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.
Note: This post contains affiliate links.
My try-it of this year was Walt Wright’s chequerboarding as very ably articulated by the marvellous Rusty:- https://www.honeybeesuite.com/checkerboarding-the-x-files-of-beekeeping/
Worked like a dream! It’s far easier to implement than it sounds when written down too.
Well, thank you! I’m glad to hear I inspired a try-it and it worked.
Can you explain the cardboard in the planters in a little more depth? Do you have problems with weeds in your planters? I have huge weed problems in my flower beds. Perhaps putting down cardboard and topping with mulch would solve my problem? Love your blog! It’s the only one I care to read! 🙂
My planters just have four sides, no bottom. So I lay the cardboard on top of the weeds (really!), put the planter on top, and then fill the planter boxes with soil. It works great. See Monica’s comments above for using cardboard in the garden. I never have, but it sounds like she has a system.
Thanks so much Rusty and Monica! I’m going to start hoarding cardboard and give this a shot! 🙂
I do use whole boxes flattened out to smother weeds. I carefully overlap the edges and then I may or may not mulch over the top. But it works better and faster to thick mulch it. When I say thick mulch, I mean at least three inches of mulch, compost, goat stuff or just bedding dirt. For a raised bed I put several layers of cardboard. It’s going to break down, no worries.
I have had success at smothering out crab grass and running fescue with this plan.
I have my grandpa’s old camper special truck. All fall and winter I prep and stuff the camper full of cardboard, paper grain feed bags, old phone books. By June I have enough for half my vege garden, 110×250 square ft.
I love experimenting with gardening and bees! I especially love that you’ve done a lot of the work for me here. Thanks so much for sharing your results!
I bought a pet waterer to keep my bees supplied with water. It’s the kind that gradually allows water to fill the basin – large bottle of water screws into the top. I added a well rinsed piece of coral to the dish part. The coral seems to soak up the water like a sponge and isn’t at all slippery with lots of landing places for the bees. Works like a champ and I don’t have to remember to fill it often.
I like the coral idea. Very creative.
Sunflower seeds – Territorial Seed Company, Cottage Grove OR. Love this company and the people that own and work there. Non GMO and organic. Even the seeds that are not labeled as organic, have been organically grown.
Huge selection. I grow many different varieties.
Love the Eco Bee Box – yes some burr comb. I put a sheet of wax foundation down the middle bar. So I don’t have those cute little wedge combs you have in your pic. The nuc with the little frames – just used it this weekend for a cut out. Love it!
Another super benefit of cardboard – when it’s buried – worms love it. You reap the benefit of the worm castings. A lot of natural fertilizers have plant nutrients in them that aren’t active until it has gone thru the intestinal track of a worm. Have you priced a bag of worm castings lately? I paid $15 for a 5 pound bag for a plant I am trying out for the girls next year. So free is great.
The other messy thing that can be done with cardboard is to put it thru the limb chipper. It makes a fabulous mulch for the blueberries and muddy corn pathways. Suppresses weeds when put 3 inches deep under the squash vines – plus keeps the squash from touching the ground.
I put it everywhere now. It really cuts down the amount of watering I have to do. And if I run out of cardboard, I start putting straw thru the shredder ; })
Note for thought – don’t put wet cardboard thru the limb chipper. It does not work and makes a real mess!
I love the idea of putting foundation down the middle of the Eco Bee Box. I actually wondered if that were possible, and sort of doubted it. But if you say it works, it will be a try-it for next year.
I’ll leave the try-its for you experienced folk. I’m still trying to learn the suppose-tos.
Cute. I could write a post called, “Suppose-tos: what works and what doesn’t”!
Thank you for sharing all these try-its with us. And you have a way with keeping us hooked: can’t wait to read about the last try-its in the list.
I am a total fan of your site and generosity, so I hope you don’t mind me sharing a feeling I get when I follow some your links to products you mention: I wish they weren’t to Amazon pages.
Thank you for sharing!
I understand your feeling, but Amazon sales bring in a little money that helps me maintain the site and keep it going. It’s not much, but every dollar helps. For years I tried to go without any advertising, but the site is just too expensive to operate without some income. I try to keep it low key with no pop-ups, no big display ads, and no moving parts. If it weren’t for the donors, there would be many more ads.
Hi Rusty, I so love your posts, I learn so much as a pollinator plant gardener, first year beekeeper, and native bee-watcher (even though I’m in the other corner, NE, Maine). I look forward to hearing more about the feeder you like.
I bought Swarm Commander lures but did not exactly follow through yet, next year. One question: have you had luck luring swarms to ground level baited hives? Or are yours all in trees?
Thank you for all you do to share and educate,
I caught five swarms this year, all in ground-level hives.
What a great idea for a blog post and a philosophy for learning. I am eager to hear the follow up details for several of these ideas.
You are always an inspiration; all of my decisions made in the bee yard are heavily weighted with your ideas in mind. My crocus came up and bloomed but too early for any of the bee pollinators around here. I will observe them again next year. I have planted buckwheat and Lemon Queen sunflowers, however I planted them late to bloom during the dearth or since the goldenrod have bloomed early to coincide with the fall nectar flow. My try-it this year is to feed lots of sugar water, starting now, to all but the strongest hives hoping to bring the brood level up as much as possible before winter. I am a member of the Coweta Beekeepers Association and they offer wonderful support and training, but I must say, I do not believe that I would still be a beekeeper without your guidance.
