Tie bees are not my bees

A few weeks back, Kirk and Russell brought the railroad tie bees over to our house to live. They plopped the bee-filled hunk of wood on top of a nuc box and we left them alone to get comfortable.

We decided to cut them out this weekend. Russell started the cut out with a regular saw, but soon graduated to power tools. It was a long & sweaty endeavor.

It was kind of neat inside the railroad tie, but most of the bees had absconded and the comb was full of wax moths. There was a little bit of honey. but it was filthy and looked old. The whole thing went into the trash.

We're hoping to catch a new swarm in the spring. We're happy to have one healthy hive and a bunch of bee friends.

Viewer mail

Hello! We are starting our first few hives in the spring here in Malibu. This month we are planting native plants and flowers that will provide the pollen and nectar - so we are wondering - what are your bees favorite plants throughout the seasons? We have several acres available.

Thanks so much! We are very excited to begin this new journey. Hope to see you at a backwards beekeeping meeting in the near future!

Sean and Mary
Malibu, CA

Amy and I have put in St. Catherine's Lace (Eriogonum Giganteum aka Giant Buckwheat), French Lavender, and African Blue Basil.

I'll bet the group has some suggestions to leave in the comments.


New Beekeepers Rescue a Hive

Brand-new Backwards Beekeeper Bonnie wrote this to our Yahoo Group:

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, or How to Make a Thousand Mistakes and Still Capture a Beehive

For the last couple of weeks we’ve been keeping an eye on a hive in a large plywood box at the back of a neighboring vacant property. The box was about 2 feet tall by 2 feet wide by 4 or 5 feet long at the very back of the property. We were faced with a problem—try to cut them out now, or leave them over the winter at the mercy of a real estate agent, anybody who might be hired to do a clean-up job, or a possible new owner. With some encouragement from Kirk and other Backwards Beekeepers, we decided to go for it. We had no idea what we were in for!

We were a crew of five: my husband Marcus and I (Bonnie) and three of our four children, helping out in the adventure. We had lots of info from months of research, and zero experience. The plan was to get started on Friday, just as I was about to get into my bee suit, I started feeling bad, and the next thing I knew, I lost my breakfast (food poisoning?) and Marcus followed not long after. By Saturday we felt fine, though. We got busy finishing up painting the hive boxes and stand, and didn’t get our suits on until around 1:30pm. We should have started at 9 am! We opened up the hive and it turned out to be BIG. We thought we were well-prepared with 2 nucs and 2 five gallon buckets. That turned out to be not enough!

The hive took up about 1/3 of that big box. It was full of old junk—miscellaneous engine equipment, a toilet seat and a rat’s nest. Mr. Rat ran out as soon as we smoked up his house a bit. We pried up the lid to see where the hive started, and Marcus used his saw to cut the lid so we’d have better access. The comb was built diagonally across a corner of the box—about 12 rows of it, all tangled up in the junk. My husband got busy cutting it out, while I tried to fit the stuff he cut into the frames with rubber bands to hold it. This is a lot trickier than it looks, especially when you’ve got bulky gloves on. The rubber bands got stuck in the cracks at the ends of the frames, and when I tried to roll the bands over to put them in place, I’d end up squishing bees, squishing the comb, or having a rubber band break. Several times I cut it too small, and the comb fell out. Meanwhile, my husband was having a lot more luck cutting the comb out than I was getting it into frames. It was piling up!

The Good: My teenage daughter Madison was our photographer, and she got braver and braver as the process continued. Wearing no veil or gloves, she got up close enough to take all the pics. She got the first sting when she put her hand down on a bee and it got her palm. She said, “Is this supposed to hurt?” My son (age 11) was in the middle of everything with only a veil and gloves. Pretty soon the gloves were off and he was licking up the honey along with the bees. He got stung on the finger, and the arm. He rubbed some dirt on it, and called it good. Don’t you just love little boys? He later got stung again when a little cluster dropped on his shoe and two more went up his pant leg. He ran off dancing, but refused to take any Benadryl. He was back soon right in the middle of everything. My youngest daughter (age 7) just loved watching everything. She had a veil, and she helped with the smoker and with fetching and carrying. What an amazing learning experience for us all!

The Bad: I looked at the sun and knew we had about 45 minutes of daylight left. I worked as hard as I could trying to find brood comb to cut out into rectangular frame shapes. Half the time they ended up looking like trapezoids, and it was really hard to get them into the frames. The next thing I knew, the sun was down, the comb was all cut out of the box, and only a few of the bees were in the nucs. I had filled both buckets with comb, and realized we needed to figure out what to do. We tried brushing the bees into the nucs, but there was too much junk in the box to get them under where the bees were bearding, and we had left too much comb hanging on the side—they were clinging to it fiercely.

