Whenever my queen excluders or screened covers get all blocked up with beeswax, I use a heat gun to melt it off. I used to try to scrape them clean but it took forever; the heat gun does a better job in a fraction of the time.
The heat gun I have is 1500 watts, has two settings, and costs about $20. I use it for lots of things around the apiary, but mostly for melting wax or propolis. In addition, it works for many odd jobs around the house. It’s one of those things I didn’t know I needed until after I brought it home.
You can get heat guns plain and inexpensive, or you can find spendy ones with all kinds of fun features you probably don’t need.
If you use it on excluders or wire covers, it helps to tip the pieces backwards at an angle to the ground. If you hold them vertically, the melted wax runs down along the wires. If you hold them at an angle, or lay them flat, the wax drops off onto the ground.
After spending four cold nights swinging from a Douglas-fir, my errant charges have returned. Watching them reminded me of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Requiem:
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
These are the bees I told you about earlier in the week, the ones that swarmed just as I began to make a split. I already had three swarm traps freshly baited from the previous weekend, but when I saw this swarm, I quickly set up four bait hives around my yard and sprayed them with the Swarm Commander I recently purchased. After that, nothing to do but wait.
I thought the three flower pot-shaped traps were my best bet. They were in previously successful locations and they had brand new swarm lures from Mann Lake. I almost always catch something in those traps, so I thought they had the best potential. But I really didn’t want to lose this swarm, so I sprayed the four empty hives with the little spray bottle of Swarm Commander reminiscent of a perfume dispenser. It definitely has that “come hither” scent.
During the ensuing days, the Swarm Commander-laced hives drew all the attention. Those four hives each had thirty or forty scouts constantly, while the flower pots had only three or four.
Today as I was working at the kitchen sink, water running, I suddenly froze. “What’s that noise?” I demanded. I turned off the water, listened, and once again asked the dog, “What’s that noise?” He doesn’t like bees so he didn’t answer.
To me, it sounded like a small aircraft was about to land on the roof. I grabbed my camera and ran barefoot through the grass.
What can you say about a swarm? Enchanting? Mesmerizing? Intoxicating? Or maybe the coolest freaking thing you will ever see? I will never tire of watching them.
The cloud of bees had more or less coalesced over the kiwi vine. This confused me because there is a bait hive both to the east and west of that vine, about equidistant. So for a few moments, I didn’t know where the swarm was going.
But it soon become obvious—bees began condensing on the surface of the hive like shower steam on a mirror. The swarm was bigger than I estimated, so I walked into the center, added a brood box, and removed the entrance reducer so they would have an easier time marching in. Bees bumped into my face, landed in my hair, and examined my camera but like most swarms, they were totally docile. It took a long time, but they finally settled in.
Most of us who want to attract native bees to our yards and gardens do so by providing housing in the form of tubes, straws, hollow reeds, or drilled wood. While there is nothing wrong with this, the irony is that fully 70%—or nearly three-quarters—of all bee species live underground. Above ground cavities are completely useless to most bees.
So, if we really want to attract a variety of bees, we need to prepare space for the ground-dwellers. This is not an easy task, which is why it is frequently overlooked.
Many people don’t have land available for bee habitat. Some folks live in apartments, condos, or subdivisions where it is easy to have a few drinking straws on the porch but impossible to have a patch of bare earth. Others live in areas where bare earth is considered an eyesore. Still others live where the soil is mostly covered in asphalt and concrete. Nevertheless, there are things we can do.
What the bees need
Ground-dwelling bees like sandy soil, such as sandy loam, that is damp but not wet. It should be bare—free of plants and their annoying roots. It should be gently sloped, about 30 degrees is nice, and should face south or southeast in a sunny location. In addition, it should not be covered with mulch of any type. But here is the kicker—something that’s easy to forget: it must remain undisturbed nearly all year.
Why undisturbed? Because unlike honey bees, most native bees hibernate underground for about ten months of the year. They spend this time as a pupa or an adult, depending on the individual species. If we disturb their nests by tilling, disking, or shoveling the soil, we kill the bees.
How to do it
Researchers have found that even small bare patches can be useful for bees. While some native bees nest in large aggregations containing thousands of nesting holes, others build off by themselves wherever they find a good spot.
You can build “scrapes,” which are simply patches of earth with the plant life scraped free. You can build forms out of wood or brick, and fill them with sandy loam sloped toward the sun. Or you can truck in soil and just mound it in a sunny location.
Even a flower pot can be used. So if you live in condo with a balcony, for example, you could have several pots with flowers and one with bare soil that you water occasionally. Dampness is necessary for the bee tunnels to maintain their shape; if the soil gets too dry, the tunnels may collapse.
The sandy loam should be about 50 to 70% sand. Since you are not growing plants in it, the percentages of clay, silt, and organic matter are not too important. To make loam for bees, in most cases you can just take your native soil and mix it with an equal amount of sand.
When will they come?
In a study in Oxfordshire UK, where they dug four 3 x 5 m nesting plots, solitary bees nested in the first year. During the next three years, 80 different species of solitary bees and wasps colonized the plots . Other similar experiments in Europe and Oregon have produced nests during the first one to three years.
Give it a try
If you decide to build an underground bee bed, take some photos and let us know what you did. This is new territory for most of us, so any hints, suggestions, or bee stories would be especially welcome.
 Gregory S. & Wright I. (2005) “Creation of patches of bare ground to enhance the habitat of ground-nesting bees and wasps at Shotover Hill, Oxfordshire, England.” Conservation Evidence, 2, 139-141.
There’s a place in front of my top-bar hive where I back my truck and turn around. I was doing that yesterday, having just retrieved a load of tree seedlings, when I saw the strangest sight in the mirror. Strange for this time of year, at least—a cloud, dark as chocolate, spinning above the hive.
I don’t ever remember seeing so many airborne bees on a February day. The front of the hive was coated and the air above was thick. The temperature had spiked to near 60 and the bees careened all around as I watched, totally fascinated.
What came to mind as I lingered near the hive was all the partly made pollinator domiciles I have in bits and pieces scattered about the house, the shed, the barn. These are projects I began last fall, thinking I had forever to get them done because spring was so far, far away.
So besides planting all those seedlings, my plan for the weekend includes drilling holes, cutting reeds and elder stems, and completing my native bee habitat. I also have to fill the bumble bee houses with bird nests I saved from last year.
This post serves as a reminder that, even up here in Washington, the native bees are on their way. Some of the bumble bee queens emerge as early as February and start patrolling the ground looking for vacant rodent holes. Many natives begin foraging much earlier than honey bees, so now is the time to sweep the welcome mat, plant some flowers, and beehold.