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Beekeeping 101

If you’ve been keeping up with the news, you know that the past decade hasn’t been good for honey bees. In fact, their populations have hit all-time lows. But the bee colonies in many American backyards are on the rise! Urban beekeeping is the fastest growing segment of the industry; flourishing as consumers realize the health benefits of locally sourced honey.

Beekeeping is a topic that can be covered in an entire book, but here are the basics on how to get started.

Make conservation your priority and honey the sweet reward. One third of every bite you eat was produced with the help of honey bees. It takes 1.6 million colonies to pollinate a California almond crop.* Commercial farmers actually lease honey bees to pollinate their fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, there are no longer enough honey bees to meet the demand. As an urban beekeeper you can help bolster low populations.

Honey bee getting nectar from a flower.

Your first step toward keeping honey bees is research. Find out city ordinances about hives and discuss your plan with your neighbors. You may have to educate them about the difference between the docile honey bee and the aggressive yellow jacket. Beekeeping is not for people with bee allergies, but the rest of us can cohabitate very peaceably. Honey bees will only sting when pressed against or when you are working in the hive.

The best resources are people who are already keeping honey bees, they are like living books. And the best place to connect with these people is at a bee club. I met my mentor, or bee-tsar as I call him, at the Central Arkansas Beekeepers Association. Over the years he’s provided a priceless amount of information and support.

Once you’ve done all the leg work you need to decide how many hives you want and where to place them. Two hives is a good number to start with because it’s not overwhelming and a faltering hive is easier to detect when you have something to compare it to. Plus you can use the frames and brood from a strong hive to save a weak hive.

You don’t need a lot of space to keep bees, but the area where you place your hives should be warm and dry. Bees love the sun and they love it warm so find a sunny spot. I like to face my hives toward the south because this is what they tend to do in the wild. Moisture is a real problem for bees, you want to keep the hive dry. Don’t place the hive at the bottom of a hill where moist air might collect.

Honey bee hive

Even if your neighbors are excited about your honey bees don’t place the hive right up next to the property line. A trick I learned from my bee-tsar is to place hives in front of a fence or hedge. When faced with a barrier bees will fly straight up, which will put them above head height should they decided to stray into your neighbor’s yard.

Your local bee club is a gold mine when it comes to bee type selection. Not only will members know which bees thrive best in your area, but you will be able to find a local source as well. Get your bees locally if you can because they are best adapted to your climate, seasons and plants. If they have been living generation after generation in your area they are primed to survive in that environment. If you can’t get them locally there are companies that will supply bees and queens.

I raise Italian bees, which are excellent for long summer climates but if you live in an area with short summers you need bees that don’t require a lot of food, won’t grow too fast and overwinter well such as carniolans.

Whether local or mail order you need to purchase your bees in winter for spring delivery. Honey bee producers run out quickly. Starter colonies come as packages (queen and bees), nucs (queen, bees and frames loaded with brood, honey and pollen) and swarms (queen and bees collected from the wild).

In addition to the bees you’ll need some equipment. Hives consist of a top cover and inner cover, supers, a hive body, frame and foundation and a stand. You’ll also need a smoker, hive tool, helmet and veil and gloves.

Beekeeping is not hard to start nor is it a huge time commitment, but you will never stop learning. I think that is a characteristic that makes it so appealing.

Honey bee getting nectar from a flower.

Good to Know:


Honey bees offer so much in the way of “essential services” to the garden but they’re worthless when it comes to your tomato crop. There’s no nectar in tomato blossoms and the pollen is hard to reach, so honeybees don’t bother. Bumblebees on the other hand do a neat trick called “buzz pollination.” They grab the tomato flower and vibrate their wings at such a high frequency that the pollen shakes loose. In fact, bumblebees are used in commercial greenhouses to pollinate cherry tomatoes.

Rhonda Fleming Hayes (@thegardenbuzz) author of the forth coming book Pollinator Friendly Gardening: Gardening for Bees, Butterflies and Other Pollinators. To learn more about pollinating insects join Rhonda every Tuesday at 8:00 p.m. CST for #pollin8rchat on Twitter.

