Local/Regional Clubs the Heart of Beekeeping Communities

Trinity Valley President, Ryan Giesecke at the entrance to the Oso Bay Wetland Preserve in Corpus Christi, TX

Corpus Christi is a quiet, blue-collar town in the Coastal Bend of Texas. Its population, just over 320,000, sprawls over more than 500 square miles. It’s surrounded by industrial agriculture operations in nearly every direction that isn’t a body of water. As a result, the urban ecology abuts the ag fields directly in many cases, with some ag fields appearing right in the heart of town.

The south and southwestern parts of Texas are also home to the native Mexican Honey Wasp. These tiny little wasps are remarkably similar to honey bees. They’re black and yellow (much more yellow than honey bees), and they too collect nectar and make (small amounts) of (not very yummy) honey. Unlike our bees, they’re omnivores.

The Mexican Honey Wasp (MHW) is unusual in the native pollinator world because their habitat is actually expanding (approximately with the expansion of Mesquite). We don’t know nearly enough about these wasps. The last research was ended in the early 1990s. Their current range extends barely to Houston, across to San Marcos, and west to El Paso.

What we do know about them is that they sometimes build their nests, which resemble a hornet’s nest, in inconvenient places where they’re pests to people. Their temperament is quite gentle, however, so often, they’re able to cohabit with people. In the event they must be removed, our local group faces the challenge of habitat for relocation.

Ryan, standing by "his" MHW nest the day after relocation

MHWs build extremely delicate paper nests in trees or bushes. They’re usually just a few feet off the ground, but they can be quite high. They begin building a nest that looks like most other paper wasp nests, but as it expands to the size of a baseball, they build an enclosing cover around it. A central passageway is maintained along the vertical axis of the hive. As they build the nest bigger, they incorporate branches of the tree into the nest. These branches tend to anchor the nest in place, but can also damage the nest if the wind flexes the branches.

The branches are also a nuisance to the beekeeper removing them. Because the nest is delicate, the branches much be cut on all sides of the nest to reduce the chance a branch will catch on something and tear the nest apart. Some beekeepers leave select branches longer to use as hand holds.

Medium sized, MHW nest, upright, outer shell covered in wasps.

MHWs swarm in similar fashion to Honey Bees, but this behavior is poorly studied and only minimally described in literature.

MHWs respond imperfectly to smoke. Initially, smoke may chase the animals into the nest, but upon disturbing the nest, they will come back to visit us. Many bee removers vacuum the wasps, and most bag the nest for transport. They do sting, and they can sting multiple times. Beekeepers report different experiences with “how bad” the sting is compared to Honey Bees. Many become entangled easily in a bee suit’s mesh material and sometimes tear themselves apart trying to a) “get you” or b) get out of the material. Who knows the mind of a little wasp?

The spaces into which we can move these animals is limited. In 2016, we reached out to the Oso Bay and Wetland Preserve, a city-owned project that manages 600 acres of wetland and scrub habitat, right in the heart of the city.

In the summer of 2016, the Coastal Bend Beekeepers Assn (CBBA) wrote a Memorandum of Understanding with the City to provide habitat within the Preserve for the relocation of these native animals. Under the agreement, properly trained members of CBBA may enter the park after hours. The preserve selected a habitat that provides a safe space for the wasps to grow and thrive, close, but not too close, to the town where they once lived.

The first relocation we attempted was unsuccessful, but resulted in a nest specimen for the preserve Learning Center display. There, it educates kids and visitors on the vital importance of wild pollinators. In 2017, we relocated two other nests. These relocations were successful, but destroyed by vandals within a couple of months. The preserve erected a fence to block the trail leading to the MHW habitat location.

In April, 2018, Ryan Giesecke, President of Trinity Valley Beekeepers Association visited the Coastal Bend to speak at three events in our area: at the CBBA regular meeting, at our “branch office” meeting in the Rio Grande Valley, and at the Golden Crescent Beekeepers Assn in Victoria, TX. As luck would have it, he also had the opportunity to relocate a medium sized MHW nest! Of course, Ryan was eager to experience a new type of removal.

