Cut-Out Extraction from an Attic

Last Saturday, Henry and I scheduled a date. We dropped the kids off at his mom’s house, picked up a couple burritos, took a scenic drive out to Blodgett, and then crawled into an uncomfortably warm, insulation-filled side attic, and riled up a couple thousand honey bees. We really are so romantic.

The gentleman who owned this home saw one of Henry’s bee extraction business cards up at the Blodgett Store a few weeks ago, which reminded him of the bees that had moved into an empty crawl space on the second story of his house last summer. (The bees may have smelled evidence of a prior colony that failed.) He didn’t really feel like the bees were causing trouble, but because he was hoping to install a hottub just below the colony’s entrance, he was worried that the bees might be a problem. He didn’t want to kill the colony, so he was pretty happy that Henry was willing and able to export them alive. (Not all beekeepers do extractions because they’re difficult, time consuming, and often yield weak hives.)

Henry had scoped out the colony in an earlier visit, so this time he was prepared to move the bees from the wall into a standard bee box. I took the photos above before he started working. The colony consisted of three main sheets of comb attached to the sloped ceiling and wedged between two wall joists. There were also several pieces of burr comb around the periphery. The dark sections of comb were where the colony raised brood last year, and the very white sections were newer comb.

Henry started by using his hive tool (from Mann Lake) to cut the big sheets of comb free one at a time from the joists and the ceiling. When he pulled out the second sheet, he spotted the queen (that his gloved finger is pointing to in the blurry photo on the right). If the queen was damaged during the extraction (hopefully she wasn’t), the hive would produce a new queen, but when a new queen would be ready to fly, there probably wouldn’t be any drones to mate her because it is so early in the season, so she’d be unable to produce worker bees. While that is a serious risk of doing an extraction this time of year, the colony has fewer bees and little brood right now, making it a smaller job than a summer extraction.

Henry recently procured a batch of “cut-out frames” that make cut-out extractions a lot more streamlined. The frames are hinged on the bottom and strung with fishing line. Henry opened one like a book, laid a large sheet of comb on it, trimmed it to size, and…

…folded it closed. These cut-out frames work with large sheets of comb cut down to fit or smaller sheets pieced together. A few bees will get mashed in the process, but that’s kind of the nature of extractions.

This was a big sheet of comb with some burr comb attached. Henry pulled off the burr comb, so the sheet would fit nicely into a cut-out frame.

Henry smoked the bees periodically but didn’t need much because we were in such a confined space. After smoking, he stuffed green grass into the tip of the smoker to snuff out the fire.

Above you can see a closed cut-out frame ready to go into the bee box. This particular section of comb contained a lot of fresh pollen (the yellow/orange open cells).

After Henry got the big sheets of comb into the bee box, he continued to cut out burr comb and chunks of honeycomb. Bees tend to move upward when they’re riled up, so Henry smoked them down and brushed many of them into the bee box.

Most of the colony’s honey was stored toward the top of the hive in small sections of comb. Henry cut it out and brought most of it home. He replaced those food stores with two uniform frames of honey from another hive plus a pollen patty and a pile of baker’s sugar, so they’ll have plenty to eat.

After cutting pieces of honeycomb off the wall, Henry used a bee brush to sweep bees off the comb and into the hive box.

The bees were mostly unscathed by the sweeping, though they were pretty riled up at this point.

While taking these photos, I did get stung for the first time in a long time when a bee crawled up my pant leg, and I couldn’t get it out gently enough. It definitely hurt, but I was actually surprised by how little it actually affected me (just minor swelling and itching). Henry got stung many times in this operation, but he took it without complaint.

Henry spent 15 minutes or so smoking and brushing the remaining bees down out of the corner. He has a grand plan to rig a cordless Makita vacuum so that he can suck straggler bees out of tight spaces (bees vacuums are commonly used in extractions), but he doesn’t have one yet.

The photos above show a little bit better view of the workspace as Henry was finishing up. The roof was maybe five feet tall at the peak, but it sloped considerably, so we couldn’t stand up straight. It was also really dark, so most of the photos above are taken with Henry’s headlamp as the only light source. As you can imagine, I have dozens of completely black or totally blurry photos of the action.

Here’s a piece of honeycomb that Henry pulled out of the hive. He gave a chunk to the homeowner who proceded to take a couple of bites on the spot. It was good stuff.

This is the outside wall where the bees were coming and going. You can see the pretty large pileated woodpecker hole up toward the roofline above Henry and the homeowner. When all this bee business is over, the homeowner will just seal that hole up to prevent future swarms from moving in.

This particular cut-out extraction went quite well. One of the perks is that the homeowner gave Henry permission to temporarily leave the bees in their box in the attic, so they won’t be shocked by leaving their warm den and getting forced out into cold winter temperatures. Henry will be back to pick them up in about a month.

The bees that Henry removed from this house had no varroa mites on them even though they did not receive any chemical mite treatments this past summer. Henry is hoping to catch a few spring swarms and has scheduled several more extractions and trap outs from homes and barns to add to his colonies of survivor bees.