A follow up to this past weekend’s class at Bastyr University, “The Basics of Bee Keeping”. Links are included for each of the handouts that were available at the end of class.
I have been hearing a lot of talk lately about the cute, inexpensive native bee houses for sale. Pinterest is full of plans for adorable bee hotels. And while I love that there is enough interest in raising native bees that companies are offering products for that purpose, I am at the same time disappointed (and yes, a little angry) that what they are selling is possibly worse for our bees than doing nothing at all.
Let's be clear. I absolutely want people to have bee houses that are nice to look at. It's not just about functionality. But functionality should definitely come first. Don't be fooled into buying a substandard house. Because no matter how cute or how cheap it is, the bees are the ones who will regret it. So let's take a look at what a house should have, and what it should not.
1) Size matters
A house can be made to hold any number of bees/tubes. But the overall depth of a house matters. Why? Because mason bees will place only female eggs, usually one or two, into the back of each tube. The rest of the tube will be filled with male eggs. A 6" nest tube is ideal. This is the depth that the bees look for in nature, and provides the right ratio of male to female eggs for optimum growth in numbers the following season. Tubes that are either shorter or longer throw off this ratio. In addition to the tube length, the house itself should be slightly deeper than the tubes. An inch or more is best. This protects the nesting holes from the elements, including wind and rain. It also gives some shade to leafcutter bees in the summer, as direct sunlight can dry them out before they exit their cocoons. All other aspects of size size are up to you, as well as the shape and building material. I have beautiful round-roofed houses, cabins made of cedar, and even recycled plastic coffee can houses. As long as the depth is correct, and the tubes are the right length, it works.
2) Skip the Bamboo
Bamboo is inexpensive, readily available, easy to cut to length, and it has a hollow interior. So you would think that it would be perfect for native bees! But... it's not. According to Dave Hunter, founder of Crown Bees, here's why:
"Bamboo is a natural material but it is also exotic and our native bees have not evolved to nest within it (even though they will use bamboo if nothing else is available). Bamboo openings can vary greatly in size and many will be either too large or too small. Bamboo tubes are such a strong material that they can't be opened for harvesting cocoons without harming the bees... Bamboo also doesn’t allow the pollen loaf to breathe and mold can grow too easily."
If the opening in the tube is too small, bees will not use it. If the opening is too large, the bees will spend excess time and energy having to build jumbo-sized partitions between each egg, which significantly reduces the number of eggs that she will lay in her lifetime. Some people avoid the issue of bamboo being too strong to open by simply not harvesting the cocoons at all. The issue there is that we have a mite problem. I'm not talking about the varroa mite that attacks honeybees, I'm referring to pollen mites. These mites eat the pollen loaf stored for baby bee larvae, starving them before they even get a chance to fully develop. Furthermore, when you do not harvest your cocoons, the surviving bees will have to exit the tube by crawling through the chambers that contained pollen mites. They will pick up the mites, carry them on their bodies, and deposit them on the flowers they visit. There, the mites are picked up by other bees and spread even further. We must harvest our cocoons to break this cycle, and bamboo simply doesn't make that possible. In some ways, it is equivalent to going to a stadium with the flu. You are bound to get others sick, and that's just not a nice thing to do.
So how about a drilled block of wood? Nope. The inability to harvest the cocoons has the same result as the bamboo. This is different than a wood tray that can be opened up for harvesting a cleaning. Wood trays are safe to use, although in my experience the bees prefer individual nest tubes.
3) Glue Be Gone
Houses that have their tubes glued in place can be troublesome because the tubes can't be removed for cleaning or harvesting. So even if the material is right, if they are glued into the house then your bees will be stuck with mites, parasites, etc. If the house is the right size and you love it, and you can get the glued tubes out without destroying it, then go ahead and keep the house. But replace the tubes with proper nesting materials.
4) Shut the Back Door
Many houses have tubes that are open on both ends. They may be partly glued into the back of a house, but the ends are still open. This can be an issue because the bees do not like too use open tubes, so they may refuse to use the home you have set up for them. In addition, pests such as mono-wasps can get to the back of the tubes where they will lay their eggs inside a developing bee, which kills it. Because the female eggs are usually in the back of the tube, this primarily results in a lack of female bees the following spring, along with the increase in the local mono-wasp population. To avoid this, nesting materials should be closed of entirely on the back side, or left with only a pin head sized opening. Stackable wood trays should have the back side completely covered with a layer of cardboard, held firmly in place with rubber bands, zip ties, or the like.