Thank you, David.
I have a sad story that I am looking for input about. My friend and I are first year beekeepers in southern Oregon and we have been very proud of how our girls are doing. We pulled the supers off of our hives about 2 weeks ago and then did a mite test. One of our hives had quite a few mites while the other only had 1. Per our local beekeepers association we decided to treat with Apivar. We followed the directions on the package exactly with 2 strips per brood chamber 2 frames apart and then to our dismay . . . 24 hours later 100’s of dead bees started piling up outside the hives. It is terrible! The girls act poisoned. They are staggering around and dying everywhere.
We keep cleaning up the bodies to try and keep robbers away but it seems we are down to about 50% or less of our girls. We decided we must remove the strips although many people thought we shouldn’t. We just felt we had to do something and they were thriving before we put the strips in. I have been reading for the 2 days since this started happening and the only thing I can find is a reference to synergy between chemicals whereby the Apivar somehow turns a chemical the bees have brought into the hive which is not at a toxic level into a toxic level when it interacts with the Apivar. Has anyone ever heard of this or had this happen? Should we check to see if the hives are queen right in a couple of days if things settle down? Any and all suggestions appreciated.
That is really sad. I don’t have any experience with Apivar, but I’ve never heard about an adverse reaction to it. Indeed, many synergistic reactions occur between chemicals, but it seems unusual to have a chemical load in your hive high enough to cause such a quick and devastating result. I would definitely check the health of your queens while there is still time to replace them if necessary.
With the honey super. Remeber Mr Langstroth and the “bee gap”. I have made and use some odd size frames and boxes, but never stray from the 3/8th of an inch bee gap. And rarely have problems like your picture.
Great picture by the way. But what a job it must have been to sort out.
You got that right: it took me nearly an hour to get the first frame out, and afterward wasn’t much better.
Rusty, I tried the marbles in salty water in a cat dish, and as far as I can tell my bees didn’t get a chance to try it. I went out the next morning to add water if necessary, and found that the friendly neighborhood raccoon pack (I’m in downtown Salt Lake City) had not only performed their usual shenanigans of pulling the rocks out of the bee waterer (standard cat waterer), but had also flung the marbles all over the entire yard. I am still running across little glass balls in odd places at least a month after I put the cat dish on the porch.
That’s a funny story . . . sorry about the marbles all over the yard. I have a zillion raccoons here (I sometimes see then grouped around the sliding glass door, looking in) but they’ve never bothered the salt water bowl. Of course, now I will worry about that.
I think you may be creating the straw bale beds a bit less efficient than we build them. Including the article I wrote on our farm website which includes pictures. Uses cardboard and specific instructions. We were totally awed by the success of these beds.
Rusty, Are Nick’s comb honey frames similar to these ?http://www.beebehavior.com/romanov_comb_sections.php
I am the only one in our (small) bee club that produces any comb honey. I use foundation-less medium frames and cut the comb. This year I would like to produce comb honey in the square wooden boxes.
Keep up the good work. Your web-site is my favorite.
Yes, exactly. Somewhere in one of my posts I explained that we got the idea from Romanov. We even called them Romanov frames, and I’ve been in touch with Boris about them. We did a few things differently, but they are substantially the same.
Thank you for recommending Swarm Commander. I ordered a bottle last fall and meant to set traps all over town this spring. Medical issues of a family member took me away from home much of the spring, but I had a couple small boxes baited with SC on my porch. March 25th I came home from lunch to a swarm in a tree in my yard. April 13 there were three swarms in the yard. One flew into a baited box without my help. the other two I put in small hives. May 10th I found a 5th swarm clustered on the outside of a baited hive. I put it in a larger box. I can’t tell whether the swarms came from the bee tree in my yard or one of the two hives I have here, or if they are coming from other places, but it seems unlikely three colonies would produce 5 swarms in so short a time, so the Swarm Commander is probably luring other bees here. Thanks again.
I’m glad it worked for you. I got five swarms with it last year and one so far this year.
I spoke (posted) too soon. I got another swarm today in a box baited with Swarm Commander on my front porch. That makes 6 swarms this year on a residential lot in the town of Grants Pass, Oregon.
You said you were going to try the Valkyrie Hive this year, not sure exactly when. Did you have a chance to overwinter it? Their design looks so awesome, but the shipping cost is expensive to Michigan.
I did not get to the Valkyrie this year. Sorry that I have nothing to report.
I bought a long Langstroth hive from Michigan this year. Hopefully I will have something positive to report after their first winter.
Love the theme of this article. After deciding to plant a bee meadow around my hives, in what had been lawn for many years, what I didn’t want to do was follow the frequently prescribed method of killing off the lawn with Roundup, followed by sowing seed, and then labor-intensive weeding for 2-3 years until the meadow was established. It occurred to me that the turf was a great weed-suppressing groundcover already, so why not plant perennials directly into the grass and let them battle it out. Researching this idea, I came across an article about an estate gardener in the UK who had done that very thing, and it was a tremendous success. That was all I needed to hear. Bulbs went in in the fall, perennials the following spring. Some plants are natives, some are not, some provide pollen, and others are there because they’re lovely and tough and carefree. No pesticides, no fertilizer, no irrigation, and the meadow is a delight from spring through fall. I love Dave Goulson’s book, but my experience has been that the turf can work as a planting medium as long as the plants you choose are assertive and shoot up above the grass to establish a foothold. (Or, root-hold) I’ll email you some photos.