Trees for Bees 3: Rhus genus aka Sumac

Other posts in this series:

Trees for Bees introduction

Trees for Bees 2: Planning

Trees for Bees 4: Sourwood (will be published in future)

Trees for Bees 5 : Basswood (will be published in future)

Trees for Bees 6: Final notes, GIS map and honorable mention (will be published in future)


Sumac’s of the Rhus genus fit the bill perfectly and grow extremely fast. Two species are in contention and neither grows taller than 25 feet and are extremely drought resistant. Sumac’s spread via roots forming thick groves that can commonly be seen along side and in the medians of Virginia’s interstates. This rooting habit has given Rhus shrubs a weedy reputation for landscape gardeners when planted for its incredible red foliage in the fall. Yet it allows the gardener to rejuvenate the stand by mowing it down in the winter stimulating basal shoots that regrow an often thicker grove in the following spring. These shrubs/small trees like sunlight, but can tolerate some shade. Sumac honey is produced from May to August is is well regarded.

Rhus typhina can grow up to 25 feet and forms hairy branches that resemble velvet antlers yielding the common name Staghorn Sumac. Canadian researchers observed that 72% of honeybees worked male flowers for pollen in the morning while 78% gathered nectar in the afternoon. These will be planted on the slope where no overhead power lines exists. The lines on the eastern half of the entrance road limit plantings to shrubs so Rhus glabra will be planted. Smooth Sumac rarely tops out above 15 feet so they will not disturb the power line. If any specimens pose a threat, it can be mowed and the roots will replace it with new shoots.

And just to put any fears to rest, the related poison sumacs can only grow with wet feet meaning they are found in bogs, marshes and wetlands. Most people will never encounter poison sumac as their required habitat is inaccessible by most modes of transportation except a fan boat!

Bees, Silvopasture and Agroforestry

Trees for Bees 2: Planning

Preface: This series is 7 posts long. As this blog is pretty much my diverse diary of starting a sustainable farming business that attracts readers interested in many different subjects. Thus I will break them up over time so I don’t spend an entire week talking solely about bee trees.

Other posts in this series:

Trees for Bees introduction

Trees for Bees 3: Sumac (will be published in future)

Trees for Bees 4: Sourwood (will be published in future)

Trees for Bees 5 : Basswood (will be published in future)

Trees for Bees 6: Final notes, GIS map and honorable mention (will be published in future)

Having a successful farm enterprise on limited acreage depends on putting every nook and cranny to productive use. There are some areas where fruit trees cannot be grown or cannot be accessed for harvest. Spaces such as these can be put to use with nectar and/or pollen producing trees, both of which come from flowers so it is no surprise that the best producing trees are also quite beautiful. Thus either side of the entrance track is a prime location for planting the bee trees. A challenge is posed on the pasture side of the entrance track by the overhead power line. Fear not, this challenge just adds an extra fun layer into the planning.

That road was constructed on fill dirt that more gradually spans the grade from the lower-lying pasture to the road. The resulting hill on the pasture side of the road has exposed rock and is un-plantable with anything that requires harvesting. I’ve considered leaving it wild and utilizing the hill as a goat exercise pen, but the logistics of fencing such a rocky and steep drop off proved the idea unattainable. However the hostile terrain will not support many trees thus requiring a grove of pioneer species, if anything. There is one pioneer species that produces abundant nectar and pollen and will be the first plant discussed on the morrow.






Simple DIY Honeybee Waterer from 2 common items: Cork and bucket

This summer dryness is really affecting the flora and fauna of the farm. My part of the Shenandoah Valley has not had a strong rain since early July. My bees need water like the rest of the plants and animals! Bees need a water source where they won’t drown while drinking. If you are a beekeeper, be a good neighbor and provide your bees with a source of drinking water. Nothing will provoke the wrath of those uneducated about bee behavior quicker than their swimming pools or fountains or birdbaths being constantly full of your bees. I mention uneducated because bees are not aggressive when foraging for resources thus pose little threat unless crushed with bare skin and most people cover their irrational phobias of bees by stating they are allergic when only 1 or 2 people out of 1,000 are actually allergic (Source: USDA). However, those hypothetical neighbors are completely in their rights in wanting to keep bees from congregating in highly trafficked areas.

All that is needed for this project is wine corks and a 5 gallon bucket. Corks are easy to procure even if you don’t drink wine. Restaurants, wine stores, wine tasting events and friends are all potential places that may accumulate wine corks. Mine came from a tent at a wine festival.