*Almond Board of California

Teacup Birdfeeder

Teacup BirdfeederThese teacup bird feeders are an excellent way to recycle old cups and saucers.  And they are both whimsical ornaments for the garden and work great as feeders.

 

Materials:
Teacup and saucer
Drill
1/8 inch ceramic tile bit
1/4 inch masonry bit
36 inch long 1/4 inch threaded metal rod
30 inch long copper tubing 1/2 inch wide
2 stainless steel nuts with 1/4 inch wide hole
2 stainless steel washers with 1/4 inch wide hole
Safety Glasses
Gloves
Marker
Birdseed

Drilling HoleDirections:
First collect your cups and saucers. A good place to look is a resale shop or junk store.

Next prepare your cup and saucer. Mark the center of each and carefully drill a hole through them one at a time. To reduce breakage and frustration, first make a starter hole with the 1/8 inch ceramic tile bit and then widen it with a 1/4 inch masonry bit.

Saucer and CupNow take the 36 inch long, 1/4 inch wide threaded metal rod and screw a nut about 1/2 inch from the top, place a washer on top of the metal nut and then the saucer and cup on top of the washer.

At this point you will have the tea cup and saucer balanced on the metal nut and washer with about 1/2 an inch or less of the threaded rod rising up through the middle of the tea cup.

Adding Copper TubingTake your second washer and slip it over the threaded rod so that it sits flat inside the teacup. Next add a metal nut on top of the washer and screw it down tightly so that the teacup and saucer are secure.

Select the area in your garden where you would like to place the feeder, push the copper tubing into the ground about 2 or 3 inches and then insert the threaded metal rod down into the ground through the copper tubing to give the feeder a finished look.

Suet Cakes for Birds

With the increased popularity in feeding birds, specialty shops have popped up to meet the demand. These stores are basically delicatessens for birds. You can’t imagine all the different foods.

For instance, there is one blend called Birdola. It’s something like a form of granola. And there are several different types of suet cakes. These are basically bird foods mixed with beef fat and other things such as almonds. One variety is actually packed with insects and another is made with papaya and orange.

Now the reason for all the mixtures is that each one offers food appealing to different kinds of birds. But I have an easy to make general recipe you can try at home and it starts with a trip to the grocery store.

To make the suet cakes follow this simple recipe:

Ingredients:
1 pound beef fat
1 cup peanut butter
1 cup rolled oats
1 cup corn meal
1 cup birdseed

Directions:
The key ingredient or "glue" that binds these suet cakes together is the meat fat trimmed and discarded by the butcher. Most butchers will be happy to give this to you and some will even grind it up, which makes it easier to use. Other ingredients you’ll need to pick up – corn meal, oats and some peanut butter. I like to use the extra crunchy kind and you’ll also need a small bag of birdseed of your choice.

To prepare this recipe melt one pound of beef fat over a low heat until it is in liquid form. Remove the saucepan from the stove then mix in one cup of peanut butter, one cup of rolled oats, one cup of corn meal and a cup of your favorite birdseed. Then pour the mixture into a form, any disposable container will do, and let it cool and solidify.

Once cooled fit the suet cake in a wire cage or net bag and hang it in a tree branch you can see from a window. In a few days, you should be able to see some fine feathered friends enjoying this home cooked meal.

pine cone bird feeder

Pine Cone Bird Feeder

Making a pine cone bird feeder is really simple and it’s a project that children can enjoy participating in as well.

Materials for Pine Cone Bird Feeder

  • pine cones
  • creamy peanut butter
  • yarn, ribbon or wire
  • paper plates
  • scissors
  • butter knife
  • bird seed

How to Make a Pine Cone Bird Feeder

Cut a length of yarn or ribbon to hang the ornament.

Wrap the wire or ribbon around the pine cone near the bottom so that it catches under the “petals.”

If you are using ribbon simply tie it into a knot to create a loop. With wire you can make a hook shape similar to what you see on a Christmas tree ornament. I like to use wire because it gives me a sturdy handle to hold onto while I add the peanut butter and seeds.

Next, scoop some peanut butter onto a paper plate and pour some birdseed onto a separate plate. I use a light colored seed such as safflower because the ornament will show up better on the tree. Safflower seed will attract cardinals and chickadees. But you can use standard birdseed or a mix to attract other visitors to your garden.

