Carpenter Bees, Help!

I received a text from someone in the neighborhood asking for help in saving the carpenter bees that had taken up residence in her garage. I texted her back and gave her my usual spiel about the time I had carpenter bees living in my garage, and how I called up Mike McGrath and got on the radio show “You Bet Your Garden”. His advice was, basically, that carpenter bees are highly beneficial native pollinators (the kind we should be saving because we need them to pollinate our food crops!), usually don’t cause structural damage, and don’t sting. So I left them alone.

For those of you who don’t know what carpenter bees are, they look like gigantic bumble bees except with shiny, black bald abdomens. The males, the ones that hang out in front of the nests and can rather aggressively dive bomb you if you get too close, don’t actually have stingers. The females do have stingers, but are very unlikely to do so unless you are actually disturbing their nest. In recent years, I have many carpenter bees on my property and I suspect they are nesting primarily in the salvaged logs I use as garden edging, and a few of them may have taken up residence in the wood of my salad tables.

Me watering my salad table where carpenter bees may be living.

Me watering my salad table where carpenter bees may be living.

They can be seen diligently working the roses, raspberries, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, tomatillos, and many other plants in my garden. There are many websites out there telling you how they are going to cause major structural damage to your house and must be vaporized or your house will fall down. Break out the insecticide, wd 40, or whatever else you can get and take aim.

As is the case with many things in life, the answer is somewhere in the middle. The truth is, while these bees are extremely gentle, the females can sting. The truth is, while they tunnel slowly and aren’t going to destroy your house quickly (they are not as dangerous to your woodwork as, say, termites or carpenter ants) they can, slowly, over time, do quite a bit of damage, especially if they like your house and a large colony develops over many years. If that’s the case, then, yes, you’re going to get structural damage.

So back to the woman with the carpenter bees in her garage. Without seeing anything, it sounded to me like she may have a large number of them in her garage. She can actually hear them digging and buzzing when she goes in there. My initial advice to her was to wait until spring when the overwintered larvae had just hatched and the holes are as empty as possible…and then patch up the holes and diligently paint the surfaces. If necessary, have rotten and/or soft wood replaced by a (human) carpenter. Don’t use caulk to fill the holes but something like steel wool in the holes or screen over the holes, that will be harder for them to dig through. They don’t like painted surfaces as much as unpainted, soft wood, so providing suitable nesting sites for them somewhere else on the property is a good way to keep them around without encouraging damage to buildings.

Then she mentioned the elderly neighbor with the bee allergy. Now THAT was going to change the situation. It seems as though the neighbor is very afraid of them and wants them gone. He’s citing a city ordinance about removing bees from within a certain distance from a home where someone with a bee allergy lives. I am not familiar with the ordinance regarding bee allergies, but irregardless, that is a legitimate concern. The chances of getting stung by a carpenter bee is very low unless you are directly messing with the nest, but the consequences of getting stung, for the neighbor, could be lethal if in fact he has a serious allergy. In that case the fate of the bees is really up to how comfortable the neighbor is in waiting a while to have the bees removed and how willing he is to take precautions in the meantime. It didn’t sound as though the neighbor is interested in saving the bees.

In the end I recommended that she find an environmentally friendly exterminator and remove them a.s.a.p. I also recommended that she get any weak or soft wood professionally repaired, and to keep it painted and monitored for any returning bees. We talked about any possible way of saving the bees living there now, but the only thing I could think of was a (human) carpenter with a bee suit who would be willing to remove pieces of wood with bees in them and relocated them someplace safe (like a forest preserve or community garden). I have a bee suit but am no carpenter. She felt really bad, but I told her in this situation the best thing she could do for the bees is make sure they don’t come back and waste resources building nests in a place they can’t stay. I felt really bad recommending an exterminator, and she really doesn’t want hire one, but in this case it seemed like the appropriate response.

I always cringe when I hear people talk about “pest control” as if the living creatures involved are somehow waging a war against us and we must fight back against the deadly foe. The truth is they just want food, shelter and a place to raise their young, just like us. The truth is we need many of these “pests” to have a healthy ecosystem. Often creatures that we deem to be “pests” only cause us problems when they are in the wrong place at the wrong time, but, like these carpenter bees, are extremely beneficial to the environment as well as to humans under the right circumstances.

I would love to see more conversations like the one I had about the carpenter bees. Time and effort was given into thinking of the well-being of the bees and extermination is a last resort. Also in situations like this I like to think of considering an act of fostering life to help balance out the act of dealing death. If the carpenter bees in this particular garage need to die, what will be done to offset this act? Some ideas include building some carpenter bee or mason bee or beneficial insect houses for a community garden, research and make a point of educating people about how to co-exist with carpenter bees, or plant something that would feed beneficial insects (but not near the home of the allergic neighbor).

