As things warm up around here, Henry’s been starting to schedule 2013 honeybee extractions. (I’m using the term “honeybee extraction” in this post to mean the act of removing unwanted honeybees that are living on their own in people’s barns, garages, rotten trees, etc.) The next month and a half or so is the best time of year (as opposed to summer) for doing extractions for several reasons: colonies are smaller with fewer bees and less brood to have to worry about rehiving, the bees will have longer to recover and establish strong hives over the summer, less nectar in the hives means the process will be less messy and fewer bees will be drenched and mashed in the process, and newly boxed colonies are less likely to get their honey stores robbed by other bees this early in the season. Spring bee removals are more convenient and cheaper for homeowners as well because Henry can usually get the job done in one or two sessions (as opposed to multiple sessions in the summer), which keeps his costs down and therefore keeps his fees down, too.
Through word of mouth, Henry heard about an old barn in the Blodgett area that had at least one colony of bees living in the wall. He approached the landowner (Mike from Willamette Saw Service) and asked if he wanted the bees gone. Mike agreed, so Henry made a quick visit to the site last week to scope it out.
Scheduling bee removals can be a little difficult because they must be done on relatively warm, not-rainy days. If it’s too cold or wet, the queen and/or the brood can be chilled, and the whole thing will fail. This time of year, nice days can be hard to predict in advance. Henry had some time off on Sunday, and even though it wasn’t quite as warm as he’d hoped, he headed out to the barn to do the extraction.
Generally speaking, barns are easier to extract bees from than people’s homes because the construction is simpler, and the owners are usually less concerned about the damage to the structure that’s necessary to gain access to a colony. Henry always tries to be respectful of people’s property, but he makes sure to let folks know that things might get torn up a bit. In some cases, he’ll bring along a contractor friend who can repair damage and ensure that bees can’t get back in in the future.
The bees were going in and out of the wall through a gap in the siding, so Henry began by removing several battens. Bees get agitated by loud, percussive noises, so demolition should be carried out with as little banging around as possible. Often, a pry bar is an appropriate tool for the job.
Even before opening up the wall, it was apparent that this barn had been home to multiple colonies of bees in the past, and that wasn’t surprising. A barn with plenty of easy-access cracks and knotholes that’s also out in the middle of a field within a few miles of several commercial bee yards is a pretty inviting place for a swarm to move into. It looked as though someone had tried to evict a colony of bees from a wallspace around the corner, but those bees either died off after the disturbance or just found a different space in the same structure to live in. When Henry got things opened up, he found a lot of unoccupied comb from past bee colonies.
The current colony of honeybees was living between the studs in one section of barn wall. They probably moved in as a swarm last summer and built up all the sheets of comb that you see above before the weather cooled down and nectar sources waned in the fall. (You can read a little more about comb in this post.)
After gaining good access, Henry began by cutting out sheets of mostly empty (except for a few cells of new pollen) comb. These sheets of comb are not reusable for beekeeping purposes, but he took them home to be melted with the rest of comb we have laying around.
The browner cells above are packed with fresh pollen. There’s plenty of pollen available this time of year (from hazelbrush, white alder, willow, etc.), so throwing out some of their pollen stores is not a huge loss.
He then started cutting and pulling out frames of valuable brood that he loaded into cut-out frames. (More description of cut-out frames in this post.) At this point, he was trying to locate the queen (hence the queen catcher clip on his hat).
He found the queen on a sheet of brood comb, isolated her in a queen catcher, and then moved the queen catcher into the new hive box. Having her in the queen catcher while he’s still cutting comb and working bees allows him to keep tabs on her and ensures that she doesn’t accidentally get damaged in the fray.
He continued filling cut-out frames with brood comb and adding them to the hive box as well as shaking masses of bees off sheets of comb onto the hive box, the brood frames, and the queen.
Above is what some folks call “bee bread”. It’s actually pollen and nectar that got mixed up last summer and was allowed to lacto-ferment (kinda like sauerkraut). The bees then covered the mixture with honey to seal it up. The white cells have spoiled and gone moldy, but the brown ones are full of this probiotic substance and will be eaten when pollen sources are scarce.
This colony had a considerable amount of stored honey, so after the queen was secured in the box, Henry cut out sheet after sheet of full honeycomb.
Comb honey removed from naturally built colonies is heavy, floppy, and doesn’t usually fit in standard-size frames, so it can’t be easily transfered into a hive box. It’s usually best to either eat it or leave it out for the bees to clean up. Sometimes honeycomb extracted out of old barns is full of insulation, mouse poop, and generally unpalatable dead bee bits, but in this case, the stored honey was fairly clean even though some of it was crystallized.
Henry set the hive box up on a large plastic drum and placed it as close as possible to the old entrance. The bees from the colony that were not yet inside the box will visually orient to the general area of the hive, but when they come near, they will smell the queen’s pheromones and reroute their flight path toward the box and away from the wall.
Last summer, Henry set aside a couple hundred frames of capped honey (that would have been easy to take and eat ourselves) so that he’d be able to fortify newly-hived colonies and replace the honey removed during extractions. He added four such frames to this hive box.
Once the box was set up, Henry started heavily smoking the bees that remained on the wall and in the old hive space, driving them into the air so that they will hopefully reorient to the queen’s new residence with the brood.
He lidded the box and then stuffed chunks of comb into the entrance slot above the landing board. This forced the bees to enter and exit through the small hole in the front, but more importantly, it concentrates the stream of pheromone-laden air being emitted from the hive so that it attracts errant bees more efficiently.
Because these bees aren’t really bothering anyone where they’re at and because the area has a lot to offer resource-wise, Henry will probably leave the box where it is for another month or so.
Henry, who wasn’t wearing a veil, gloves, or any other protective clothing, got stung a grand total of two times during this whole affair. I didn’t get stung at all even though there were a lot of bees in the air and occasionally on my hair/clothes/camera, but I was most proud of myself for not freaking out when a bee landed on my bare ear and started crawling around.
Henry gave the homeowners a couple full sheets of honeycomb, but there was a lot more.
He divvied up the rest to give away to friends and folks that allow Henry use their property as summer bee yards for breeding and foraging. Someday, we may have enough to sell comb honey, but we’re not there yet.
If you live in Benton, Polk, or Lincoln counties (in Oregon) and have unwanted honeybees living on your property that you want removed, please email Henry at email@example.com. Bee removals performed in the early spring are much easier for all involved parties than removals performed during the summer, so contacting him sooner rather than later is preferred. Henry does estimates for free, but you may be charged a service fee for a removal because even though Henry gets the bees for “free”, there are significant costs involved in the job (fuel, special equipment and materials, labor, etc.).
Also, swarm season begins in April, and Henry catches swarms for free as well. He does NOT, however, do any jobs involving yellow jackets, wasps, or hornets.