How long have they been there?

With trees, you count the rings.

With obsidian, you view the layers of hydrated glass.

With archaeological stuff, you use 14C dating, or associated artifacts that have been securely dated elsewhere.

One of the questions I usually get asked when doing a removal is “How long have they been there?” The homeowner just wants to know whether the bees have been there all along and had just not been noticed, or whether they are recent invaders of the homestead.

Usually, it is not easy to tell.

Usually.

This week, I was doing a removal of bees from a hunting camp on an island north of Vicksburg, and I could say with relative certainty, that the bees had been around for a long time. A LONG time.

When bees first arrive in a space, their primary task is to set up a place for the queen to start laying and more space for food stores to be stashed. Their nursery and their cupboard both look the same – they place both food and babies in the hexagonal wax comb. So step #1 is to make the wax and form it into nice hex cabinets.

A previous removal of comb that was just a few weeks old. Note the bright color.

The result is a bright white comb. New occupation just looks white, clean, and bright. As it is used, it takes on different colors. After pollen or honey has been used, and then removed, it leaves small particles behind that get cleaned out and smushed into the waxy walls of the cell. So after a while, pollen cells become yellowed. So do honey cells.

Brood cells, though, look different after use. The eggs, the larvae, and the pupae all leave evidence of their 3-week development, and the first job they have after emerging as adult worker bees is to clean out their cells. This cleaning makes it perfect for the queen to lay in the cell again, and the process starts again. Another 21 days later, another bee emerges and cleans out her cell.

And again and again. After just a couple of months, there have been as many as three different times that the cell was used to grow an adult bee from an egg.

As successive generations develop and emerge and clean and renovate their cells, the comb gets darker and darker. A year-old comb that has been home to generations of bees is brownish black.

Eventually, the queen will stop laying in this comb because the interior space is too small for the brood, and the bees will abandon it in favor of building more – expanding further into the space available in the log, wall, or eaves.

This week, my removal was of a space that had been completely filled. There was no additional space for the bees to move into; they had filled every inch of the space with comb. And because they cannot cut away and discard the old comb, they had used it until they couldn’t do so any longer.

There is nothing wrong with the honey, which is as sweet and rich and fine as any I have tasted. It serves the purpose of providing nutrition for bees, and will work nicely to provide a biscuit marinade. The honey in the hive is simply taking up less space inside the individual cell, which has closed in over time.

The wax has also gotten tougher as it has been strengthened with the particles embedded in it. So in doing the removal, instead of simply slicing through the soft comb, I found myself sawing through the leather-hard wax connecting comb to comb, comb to wood, and comb to aluminum siding. Hard work.

Dang it. This one was supposed to be easy. The camp – scheduled for eventual demolition – is not going to be used again, so my work is literally just an attempt to get the bees out and away. No salvage, no cleaning, no attempt to limit damage. Just cut, scoop, and re-home.

Right off the bat, I got an indication that this would not be a simple task. I drove my truck under the camp, and placed the ladder in the bed of the truck. I climbed up the ladder and immediately found out how low my sneakers were and how thin my socks. Bees boiled out, as mad as could be, and one after another, found the soft spot….

….which happened to literally be my achilles heel. One hasty retreat later, I was only willing to brave a return after having stuffed my socks with scraps of maps I had in my truck – anything to provide a little more padding. Only then would I try again.

Relentless girl. Going for the eye…. of the camera.

The removal was a mess, the queen had laid eggs in a very hit-or-miss fashion, interspersing eggs with honey. And the girls were mad at me from the beginning, on what had become a very hot August day. But eventually they did settle down a bit, and let me get to the business at hand. Over the next three hours, I filled up five 5-gallon buckets with a combination of comb and pollen and honey.

And once I was done, I re-homed them, and started the process of squeezing the honey out of the stiff comb (potato ricer and all my strength), and rendering and straining the wax for use in other applications.

In the whole space, there was not a single piece of comb that was not stained with age and showed evidence of being used over and over again.

In their new home, there will be space for them to expand. And if the queen decides to stray, there will be plenty of room for her girls to prepare some bright, white, new comb for her to use. And she can get busy laying.

Also, for what it’s worth, getting to the island really does require a ride on the King’s Ferry. And getting there is at least half the fun.

Published by Company Bee

Novice beekeeper trying to help out.

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