Tools required:

None…maybe a wine opener deserves to be included?


  • Bucket (You decide the size that is right for you)
  • Wine corks


  • Put wine corks in bucket
  • Fill bucket with water

Alternative Procedure

  • Fill bucket with water
  • Put wine corks in bucket

I jest but this project is incredibly simple. The corks give the bees a place to land and rest while drinking while the bucket holds enough water for quite some time.

Mosquitos suck. I’m anal about standing water on the farm. A zero tolerance policy is in effect. There is literally not a single drop of exposed water on the farm so last week I went on a 3 hour hunt to find the source of the mosquitoes who were biting me one evening. I finally found two tires I was storing behind the barn (to make cement filled mobile fence posts) that had filled with water. When I set out to write this post, I realized I never heard any justification for the oft advised figure of 1 week as the time to replace water to prevent mosquitos. So I researched myself.

After reading various agricultural and etymological sources, I found that mosquitoes can go from egg to adult in 4-14 days depending on the species and conditions. Thus I will strive to change this water every three or four days!

Armed with only anecdotal evidence as most scientific efforts are focused on more important aspects of honeybees, I can tell you that in my observations and many many others on forums and in beekeeping meetings that honeybees tend to flock to stinky water whether it is stagnant or contains some other odor like chlorine. Thus I recommend adding something smelly like essential oils. Without an emulsifier, the oils will not mix into the water and only serve as an attractant. I would not use this technique to deliver anything meant for varroa treatment like wintergreen, spearmint, thyme, lemongrass, etc.

I do however add a small quantity of salt to the water. Up until recently, the published science has only stated that salt lessens the lifespan of bees. However, any beekeeper that has worked in the summer has noticed the bees landing on their skin only to drink the salty sweat. Pools are notorious for luring bees. Now the science is finding that bees have salt taste receptors on their feet and have found this is the reason they are attracted to chlorine salts in pools as well as the newer saltwater pools. Furthermore, they don’t have to even land near the water; those taste receptors can sense it in the air (source: Even more, beekeeping publications like Ross Conrad’s article on Bee Tea in Bee Culture (August 2010) are claiming boosted immune systems of bees from mineral salt. The science has yet to catch up to substantiate these claims.

Beekeeping, like most other fields of agriculture, is incredibly slow to adapt and change. Beekeeping has seen little technological advancement since the advent of the Langstroth hive in 1850. So my decision is to try to stay ahead of the curve in this instance and add 2 teaspoons of salt per gallon to my feeding water.


Bees, Silvopasture and Agroforestry

Trees for Bees

I am a huge advocate of planning trees ahead of time, especially if they are to be established where turf dominates. By laying down a biodegradable barrier like cardboard and covering it with mulch, the turf is smothered while the mulch encourages the fungal dominated soil in which woody-stemmed plants thrive.

In regard to honeybees, the small volume of garden plantings of flowers sadly do little in the way of nourishing the hive. After all, a single bee visits 50-1oo flowers per day, and 2,000,000 flowers to produce 1 pound of honey of which 100 pounds are produced per healthy hive in a good year. Bee-attracting flowers still feed smaller native bee populations and lure bees to your valuable crops so there is still great value in a pollinator garden!

Trees on the other hand, are a different story. And would you expect anything else from me? With my passionate love of trees, I plan to use them instead of (well, in combination with) pasture to feed humans, animals and insects alike. Honeybees focus their foraging efforts on areas with a high density of blooms as evolutionary biology encourages as efficient behavior as possible. So blooming trees are an ideal nectar source.

The trait of cyclical production of trees that affects fruit yields holds true for nectar yields as well. Where fruit trees see bumper crops followed by small yields the next year(s), trees follow a cycle of 2-8 years between massive nectar flows. So like always, diversity is key. This resource produced by NASA is great for determining what is blooming in your region.

Take the basswood for example. A single Tilia americana tree can produce huge surpluses of top quality honey during a 2 week bloom in June or July. I’ve seen numbers of 20 gallons per mature tree, or 800-1,100 pound per acre of planting.

The next tree to consider is one I have fond memories of from college Dendrology class. The class was once per week for 4 hours outside in ANY weather. Finals week of the fall semester in the mountains of southwest Virginia is when the whether turns from crisp calm autumn to blustery cold winter. As it happened, our outdoor dendrology final was in the midst of a brutally cold freezing rain storm. People cried, hands were numb, scared mumblings of frostbite were uttered but only when the “Rain-proof” paper started dissolving did the teaching staff take action. The next tree was to be the last!