Locating the nest at the preserve is also a challenge. First, it’s a hike and a half from the gate to the MHW habitat area, and we have to cross the fence that has no gate. Because of the size of this nest, we elected not to bag it. And because wasps loose in the car with you is great fun, too!

At the habitat site, we must then select a tree that will hold the nest supported upright. Once placed, it becomes a race for the wasps to build their nest out and incorporate branches of their new tree before something knocks them to the ground. (We live, here, in a wind corridor.)

We wedged the nest into a tree and left them, returning the next day to make sure everything was ok.

I recently visited these wasps again to check on their progress. After checking in with the office, I crossed the fence and walked back to the place where we placed them. On the way, there was no sign of trail traffic, just some wildlife signs. At the nest site, there was evidence of hog activity in the area. And then, there was the nest!

Relocated nest, odd shape due to tilting at the new site, wasps cover the outer shell, mid-day with most foragers in the field.

Right where we left it four months ago, but much bigger! This has been our greatest success so far. Normally, MHW nests are somewhat teardrop shaped, narrow at the top, and bell-bottomed. But our relocated friends had departed from that somewhat! As you can see from the photos, the original nest was shaped like most. It was about 28 inches tall and 14 inches around at the bottom.

The odd shape of the current nest probably is the result of the nest shifting in the tree and leaning over a little. Its overall size is about 40-50% larger than when we placed it there. You may notice fewer animals on the nest. This may be due to a few factors. First, of course, at night all the foragers are home. Second, the wasps experience the same Summer dearth that Honey Bees experience, so we may assume they too reduce their numbers in the hottest part of summer. And third, it’s possible that the old part of the nest was abandoned because of the leaning, and this may have slowed the growth of the colony population. This last point is largely speculation, however.

What makes this story so compelling is how much collaboration brought it all together. Our regional club here in South Texas spans 35 counties, and we try to serve the region with education and resources. We operate monthly meetings in Corpus Christi, and meetings in even-numbered months in the Rio Grande Valley. Ryan runs the Trinity Valley Beekeepers, which provides great service in the Dallas Metro. He also works closely with the Metro Beekeepers (Ft. Worth) and collaborated with that group to produce the upcoming Dallas-Ft. Worth Area Beekeepers Conference in Waxahachie (Oct 27, watch for additional info). Ryan was recently elected President of Metro Beekeepers Association too.

Ryan experienced a variety of beekeeping activity on his visit. He kicked off his visit with “Fights About Mites” at the CBBA meeting. The following evening we moved the MHW nest. On Saturday he spoke to our new project organizing the beekeepers in the RGV in Mission, TX. On Sunday, he did some work in the out yard of our Vice President, an out yard where fresh removals were rehabilatiated, so there were plenty of mean bees for him. They did a removal from a ranch house. And then on Monday, Ryan spoke at the Golden Crescent beekeepers Association. All together, Ryan spoke to about 150 people, moved a colony of bees and a colony of honey wasps, inspected a dozen hives or so, and had a great time!

This kind of collaboration is important. As the leader of a regional beekeeping association, I’m a big advocate for the importance of local service and leadership, but what is developing across the state, is regional collaboration over state-wide collaboration. This type of collaboration was also seen in the spring at the East Texas Beekeepers Conference that brought together seven local clubs to put on a spectacular event in Longview. Other regional collaborations are in planning stages now.

Our own experience with collaboration, with the City, with other clubs, with start-ups, and with vendors, has been extremely successful. CBBA is on the look-out for ways to leverage our influence (and our 501c3 status) to benefit beekeepers in our region and beyond!

