Wildlife Wednesday: July 2015

Before I begin: please don’t forget to check out Tina’s My Gardener Says, the source blog for the Wildlife Wednesday meme. Wildlife Wednesday is now one year old. Happy Anniversary!

The month of June delivered a wonderful surprise. Someone finally moved into the squirrel box we hung up about 18 months ago. Though I’ve seen various potential tenants check it out I never saw anyone actually move in. Until now …

At a glance and from a distance I thought it was mold …

bee box

When the mold seemed to move I had to take a closer look. That was no mold; those are feral honey bees! I am now officially a bee have-er!

feral bees 3

There is an Old English rhyme about this kind of thing: “A swarm in June is worth a silver spoon.” For me, bees are so much more: priceless, really.

These honey bees likely broke off from a nearby hive. Isn’t the swarming process a beautiful thing? When it is time to split a hive and the bees swarm out of their old home, scouts look all over for The Best Place. The Best Place can’t be too far away because the queen really has a hard time flying. The Best Place has to be relatively safe from predators. It will need to be dark, dry and have enough room to build comb. Scouts search and search. The situation is urgent. If the scouts can’t find a site within three days the defenceless hive will probably die: if not from predation than from hunger. If a scout finds a nice looking place she flies back as quickly as possible to share her discovery with the group. The group listens to and considers all the information the scouts bring back. When 80% or more of the bees agree about where they ought to go the swarm will fly off as one to begin their new life.

I feel honoured they chose to live near us. I realize though that the squirrel box is far from perfect. That big hole in the centre will be difficult to defend against predators and I know bee predators do visit here: raccoons, skunks, opossums, robber flies, lizards, birds, moths, beetles ….

It scares me to see them guarding that huge opening with their bodies. How brave. In most of the pictures I have taken the bees seem to face outward. I imagine they are using their wings to try to fan and cool that huge opening. And like secret service agents they are looking outward for potential threats instead of allowing themselves to be mesmerized by the main event going on inside.

In the picture above you can kind of see how the bees are using the thin ventilation space at the top of the box as an entrance. Normally, entrances are placed at the bottom of a hive. The constant traffic of bees passing through helps dry up the inevitable condensation that forms and falls from living things. So I worry about foulbrood developing. Mostly, I worry that the box is much too small.

The plus sides? The box is a good ten feet up in an oak tree behind a very tall evergreen hedge. No human is going to accidentally bump into them or even see them. The entrance faces east rather than south which may help the bees stay cool as the summer begins to heat up.

Here’s a crummy shot but it is the best I have showing some of the hexagons they are constructing. If you imagine the circle as a clock look toward the four o’clock position. Clicking on the image will make them even easier to see.

honey combHere’s another shot I am not pleased with except that it shows a lot of what I think might be wax or capped comb at the nine o’clock position. Is it possible for the bees to patch up/close off the big opening with propolis? Maybe that would require too many resources.

feral bees 2

I am absolutely thrilled about sharing our space with these beautiful bees. But, I wonder about how I can be a responsible have-er of bees.

I love the idea of feral bees. There is a lot to be said for freedom these days. Yes, it is more dangerous for them but … freedom. Does freedom really need justification? If so, I will say that feral bees provide an opportunity for genetic diversity. Maybe feral bee colonies will develop immunities or other characteristics that can help the species as a whole to survive in these bad times.

Yet. There are other considerations such as by-laws against unmanaged hives. Maybe our neighbours will fear them. And the word feral means these animals came from a domesticated source. Domestication implies that they may need human assistance to keep them safe. It might be a cruelty to fail to provide assistance.

So dear reader, what do you think I ought to do?

 

And here’s a shout out to Austin Bee Helpers, one of the most beautifully written blogs I have had the pleasure of reading. The author is Jack Bresette-Mills, a man so gentle he doesn’t even need to wear much gear when he handles his bees. He has a book coming out soon called Sensitive Beekeeping to be published by Steiner Books. I look forward to reading it.

one of OUR bees
Not just any anonymous bee. This is one of my neighbours checking out the Russian Sage!!!!!!!
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50 thoughts on “Wildlife Wednesday: July 2015

  1. I am just getting around to reading all the blogs I subscribe to because my work takes so much energy in July. This is fascinating, Debra. In the pictures, it looks as if the bees are gouging out wood around the big whole. Is this true and for what purpose would they do that? Also, just have to say I’m curious, was the box really built for a squirrel and what happened to that creature when the honey bees moved in?

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    1. Hi Cynthia! We put the squirrel box up in the oak tree almost two years ago intending it to be a place where squirrels could raise their young in the winter. None ever moved in though we did have one female who visited and seemed interested for a short period of time. She is responsible for the bite marks around the entrance circumference. Squirrels are one of the rodents and their incisors never stop growing so they need to chew things. She decided against moving in though and the box remained empty until this spring when the bees moved in. I think we didn’t get bees earlier because I have heard they do not like the smell of cedar. The box had to weather to remove that smell. I am still not sure why the squirrels avoided it.