One of the useful traits for identifying plants is taste. Obviously with Toxicodendron radicans being one of our subjects, a compromise was made where we were allowed to ask the teachers if a leaf from the quiz subject was safe to taste. Carefully tiptoeing the line between an B+ and an A- in the class, the last quiz tree of the final exam was critical. And I was stumped.

Most of the other stumped students just wrote Black gum, which was our default for generic looking tree, in haste to return to the warmth and dryness of their vehicles. After milling around trying to control the nerves and adrenaline leaving me as the last remaining student, I finally asked the instructor if I it was safe taste the long, ovate brilliantly red leaf. With a smile that revealed the answer, I wrote Ericaceae Oxydendrum arboreum Sourwood to secure an A- for the semester.

Once I started researching sourwoods, I found that they are quite beautiful when flowering and as I already knew, a brilliant red in the fall as this image from Oregon State university demonstrates:

Better yet, they are shade tolerant which will be an important attribute in my design. Even their slow growth rate is advantageous.

Sumacs are another tree that requires consideration for both honeybees and the native pollinators. For both types of pollinators, the three months of bloom supplies ample pollen and nectar. Here is a study that recorded bee activity on staghorn sumac stands in canada. It found that bees worked the male flowers for pollen in the morning and female flowers for nectar in the evening. For the native bees, the soft pithy stems of Rhus trees/shrubs provide nesting sites as the wood is easily bored. With aesthetics in mind, sumacs also turn a brilliant red in the fall.

Tulip poplars produce so much nectar that it stains concrete walkways beneath urban plantings. The beautiful cup shaped flowers of the Liriodendron tulipifera give bees a nice platform to land and drink from as they resemble tulips, hence the common name. It blooms early so it helps feed colonies and pollinators as they build up their nests and populations in the spring.

Black locust are already all over my pasture and the surrounding woods. In fact the time that my bees lost interest in the provided feeder coincided with the locust bloom. No additional considerations will be made for locust plantings as they are already numerous on the farm. I also let most locust trees grow because they fix nitrogen into the soil as they are a leguminous tree and they provide wood that is incredibly hard and rot resistant. On my land at least, the black locusts commonly lose limbs and break apart negating the need and labor required to fell them. Out of the local natives, locust wood makes the best fence posts and firewood.

I’ll expand on these trees and my plans for them in the near future!


Bees are gearing up for winter!

Winter is the most trying time for bees and their keepers. Last year, Virginia lost 45.6% of its beehives which the state attributes mostly to winter loss. I will expand more on this in the future.

For now, I want to share this frame. While it is a work in progress by the bees, it is just about perfect in terms of winter preparation.

Why is it so perfect?


  • The brood where the main cluster of bees is expected to hang out all winter is toward the bottom of the frame
  • The bees are moving honey and pollen, their sole source of carbohydrates and protein, respectively, into the cells at the top of the frame

Bees cluster to stay warm in the winter and the entire cluster moves through the hive consuming resources through the winter. Winter loss is usually due to the the bees not having a food source within the cluster as it moves through the hive. Commonly, a colony will be found dead with full frames of honey left untouched but since the honey was not within the proximity of the cluster the bees did not consume it.

Thus in the frame above, the cluster of bees working in the brood area will have access to nourishment on that same frame.

Only a few things are within the beekeeper’s power to help the bees through the winter so he or she can only do so much before they must leave it in the hands (or mandibles?) of the hive. However I can record the activities and progress of my hives in order to learn and do better the following years.

Next spring will be proof if my management is successful, and if not, at least I have recorded data to help me be more successful in the next season.


Self Filtering Solar Wax Melter for Beeswax from 4 commonly available second hand items

I love discovering methods to process farm products without using any energy; even more so when one of the requirements to process said products is heat. I have to gush over the success of this quick and easy project as I designed it around the concept of a car heating up when parked in the summer sun. Beeswax melts around 150 °F/65°C so summer sun is all you need!

Beeswax sticks to absolutely everything and is nearly impossible to get off once it sets. In the past, running molten beeswax through a strainer resulted in immediately congealing wax that clogged and overflowed on the kitchen counter. Amazingly, with this design the only items that touch molten beeswax is the strainer, filter and pot. As the wax is held at molten temperatures for the duration of the process, the only item that retains any wax is the tiny bit the optional cheesecloth filter absorbs and a very thin film on the inside of the pot.

So I’ve pieced this design together over the last few months. For the long and entertaining story of my trials and tribulations, see this post.

