Allow me to preface this entry with a fact: Each hive houses about 10,000 flying bees. As you know, each bee is armed with a stinger able to kill small creatures, and if multiplied, kill you or me.
I officially became a bee keeper in March of 2009. I equipped myself with two complete hives, including their ~10,000 inhabitants. In normal interaction, bees are docile. When threatened however, they viciously attack their assailant to defend their hive. I fashioned myself the full protective clothing.
Last winter was unusually cold, and fatal to my two colonies. In early spring, they both perished. Soon, I was offered a new box of bees with their queen at a good price. So I took it. Two days after having moved them to their hive, my new colony had run off, leaving both my hives empty once again. This is a rare occurrence, but had to happen, of course, to me.
Friday, May 7, 2010
Today, I was sitting at my desk after spending two days at the Electronic Security Association conference in Charlotte, wondering the next best thing to do to move my infant business forward. I was ignorant of the adventure that lied ahead this very morning as the home phone played its jaunty tune. Young Max Hillerbrand was calling for his father. Mike told me that the Wake County Bee Association (WCBA) requests he remove a swarm. Mike is on the association’s swarm removal team. Mike was busy, and checking if I could do it. It was a small swarm at hip level. Mike gave me the address and a few pointers to address the issue: Use a hive box with existing honeycomb; add an empty box to allow for overflow as you pour bees into the box filled with comb; “Don’t worry too much; honeybees in a swarm are quite harmless.”
My own experience at this consisted of helping a neighbor with a swarm… once. This would now be my first time recovering a swarm alone. With minimal directions and some help from Google Maps, I loaded the van and headed West on Interstate 40.
After making a few wrong turns, I found it was at the construction trailer of Archer West Construction, a company involved in rebuilding the RDU Airport terminal. Amy, my contact took me from trailer “C” to the “infested” trailer. The bees had found a spot under the trailer. They were hidden behind the fabric that covered the bottom of the structure. I could see a six inch circle of bees resting on the trailer wall. I suited up and went to work.
I made a 12-inch incision in the fiberglass fabric. This released the attack. I backed up because I had some doubt in my home-made bee keeper’s veil. I was followed by an aggressive, buzzing mass. Once I was more comfortable with my gear, I returned to lengthen the slit to two feet, and made perpendicular cuts at either end for a larger opening. Following Mike’s directions, I placed a frame-filled box covered by an empty box directly below the swarm. This kind of set up makes up a complete hive. The sun reflecting off my veil made it impossible to see in the darkness under the trailer floor.
Again, the volume of the threat made me back away. Each time I left, I took with me the loud drone of hundreds of angry ‘armed’ flyers. My spritzer bottle helped discourage some of them. On my return I poked up under the trailer with my utility knife. A complete three-pound chunk of comb fell into the box: two inches thick, and about a foot and a half across. The army of bees was enraged. More importantly, my veil held them at bay. After another retreat I used my pruning saw to pull down more comb. Two more pieces of equal size followed the first. All of them spilling honey into the hive. “This is not a swarm.” I thought to myself, “This is a mature wild colony, established here for more than a year; and I‘m invading their private territory.”
By now my concern shifted from me to the colony’s queen. She may have been crushed under the weight of the falling comb. I was thrilled to spot her unharmed, only for a few seconds before she vanished behind a sticky piece of comb. She is confirmed safe and inside the hive. My job today is done! I finished by placing the inner and outer covers, closing the colony into its new home. The remaining workers can enter through the hive’s entrance.
As I withdraw for the last time, I must wait for the enraged cloud to dissipate before removing my protective gear. Fifteen minutes go by. I am in the drone of less than a dozen soldiers. I keep fully covered as the aggressors and I get into my car with the windows fully open. (Wait! Who is the aggressor here?) I drive a half mile away, park and get out. There is only one persistent worker left, determined to slay me. Even after several minutes of stillness, she continued her attack. I applauded her unrelenting drive. With a single loud clap of my gloves, the last sentry fell. I saluted her life. Finally, under the hot mid-day sun, I was free to be released from my plastic, leather and tulle regalia. Un-stung and unsung!
I will return in a couple of days at dusk, when the colony has adjusted and adapted. Should all go as planned, I am taking my latest colony to my back yard.
Sunday, May 10, 8:00 PM
Although I was prepared for the worst, this trip was uneventful. My son Jacques came to help. He is an avid bee enthusiast. I spent the weekend putting together a full bee keeper’s suit for a 12 year old. Once we were both fully protected, we simply lifted the closed bee hive into the back of the van. The front opening was blocked with the appropriate plywood door. I take a relatively full hive with us, but there is still a chunk of comb, the size of a large watermelon remaining behind.
My job is not complete. I was asked to remove all the bees! I must return. This photo was taken with my camera-phone, looking up below the trailer floor. You can see the fabric, some pink insulation, and wiring running to the office above. Next to it is the box that I filled with three pieces of comb. The combs are resting on top of the frames in the box below it. I added a close-up where you really see all the honey. I took the last pictures without wearing any protection.
Friday, May 14, 2010, 4:00 PM
Last week, I saw a You-Tube video of a man who recovered a hive from inside a cave. He vacuumed the bees, removed, and tied each piece of comb to a frame, and inserted each frame into a hive. This, while inside the cave. As soon as I find the web site again, I’ll provide the link.
So, I did the same to the comb that I collected last week. This is a messy process, the work surface, your gloves and all your tools become covered with honey. I saw many bees on their backs, their wings in the honey, legs flailing. The project was quite successful. I tied 3 frames and placed them in a box.