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  2. A little late to the conversation, but I don’t think there is a way they could maintain a healthy hive (they need to have a certain number of bees to perform the tasks that bees do) in the size of that box, so my guess is they will likely leave. I’m no expert, but I would either try to move them to a (larger) box, or set a box up nearby to create a desirable location for when they swarm, in hopes they choose there. You could always try baiting the new box with pheromones (you can get at bee keeping stores) to encourage them to pick your location.

    They do have the ability to close up holes with propolis.

    Regardless of what you do, how great that you have created an environment where bees feel safe moving in!

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    1. Thanks, Melissa. It is an honour to have them stay here. The size of the box is my primary concern. Bees know what they are doing but I agree: they just might not have a big enough colony to survive through the winter. My plan for now is to keep watching them. If they do create a new swarm I’ll either provide a proper hive space for them or find someone who can. If they don’t swarm they don’t have to go it alone. I can give them water and food and that might be enough to make a difference. They have another thing going for them — bees do really well in Austin. We have pretty mild winters and lots of wild bee flowers which in some years last the whole year. I know of one feral colony in Austin that lasted 15 years without any assistance at all. Right in my neighbourhood another colony lived for 40 years before the owner of the house asked for help from the bee rescue people.

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      1. That’s great they do so well! Swarms don’t manage that well in my area, it gets to hot/dry and then too cold/wet, so its hard to get established. But bees do know themselves the best, so if they landed there, obviously there is a desirable feature! I’m always concerned about the chance someone doesn’t know what a swarm is and think they are yellow jackets and goes and sprays them :( Best of luck, I’ll be looking forward to hearing how things are going!

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  3. Very exciting! I know little about bees so if it were me I would be reluctant to try to change their situation … also I would assume they know instinctively what is a good home.

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  4. Debra that is an amazing sight….and you have to do what feels best…if you want honey, then a proper hive…if you want them to just bee (couldn’t resist the pun) then leave them alone.

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    1. Thanks, Donna. I wouldn’t do it for the honey — though after I tasted Tina’s I admit to feeling tempted haha. What feels right is to leave them and trust that they can take care of themselves.

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  5. Wow – what a fun surprise! I’m no bee-keeper, though I’ve pondered the idea, then concluded, on multiple occasions, that I just don’t have the kind of time needed to be a good bee keeper. So, while I’m no expert, I might vote for letting them “bee” if you are a busy bee yourself. Otherwise, I hear it is a fun a rewarding hobby and beneficial for you, your family/friends who may get a sweet taste of their nectar, your garden, and for the environment.

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    1. I am delighted. My husband might say obsessed. Every day I go out to bee watch. I am mostly interested in what is best for them. A textbook dilemma though — none of the solutions feel perfect and I can see that I am caught between the two values of freedom vs responsibility.

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  6. Great to have bees moving in. I would leave them be. (No pun intended.) How clever of the bees to choose a home in your garden, where they will be lovingly watched over.

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  7. wow how wonderful Debra, thank you for sharing and the large photos, the hexagons are just perfect, I know nothing about bee keeping so cannot help but reading the comments I see you have lots of good advice offered, I loved the story about how the girl scouts find the new home and the democratic way a decision is reach, Frances

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  8. Since bees in Arkansas nest in hollow trees all the time and bother no one, I say leave them alone. My husband has been a bee keeper for years, he has captured and transferred swarms into hives. We enjoy the honey from our hives every year. Bees are good pollinators. You would be amazed how well they do without human intervention.

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    1. Mmm I bet your honey is delicious. Most of the things I’ve read online say that their survival is unlikely. But I have to wonder about that. Thanks for noting that unlikely doesn’t necessarily mean impossible. My inclination is to leave them and then next spring (if they do survive and swarm again) encourage them into a proper hive.

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        1. If they were wild and native there would be no dilemma for me. I’d just leave them. I kind of wonder how much expertise is needed though. People have been doing this kind of thing forever and there is a whole lot of info available. Maybe I’m wrong but it kind of seems like I’ve got a year to figure out how to bait them to move into a hive. Isn’t it kind of an ideal way to begin with bees that want to live with you?

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          1. Leave them for the year. But, if the queen is not found and put in the new hive first (and that is not easy), the worker bees will not stay in that new hive. Not trying to tell you what to do, just trying to help. As a person that has been around a beekeeper for decades, you need an experienced bee keeper to help you – they truly know what they are doing. It does not matter the type of bee or whether they are native to that area. Bees are bees and some are much meaner than others. Be sure before you try to handle bees that you are not allergic to their sting.

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  9. Wonderful pics … I bet they thought that they had found a good home. Probably would be a difficult one to defend though. Contacting an apiarist or a bee club would certainly be a good idea.

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  10. This is wonderful! It is so good that you now have your own hive. It is fascinating to read about the scouting and relocation process. Such great pictures, too :-)

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  11. What an interesting discovery. I didn’t vote. Instead commented to seek advice from an expert.