The Ugly: At this point, we felt like complete and utter failures. We had taken all of the beautiful work of the bees and trashed it like a couple of dumb bears. It was now really dark, and we felt like the only thing to do at that point was to put the nucs inside the box as best we could, and cover the whole thing up with a tarp. We weighed down the tarp with some rocks, and took the walk of shame back down the hill, feeling like we were leaving the bees to die a cold death because of our stupidity and inexperience. To make matters worse, we thought we might have killed or lost the queen. Towards the end, I had even quit looking carefully at the comb for eggs and uncapped brood. I never saw any. For all I knew, the hive would also be unable to requeen itself because I’d started throwing comb in buckets to get it out of the way after dark. To make matters worse, we wouldn’t be able to get back to the mess we left until Sunday afternoon. I’m a volunteer pastor at our church, and we both had commitments there Sunday morning. Both of us had nightmares about bees dying and vowed that even though we had utterly messed up, we would try again in spring.

When we finally got back up there, we were happy to find that there were still thousands of bees bearding on the wall in the grooves an inch or so deep where the combs had been. Still only a few bees in the nucs. At this point, we decided to be smart and call Kirkobeeo. He told us to pull the wall of the box off, and whack it over the nucs (we ended up doing it over a hivebox and a nuc because it was so big. Whoosh! In they went! We whacked, waited 20 minutes, whacked again, waited again, etc. I had a little bitty whisk broom and dust pan, and we cleared up little clusters here and there as best we could. The bees were finally staying in the box! Whew! Several phone calls and a couple hours later, all was well, and the bees were all climbing in the box. We left to get some dinner. A couple hours later, we went back up with a flashlight and all the bees were hunkered down for night. We put the entrance reducer on, and covered up the hive (loosely) with the tarp to help keep out the wind.

I am quite happy to report that in spite of our blundering, the bees are doing very well! They were really crowded in the first box, so today I added some frames with starter strips and another empty box on top and fed them some of their honey in bag. They were very happy and we had only given them a little hint of smoke. The honey is amazing—dark, buckwheat and wildflower, I’m guessing. We’re saving it all to feed them. I don’t feel like I can quite call myself a beekeeper yet, as these gentle girls still haven’t stung me!

Some pictures are here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/littlecritter/sets/72157622865548352/

A million thanks to you, Kirk for all your help!

-Bonnie :)

It's a good day to give thanks for bees and the organic beekeepers who learn from them.


Viewer mail

Hello, I am writing in regards to the Honey Bee Colony Collapse Disorder. I live in the Los Angeles area. At both at my condo complex in Woodland Hills, and at my workplace in Marina del Rey, I have seen an unusually high number of dead or dying honey bees on the ground... sometimes I'll see a dozen or more dead or dying bees on our complex's tennis court, for example. On the parking lot or near the entrance at work, sometimes I'll see a half dozen writhing on the ground. I just wanted to know if there is an agency or research organization in either of these areas which might appreciate notification?

- Josh

Josh, those bees have most likely been sprayed with a pesticide or otherwise poisoned. City agencies tend to treat any wild bees as dangerous or "Africanized" and follow a policy of kill-on-sight. Unfortunately, many people do the same thing.

Wild bees that are left alone to look after themselves (like the bees kept by members of our group) are thriving and very manageable.


And the train kept rolling

Remember the railroad-tie bees? Well, Kirk and I headed up to Solano Garden, where they'd been parked, to pick them up and give them a new home.

Here's Kirk's ant-barrier system that protects his bees.

Kirk used window screen and duct tape to seal up the tie for transportation.

This is like Christmas for me.

Here are the bees in their new Silver Lake home. Once they've had a while to orient themselves, we'll undertake a cut-out to get them into a proper hive box.


Artistic bees ignore straight lines.

Backwards Beekeeper Max reports:

Kirk came over to help me do our very first inspection on both our hives. I was concerned about both hives for different reasons.

The bees in our first hive are just insanely hard workers and have built their comb out to the last frame which is great, except for the fact that these guys have decided to ignore concepts like "bee space" and "frames" and have built comb diagonally across the frames and pretty much glued the tops of all the frames together with bulbous, architectural flourishes. It's like the bee version of the Sagrada Familia in there. This makes the hive difficult to inspect and the bees got very bummed out when we yanked apart some of their free form work to check on their progress. We checked out two frames and saw honey and brood in both, so Kirk pronounced the bees in Hive #1 to be healthy, but creative.

To solve the problem of wavey comb, Kirk is going to make us one frame's worth of small cell foundation out of wax. The wax foundation frame will go into the center of the medium super we are going to add to the hive next week. Kirk thinks that the straight foundation will serve as an example to the bees who clearly haven't considered the features and benefits of building comb in a manner that makes it easy for humans to rearrange the hive. We will use wax starter strips instead of wood ones in the rest of the frames for that hive. We will document the bees' progress over time to see if we can retrain this hive to make straight comb.