Note: I always freeze the wax overnight first to ensure no wax moth eggs or other bugs survive. Then I just store it in airtight containers until I build up a large stock to melt in the summer. Below I will quote and link to new products, but I acquired everything except the cheesecloth secondhand for a final investment of $28.80 or $83 when buying everything new from amazon. Below is my exact setup just to make sure everything fit together!

Items Needed:

Cooler (lid not needed) tall enough to fit the pot. Alternatively a temperature safe box (maybe a bucket would work?) that you insulate with blankets, etc. ($28 new)

Stockpot or something similar with no plastic pieces ($25 new)

Scrap piece of glass or Plexiglas that lays flat atop the cooler (The cheapest option on amazon that most closely matches my 1/8″ thick 14″ x 24″ custom piece is the plexiglas from this frame, $17 new)

Metal strainer that fits atop the pot ($8 new)

(Optional): Cheesecloth or Nut milk bag and string to attach it to strainer. Only needed if pure wax is required for candle making, etc. ($6 new for a convenient bag that fits the 8″ strainer)


Bungee cord, rope, etc. to secure the glass to the top of the cooler (improvise for free! But if you need a bungee cord: $5 new for adjustable single or $9 for a set if you don’t know the size you need and need to link multiples)

Oven mits for handling the utensils in the melter after the wax has rendered (no link needed)


Build and Operating Procedure:

  1. Attach cheesecloth beneath strainer if extra filtration is required. Otherwise, omit the cheesecloth.
  2. Place strainer atop the pot
  3. Place your wax into the strainer
  4. Place the pot with wax-filled strainer into the cooler
  5. Place the glass/Plexiglas panel atop the cooler
  6. Set the entire melter in the sun and simply wait until the wax has melted
  7. Remove the pot filled with liquid wax USING OVEN MITS! EVERYTHING INSIDE THE MELTER WILL BE HOT
  8. Quickly but safely pour the wax into your molds of choice before it has a chance to cool. I just use paper cups!
  9. Peel the paper cups away after the wax cools and simply store the wax in a manner that prevents critter intrusion or weigh it for sale.




Note on pictures: I really wanted to include pictures of the whole process. However every single day this week at 12:30 pm, thunderclouds rolled in. Even worse, they never yielded much needed rain! Pictures will be updated on the next sunny day, Monday or tuesday appear promising.

Acquiring the materials

The cooler: Craigslist is probably the best option but keep an eye open at yard sales or thrift stores as well. The cooler pictured is one that was not longer in use by my parents, but I also acquired from craigslist years ago for $10 an old 5 gallon igloo drink cooler like the ones you see at sporting events. It was my first mash tun before I upgraded my homebrewing beer setup to 10 gallon batches. You may be able to do even better by rescuing a cooler with a lost lid, as all the lid does on my cooler is catch wind and flop the whole set up over. Alternatively you could just make a simple wooden box or possibly insulate a standard five gallon bucket. In fact, I may try the next batch in a bucket just to see if it works. Whatever you choose, make sure the pot fits!

Pot: I chose a stockpot for this project. The dimensions are efficient to fit within a wide array of coolers, compact handholds instead of long handle(s) is better accommodated within the cooler, and there is no plastic. I acquired mine for $4 at the thrift store. The previous owner had damaged the enamel coating inside the pot which matters not for this project. In fact if a friend or family member has done the same, you may be able to get a free one!

Strainer: $1 at a thrift store. I’m considering buying a new one without a plastic handle as they are ~$5 on amazon or simply cutting off either the plastic or the entire handle. The handle could also be cut off to fit in a smaller cooler. Plastic + heat + UV rays = either melting or off gassing of chemicals or deterioration.

Glass/Plexiglass: I was originally scouring the barn loft for a discarded storm window. Then I considered checking out the Habitat for Humanity Re-store where contractors cheaply offload unneeded or recycled building materials…basically a thrift store for building materials. I even called an autoglass shop looking for scraps. By chance when I went to the local hardware store for an unrelated purpose, I inquired about getting glass and Plexiglas cut. The quotes were around $5 and $11, respectively. Way cheaper than I was expecting so I chose Plexiglas for durability. It also occurred to me that my dimensions closely match those of cheap poster wall-hanging frames like I had in college. One could be cannibalized from the thrift store!

Cheesecloth: Amazon or Walmart or I’ve even seen them in grocery stores however they were add on items hanging in random isles. The plus side is that I found mine hanging in the canned food isle on sale for $2 for a 6 yard cloth. After the first test run with cheesecloth, I might be looking for something more substantial like the bags on amazon for about $5 that are made from better cotton intended for yogurt or nut milk.


