Whenever I am answering a request to do a honeybee hive removal for someone, I have a series of questions I ask. Did you spray them? How high are they? Are they aggressive? Are they getting inside?
I just added the question above to my list, because the answer can change the expectation of what I have awaiting me when I open the wall.
This week was a simple removal. Bees in the Eaves. An easy cut out of decaying soffit, a quick reach in to cut out the comb, and then it is just a matter to separate the comb with honey (almost a certainty, at this time of year), box up the brood comb with rubber bands to hold it in place, and vacuum up remaining bees.
In this instance, it was even easier than that.
Ty Wamsley had been my office neighbor for a couple of years. He was the director of the Science and Technology section of Mississippi Valley Division, and so I was delighted when I got his call. Even more so when he wanted to talk about bees.
After looking over the site, I was convinced that there was very little space for the bees to have expanded to, and so started the cutout carefully. I tore off the plywood to get at the cavity, and found quite a bit of clean, bright comb. The space appeared very small, consistent with what he had described. After removing the first couple of pieces of empty, new comb, I cut out first one piece of brood comb, and then another. And then the third.
But no honeycomb.
In all, I cut off a dozen pieces of comb, total. Only four of the pieces had been used for brood, and those were still light enough to be pretty.
This was a recent arrival.
Apparently, some time in the past month, some seriously docile bees (hooray for docile!) had swarmed into his house and made their home. They made a conscious decision to swarm, and then agreed on where the new home was going to be. Ty’s house was the winner.
This is where I get to geek out a little. Honeybee decisionmaking process is so much cooler than anything we use to make decisions. One day, I am going to run an experiment where we replicate bee decisionmaking in one of our Corps projects, and see if we get different results.
Bee process starts with population pressure. Once the bees have filled all of the available space in their current digs with comb, and they have filled that comb space with a combination of honey, pollen, and brood, they get to feeling the population pressure. When they do, the queen picks a whole bunch of recently emerged bees, and takes off in a swarm. When the queen leave, she is accompanied by about 60% of the bees in the hive. (That is a HUGE hit for a beekeeper, who mostly just wants those girls for their sweet, sweet products)
As soon as they leave, and sometimes a little before, scout bees head out to do recon. They find a place, and come back to report. And they report with the famous “waggle dance”, first decoded by von Frisch in 1949. The figure eight dance (swing yer pardner, round ye go….) gives direction and distance, and communicates GPS coordinates to the bees that are ‘listening’. Those bees go and check it out. If they like it, they come and give the same dance.
If they don’t, they find another, and come back and give different coordinates.
The cool thing is this: THEY VOTE.
As more and more scouts return to the group, they dance their vote, and at some point, the group gets enough votes to make the move. And they decide, en masse, to make the move. And they swarm.
The queen can only make it a little ways. She’s fat and not used to exercising (like me), and after a little flight she takes a rest.
Eventually, she arrives and they immediately start building clean, white comb for her to lay eggs in. At around 1500 eggs a day, eventually she fills up the space with lots of bees. And those bees fill up the space with comb. And honey and pollen.
If you don’t have lots of honey and pollen, it means that the bees are either a) struggling from a lack of resources, or b) they are just starting out. Beginning of spring, no flowers, I’d choose a).
But late spring, I am guessing b).
The numbers of bees in Ty’s hive were impressive. And I expect that by the end of the day, the foraging bees will be coming home. When they do, I can close up their entrance and transport them to the house.
But I would have had a different expectation when I opened the wall, if I had just asked the right question. Ty responded, “You know, I don’t know. I think we first noticed them about a month ago. But it might have been longer.”
A month seems about right. Enough time to have bumped up the numbers of bees, built enough comb to get busy, and not enough time to actually fill the comb with honey. (Well, maybe not…)
So, next time, I will ask.
The bees were boxed, and were set aside to allow all the foragers to return. The next day, they will find themselves in a new home. One that I hope they will learn to love.
It is pretty much guaranteed, that when I read about bees, and then use my knowledge and logic to make a decision, that:
A) The bees have not read the same books, and
B) The bees do not use the same logic.
I set the box aside so that the bees in the box would care for the brood, and that the queen (whom I had hoped was in the box, as well….) would keep everybody in the box.
I grabbed the box the following morning – while it was still dark out – and one bee walked out. I figured that was a good sign, and hustled them to their new home.
I opened the box later in the day, and that was the ONLY bee that had remained behind. The rest had followed the queen somewhere else. Somewhere near Ty’s house is a new hive of bees that are struggling to build comb and survive.
It turns out that they heard about the fact that I charged rent for staying on my property. And they figured it was better to be a squatter in a tree than a tenant in a box.