We were concerned about the bees in our second hive because even though our second hive started with 10,000 bees, they are about a quarter as active as our first hive that only started with 5000 bees. While there's a veritable bee fog outside the entrance of our Hive #1, there's only a slow trickle of traffic in and out of the second hive. Steve and I were worried that the bees in Hive #2 were succumbing to some horrible problem.

As it turns out, the bees in Hive #2 haven't succumbed to anything. They're just lazy. While the bees in Hive #1 had barely touched the sugar water I'd added last week, the baggie in hive #2 was sucked dry. To their credit however, the bees in Hive #2 build very easy to inspect straight comb. Even the extra little comb annex they're building at the bottom of every frame (we're using medium frames on a deep super) is tidy.

We looked for the queen in Hive #2, but we didn't see her.

By the way, the bees that Kirk is handling in these photos are the Grumpy Bees from Hive #2, who were super spazzy and sting-y when they first showed up in our yard in late September. Luckily, they've figured out that we're not grizzly bears and now allow themselves to be handled with just a light smoking.



Kirkobeeo: How to make starter strips

Kirk sent this tutorial on how to make starter strips for your bees.

Get a piece of 1x3 pine. Mark a 16 inch length of the strip with a pencil.

Arrange the piece of pine in the sink, let the water run on it while you are getting set up. If the board is wet, this lets the wax release easily and come off the board. Wet the board each time you make a strip.

Get a pot and some clean beeswax. When it is melted, turn off the burner. Try to have the wax as cool as you can. This makes it set faster on the pine board. DON"T OVERHEAT THE WAX—it could catch on fire or be too hot to work with.

Brush the wax on the pine board. Take your time and do multiple coats.

If you lay the board flat it will go on nice and flat.

Peel off the strip with a butter knife or a putty knife. You will see steam come off when you peel. If you are making more, put a piece of pine in the sink again and run water on it.

Now laying the board flat you can take a knife and carefully cut the wax strip in half, making sure you don't hurt yourself.

Now place the wax starter strip in the slot of each frame's top bar. Take your brush and brush some wax into the slot until you have enough to hold the starter strip in place. Be careful with the wax when it is hot.

These wax strips really help the bees draw straight comb. Cardboard strips coated with wax are also very good. Get these ready for spring.

good luck


This video shows an alternate method for making starter strips.


Yin's bees march on.

Backwards Beekeeper Yin (previously seen here) is showing serious beekeeping skills.

She sent this note, along with photos, to Kirk:

Hi, Kirk:

I bravely opened the hive today and took two of the frames out for showing you how they are doing. The first one seems there are a lot of shining honey in it and the second there are a lot of bees.

The bees had good behavior and didn't sting me. When do you think I will check again?

Thank you and happy week!


Kirk finds bees and battles ants.

Kirk did so much bee stuff this weekend that I won't even try to summarize it.

Take a listen:

The file box bees:

The gnarly old tree:

Dismantling the tree with the spud bar:

Kirk says:

This is looking inside the void of the tree, the hollow part—I called it the "the top knot."

It was impossible to get them out without a vacuum. I don't like vacuums, so I got a Bright Idea: Put a tarp on the ground with a nuc box on top. I had cut out three frames of brood and two frames of honey from the tree, and I put those in the nuc box.

I picked up the "Top Knot" and slammed it down on the ground next to the nuc box. A big pile of bees fell out and started crawling into the box with the brood and honey frames.

Two hours later, they were ready to go.

The Farmlab bees in their bee moat:

The canola oil ant barrier:


The bees are driving this train.

Kirk says:

Hay Buddy I got these bees in a rail road tie. I put some screen over the end, picked it up, and took it to my house like the Bee Store.

Man, how great is that second photo?


Small Honey Harvest

A week and a half ago I pulled 2 frames of honey from our hive after doing an inspection. I had 2 replacement frames with starter strips so I just swapped those out and brought the entire full frames inside. Of course this wouldn't work if you had a lot of honey but it was nice to get a really good look a the full frames away from the hive.

This past weekend I finally had time to wash the buckets, drill the holes and crush and strain the honey.
We couldn't wait to taste the honey.

It was a family affair. We all took turns crushing the comb with the spatula.


We modified the bucket set-up that Kirk recommends because we have a really small house and two mischievous boys who I am sure would find the dripping honey and tip the top bucket over. Instead we used a 3 gal bucket (with half inch holes drilled into the bottom) fitted into the 5 gal bucket with the honey gate. That made it a little shorter and locked the whole thing together. With the lid snapped on top if it gets tipped over it won't be a disaster as long as we get to it soon enough.

Here's the harvest from just two frames. The bees are going gangbusters so I need to get that other box on this weekend.