A happy tangle

finches and sunflowers

One of my favorite sights this summer has been the view out our front window. There, quick winged little goldfinches come and go all day long. The bird feeder they are visiting is festooned all around with little bobbing sunflowers. Sometimes I mistake a finch for a flower, and think a flower has sprung into flight.

The sunflower is an tenacious volunteer. When I noticed it sprouting in the deep shade of our pomegranate tree, I didn’t think it had much hope for survival–and yet I’ve learned to respect the choices of volunteer plants, as Fukuoko-san advised.

Sure enough, the sunflower knew what it was doing. It concentrated all its resources into an epic twelve foot growth spurt, straight up, like a bamboo stalk. Only once it crested the top of the pomegranate and found the sun did it begin to spread its arms, and I swear that when it did, I could hear a sigh of relief.

Now this monster sunflower is sprawling all over the pomegranate, using it and the bird feeder pole for support. There are hundreds of little yellow flowers on it,  from the highest reaches to to the deepest shade on the ground.

The heads are going to seed, and so have become a food source for the birds, who I often see bobbing on them, nibbling as they wait their turn for the feeder. Squirrels nosh on them too. And the bright yellow flowers look great against our ripe, ruby red pomegranates, which, when they split open, are also a food source for the birds.

It’s hard to describe, and pretty much impossible to photograph, this cheery, eye-popping chaos, but we enjoy it, and the cats are entranced.

While I’ve sometimes wondered if it is right to keep a feeder in our yard, I feel good about it as of now, because we are providing other sources of forage as well. We let our plants go to seed. We don’t spray, so there are plenty  of bugs to eat. (Why so many spiders this year???) My thoughts are always turning toward planting strategies which provide year round food sources for our flying friends.

If you do keep a feeder, remember to clean it at least once a month. There are some bad bird diseases going around. Scrub it with soap and water and–according to birdish authorities like the Audubon Society–soak it afterward in a 10% bleach solution. I don’t do bleach, so I spray mine down with rubbing alcohol, which I keep in a spray bottle to sterilize my pruning shears. It’s just handy. If I didn’t have that, I’d use vinegar.

Clean out your birdbaths, too. You don’t have to bleach them, but change the water regularly and don’t let them get all gunky. And if you keep hummingbird feeders, you probably know those need to be cleaned out with hot water every few days, so mold doesn’t form in the sugar.

bird feeder cleaning

How to Remove Bees from a Wall

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I found out through the social networking site Nextdoor, that a neighbor I know had a hive in a wall in the tenant’s portion of the duplex she owns and lives in. Since I’m on crutches for two months I enlisted the aid of John Zapf (a guest on episode 54 of our podcast) and also recruited the intrepid renter of the apartment, Elizabeth, who was more than happy to jump into a suit and help out. John did the bulk of the work while I sat uselessly on a stool and took pictures.

I learned the removal method we used from beekeeper Kirk Anderson, our guest on episode 40 of the podcast. This is not the only way to do it but, I think, one of the better and more humane techniques for removing bees from a structure.

Elizabeth actually witnessed the bees moving into the wall. When she first contacted me and told me this, I requested that we wait to do the removal until the queen had a chance to mate and start laying eggs (at least 28 days). This increases the chances that the hive will survive the move. If the queen is squashed during the removal the workers can create a new queen, but only if they already have a supply of eggs.

Gather your tools

The first step is to make sure all tools and equipment are ready: hammer, crowbar, smoker, bee suits, gloves, knife, sugar water, spray bottle, box and frames, rubber bands, burlap and matches.

Suit up
Bees are usually pretty mellow to work with but cutouts are an exception. After all, you are breaking and entering their home. This hive was small and not defensive at all, but I’ve done large cutouts where the situation was much more intense. For cutouts I like to use head to tail bee suits like these ones sold by Dadant. You need long gloves, too, of course, and you need to wear sturdy boots. No skin should be accessible to the bees, because they will find it. Make sure everything is tucked in and zipped up before you begin.

While not the “killer bees” hyped up in the press, the fact is that the Africanized bees here in the warmer parts of the US are a bit more defensive than European bees. Even when you’re not doing a cutout, you can’t work with them in shorts and a t-shirt.

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John smokes the bees.

Lock up the pets

When I do a cutout I always make sure that any pets in the homeowner’s yard or next door are inside in case the hive gets really cranky. This includes putting chickens in their coop if there’s a flock nearby. I bring along an extra bee suit if the homeowner wants to watch.

Always start with smoke

Never skip this step–it’s easy to do when you’re excited and ready to go. Take a moment to smoke the hive and wait a minute before beginning work to give the bees time to calm down. I use burlap in my smoker because it smolders for a long time.

Demolition

When I do these jobs I tell the homeowner that I’m going to open up their wall, make a mess and I’m not going to repair the damage. If you hire a bee removal service they should put the wall back. I don’t promise repairs. I also don’t do work from ladders.

Once the bees had been smoked, John set about peeling off the paneling from the porch wall. You have to do this demo work carefully. Sometimes bees will attach comb to a wall surface and when you peel it off, the comb will fall out along with a lot of pissed off bees. John is trained as an architect, has construction experience and he did a fantastic job removing the paneling in such a way that it will be easy to repair.