I believe that if we stopped thinking about pest control as “waging war” and instead focused the conversation on finding ways to co-exist, with dealing death as a last resort done regretfully, that attitude would eliminate many of the problems we are having with overuse of pesticides and herbicides. It would have a huge impact on creating a healthy environment for all creatures. It makes an interesting thought experiment to consider your most hated pests and think of how they are in fact good creatures that are important to the environment in some way, even if we humans can’t fathom it. Try it. It is hard. Here’s my list of creatures I’m tempted to wage war on: yellow jackets, house ants, cockroaches, rats. Termites and cabbage worms. Mosquitoes, fleas and ticks. Japanese beetles. Oh, and let’s not forget slugs. What is your list? Yup, we need all of those things too.

I  have killed or would kill any one of the creatures in this list, but can I do it as a last resort and regretfully? Can I consider the place these creatures might hold in my local ecosystem and how my killing it might affect other things, or how my pest control methods might harm other species? Only by weighing these aspects can we make a good decision about how to deal with pests.

How to Deal with Disappointment…Look for Swarms

dead queen bee

I got a box today with LIVE QUEEN BEE written all over it in black marker. Only, there wasn’t. Everything in the box was DEAD, the queen and all her attendants. Right before I opened the box I put it to my ear and heard silence. I blamed it on my bad ear but that made no sense since I put the box to my good ear. When I opened it up my heart sank. The most frustrating thing about it, was I had made the decision to combine my failing hive with my brother’s hive and I tried to cancel the queen bee order, but they had shipped my order out already. So now I still have a (probably) queenless hive, AND I am out $40. Because in order to get a refund you have to inspect the box in the presence of the delivery person and get it in writing from them that the order was indeed Dead On Arrival. Which of course the person receiving the shipment for me didn’t do. I sent pictures of the dead bees and requested a refund, but since I don’t have the required documentation, they don’t have to give me the refund *SIGH*.

I don’t seem to have good luck with queens through the mail. For the record, I’ve ordered two queens through the mail and, for different reasons, neither of them took. Compared to about 4 queens I easily raised myself last summer without really knowing what the heck I was doing, I think there’s an argument for learning how to raise and bank enough queens over the winter to replace my own winter losses. It would certainly save some money.

From now on, if I have to replace bees though, I’m going to buy nucs and/or buy queens someplace local where I can more easily pick them up in person. Which of course is tricky since most bees around here are shipped up from Southern states each spring, but it is getting easier to find. The Chicago Honey Co-Op has website has some leads and the Illinois Queen Initiative looks promising. But most of all, I would like to try my hand at catching swarms. That sounds like fun to me!

The Queen Is???

So, I am almost embarrassed to write this. I apologize for being like a bad soap opera. At the last hive inspection, I could not locate the queen and my bees were acting “depressed” and overly docile. They weren’t flying much even though it was the first warm day (I was in short sleeves and I get cold easily). There was no brood or eggs that I could find. Although there was a population bump after I moved them to a dry hive which means there was recently a queen, I do not think she is there anymore. My brother has suggested that since it has been a cold spring and there may not be enough worker bees to keep brood warm, the queen has stopped laying for a while. And while that is a great theory, I think I would have seen the queen. I scoured the hive. I went over each frame like 3 times and there are not a whole lotta bees in there for her to hide behind. The only good sign I saw was that there are no dead bees in the hive, which means they are doing their housecleaning. So…queenless? You can take bets now. I’m thinking of combining this hive with my brother’s hive that could use a boost of worker bees.  I can place a queen excluder between boxes on the outside chance that there is still a queen in my hive, but I’ll bet you five dollars there isn’t. I have the feeling that unless I am lucky and catch a swarm later in the spring, or some kind beekeeper gifts me with a split, I am out of the bee business this season. Fingers Crossed.

April 8 – Mind Your Own Beeswax

I have collected beeswax since I started beekeeping. Some of it I’ve already used in lip gloss and hand lotion, in my artwork or as seasoning for my cast iron pots (got that tip from my Father-in-law, Tom). Since I don’t have a lot of hives, I don’t have enough to make a large amount of anything, but I finally got enough to make a few candles. I’ve done a bit of research about how to melt down and purify wax from your beehives. This YouTube video gives you an idea how the process works.

Since a lot of what I harvested was brood comb from my dead-out hives, it is going to take a bit of doing to purify it enough for craft uses. unlike the white wax cappings removed from new honey combs in the extracting process, the old dark brood comb contains the dried cocoons of earlier generations of bee larvae. All that must be separated from the pure wax to be useful, but I had so much of it I decided it was worth the extra effort.

