevent flooding and to make it easier to lift the boxes. Your stand must be substantial enough to support several hundred pounds as a hive gets really heavy and you really don’t want it to fall over!

Swarm kit
I also keep a swarm kit containing some of the stuff above and a few other items in a tool box that is in the garage and ready to go at all times. You never know when someone is going to call with a bee situation and you don’t want to run about gathering tools at the last moment. My swarm kit contains:

  • smoker
  • burlap to burn in smoker
  • matches
  • spray bottle with syrup made with a 50/50 combo of water and white sugar
  • pruning sheers for cutting tree branches
  • a roll of caution tape
  • bee suit/gloves/boots (most, but not all swarms are docile)
  • nuc box
  • mesh bag to put the nuc box in (especially important if you don’t own a truck!)
  • knife (for cut-outs)
  • Benadryl for when you get stung!

I strongly suggest having all of the things in this post on hand before you think of getting bees.

So beekeepers, what did I forget to include? Leave a comment!

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Why You Should Have a Cat Fountain

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I’ve read varying explanations for the reason why some cats seem to prefer running water. Most cat experts say they perceive it as fresher and more likely to be a safe source of water. Some cats, apparently, won’t drink anything but water flowing from a tap.

While cats are desert creatures they still need water. For our cat’s wild ancestors rodent blood (yum!) provided supplemental hydration. The ideal diet for a cat would be a mouse a day, but we’d get in trouble with the PETA folks if we started a mouse farm at the Root Simple compound. So we’ve got to get them to drink water. Our two cats drink happily from our cat fountain and from bowls of fresh water. We try to have both on hand to encourage them to drink. Our cats get wet food in the morning and dry food in the evening. The wet food provides some hydration and the dry food helps keep their teeth clean.

Encouraging them to drink water is where a cat fountain comes in handy. But, in the ultimate of “first world problems,” most cat fountains are ugly, resembling those plastic things you throw cigarette butts in:

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And we don’t want to encourage our cats to smoke:

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But I digress. Let’s get back to the cat fountain.

We found an attractive cat fountain several years ago made by ceramicists Keith Davitt and Jackie McKannay whose products are available on Etsy. I don’t think they still make the exact same model we have but they sell plenty of other handsome fountains. I clean out the pump twice a week and change the water frequently.

The pump uses a small amount of electricity and costs just $1.29 a year to run. You need to be careful when you remove the pump from the bowl so as not to rip off the suction cups that hold it to the bottom of the bowl. As a side benefit the fountain adds the sound of running water to our living room, thus giving the space the vibe of a yoga studio or West Coast chiropractor’s office. You have to throw on some new age mp3s for the full effect, but you get the idea.

Our vet has us supplement the water with Oxyfresh Pet Oral Hygiene Solution to help with their tobacco stained teeth (just kidding). One of our cats has tooth resorption so we have to stay on top of oral hygiene.

As component of feline environmental enrichment as well as yoga studio ambiance I wholeheartedly endorse the cat fountain concept. It’s also well loved by the new saluki puppy which I will let Kelly explain in an exclusive blog post to come . . .

Pasture Standards for Laying Hens

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This weekend Kelly and I and our friend Dale attended the massive Natural Products Expo West, a convention where grocery and health food stores go to find the latest quinoa chip. While the vast majority of exhibitors are peddling highly processed vegetarian junk food, in recent years I’ve spotted a positive trend: pasture raised eggs and meat.

Having witnessed agricultural fraud first hand and even collusion from mainstream journalists (wish I could tell that story, but Root Simple would need an investigative division and lawyers), I’ve come to view animal husbandry claims with suspicion. With that in mind, I thought I’d take a look at the standards for pasture raised laying hens.

As usual, food marketing claims are confusing and often misleading. In fairness, assessing a farm’s “humaneness” isn’t a simple question and there’s no oversight from the government. The USDA does not have a pasture raised designation. Pasture certification is done by third party organizations. Thankfully the Animal Welfare Institute has a guide to animal welfare claims.