Now using the butter knife pack the peanut butter between the crevices of the pine cone and then sprinkle it with seed.

I find it easier to do all the peanut butter work first, wash my hands and then follow up with adding the seeds.

Once you’ve made the cones it is time to hang them on a tree. And I always like to hang them near an existing feeder. The birds just seem to be a little more comfortable in going to their new food source. And you can also place them close to a window of the house so children can enjoy watching the birds feed.

This is a good way to spruce up your garden for the holidays and help the birds. It’s also a great way for kids to learn a few lessons about nature.

How to Feed the Birds this Fall

Bird FeedingThe other day I was making an inventory of items in my tool shed and it looks like it’s time to stock up on birdseed. It is important to take care of our feathered friends through the winter when food sources become scarce.

I like to set aside one afternoon to take down all of the feeders and really wash them well. I use a cleaning solution of one part vinegar to four parts water. If getting a brush inside the feeder is difficult, I use a handful of rice to serve as an abrasive to clean the interior.

Tube feeders can be a challenge because there are so many parts to them, so I just remove whatever I can and then I use a solution of bleach and water to soak all the parts. And if you find soaking alone does not do the trick, you may have to use a little elbow grease and maybe even a toothbrush to get down into some of the tighter spots. For wooden feeders, I avoid using bleach and instead use a mild dish washing detergent and a stiff bristle brush to clean them up.

With all types of feeders it is important to rinse them thoroughly and let them dry completely before refilling them.

To attract my favorite birds I found that it helps to learn what type of seed they prefer.

For instance, your basic bag of mixed seeds includes millet, cracked corn, small sunflower seeds and milo. Now this will get the attention of jays and doves. But if you’d like to see chickadees and cardinals at your feeder, try putting out black oiled sunflower seeds. If you want to attract finches, nuthatches and siskins offer thistle seed. Now, don’t worry about thistles coming up everywhere, the seeds are generally sterilized. And here’s another idea, suet cakes. It’s a high-energy food made of animal fat and seeds that the woodpeckers just love.

With so many feeders on the market, how do you choose the best one? Well, one of the first considerations is durability, the thing has got to last. It needs to be well built, so it can withstand a fall. And it should be resistant to the weather, rust and squirrels. I also look for one that holds a lot of seed, so I don’t have to refill it so often.

Of course, you want a good-looking feeder, so style is also important. There are as many different types of bird feeders available as there are birds. I always seem to go for ones that blend into the environment. They should also be made with materials, paints and finishes that are non-toxic and bird-friendly.

I like tube feeders for a number of reasons. They don’t waste much seed and you can always tell how much food you have in them. And since they have small perches, it keeps large birds from dominating at feeding time. They are also made with smaller holes for specialty seed like thistles.

When placing my feeders, I like to put them in areas where the birds will feel safe. Close to a large shrub where they can take cover or up in the branches of a tree. And I set up several feeding stations in different areas of my garden to help disperse the bird activity. This prevents overcrowding. Periodically, I like to move my feeders around. This will reduce the concentration of droppings and possible diseases.

If you find a dead or diseased bird around your feeders, one not killed by a predator, you may want to disinfect your feeders weekly. You can do this by simply soaking them for 3 – 4 minutes in a solution of 1 part household bleach to 9 parts water.

Now, there’s another way that you can feed birds that’s particularly attractive to gardeners. Select plants for your garden that are both beautiful and produce fruits and berries that birds love to eat, like crabapples and dogwoods. And when it comes to shrubs, try something like grape hollies or roses for their beautiful bright hips in the winter.

Be sure and place your feeders and plants in places where you can enjoy watching the birds from your window. Nothing brightens a winter day like the beauty of colorful songbirds in your garden.

Winter Bird Feeding

The white-throated sparrows have arrived in my garden; their wistful song is a sure sign that Old Man Winter is here. It is such a treat to watch all the activity around the feeder. If you have not taken up bird feeding, late fall and early winter are
great times to get started. During winter birds are in need of both food and water. The trade off for your efforts
will be a host of feathered friends bringing color and life to your garden.

Here are a few tips to help you get started.

