I begin every bee season with a list of try-its. A try-it is something that seems like a good idea, but it’s something I haven’t actually done. It’s a term I picked up from a long-ago skating coach who used try-its on me when he couldn’t get the results he wanted with standard teaching methods.
Writing about techniques without having tried them is a bad thing, I think. So in order to have lots to write about, I need lots of experiments. This post is a summary of the season so far. I plan to expand on some of these in future posts as the experiments wrap up for the year.
This year I changed from using prepackaged swarm lures (the kind that come in little plastic vials) to Swarm Commander, a product that comes in a two-ounce spray bottle. For me, Swarm Commander was an overwhelming success, and I won’t go back to the other product. Each bait hive I sprayed quickly filled with a swarm. If I had more bee equipment, I’m sure I could have gotten more swarms, but I was totally out of space by the end of May.
Straw bale gardens
My plan here was to make pollinator gardens from straw bales because the bales are said to have many advantages. They are touted as being weed free, slug free, and water retentive, among other things. I realize I should have conditioned them longer than three weeks; still, my bales turned instantly into hairy green bricks (they are made of wheat straw, after all), I couldn’t give them enough water (for about two months all the plants—except the wheat—wilted every afternoon). Worse, the slugs seemed to love to get their bellies tickled as they slimed up between all the mushrooms that popped out of the straw.
Once they established though, the pollinator plants thrived in them and they are a nice height for taking bee portraits. Then too, I often found mason bees sunning themselves on the sides of the bales.
For now, I remain equivocal about straw bales but I plan to try again next year. Next time, I will buy them in the fall and let them condition over winter.
This year, I tried many of the pollinator plants that beekeepers recommended last fall. True to form, some worked in my local climate and some did not. Most disappointing so far has been the sea holly (Eryngium), which didn’t attract anything. Agastache, which in the past was inundated with honey bees, didn’t attract a thing either.
The sunflowers did well but I was disappointed that they only attracted bumble bees—black bumble bees on a dark brown center are hard to photograph, especially when they are all substantially overhead. I do like the way the flowers look, though, and will probably plant them again. I intend to branch out and try to find those varieties with lighter-colored centers.
Also, every source I’ve read says wool carder bees love to gather wool from lamb’s ear (Stachys). I have a wealth of both wool carders and lamb’s ear, but I can’t get the two to connect. I even placed a female on a leaf, and she just flew away in a huff. How can I get a photo of a wool carder carding wool, if she won’t cooperate? Is there something else she might like?
Those plants that brought in the most bees were the California lilac, catmint, oregano, lemon balm, cosmos, and phacelia.
I planted two different pollinator seed mixes, not in straw bales but in raised planter boxes. I always have an insurmountable weed problem, so this year I tried lining the bottom of the planters with flattened cardboard boxes. This is a technique I read about on Pinterest and the reasoning seemed sound: the cardboard suppresses weeds long enough to get your plants started, at which point the ground is shaded enough to discourage the weeds and the cardboard disintegrates.
The cardboard mulch exceeded all my expectations, and I’ve hardly pulled a weed all summer from those boxes. Suddenly I see large swaths of cardboard not as a disposal problem but as a resource.
Pollinator seed mixes
Of the two seed mixes I planted, one was free from the state of Washington called Bee-U-Tify and the second one, called Encap Honey Bee Pollinator Mix Seed Packet, was one I purchased. I have to say, I was impressed with both. The Washington mix contained 18 species and the Encap mix had 13. Only four species were found in both. I got many, many flowers from each set and they are, indeed, attractive to bees.
I’ve tried pollinator mixes before with little success. But in the book A Sting in the Tale by Dave Goulson, I read that soil that has been fertilized for crops or lawns is not wildflower friendly because the grasses use the residual fertilizer and can easily out-compete the wildflowers. The wildflowers can out-complete the grasses if fertility is low, but it can take years to deplete the added amendments. By suppressing the grasses with the cardboard mulch, I had much better results with the pollinator mixes.