Now I must plan to do the same with the remaining comb left under the trailer. Jacques has volunteered to help me. As I do not have an official feral hive recovery tool checklist, I went to work collecting tools on Wednesday. All I was missing, once at the site, were the bands to hold my suit tight around my boots, and pine straw for the smoker. We found pine straw on location and used tape around our cuffs.
Last Tuesday, at the WCBA meeting, I requested a Bee-Vac. I got it on Thursday from Ted Clarke, the WCBA’s official bee-vac keeper. He lives in a beautiful suburban neighborhood with old growth. The bee-vac is a box connected to a shop-vac that sucks bees into an internal screened cage. The suction is reduced so the bees are not hurt. Our idea is this: Jacques vacuums as many bees as possible from the hive. Marc cuts each piece of comb and ties it to a frame to place in the hive box.
I requested Archer West Construction give me power to run the shop-vac at the site. When we got there, we saw that Amy, my Archer West contact got me a generator that is pulled by a truck, able to power a suburban house, with 100 ft of extension. I fired up the generator. It sounds and looks like the machines that road crews use to power their jack hammers. Thunderous! Fortunately, my 4:00 arrival allowed me to meet the crew manager, Vinnie, who unlocked the trailer so we could plug the extension inside. Much quieter!
Once we had laid out three frames, the cut string, the smoker and bee-vac, Jacques and I suited up. Jacques started vacuuming. It made a huge difference. In the picture above, you see nothing but bees under the trailer. We could now see the comb for the first time. With my bee keeper’s tool I cut the comb away from the floor joists. Although Jacques vacuumed plenty of bees, there were still a larger number around the hive than in the vacuum box. And guess who was not in the mood now? Every single bee! As I pulled off the first comb, I could feel it vibrating through my gloves. This piece was 16” by 12” high, and 2 thick. It weighed a few pounds. After carrying the comb to the trailer’s back porch that served as my table, my gloves were sticky with honey. Bees were stuck to my gloves. Bees were threatening my face just outside the veil, only 2 inches away from my eyes. This is a most ominous buzz – buzz- buzz, as they crash repeatedly onto the mesh to break their way in. These individuals don’t understand the collective advantage of a battering ram. Even cheap tulle from Joanne’s Fabrics is strong enough. Thank GOD!
Try this experiment at home: Don a pair of leather work gloves, and dip them into a vat of honey. Then try to tie string. It ain’t easy! Although honey is sticky, it lubricates string; making it very difficult to hold tight. I loosely tied comb into the three prepared frames. We still had three more combs to remove. Jacques continued to vacuum bees. The supply of bees seemed inexhaustible. Jacques prepared a fourth frame. The fourth comb I retrieved broke into three chunks. I pushed the pieces together to tie them into place. Pitiful! I was getting tired and impatient. The last two or three combs broke off the floor joists and were piled into the box. We sealed the end of the bee-vac hose with duct tape; another difficult maneuver with honey covered gloves. The hive was covered and strapped. The hive’s entrance blocked. I checked the bee-vac worked properly. None had escaped the inner cage. Before peeling off our gear, I asked Jacques to help me load all the equipment into the van. Jacques too was tired and impatient. His fascination with bees was waning. Two hours in a Kevlar suit at 90 degrees causes my glasses to slip down my nose; again to be addressed while wearing a veil and honey covered gloves.
We vacuumed each other before entering the cool trailer to remove the sweaty plastic garments. Then I moved the open van away from the site to dissuade followers.
On the way home, I removed my glasses because they had a film of honey. I called Mike H for ideas on how to leave my trove for the night. He suggested I spray the vacuumed bees inside the cage with water to weigh them down; then pour them into the open hive box. Leave only a slightly opening in the hive box to invite the stragglers. I followed his instructions. As I backed away, the white box had enough bees on the sides to make a dark mass. The bees were still attacking my gloves; colliding with the leather making tiny repeated “smack” sounds.
To once again get out of my bee garb, I walk around to the front of the house and finally the buzzing stops. I took it all off. Jacques said that there were still a few mad ones on final assault. He ran down the driveway, smacking various parts on his body. Seconds after, I was doing the same, as Jacques encouraged me: “Cours. Cours. Cours, Papa!” (“Run. Run. Run!”) I got only slightly stung on the back of the neck. This added to the two on my shins from kneeling on bees under the trailer. Jacques escaped this session without any stings. Now we must wait to see how this second half of the feral RDU colony fairs; it can thrive on its own, it can join the first half, or it can die. I hope they are well in the end. Soon they can provide honey. They certainly sacrificed a cup or two during this ordeal.
Saturday, May 15, 2010:
Our dog Addie was sick last night. I discovered the cause today. This morning, while collecting the equipment to clean off the honey, I found the board we used as a tabletop, on the deck floor. It was already clean. The dog licked about a half cup. Although it made my work easier this morning, last night Suzanne had to clean up dog vomit. Unless my children tell her, Suzanne may be a little cross when she reads this.
This morning, the new hive is still in chaos. I could not stay within ten feet before a few circled me. There is a mass of honey on the hive floor, keeping the workers busy cleaning and eating.
My three hives below:
The far left hive is housed with a swarm from my neighbor, Mike Manfre. I mentioned recovering this swarm at the beginning of this document. It is my only previous experience with swarms. Mike has about eight hives. The hive on the far right has the colony from my first trip to the RDU trailer; it holds ten frames in the lower box, and the three combs I tied in the box above. Finally in the foreground and close up, is latest addition to my apiary; notice the floor and walls are covered in honey. The slope makes it appear to tilt, but it is quite level.
A close-up of the cage, taken out of the bee-vac.
Marc Larin, Bee keeper.