Birds enjoying a bird feeder

Set up feeders in areas where the birds will feel safe.

Give the birds an easy escape by placing feeders near the branches of a tree or 5 to 10 feet from a large shrub. If space
allows, set up several feeding stations in different areas of your yard. This prevents overcrowding and one bird from
dominating the feeder. Periodically, move the feeders around to reduce the concentration of droppings and possible diseases.
And rake under the feeder to keep the area clean. You’ll be glad you did next spring.

Prevent window crashing disasters.

Most of us like to place feeders near windows so we can watch the birds. This sometimes leads to birds crashing into the
glass. You can prevent this by stretching a piece of fruit tree netting taut across the window. Position the netting so that
there is a few inches of space between it and the glass. Or mark up the window with a bar of soap. Simply changing the angle
of approach so that the birds are not flying toward to window also helps.

Be consistent in your feeding schedule.

For the best turn out, keep your feeders well stocked. If you need to be away it is okay to stop feeding briefly. Birds usually
have a series of feeding sites they visit daily; so they’ll have plenty to eat if yours is empty for a few weeks. The worst time
to stop feeding is late winter and early spring when natural food sources are at their lowest. If you live in an extremely
isolated area, see if you can arrange for a friend to fill your feeders in your absence.

Some birds prefer to feed on the ground.

Sparrows, juncos, doves, and bobwhites prefer to feed on the ground. Throw the seed out at least 10 feet from areas where predators
can hide and rotate the location periodically to prevent disease.

Don’t skimp on the seed.

Avoid inexpensive blends that include fillers such as milo, wheat and oats. In the long run you won’t save money because the birds
won’t eat it. Black oiled sunflower seeds are an all around favorite that appeal to a wide variety of seed eating birds. These are
high in energy supplying oil and protein. If shells and hulls under the feeder is a problem, try some of the "waste free"
seed blends. These blends are 100 percent consumable, which means less mess and feeders don’t have to be filled as often.

Store your seed properly.

Keep your bird seed in a dry spot and in a rodent proof container. Check it occasionally for mold or insects.

People food is okay; just remember birds have small mouths.

Fruit slices, raisins and breadcrumbs are tasty additions to a bird’s diet, but the pieces need to be small for easy digestion. Peanut
butter is another favorite treat; however the sticky consistency can be a problem. Mix corn meal or suet into the peanut butter to make
it more bird friendly.

A source of water is important to birds as well as food.

Birds need water to drink and to keep their feathers clean. Unfrozen water can be hard to find in winter. An submersible water heater
designed for bird baths is handy for those who live in extremely cold climates. Bird baths should be shallow with a rough surface for
the birds to stand on. Place the bath at least 4 to 5 feet away from feeders to prevent droppings and seed debris from contaminating
the water. It is also a good idea to put the bath near a low hanging branch so birds can easily escape predators. Keep the bird bath
clean and filled with water.

Continue to clean your feeders.

Even though it is cold and the last thing you will want to do is clean a bird feeder, this is an important task. Every few months wash
your feeders in a solution of one part bleach to nine parts water. Wooden feeders should be cleaned with a mild liquid soap and brush.
Rinse the feeders thoroughly and allow them to dry before refilling.

The best way to keep squirrels away is to distract them.

Set up a squirrel feeder with dried corn to lure the squirrels away. As an added bonus large birds like crows will be drawn to the corn
as well. Another way to keep squirrels out of bird feeders is to use safflower seed. Squirrels don’t like them, but cardinals, titmice,
chickadees and downy woodpeckers do. There are also specially designed counter-balance feeders that will close when squirrels try to feed
from them.

Build a Bluebird Box

Although wildlife habitat conservation is a national issue, there are many individual ways we can help.  Setting out bluebird boxes is one good example of how we can lend a helping hand to an animal that is finding it harder to find a home in nature. 

If you are handy with a hammer and saw you can put together this simple bluebird box.  It can be made with a single 60-inch long 1” x 6” piece of untreated lumber.

