Love on the Battlefield

The setting of the National Cemetery at the Vicksburg National Military Park is one of the most peaceful ones imaginable.  The rolling loess hillside, graves in neat rows, each section terraced to provide a continuity among the gathered dead.  Oak trees, expanded to their full canopied width.  Magnificent magnolia trees, filled with heady blossoms.  Ancient crape myrtles and ginkgoes filling in the space.

And one very large downed tree, two terraces distant from the road.

Captain Dan Harder, a friend of mine from my time in Puerto Rico, texted me just before Memorial Day.  “Was at the national cemetery this morning putting flags out; apparently they have a giant tree that fell during the storm they can’t remove because it’s full of honeybees.”

I had a quick conversation with the Superintendent of the park, and confirmed that they were interested in having my help.

Turns out that the giant tree was really a bigger job than I was able to do solo.  Everything I have worked to date has been able to be cut through with a reciprocating saw.  This sucker was far bigger than that.  Fortunately, Aaron Matthews, a friend of mine from work, is looking to get into bees, and offered his chainsaw prowess to the task.

Chainsaw work on the fallen tree stopped where the bees began.

Recon visit didn’t tell me much, other than the size of the tree and the size of the entrance.  This is where it gets interesting.  If the bees are only in the very front of the entrance, and fill a space a little bigger than a breadbox, then I don’t need to have a chainsaw.  But if it extends back further, I will need the help.

I veiled and reached in to pull out some of the debris in the entrance.

The bees, not unexpectedly, were more attached to their debris than I had anticipated.  Several expressed their displeasure in a very firm manner.

Signs of aggression, check.

Who could blame them?  The opening that they had was a knothole 20′ up in a tree.  Now it is basketball- sized hole at a level that any passer-by could reach in easily.  That kind of situation would put any of us on edge.

I returned a week later to try again.  By now, the numbers had increased, and they had covered over some of the external comb with propolis, and they were even more ready to take swift action than before.

Bees covering the full entrance to the hive.

The wood has started to deteriorate, and is soft and crumbly.  They won’t be able to stay here much longer anyway.  And as soon as the National Park Service can get the honeybees out, they can take away the tree and dispose of it, and straighten up the graves that were knocked around when the tree fell.

The interior of the log is covered with bees on every surface, and I did not have a way to figure out how deep it goes. 

Only one way to find out.  Reach the hand in and start cutting comb out.  And keep reaching in until there is no comb left.  The hope, of course, is that I don’t run out of reach before I run out of comb. As soon as I have cut comb as far as I can reach, we have to move to using the chainsaw.

If the bees do not like people messing with the debris at the entrance to the hive, they REALLY don’t appreciate solid chainsaw work.

The all-important selfie.  Obligatory.

One more visit yielded only a little more information.  The bees definitely extended further than I had originally thought.

Saturday started off cool and overcast, which meant the bees slept in, waiting for things to warm up before heading out to forage.  At 9 am, Aaron and I arrived, chainsaw and shop vac in tow. With a borrowed generator from the Military park folk (thanks for coming out, Auston!) we got started.

The initial foray into the hive was daunting. I have been chased by bees before, and I have had an entire hive mad at me before, but this was impressive.  The bees just boiled out of the hive, and enveloped both of us in a cloud of bees that overwhelmed us from the first cut of the comb.

I guess it makes sense.  The bees had been safely ensconced in a tree, safe from the elements and from predators.  I imagine that they lived a peaceful life, with no particular aggression needed to keep them safe.

Then suddenly, as Auston put it, God got mad at ‘am, and suddenly they are living in a log that turned their hive 90 degrees on edge, and opened both entrances to the elements.  And to predators.

Auston told us, “Since they can’t get mad at God, so they get mad at you.”

And get mad, they did.

I looked down and did a quick count.  60 stingers in the back of my glove. Where I leaned forward to reach into the hive, the bees stung my cheeks through the veil.  Four times.  Another half dozen stings hit my hands through my double-thick leather gloves as I reached in.

For an hour, I cut away at inaccessible comb while Aaron helped keep the smoker fueled and fired up to help calm the horde.

Before the log fell, the bees had drawn comb vertically in the hollow of the trunk.  When it fell, that comb is now horizontal – not the bees’ preferred position. So they sucked the nectar out, abandoned the use of those parts of the comb, and began drawing comb from the top of the log, and connecting it to the now unused comb stacked at the bottom.

Cross combing

Even so, they maintained the spacing that they needed to do basic housekeeping. So everything is stable, but also built at cross angles to everything else.  Cross angles make it impossible to remove comb cleanly.

And the bees that are now defending the wide open entrance are VERY defensive.

After the first cuts were completed, we pulled enough brood comb to start the bees in their new digs.  Once the box was filled up, we transferred all the comb to Aaron’s new bee yard, and ran the vacuum for the first (of three) times, collecting some 15,000 bees in the process.  All of whom got transferred to their new hive.

Very quickly, I ran out of space to work, and Aaron started up the chainsaw.  The top entrance of the hive was quickly liberated, and the entrance in the base of the log widened, so that I could get at more of the comb.

Video taken with a potato….

Twice more, we smoked the bees to the entrance, and twice more, we removed the bees with the vacuum, transferring them to the new hive.

Final step was to feed the honey back to the bees, so they could use it to build the comb in their new box.

Bees defending high ground

In the final analysis, this was the most aggressive hive I have dealt with.  Possibly also the most bees.  Normally, once I get the entire area open, the bees will settle down and I can work more comfortably, in long shirt and pants with a veil.  These guys would have none of that.  I wore full gear the entire time…. only working without gloves towards the end.  Even then, the bees were feisty.

But I hope that gives them a fighting chance, as well.  We salvaged as much of the cross-combed brood as we could, with which they can raise more bees.  But even so, it might not be enough.    I’ll be talking to some friends about installing a queen (we never spotted her) to help the hive establish.  But we’ll give the 40,000 relocated bees a few days to build comb and make the hive their home.

And when we do, I’ll update you all on the progress.

“There are 3 bees left.”

That was the message I got last night, four days after we removed the hive.  The bees absconded. A large number of them apparently died, within a couple of days of removal, and the bodies piled up.  And the remaining bees took off, leaving an empty hive.

I am going to get a handle on the relocation piece of this business one of these days.   It still seems like such a hit-or miss strategy I employ.  And sometimes it works.  Other times, not.  I usually come up with an after-the-fact explanation (too cold, too slow to move them, too long in the heat, induced robbing).  But the truth is, I am not always sure I know.  It is guesswork. 

I need to guess better.

Published by Company Bee

Novice beekeeper trying to help out.

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