    Could the markings around the hole be from squirrels? Maybe they chewed on the rim in past months.

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    1. Those worn edges are from squirrels. One pregnant squirrel was interested in the nest last year but she didn’t end up staying.

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  12. How wonderful that you have bees. I would love a hive but my dog is scared of them. I think he was stung when younger. Is there a local wildlife officer in the town that you could ask advice. We have them in the town councils’ to help with issues like this.
    Thank you for visiting my blog xxxxx

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    1. Oh, your poor dog! One of my neighbours is a an official bee rescuer so I have a handy resource nearby if things go sour.

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  13. How very nice for this to happen to you, it will be fascinating to watch their activities. It is lovely when creatures come and live in your garden. Your photos I much enjoyed too. A lovely write up.

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    1. Thank you. It has already been a delight to watch them. A visit from any kind of wildlife is always wonderful — doubly so if it is something new.

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  14. Well, well, well. Jars of honey in your future?? Congratulations!! That’s exactly how I became interested in beekeeping–a little group moved into my just-abandoned owl brood house and the rest is sticky history.

    So what to do? I will tell you that many people I’ve known who’ve had bees move in this way, say goodbye when the hive decides to vamoose–for whatever reason. That’s not a for-sure thing, but it’s very common. I like the idea of swarming–letting them choose where to live and be bees. It’s a fascinating procedure,

    I’ve kept my hives from swarming primarily because I want to have some control over the genetics (because of varroa mites and Africanized bees). If I could send them to your house, well, that would be different, of course. I’m always concerned with the bozos and their cans of Raid….

    One thing you might do for that big hole is to close it up a bit, maybe with a thin piece of plywood, VERY quickly nailed or stapled to the box. Do this at night or early in the morning, before the girls are up and have had their coffee. You don’t want to mess with them at other times of the day. They’re probably fine as is, but you’re right that the hole is a big one for them to defend.

    Thanks so much for participating in Wildlife Wednesday–this and all the months before. It’s been a treat!!

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    1. I had to mull a bit before I decided how I wanted to vote, but I think finding a beekeeper to move the bees might be best for their overall survival. Capturing a swarm is not something you do “on the fly” and if you contact someone, he/she can move the bees to a spot where they can grow the hive, which won’t be possible where they are. I have a friend, actually, one of my ceramics teachers, and she’s had a hive move into a ceramic pot every spring–and then they’re gone. This past year, a swarm moved in and stayed the winter, but I recall, they’ve since moved. Again, my concern is always about someone calling an exterminator, rather than a beekeeper, to deal with swarms.

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      1. It is a bit like a nuc. There are beekeepers and bee rescue operations in the neighbourhood so finding someone who cares wouldn’t be a problem. Really, if I had seen the swarm before they settled in it would all be easy-peasy. I know the value of a healthy queen and I know people are more than happy to help out. I have heard that feral populations don’t stick around for long. The size of that box is going to limit their population size. And Africanized bees are twitchy. These ones don’t seem to be aggressive at all so I am not worried about that, luckily. Right now I am mostly thinking that I am going to leave them as they are but monitor them closely. If they survive they will swarm and at that point I will make a call-out for a bee rescue.

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    2. I would patch that hole in a second if I could easily reach it. I am thinking that any attempt would probably end in disaster. It is really inaccessible what with the height and now the hedge has grown so tall. It was hellish enough to hang. But not impossible. I’ll see if I can think of a way.

      Thanks, Tina. I have really enjoyed WIldlife Wednesday. I hope you will keep it going!

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    1. Thank you, Dan. I have since learned that bees in cities and suburban areas are doing ok. Which leads to think that agricultural pesticides really are the prime problem behind their decline.

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  15. Quite an interesting post! My parents over the years had two swarms take over 1) a birdhouse in their backyard and 2) a garden tool box on their patio! Best thing to do is check with local beekeepers. They’ll usually be happy to check things out and/or transfer them to a better location. I’ve heard they’ll chase away hummers, but don’t know if that’s really true.

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    1. Thanks! The hummers are definitely safe from these bees. I never see any around here since it is so shady. hahaha (cries inwardly)

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  16. I forgot! Your choice about what to do with your bees. Is it too nerdy to simply say “The Prime Directive” and leave it there? Or are you going to get all Kirk up in this? : )

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    1. Heh. I really don’t see myself sitting in that captain’s chair. Yeah. My inclination is to honour the prime directive.

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  17. This is wonderful on every level. What a vote of confidence in your spaces the bees have given. And judging by the information you’ve accumulated and shared, they were smart to adopt you as their bee have-er.

    Have you read “The Bees” by Laline Paull? It is a work of fiction, and the protagonist, indeed most of the characters, are honey bees.

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    1. I have not read that book and happily am on my way to the library this week. Thank you so much for the recommendation and encouragement.

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