Materials:
(1) 1” x 6” that is 60-inches long
(20) 1 3/4” Nails
(2) 1 3/4” Nails for Hinged Side
Hammer
Saw
Electric Drill with a Circular Bit to Cut Out Entry
Miter Box to Cut One End of the Top and Front at a 60 Degree Angle

Template for Cutting Board:
Bluebird Box Template
Directions:
Cut the board according to the diagram above.  The corners of the bottom piece are removed for ventilation and drainage.  The entry hole should be 1 1/2-inch for Eastern and Western Bluebirds.

Ventilation is important so drill two holes at the top of one of the side pieces.

There are many ways to assemble your bluebird box, but this is what worked for me.

View of Hinged Side of Bluebird boxAttach one side piece to the back board and then secure them to the bottom.

Next hammer on the front and the top.

Now you are ready to add hinged side piece.  Fit this piece between the front board and back board and secure at the top with nails.  This will enable you to pull the board open from the bottom and reach inside to clean the box.

Side View of Bluebird BoxThe final step is to attach the entry guard piece over the hole.  This will keep woodpeckers from enlarging the hole, allowing other birds to gain access to the bluebird box.

You can paint the exterior of the box.  Use light colors so that it won’t absorb heat.  Avoid lead based paints and wood preservatives.

Putting the Pieces TogetherCorners of the Bottom Cut for VentilationHinged Side Door

Protecting Bulbs from Squirrels

Now I like to extend the bounty of my garden to wildlife. In fact, I select plants that I know will offer a source of food and shelter. But even invited garden guests can wear out their welcome, especially when it comes to squirrels and fall bulb planting.

It is very disheartening to discover all the hard work that went into planting bulbs has been destroyed by an over zealous squirrel.

Over the years I have learned a few tips that help prevent such a disaster. First, I make sure to carefully clean up the area where I have planted bulbs. Anything left behind will provide the squirrels with a scent clue to help them find the bulbs. This means also picking up any of the papery jackets that have fallen off the bulbs during the planting process.

Hyacinth BulbsAnother tip that I have learned is to protect the area with cages formed from chicken wire. Cut a piece of chicken wire 1 inch larger on each side than the size of bulb bed. Bend the edges to create a shallow box top shape and set the chicken wire on top of the ground once the bulbs are planted. Push the 1 inch edges down into the soil to hold it in place. After the ground freezes you can remove the cages and cover the bed with a 2 to 3 inch layer of mulch.

In areas where I know squirrels and other creatures are a problem, I select bulb varieties that are bitter tasting and therefore not attractive to foraging wildlife. A few of my favorites are allium, camassia, Crocus tommasinianus, fritillaria, galanthus, Spanish bluebells, hyacinths, leucojum, muscari, narcissus, ornithogalum, oxalis and scilla.

As a final measure I set up a feeding station with dried corn or peanuts to distract squirrels from the freshly planted bulbs. This helps keep them out of my bird feeders as well.

There is an old wives tale that says you can forecast the coming winter by looking at the squirrels. If they are plump it is going to be a cold one, thin and winter will be mild. I can’t vouch for the veracity of this statement, but if the squirrels in my garden put on a few extra pounds this fall it won’t be from eating bulbs.

How to Keep Squirrels Out of Bird Feeders and Gardens

Hi Allen, I love your show and all the info you give. I have a huge problem with squirrels in my bird feeders and in my garden. I like squirrels, but I love my flowers and visiting birds. Please help!!!!

I completely understand your distress! Squirrels are cute, but they can be nuisances that are sometimes hard to live with. However, there are a few things that you can do to make co-existence a little easier.

When it comes to guarding your bird feeders you have a few options. First you can purchase a squirrel-proof feeder. These can be as simple as one with a baffle to block the squirrels from climbing onto the feeder or a more high-tech version that has a perch that rapidly rotates when triggered by the weight of the squirrel.

Where you position your bird feeder will also help. Bird feeders should be placed at least 6 feet from a jumping off point such as tree limbs, power lines, fences, and rooftops. Another option is to fill your feeder with safflower seeds. Squirrels hate the taste of it.

To further reinforce these steps you can set up a squirrel feeding station with some of the foods they like to eat such as corn and sunflower seeds. If you start feeding the squirrels, you need to know they can be big eaters. One squirrel can finish off an ear of corn in a day. So whatever you feed them, make sure you have plenty on hand.