I melted the combs down in a big pot with water and skimmed off as much debris as I could, but there’s a lot of pollen and other stuff still in it. From the videos I’ve watched, it can take a few cycles of melting/cooling/trimming the debris off the bottom before the wax is ready for use. I think I’m going to order a 5 micron polyester mesh bag like they used in the video above so I can cut down on the number of steps it will take. But, for now, here’s some of the wax I got from the first melting:

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I’ll post the finished product after the next round or two of processing it.

The queen is dead, long live the queen.

IMG_1630My bees died.

I had three hives last fall. Now, two are dead and one is queen less and failing fast. It was my fault, I moved the hives too close to the garage, ostensibly to keep them more sheltered from the elements, but what happened instead was water from the melting snow ran off the roof and got inside the hives. Wet bees are dead bees. Lesson learned, the hard way. I’ve tried not to get too frustrated with myself, but I keep thinking I could have three healthy hives right now If I’d only thought things through better.

Before I discovered that my bees were mostly dead, I had planned on making big changes to my beekeeping practices. I am replacing all of my 10-frame medium equipment with 8-frame medium equipment. These new, smaller “garden hives” have pretty peaked copper roofs and are quite decorative.  I am excited to have the smaller equipment because I will be able to lift and move them much more easily. This has been a real problem as I simply can’t lift the larger equipment; even 10-frame mediums have proven to be just a little too heavy for me when they are full. There have been times when I’ve dropped boxes full of bees and thrown my back out trying to work on my hives. Most of the times I’ve been stung are a direct result jostling bees around because I don’t have the strength to maneuver the boxes gently. I need equipment I can handle on my own.

Now it seems I will have a hard time filling those new hives with bees. I have ordered a new Carnolian queen from Apple Blossom honey farm, but I have my doubts about saving my remaining hive. It is true that I had written this particular hive of bees off last fall when the varroa mites nearly wiped out the hive, and they still made a full recovery. However, they didn’t lose their queen that time. Still, I transferred the remaining few frames of surviving bees into a small hive that is clean and dry, and added a swarm lure to the hive. Bees without a queen get demoralized and lose their work ethic. I’ve never heard of using a swarm lure this way but if I can trick them into thinking they still have a queen, maybe they will remain motivated enough to keep going until the new queen arrives.

If my last hive fails then I will have no bees this spring. I’ve thought long and hard about it but I don’t want to buy another package of bees. I’m already way over budget on garden projects this spring and another package will be about $160. I’m going to have to get creative about getting new bees. I’m going to put up a few swarm traps and might ask a few people in the area if I can hang one on their property. Also, I just filled out a form to be put on a swarm list. I’m hoping someone calls me to catch a swarm that is not beyond my skill level to deal with. I can’t deal with bees in a wall, or 20 feet up in a tree. But if someone in Chicago or the surrounding towns has a bee swarm in their bushes and wants it gone, then I’m back in business.

Wish me luck!

No Honey…Yet

This is a video of me doing a quick inspection of my beehive. I’m really just checking the top box to see if there is any honey that I can harvest. They still have a little ways to go before I can harvest anything. Since I gave away 3 frames of eggs and brood to my brother to save his last remaining (queenless) hive a few weeks ago, they’ve probably been more busy in the bottom box drawing new comb on the new frames down there than putting honey up in the top box. I did see a couple of frames that were almost full, just not capped. I should be able to harvest those in the next week or two, which is good because I’m almost out of honey and I don’t want to buy anymore. I don’t expect to take more than a few frames this year, but that should be enough to get a couple of small jars of honey. I can’t wait!

5/3 Bank, Thanks for Feeding my Honeybees!

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I know I just said no more bee posts for a while, but I don’t often get an opportunity to randomly thank a local business for doing something environmentally friendly. I was just at 5/3 bank near Harlem and North in chicago. I think every bee in the neighborhood, including bumblebees, orchard mason bees, honeybees and several kinds I couldn’t identify, were busy working the flowers planted around an otherwise grey concrete parking lot. Given the fact that my Sweet Melissa hive sits less than a mile away, chances are pretty good that at least a few of these honeybees are mine.

The plant that was so popular appeared to be something in the mint family and I’d love to know for sure. I wonder did the 5/3 Bank landscapers know they were going to feed bees or were they just looking for an easy, long flowering, drought resistant plant?  

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Anyway, when local businesses use plants like these around an otherwise lifeless expanse of grey concrete parking lot, they not only make it more inviting for their customers, but play an important role in the local ecosystem. I think these parking lot landscaping areas can and should serve multiple purposes. In fact they play a vital role in providing habitat for creatures that wouldn’t otherwise make it in an urban environment.

5/3 Bank, Whether you meant to feed my bees or not, thanks for the bee food!