How to clean wireware

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.


Wax becomes a bee excluder.
Tip the excluder away from you so the wax doesn’t run down the wires.

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Home is the bee, home from the tree

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.


I first saw the swarm over the kiwi vine. © Rusty Burlew.
Next, it moved over behind the house. © Rusty Burlew.
Finally, it moved into the bait hive behind the house. This photo was taken after I added a second brood box. © Rusty Burlew.

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Let’s save the right bees

It’s about time that someone clearly and succinctly wrote about the “bee problem.” And someone finally did. Gwen Pearson, known for years as the Bug Girl, has a story in yesterday’s Wired that says it all, “You’re Worrying about the Wrong Bees.”

I’ve been a fan of Gwen and her writing for a long time, and she just keeps getting better. The beauty of this particular article is its clarity, and I urge everyone even remotely interested in bees to read it and share it.

As the title suggests, all the “Save the Bees” rhetoric is aimed at honey bees when, in fact, it is the wild bees that are in trouble. Far from being in decline, honey bees are backed by hoards of researchers and truckloads of money. Their numbers are increasing and they are not going extinct.

But while we are tunneling our vision on a well-protected species, other bees really are in trouble. According to Gwen’s piece, fifty percent of Midwestern native bee species have disappeared from their historic ranges in the last 100 years. Since every bee species is unique in its own special way, the loss is incomprehensible. But so few care.

As I see it, the biggest problem native bees face is that the word “bee” is synonymous with “honey bee.” I’ve mentioned this story before, but it bears repeating. Last fall when I was enrolled in a bee course at the University of Montana, the discussion segued into antenna cleaners. I shared a photo of a Halictus bee cleaning its antennae. I was told by one of the professors, “Send a picture of a bee doing that and I’ll give you extra credit.”

I was flummoxed by this comment until it occurred to me that, to him, if it wasn’t a honey bee it wasn’t a bee. It is exactly this thinking that has caused the hew and cry of “Save the Bees” to be misdirected. Instead of helping the bees that need help, we run around supporting an invasive, domesticated farm animal–one that doesn’t do as much pollinating as we give it credit for.

Anyway, Gwen explains it better. Read the article and don’t forget to read about the tickle bees. Some lucky kids actually get it.


My own personal tickle bee. © Rusty Burlew.

A pair of early swarms

Yesterday broke crystalline and balmy after a week of frosty nights and wet days. It could only mean one thing: swarms would be on a rampage. So I said to my dog, “Dog, we’ve got to have a look at number 4. I sense trouble.”

A swarm in western Washington

So I gathered some equipment in case I had to do a split and walked the trail, dodging skunk cabbages and salmonberries, with my dog in tow. At the hive stand, I placed the equipment on the ground behind the hive and glanced at the front. For a moment all looked normal, then suddenly the spigot was turned. Bees poured like liquid from the front of the hive. All they had for an opening was a partially-reduced entrance, but that was obviously not a problem. It was hard to believe that so many bees could come out of such a small hole in such a short time.

As the last of the bees pulsed out, the swarm rose straight up. No lefts or rights, no bearing to the north or south, they just went straight up. Right next to the hive is a steep embankment—so steep I’ve never tried to climb it. About thirty feet above the hive stand, a fir tree pokes out of the rocks and goes up forever, or so it seems. The swarm decided the tree was perfect, far enough from the mother hive but with a perfect vantage of the surrounding countryside—a great place to huddle until a decision can be reached.

Later, when I climbed up that hill the long way—via switchbacks and scrambles—I could get level with the swarm, but I needed binoculars for a good look. It’s a nicely compact bunch with a gentle hum and lots of dancers on the surface. So much for advanced planning: I have never had a swarm this early, never saw a swarm in April. But the winter was warm, the spring was early, and the bees were ready before I was.

A swarm in northern Utah

This morning, I was out checking my swarm traps (empty, of course) when I got an e-mail about another swarm. Kris in Utah wrote:

I ran into a swarm today. Literally.

I was driving home from work through one of the canyons in northern Utah when I came across a swarm of insects. This is not unusual in the spring, but I had never seen one in the canyon. These were bigger than the usual mayfly swarms that are out. The splatters left by them were also very clear. A few of them were wedged up under my wiper blades and they were definitely honey bees.

Out of curiosity, I wiped some of the clear splatter left on the windshield with my finger and tasted it (I know gross). Honey. I ran home, grabbed a deep super and returned to the scene in hopes that most of the swarm was on a tree or bush nearby. The swarm was still flying in the area, but it was so disorganized and broken up I doubted it would be worth it.

I felt bad for that swarm, but the resulting mess was consistent with information I have always read that the bees gorge themselves on honey before swarming. It was as if my windshield had been pelted by hundreds of little balloons full of honey.

Time to keep an eye out for other swarms being thrown. With warmer than usual temperatures this spring, I am not surprised to see one out this early where I live.

I always admire scientific inquiry and a creative mind, but this time Kris has me mesmerized: When in doubt, just taste the goop on your windshield! Way to go, Kris.


The windshield splats were sweet. © Kris L.

Queen piping: listen!

Want to hear what the queen has to say? James Graham sent the following two short clips of queens piping in his top-bar hive. He said his bees swarmed about a week ago, and he believes these piping queens are the potential heirs.

The first clip is short. The second is longer, with a silent portion in the middle. In either case, crank up your volume to hear them clearly.

Thanks, Jim! Very cool.

Queen piping James Graham

Queen piping 2 James Graham

Related Post:

Piping, quacking, and tooting: It’s a queen thing