It’s an exciting time to be involved in local and regional associations. Beekeeping as a hobby is expanding, prices are up, and people are eager to learn. The demand for new and better education is clear (see The State of Beekeeper Education in Texas), and local groups are starting to work together to show real leadership in beekeeping advocacy. Join your local or regional group and be an advocate with us!

Your Bees are Hot!

As the middle of August approaches, bee colonies work harder and harder to maintain their hive’s internal temperature. You probably learned from any beginner text that the workers will forage for water to use in cooling the brood space. They spread the water on the combs and then fan it with their wings, using evaporative cooling. It’s very high tech!

You may be tempted to alter the hive configuration to provide ventilation. Beekeepers disagree on this issue. Small openings such as provided by inner covers don’t pose a risk to your hive, but you should think twice before making large openings in the hive. Some beekeepers prop or shim the cover, but be sure not to open it more than 1/8th inch. Larger openings will allow robber bees, and be aware that 1/8inch is plenty of opening for hive beetles to enter. If you decide to cut an upper entrance style hole, keep it small and be aware that the bees may well close it with propolis (an indication they don’t want it).

It’s also common in hot summers for a colony to “brood down” or reduce the colony population through attrition. In extreme cases, you may even see drones ejected from the colony. Consider the cause of this. A queen may be thought of as an egg extruder. As feed goes in one end, eggs come out the other end. It’s a simplified way of looking at laying rate. In the heat, more and more foragers will be required to fetch water, reducing the feed that enters the hive. Obviously with hot dry conditions, less feed may be available in the landscape too. So less feed means fewer eggs, less brood, and a reduced colony size.

When a colony broods down is not the time to make extraneous openings in their hive. Fewer bees are available for defending entrances that permit moths, beetles, and robber bees free access.

In dry conditions, bees will more frequently make a nuisance of themselves at water sources too. If you live in a neighborhood with close neighbors or lots of pools, consider putting out a source of water. Bees love salted or chlorinated water, so consider putting up a temporary pool of water that’s chlorinated. City water is usually tasty to bees, but over the course of a few hours the chlorination treatment used by the city may break down (put it in shade to prevent this).

See bees foraging for water at a window AC unit

You may also get calls that “bees have moved into my window AC unit.” Bees don’t often shack up in AC units because of the wind (from the fan) and the vibrations they don’t like. These calls are usually bees hunting water which is created and then pooled in the units. (Modern AC units reuse this water to cool the evaporator coils. These units may not have a visible drip outside because the coils evaporate the water quickly to increase efficiency. But there’s still a pool of water inside.)

What can beekeepers do?

During periods of dearth or heat (or both), you may consider keeping your bees brooded up by feeding them. Use in-hive feeders with small openings. This season is especially risky for robbing behavior. By keeping your colony brooded up, you reduce its exposure to pests, including other bee colonies, and you keep them ready to go to work making honey when the fall flow arrives.

You can provide a nearby source of water. Don’t be discouraged if no bees show up to it the first day. Once they foragers have found a source of water, they will continue to use it. They simply don’t go looking for another. The second day may bring more bees and new foragers venture out and find the water. By providing a nearby source of water, you reduce the number of flights needed to bring it back to the hive.

Strong bees will protect themselves against pests like hive beetles, so if your colonies become weak, you may need to address this problem. The remedy is the same as always, reduce the space they must defend, making sure that both sides of each frame can be completely covered by bees, even if that means taking some frames out.

When working hives in the summer it’s important to spend as little time with the hive exposed as possible. Full, detailed and time-consuming inspections expose the colony to robbing. Once started, robbing is difficult to halt. Be aware that the queen may halt egg production entirely without feed, so consider that in your inspection plans.

Count your mites! Treat if you need to treat.

Many beekeepers in Texas lose as many colonies in the summer as they do in “winter.” Stay connected with your colonies and don’t neglect their needs during this hard season. It’s hard on bees and beekeepers, but you must get out there and help. Stay hydrated and safe. Work in short periods broken up by breaks and plenty of water and air conditioning.