5) Bee Inspired
All of this talk of mites and diseases and parasites can make it seem like raising native bees is a lot of work. It's really not! You can expect to spend one to two hours per year actually working with your bees. The rest of the year, you get to just sit back, enjoy watching them, and reaping the rewards of their efforts. So go ahead and get inspired. Buy a house of the right size and paint it your way. Make yourself the Taj Mahal of bee houses. Or a rustic farm style bee house. Or make one out of recycled materials that looks like a unicorn riding a dragon with lasers for eyes. Use the images below for inspiration, but do it yourself the right way, now that you know what that means. Have fun with it!
It seems that the world is starting to pay attention to the fact that our bee populations are declining. More people are recognizing the problem, and many of them want to do more than just talk about the problem. They want to get out there and raise their own bees. If this sounds like you, then I want to say, "Thank you!" Thanks for taking a step in the right direction. But before you run out and order a bunch of bees and equipment, there is a very important question that I would like you to consider. "Which bees are the right bees for you?"
I have asked many people that question, and more often than not, their response is one of confusion. Perhaps they didn't even know that there was more than one option. So let's clear things up, shall we? First and foremost, you be aware that there are 20,000 different species of bees, and here in the United States it is possible to find all the tools and information that you need to raise at least 3 different types. Specifically, there are honeybees, spring mason bees, and summer leafcutter bees, all of which can be successful here. But which is the right type for you?
To figure that out, the first thing you should consider is your goal. What you are trying to accomplish? Are you raising bees because you have heard they are in trouble and you just want to help? Are you an avid gardener looking to increase pollination in your own yard? Are you looking for a way to produce income from your bees? Do you just love honey and want to have buckets of it all to yourself? Do you have a family heritage that is leading you toward beekeeping? Depending on your answers, the type or species of bee that I would recommend will be very different. It could even be a bee that you didn't know existed before you started reading this article!
For the person who is simply wanting to help our struggling bee populations, there are a lot of means to that end, raising bees being just one of those means. What it really comes down to is which bees need our help the most. When we hear the phrase "save the bees", most of us get an image in our mind's eye of a cute little honey bee that desperately needs our help. But the fact of the matter is that native bees need help, too. Our native bees (mason bees, leafcutters, bumblebees, mining bees, and many others) are impacted by the same issues that plague the honey bee, such as loss of habitat, loss of food sources, and damage from pesticides and diseases. On top of that, the honeybee gets the majority of the attention, leaving our poor native bees with few to defend them. And yet, they are not only just as important as the honeybee, they may actually be more important. After all, the honeybee is a European import that arrived here in the early 1600's. Before that, all of the pollination in this country was done by native bees. And yet, they are often ignored and sometimes even scorned (by those whose livelihood is based on the honeybee). So who needs our help more? I would say the native bees win this round.
For those who are looking to increase pollination, honeybees seem like the obvious choice. Most traditional beekeepers today make less than half of their income from selling honey. Their income comes from renting their hives to farmers to pollinate their crops. They travel to California to pollinate almonds, to Washington to pollinate cherries and apples, to Texas to pollinate squash, and so on. Logically, if that's what the commercial guys are doing, then we should use the same kind of bees in our own yards. Well, not so fast... Most of us are looking to boost production in our own yard, not on acres upon acres of fruit trees. If you place a hive in your yard, the honeybees will travel long distances, sometimes as far as 2.5 miles away, collecting pollen and nectar. They don't stay confined to our backyards. Compare this to a spring mason bee, which stays within about 300 feet of it's nesting site. You are more likely to see a personal benefit with the native bee. Not only that, but our native bees are better pollinators than honeybees. They specialize in a type of pollination that a honeybee isn't able to replicate called "buzz pollination" and it is essential for certain food crops. Add to that the fact that our native bees only collect plain, dry, pollen - no nectar. This allows the pollen to fall away as it is carried, spreading easily, and that results in higher pollination rates. So why does anyone even bother using honey bees to pollinate? Because that's the way we've always done it! Very few will commit to trying a new way until it has been proven that it will be successful for them. And that will take time. But you can be one of the pioneers in your area by bucking the honeybee trend and embracing better pollination with native bees.