Before bee season I purchased multiple packages of paper drinking straws of various diameters to line mason bees tubes. By using straws inside of straws I was able to vary the dimensions of the holes and still have liners. This is an experiment that won’t be proven until next spring, but the bees certainly liked them. They filled about three times as many tubes as they have in the past. I realize there may be multiple reasons for the increase, but it’s clear the bees had no objections to the multicolor paper straws.
I’ve transferred the full spring straws to the coolest part of my garden shed where they will overwinter out of the rain. Some of the straws are still being filled, primarily by summer leafcutting bees.
I tried three new comb honey supers this year. Two of these were supers I planned for last year but I didn’t get a chance to use them due to a pesticide kill that weakened many of my colonies. But this year, I stacked them up with various degrees of success.
Last year Nick Nickelson of Kent, Washington designed a comb honey super for me. I wanted to make square combs using a standard honey super rather than odd-sized equipment. Nick, an exacting woodworker, went to great effort to make a prototype design and gave me three supers to test. I will detail the design in a future post, but of the three new comb honey supers, this worked the best. It produced nice squares of honeycomb, four squares to a standard shallow frame, and ten frames to a box. Very cool.
I also tried a 26-frame cedar comb super from Eco Bee Box of Utah. In two weeks, this shallow box filled with more comb honey than I have ever seen in one place. In fact, I needed help to move it since I couldn’t begin to lift it. The design of this box is awesome to see with the frames set at right angles to the brood frames beneath. The problem was that the whole thing was cemented together with burr comb. All 26 frames and the space between were connected into one large jigsaw puzzle of honeycomb and every last cell was filled honey. It’s safe to say the bees love this design, but what a mess. It was a delicious mess, but this super needs some serious tinkering. More later.
The third try-it was the glass jar honey super I built last year. As it turns out, the bees built comb in the jars. Yay! But they didn’t fill the cells. Also, the jars developed a film on the inside—probably a combination of dirty feet, wax, and propolis that isn’t all that attractive. I think the super may have been too hot, among other things, and I don’t see how to ventilate the jars since they are . . . well . . . jars. I may or may not try this one again.
Honey bee waterer
The marble-filled flower pot saucer was a success and was visited by bees all summer. It was also popular with wasps, dragonflies, flies, and things I don’t have names for. I don’t actually need a waterer here, but it was fun to watch. The down side was that it needed to be filled all the time, partly due to the super-dry and hot summer we had.
In the past, I’ve always used yellowjacket pheromone lures by Rescue, but everyone keeps telling me it’s better (i.e. cheaper) to make my own. So this year I tried recipe after recipe containing secret ingredients such as smoked turkey, fresh chicken, tuna fish, vinegar, cat food, root beer, and bananas. I tried traps in the trees, hanging from vines, sitting on the ground. I tried traps made out of jars and bottles and boxes. For all my effort, I caught not one of the rapacious little bee-eaters. Meanwhile, my Rescue traps are full. No, please do not send me your secret recipe—I’m done collecting rotting meat from the shrubbery.
I was given the opportunity to test some new feeders from Bee Smart Designs. The feeders come in two types, a in-hive feeder and an external hive-top model that is used with a special hive cover that supports the feeder. I’ve never used an external hive-top feeder and I was convinced I wouldn’t like it . . . but I love it. The cover itself is white and so light that I ended up using them all summer, even after I was done with the feeders. The feeders are easy to attach, secured tightly, easy to fill, and easy to change. I will say more about these feeders in a future post.
Raising bees in a swarm trap
This was not a planned experiment, but as soon as I discovered an established colony in one of my flower-pot shaped swarm traps last summer, everyone everywhere warned me to cut it out immediately. Well, that did it. I decided to leave it in place to see what happened. Never in my life have I seen a colony overwinter so easily, and they were raring to go come spring. There’s more to the story, but that is for another day.
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