And here’s another tip, when you feed squirrels in the winter you will keep them out of your bird feeder, but if you continue to feed them in the summer you will also keep them out of your garden.

To repel squirrels add a few plants to your flower borders that have a strong astringent fragrance such as artemisia or santolina. If that doesn’t keep them away, trying spraying the plants they are particularly fond of with a hot pepper spray. You can either purchase this from a garden center or make a batch at home. To make hot pepper spray simply puree two large cayenne peppers in a blender or food processor. Strain the puree to remove any seeds or solids. Add the strained puree to 1 gallon of water. When you are ready to spray, dilute 1/4 cup of the hot pepper concentrate with 1 gallon of water. To help the spray adhere to leaves also add about 1/4 tablespoon of dishwashing soap. When working with hot peppers it is important to wear gloves and keep your hands away from your face and eyes. As with any spray, before you apply your hot pepper mix make sure your plants are well hydrated and test a small area before spraying the entire plant.

Garden Spiders

And a Little Spidey Sense

Is the drought in your area getting to you this summer? Old folk lore says that if you step on a spider, then it will rain. I really don’t recommend it because there are many spiders that are helpful around the garden, especially when it comes to combatting insect pests.

Garden Spiders – A Biocontroller’s Secret Weapon

Garden spiders are ravenous predators. They will eat almost anything. Those webs that you may not like walking into are in fact, great open nets for catching flies and mosquitoes. I don’t know about you, but I’ll pick the spiders over the skeeters.

Observing a garden spider is both thrilling and meditative. These little creatures can spend all day rebuilding a web after it has been damaged in the hopes of catching yet another meal. I cannot help but cheer watching a spider catch a wasp or an earwig.

So how do you create a garden that is hospitable to spiders? Tall plants like purple coneflowers make good places for spiders to build a web. Also popular are fences, trellises, and any shrubs that are planted closely together. I have found that the underside of broad leafed perennials like hostas make good homes for smaller spiders too. When I leave a terra cotta pot lying on its side in the garden, inevitably a garden spider will build a web and catch his/her dinner there.

Now of course, if you’re arachnophobic – doing the exact opposite of all of the above will encourage the spiders to shuffle off to the neighbors’ yard.

Who Goes There??

There are many different types of spiders. Many are harmless but some of them are poisonous. I like to remember how to identify two spiders in particular. I try to keep an eye out for Black Widows and Brown Recluses.

So, look at the coloration of the spider — if it is black with a red hourglass-shaped pattern on its underbelly, then it is almost certainly a Black Widow. These spiders have extremely poisonous venom, and make their homes close to the ground near rock piles, decaying wood or small cracks and crevices in walls and the like.

If the spider you find is brown and smooth with a violin-shaped pattern on its back — then the spider is most likely a Brown Recluse. These spiders are also very poisonous, aggressive and hide in soft places like the arms and legs of clothing, bedding or pillows.

However, take this yellow and black colored garden spider. It has a leg span of about 2 1/2 inches with a white area near the head. This is the "considerate" Black and Yellow Garden spider. Considerate, because I appreciate how they put a signal up – that zigzag weave down the middle – so that birds won’t fly into their webs. It also helps keep me out of the web too; gardeners forewarned, like the birds, will take the detour around.

If you see one of these crossing your path, literally, as in the image above, it’s an Arkansas Chocolate Tarantula. It has a leg span close to 2 or 3 inches, and it is dark brown in color with a very hairy body. Another garden-variety spider that poses no threat to we humans.

Allow me to introduce to the Bold Jumping Spider. It’s a black spider with a white marking on its back and they jump around. These spiders are aggressive and spunky, with a bite that hurts but it lacks any dangerous poison.

Some Final Thoughts

If you come across a spider you think is dangerous, try to avoid pounding it to smithereens so you can identify it and confirm that it is indeed a troublemaker.

Always seek medical attention if bitten by a poisonous spider. If you can, try to catch the culprit that bit you so that you can present it for identification purposes.

And lastly, I’m seeing more garden spiders out since our area is dry and stressed. This makes the spider’s prey go on the move in search of moisture and shelter. Spiders are opportunists and will try to capitalize on this condition – and that could be a big reason why there are so many more garden spider webs to run into this summer.