I thought I’d take a closer look at the designation I’ve seen the most, Certified Humane. One important thing to note is that a company can have the Certified Humane designation and not raise poultry on pasture. That said, the non-profit that adjudicates the Certified Humane label has pasture standards. Here’s an excerpt from those standards relating to exterior access for laying hens on pasture:

R 1: Pasture area
a. Must consist mainly of living vegetation. Coarse grit must be available to aid digestion of vegetation.
b. The pasture must be designed and actively managed to:
1. Encourage birds outside, away from the popholes, and to use the area fully;
2. Prevent and/or minimize heavily degraded, muddy/sodden, or worn areas;
3. Minimize any build-up of agents (e.g., parasites, bacteria, viruses) that may cause disease;
4. Prevent hens from coming into contact with any toxic substances.
c. The minimum outdoor space requirement is 2.5 acres (1 hectare)/1000 birds. Land used for cropping (except grass or hay) is not accepted as part of the Pasture Raised space allowance and must be excluded from space calculations.
d. The maximum distance that a hen has to walk from the perimeter fence of the pasture to the nearest door into a fixed or mobile house must be no more than 400 yards (366 m).
e. The pasture must be rotated periodically to prevent the land from becoming contaminated and or denuded, and to allow it to recover from use. A written rotational grazing plan must be in place. The written rotational grazing plan must be submitted with the application.
f. Water temperature must not be less than 50° F (10 C) or greater than 100° F (38 C).
g. Birds must be outdoors 12 months per year, every day for a minimum of 6 hours per day. In an emergency, the hens may be confined in fixed or mobile housing 24 hours per day for no more than 14 consecutive days.
h. Shade, cover and dust bathing areas
1. There must be sufficient well-drained, shaded areas for hens to rest outdoors without crowding together.
2. Cover, such as shrubs, trees or artificial structures, must be distributed throughout the pasture to reduce the fear reactions of hens to overhead predators and to encourage use of the pasture.
3. The pasture area must include patches with loose substrate suitable for dust bathing.

These standards seem reasonable to me though there are other things to consider such as de-beaking. Personally, I feel good about buying pasture raised eggs with the Certified Humane designation. But I wish that the USDA would step in and clear up the confusing and misleading egg labels such as “cage free,” and “free range.” as well as putting together a standard for “pasture raised.” I’m not holding my breath. On the positive side, we vote with our food dollars and those votes are beginning to be counted. Unfortunately, there’s going to be a few years of wading through the marketing manure and the current anti-regulation political climate.

Will We Keep Keeping Chickens?

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One of our eggs on the left and an egg from Vital Farms on the right.

I love our current flock of chickens. They’re a strikingly beautiful genetic mashup of Barnevelders and Americana hens that we got from the folks at Winnetka Farms (Craig was a guest on episode 56 and 57 of the podcast). They’ve proved to be a healthy, peaceful bunch who are still laying eggs after five years.

We let our hens live out their natural lives which can vary between just a few years and a decade or so. Lately, I’ve found myself pondering the day we have to decide to either get more chickens or close up poultry operations. There’s a lot of negatives for keeping chickens in our small, urban backyard. We have lead and zinc in the soil, so many predators that the hens have to live in what I call “chicken Guantanamo,” and a small irregular piece of property that makes using a chicken tractor impossible. While I built a generous run for our four hens, I really wish that they could wander more freely, but that’s just not possible where we live.

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Another big change that’s happened since we started keeping hens ten years ago is the wide availability of pasture raised eggs. As most readers of this blog know, the supermarket egg labeling game, “cage free” and “free range”, is a load of . . . chicken poo. Cage free and free range supermarket eggs are from chickens crammed in huge sheds. These chickens never see the light of day and live in appalling conditions. You might be able to get eggs from chickens that live outdoors at a local farmer’s market, but beware of unscrupulous vendors.

A number of companies, such as Vital Farms and Red Hill Farms, have responded to consumer concerns and are marketing eggs raised on pasture. These pastured eggs are expensive when compared to the “cage free” and “free range” alternatives but probably cheaper than my feed and coop costs (though an accountant would argue I’ve already sunk the money into that coop!). And check out the yolk color in the photo above–the pastured eggs I’ve bought at the supermarket (during the winter–I don’t put a light in our coop) have a much darker yolk color than our ladies’ eggs. I should note that while I have spoken to Vital Farms sales reps I have not done full due diligence on any of the companies marketing pastured eggs.

I’m pleased to see our food system respond to the concern that motivated many of us backyard chicken keepers in the first place, namely the inhumane conditions in factory poultry operations. Perhaps the pasture raised eggs we can now buy at the supermarket would not have come to be without so many of us taking the extraordinary step of welcoming poultry back into the city.

What do you think? Do you keep chickens? Why?

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How to Remove Bees From a Tree

A Typical Natural Bee Nest from: Seeley, T. D., Morse, R. A. (1976).

