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Basics of Bee Keeping Presentation Follow Up

Basics of Bee Keeping Presentation Follow Up

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.

Bamboozled

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 native bee house can by tiny, but it must bee deep enough to safely hold tubes that are about 6" long.

A native bee house can by tiny, but it must bee deep enough to safely hold tubes that are about 6" long.

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."

This blue orchard mason bee isn't wearing a brown girdle. She is covered in tiny pollen mites, which will be spread to every flower she visits.

This blue orchard mason bee isn't wearing a brown girdle. She is covered in tiny pollen mites, which will be spread to every flower she visits.

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!

 

My very first mason bee house, stenciled with fern fronds.

My very first mason bee house, stenciled with fern fronds.

An architectural bee house from Pinterest (click for source). Note that the clay cylinders are plenty deep for 6" tubes.

An architectural bee house from Pinterest (click for source). Note that the clay cylinders are plenty deep for 6" tubes.

One of several ready-to-use bee kits available that are actually made for bees, not for profits.

One of several ready-to-use bee kits available that are actually made for bees, not for profits.

Houses can be made of anything. These kits are made with simple PVC pipe and can be tucked away in small spaces.

Houses can be made of anything. These kits are made with simple PVC pipe and can be tucked away in small spaces.

A hotel for a variety of creatures from Pinterest (click for source). These can be great, but research carefully before you build one yourself to make sure you are providing a healthy environment for each insect.

A hotel for a variety of creatures from Pinterest (click for source). These can be great, but research carefully before you build one yourself to make sure you are providing a healthy environment for each insect.

My most active mason bee house. Consider placing your house near a pathway to encourage visitors to watch the action. It's completely safe, as mason bees are gentle and do not have a traditional bee sting.

My most active mason bee house. Consider placing your house near a pathway to encourage visitors to watch the action. It's completely safe, as mason bees are gentle and do not have a traditional bee sting.

As long as we are building, why not make your bee hotel gigantic? This one is part of a listening project. (Click through to view the source material.)

As long as we are building, why not make your bee hotel gigantic? This one is part of a listening project. (Click through to view the source material.)

Making Your Own Essential Oils

This past Christmas, my husband was thoughtful enough to buy me the coolest gift a geeky artsy girl like me could ever want. I finally had a chance to use it, and I am so excited about the possible uses! I know that a lot of you buy essential oils. It's no secret that they can be incredibly expensive! Well now you can make your own, and all you need is a good supply of plant material and this cool gadget.

EssenEx 100 Essentail Oil Extraction Kit

EssenEx 100 Essentail Oil Extraction Kit

It's a bit pricey (starting at $150). But if you buy essential oils on a regular basis, either for soap making or aromatherapy, you already know that if this product works then you could recoup your costs pretty quickly. Ah, but does it work? I had to find out.

200 grams of assorted orange peels

200 grams of assorted orange peels

The included instructions were pretty simple to follow. I really wanted to try using fresh herbs, but being the middle of January I didn't want to take any cuttings from my plants. I was too excited to wait until I could make a trip to the grocery store. So I made my first attempt with what I had on hand -- about a dozen oranges. I didn't feel bad "wasting" them, because they had been ignored in the fruit bowl for a long time. So long, in fact, that they were starting to shrivel. There were a few mandarins, as well as navel oranges. I peeled them and measured 200 grams of the peels (that's about 7 ounces). The peels were then loosely packed into the large glass bowl.

Beaker inserted into the oil extraction unit

Beaker inserted into the oil extraction unit

In the middle, protected by a microwave-safe metal shield, I placed the provided 250 mL beaker. I was really starting to feel nerdy at this point. There was giggling.

An ice core assembly

An ice core assembly

Next, I needed to attach an ice core to the unit. You heard right, an ice core. It sounds fancy, but really it is the simplest thing in the world. A funnel, with the end plugged, sits upright inside a mug. You fill the funnel with water. Then you take a disc with a hole in the center and thread a plastic screw into it. That sites on top of the funnel. The purpose of the disk is simply to keep the screw centered in the water inside the funnel. Into the freezer it goes for a day, and you have an ice core.

Ice core ready to attach to the lid

Ice core ready to attach to the lid

Remember the plastic screw? That's how the ice core gets attached to the lid. It sits inside a metal shield, centered over the shielded beaker. Now it heads to the microwave. In only 6 minutes, the magic is complete! Or is it?

Steam filled extraction unit

Steam filled extraction unit

After letting everything cool a bit, I removed the lid. I could see an oil slick on the surface of the water in my beaker.

Film of orange essential oil

Film of orange essential oil

I poured the liquid into a flask, put a cap on top, and waited for the oil to float to the top.

Oil collection flask

Oil collection flask

Nothing. Just some water with a vague dirty orange scent. Hmmm... Is this a piece of junk? Or did I do something wrong? I decided to try again. I took a look at my process, especially all the parts that, in my opinion, the instructions had left open to interpretation. I froze 3 ice cores, so that I could make multiple attempts in a short amount of time. Fortunately, I had success on my very next try!

I wondered if the mandarin oranges, with their very thin skin, might not have been a very good choice. So I opted for a variety of fresh citrus fruits - lemons, limes, and even a blood orange, because I happened to have some in the house. Aside from variety and freshness, the only other change I made was in how I removed the peels. Remembering that the oils are located in the outermost layer, I chose to cut the peels off with a paring knife, leaving as much of the white pith behind as possible. I knew as soon as I removed the lid that my results would be better. I was immediately hit with the scent of lime! I poured the liquid into my flask, and an oil layer floated to the top.

Citrus oil blend

Citrus oil blend

Success! I used a pipette, similar to an eye dropper, to suction the oil off the surface and into an amber bottle for storage.

Essential oil in amber glass

Essential oil in amber glass

That single batch produced about 1/4 dram of essential oil from all organic peels. I don't know about you, but a dram is a unit that I just don't use, so I prefer to use ounces or milliliters. In this case, that's just under 1 mL of oil. How does that compare to simply buying the same quantity of organic essential oil? A quick online search shows organic essential oil blends in 5 mL bottles for $20 - $25, or an average of $4.50 per mL . My cost? Well, that depends. In this case, we ate the blood orange, and used our juicer to make some awesome lemon-limeade for the kids. The peels would have been put out with the compost, we had no other use for them. So in this case, I think my cost was, well, nothing. I think the same would be true if I use my own herbs this spring. I routinely have to cut them back to keep them from growing outside of their assigned locations (they are naughty buggers that like to escape their raised beds). I have, many times, had to throw herbs out to the compost because there was just so much that I couldn't even give it all away. So, to me, oil produced from that excess would be free. So my only real cost is in the Extraction Kit itself.  Since it costs around $150, dividing that by the $4.50 per mL cost of buying oils, means that if I can produce 33 mL of oils then I will break even. Any more than that, and I will be saving money.

The bottom line is this: yes, you can make your own essential oils! It is easy, and safe enough that you can have kids actually help. I will happily promote anything that can gets kids interested in science, and teach them about the various chemicals (both natural and synthetic) that they are likely to encounter so they can make better choices as adults. For making soap, it would be difficult to produce enough essential oil to use for a typical batch. I often use several ounces at a time. For aromatherapy, this might be just enough. So, what will I do with my oil? I think this will be exactly enough to go into a batch of coconut-lime lip balm. And this summer, when my thyme is going crazy, I may see if I can make my own thyme oil to use as a mite treatment in the beehives. What oil would you want to make?