Seeing an exposed hive is to witness one of the miracles of nature. Everyone I’ve taken along on a cutout has been struck by this moment.

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Cutting out

Once the hive is exposed we used smoke to herd the bees off of the comb. Using a knife, John sliced the comb off of where it was attached to the wall. The comb was then transferred to medium sized Langstroth frames and secured with rubber bands (you can use string as well but I like rubber bands better). Kirk Anderson has taken to using masking tape which I’m going to try the next time I do a cutout. Basically, you just need to position the comb within the frame temporarily. The bees will take over once they are in their new home and extend the comb to the edges of the frame, so it’s properly attached. Then they’ll chew the rubber bands, string or masking tape off and eject it from the hive.

The rubber-banded frames are then set into the new bee box, either in new permanent hive box, or a temporary “nuc” box.

Regarding the queen

It’s best for everyone if the queen is successfully transferred during this process. She’s hard to spot, so I don’t even try to look for her during the chaos of a cutout. I just pray I don’t kill her accidentally along the way. As I said above, the workers can make a new queen if they have to, but the transition is much smoother if the original queen is present.

You’ll know you’ve got her in a couple of ways. The first is that the workers are attracted to her, so they’ll be drawn to a hive box which has her inside, and will be more likely to stay in that box. A really good sign is that you’ll see workers hanging around the entrance of the hive, fanning it with their wings. This lets the returning workers–and you– know that the queen is in residence.

Rounding up the stragglers

Next comes the tedious task of convincing confused bees–who will insist on hanging out in cavity where the comb used to be–to go into the box. To do this we sprayed the bees with a sugar syrup made with a 50/50 mix of water and white sugar. This keeps the bees busy cleaning themselves so that you can gently brush them into a dust pan and transfer them into their new bee box.

Some people use specially adapted vacuums to suck the bees off the comb and out of cavities. You have to be careful if you do this as it’s easy to injure the bees.

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Once the comb and as many stray worker bees as you can coax out of the wall cavity were in the box, we positioned the box with the entrance as close as possible to where the bees were coming in and out of the wall, so that returning bees would find their new home. Then we took a break.

I came back later in the afternoon and “supervised” as Elizabeth brushed more of the confused workers who had returned from the field into the dust pan and then into the bee box. The bees must get on the comb as soon as possible or the hive won’t survive as the comb must be kept between 32º C and  35ºC.

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Collecting the box
You have to wait until nightfall to move the box to it’s new location. By dark, the majority of the workers should have returned to the hive from the fields and made their way into their new living quarters.

Before you move the box, lightly smoke the bees, shut up the entrance and carefully transport them. Since John and I both have hatchbacks, I take the extra precaution of placing the bees in a mesh bag specially made for moving beehives (they need air just like we do).

After the move

Onece the hive is in its new location I decrease the size of the entrance so that the hive has a better chance of fending off robber bees from nearby colonies.

Misconceptions
I’ve seen a lot of misconceptions about bee removal on the interwebs. No, you can’t “smoke” them out of a wall. And you should definitely not just try to plug up the entrance to the hive! That’s a great way to encourage a bunch of angry bees to punch their way inside your house.

You should also beware of shady bee removal services. It’s best to get a referral from your local beekeeping association. If you’re in LA, contact Honey Love for a referral. You can also consider just leaving them in place. As long as they aren’t stinging anyone there’s not really any harm in having bees in a wall.

Cutouts are very hard on bees and there’s maybe a 50/50 chance that the hive will survive, but at least it’s better than calling an exterminator and spraying poisons. Exterminators often don’t know what they are doing when it comes to bees and will not properly do any preventative measures to keep another hive from just moving in again. In short, when you’ve got bees call a beekeeper!

Update 4/8/2016: Good news! These bees are still healthy and strong in their new home in Lincoln Heights.

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Why I Don’t Like Wooden Hive Stands

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Four years ago I built a wooden hive stand like the one above. I’m retracting this idea. Why? In short, termites. A healthy bee colony can live for years and once you find a place they like there’s no reason to move them. They are also really heavy, with a large colony weighing as much as a person. The problem with wooden stands is that even if you use treated lumber they will eventually succumb to termites, especially in our warm climate. Combine termites with playful young raccoons and you end up with a disaster. Let me propose two alternatives:

  • Cinder blocks are inexpensive, strong and last forever. It’s harder to do ant control with them but I gave up on that years ago. Healthy hives, in my experience, fend off ants themselves.
  • Buy or weld your own metal stands.

You may want to consider strapping the hives down if you live in a windy place or in earthquake country. See Eric of Garden Fork TV’s video on this. I also wish that I had small concrete pads underneath the hives.

Do you use a stand? What kind do you use?

A Neoclassical Native Bee House

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Inspired by the LA Natural History Museum’s bee houses on poles, I dashed off my own version in Sketchup. It’s an homage to Ian Hamilton Finlay.

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Kelly is supportive but skeptical. I’m hoping it can be a part of the reboot of our front yard, which we’re about to embark on. The plan is to remove unsuccessful plants and make the space more welcoming to wildlife. More on that in later posts.