A Typical Natural Bee Nest from: Seeley, T. D., Morse, R. A. (1976).

If honeybees lived without us humans, they’d naturally set up their digs in the hollow cavity of a tree. Honeybees like a dark and secure space with a small defensible entrance. A tree cavity is the perfect place to avoid a hive’s two main predators: bears and honey-hunting hipsters. Wander around a city or forest and odds are you’ll find a hive in a tree, definitely a hipster and maybe even a bear.

The difference between bees living in a tree and a swarm
First let’s distinguish between bees living in a tree and a swarm of bees. Most commonly, swarms are found dangling from a tree branch in a huge cluster. Swarms are how bee colonies reproduce. A swarm is just there temporarily and will take off in a matter of hours or days as soon as they find a place to rent. Occasionally, swarms will settle down and start building comb on a branch. See my post on swarms for more information. This post is about bees that have built comb and are living inside of a tree.

So what should you do about bees that are living in a tree? The best option is to do nothing. If they aren’t bothering anyone just let them do their business, which includes keeping your fruit trees and vegetables pollinated! And don’t let anyone tell you that they are “African” and need to be killed. The postmodern theorist in me wants to write a graduate thesis on the curious racism of this rhetoric, but that tome will have to wait for another post. Let’s just call this talk of “African” bees what it is: fear mongering that exterminators and vector control bureaucrats use to drum up business.

Trapping bees out of a kitchen vent.

Trapping bees out of a kitchen vent.

Removing bees in a tree
But let’s say, for some reason, you can’t let the bees be, and you’ve just got to get them out of the tree. In most instances, the only way to remove bees from a tree is by doing what is called a “trap out.” To do this a beekeeper makes a cone out of 1/8 inch hardware cloth that will act as a one way exit for the bees. Then the beekeeper sets up a bee box next to the exit and places a frame of comb that has eggs and brood (bee larvae) in it, taken from another hive. The bees in the tree will exit, not be able to get back into their old home and then, over the course of several weeks, move into the new box with the brood comb in it. If all goes as planned they will make a new queen in the box. The beekeeper will come back in six weeks, take the box away and then seal up the cavity the bees used to live in.

I’ve only done one trap-out and it was in a kitchen vent not a tree, but the process is the same. My one and only trap-out was successful but a lot of work. I had to come back at least every other day to make sure that the one way exit I fashioned did not get blocked by a dead bee.

If the entrance to the hive is large enough or can be made larger with a saw, it’s theoretically possible to do what’s called a cut-out. In a cut-out the comb is removed and placed in frames. Then the bees are either sucked up with a vacuum or gathered after nightfall. You can see what cut-out looks like in this post. I’ve never seen a bee colony in a tree with an entrance large enough to do a cut-out.

Fake beekeepers
I have said it before and will say it again. Beware of dodgy beekeepers that you contact through Google searches. They will make claims that they can “smoke out” the bees. They are lying. What they are actually doing is spraying a can of wasp killer while you’re not looking or they are forcing the bees to abscond, which is no better than killing them. Odds are they don’t know how to do a trap-out. Doing a trap out is a lot of work compared to a spraying wasp killer so you can see where the profit motive comes in. Unscrupulous, fake beekeepers can make hundreds of dollars a day. Please contact a reputable beekeeper through a referral from your local beekeeping organization. In LA you can contact Honey Love. I don’t do tree trap-outs.

Help! I’ve got bees in my tree and my arborist needs to work on the tree
Here’s what a beekeeper can do. The beekeeper comes after dark and gently smokes the bees to calm them down (not to “smoke them out”). Then the beekeeper blocks the hive’s entrance with 1/8 inch hardware cloth so that the bees can’t come in or out. Essentially, you’re locking up the bees so that the arborist can do their work the next day. After the arborist is done the beekeeper comes back at night, smokes the bees again and removes the hardware cloth.

What if I’m cutting down the tree or removing the branch the bees are living in?
In this case a beekeeper can can do the same plugging-up-the-entrance procedure as above. The next day the arborist will (carefully!) cut above and below the cavity with the bees. You’ll end up with a log with bees in it. This can then be taken to someone who wants to host a log of bees or back to the beekeeper’s apiary to do a trap-out under more controlled circumstances.

I hope you can see how the best option for the bees is to do nothing. Unfortunately, some people are just way too afraid of “bugs.” If only we’d look up from our screens occasionally to appreciate the amazing creatures we share this beautiful planet with.

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