My frustrating but entertaining woes in processing beeswax

I’ve had to trim some poor comb from my hives due to an oversight on my part. I accumulated enough to start learning how to process the wax.

First attempt

My first venture in melting wax was a hilarious disaster. I tried rendering the wax via a warm bath in an improvised mason-jar-in-pot-in-a-bigger-pot double boiler.

Problem 1: If the water level was too high, the jar would float, tip and take on water or raise the wax level above the hot water and just be ineffective in general.

Problem 2: With such a low water level, the wax would cool and solidify against the glass above the water level when I attempted to pour the molten wax through the strainer.

Solution to problem 1 and 2: Put a brick on the mason jar. Cumbersome when needing to stir the wax, but it worked.

Problem 3: As the wax was poured through the room temperature strainer, the wax quickly solidified clogging the metal mesh resulting sending the flow around and down the sides of the paper cup getting the nearly impossible to clean wax everywhere.

Solution to problem 3: Utilize yet up another large pot and stove unit for a hot water bath to keep the strainer hot. However this resulted in water dripping into the finished wax.

Problem 4: The wax coated the butter knife I used to stir it then solidified seemingly permanently. Not to mention the pots and jars exhibiting the same cemented wax.

I never wanted to touch wax again.


Prototype develops

One day after returning to my car parked in the sun, the figurative light bulb illuminated in my head. As skin burns when in contact with 140 degrees for 3 seconds, my truck had to be close to that point as I could not even touch the steering wheel without it feeling like my hand were on the verge of blistering. Beeswax melts around 150 °F/65°C so what if I simulated my car?

To test the concept, I placed a half pint mason jar containing a small chunk of comb on the black dashboard of my truck. I then angled the vehicle so the windshield faced directly into the sun. To my immense excitement, the wax was pooled when I checked an hour later.

For my next attempt, the prototype to my finished melter was created.  Since I am sharing my full design tomorrow, I simply set a cooler containing a wax-filled strainer atop a pot in the sun. It did not quite get hot enough, at least not within my attention span. So the wax softened but barely dripped. According to my digital thermometer it was at 130 degrees after a few hours.

Brainstorming a solution

The next iteration of my design was to replace the lid of the cooler with a piece of glass. I wrestled over where to source a discarded storm window after scouring the barn for scrap glass and even called an auto glass place looking for scraps. It was entertainingly hopeless trying to explain the intended purpose of glass. Then one day when I was at the locally owned hardware store for unrelated matters, I inquired about the expense of cutting a custom piece of glass at 14 inches by 24 inches to fit the cooler. For glass it was $5.60 and Plexiglas was $10.80. As the figures were far and away less than I was expecting, I waited 5 minutes for a piece of plexiglass to be cut. I was prepared to either paint or line the interior of the cooler black to match the effect of my dashboard in my experiment. In the end, this was not needed!

I’m glad I didn’t go with glass because during the first trial run, the wind caught the erect lid still attached to the cooler and knocked the whole melter over. Luckily this occurred early and the harvested comb was still solid as it spilled into the grass. Wrapping a bungee cord around the cooler to hold the window in place and utilizing a niche in a pile of extra gravel in the barnyard to cradle the melter. With the new additions, the wax was successfully melted in fifteen minutes during the hot August midday intense sun. Even better, the only wax that persisted to dirty the utensils were a thin coating on the pot and a small amount absorbed by the cheesecloth. No dirty pots, no crazy double boiler contraptions, no spills nearly-permanently coating the kitchen surfaces, and no cooking fuel used. Be warned though, anything that went into the melter was very hot so oven mitts are a must!

However one last issue remained. While the metal strainer successful withheld bee carcasses and large body parts from the rendered wax, many small impurities passed through. These impurities are not vital for most applications of beeswax, but do pose a problem for candle makers. If I ever produce a surplus and want to sell the wax, impurities become a more important consideration.


My solar wax melter

My final design is the exact same as before with the addition of cheesecloth attached to the strainer. This did the trick and resulted in relatively pure wax. I reclaimed the kitchen utensils from my first attempt that I initially thought were permanently coated in wax. The mason jars, stirring knives, clogged strainers, etc. wrnt into the solar melter and after wiped with a rag while still hot, came out clean and with only the lightest coat of anti-rust and anti-microbial beeswax.


Here is the melter in action! The detailed design will be posted tomorrow!