Maybe you just love bees, and you are hoping to earn a little extra money from some hobby level beekeeping. Or you could have a desire to run a full time business devoted to bees. For you, the answer comes down to how much time, effort, and money you have available to make that happen, and whether or not you can handle the physical requirements of the job. I won't lie to you - honeybees are hard work. I compare the commitment level required to a romantic relationship. With native bees you are just dating. You spend a little time, you spend a little money, you love every minute of it, but you can spend your time elsewhere and not get into trouble. With honeybees, though, you are married. Until you die. And even though you love them, you will get angry from time to time and fight. You will even get stung. But if you are willing to put in the time to make things work, it can be a beautiful thing! It's silly, I know, but it's the truth.
Selling honey is one way that I produce income, and it's not an insignificant portion of the total. But I also spend far more hours dealing with my honeybees than I spend doing all of the other various business things that I do. In the summer I spend several hours per week checking on my hives, more if a swarm urge strikes. And, of course, there is the time invested in the honey harvest! In the winter the bees come out rarely so you would think there is less work. But in reality, that's my only chance to catch up on repairing equipment, cleaning up the tools that have become caked with propolis, and getting set up for the next spring. From a financial standpoint, honeybees will set you back a bit. The hive equipment can be several hundred dollars. Smokers, tools and bee suits can be another hundred or two. The bees themselves will cost $150 or more. Altogether that's a pretty big investment to undertake when you can't even be sure if you will be able to keep them alive for the next year. But if you succeed, the income potential is there. You can sell honey, wax, propolis, pollen, and even queen bees and nuc hives, and make a pretty penny doing so. If your back can take it, that is. A full box of honey comb can weigh 90 pounds. If the thought of having to lift an angry, stinging, sticky, dripping box that weighs as much as a 12 year old boy sounds fun, then this is the job for you!
If, however, you find yourself hesitating, don't fret. There is income potential in the native bee world as well. It isn't as glamorous, but it also requires far less of you in terms of time, effort, and finances. You can start your first native bee hotel for as little as $15 if you use a recycled coffee can for a house. You can expect to spend about an hour the very first time you set up a bee house. With practice it takes about 3 minutes. There are no inspections required, no pests that would require chemical treatment, no queens that need to be replaced. I did, once, have to build a cage to protect a bee house from a squirrel that thought they looked tasty. And I have had to remove a bird nest from a bee house. And I have a tree frog that likes to sit on top of my nesting materials that I have relocated three years in a row. (Okay, maybe they were 3 different frogs). In the fall, the native bee nesting materials or eggs need to be be brought in to a safe place until spring to protect them from predators and predatory insects. The process of getting them ready for winter may take an hour for most people. Once you have a lot of bees it will take longer, but still nothing compared to their cousins. Bonus: native bees don't sting! And the lifting requirements are weighed in ounces instead of pounds. So what can you sell if you raise native bees? Bees, for starters. Native bees lay eggs, which are spun into cocoons. The cocoons can be sold locally to help get others started. Some companies, such as my affiliate partner Crown Bees, even offer a "buy back" program where you can mail cocoons to them, and they will mail you a check in return. Money can also be made by selling houses and nesting materials for these bees. So as far as income potential goes, any bee will do as long as it fits in with your idea of a commitment.
When you think of products manufactured by bees, the first thing you picture is honey. So it seems likely that some folks may want a hive of their own just so that they can have a massive amount of honey all to themselves. Native bees do not live in hives. They don't produce wax, and they don't produce honey. If it's honey you want, honeybees are your bees. Just keep things small, if you can. (Please, and thank you.) Packing many hives together in one place contributes to the spread of diseases amongst hives, and allows them to out-compete the native bees for food.
So now that you know which type of bee you would like to raise, how do you get started? That will be tackled in a future blog post. Until then, feel free to comment here with your questions or reach out to me directly.