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By: Brian Rogers
Recently I was invited to give a presentation to a Bee Club on the other side of the state by some great friends in Missoula. When queried what they wanted me to address, the answer was, “We don’t know, just make it interesting and fun.” Ummm, alrighty then. So with such a lofty goal in mind I stayed up all night and managed to complete the project in one long go! You see, the presentation just flowed out like a tapped honey barrel. Never before in my experiences (and unfortunately certainly not in college) has a presentation come together so quickly and with so much material that it could be said to have written itself. I let them know I had it ready and the date was set. I drove across the state and gave the presentation to the assembled group. It was received very well and went GREAT. My topic that night you ask? I spoke about my “Top 20 Bee Captures and Removals”.
Fast forward a couple of months and here I am working on my Master Beekeeping Certification through the University of Montana and it was identified that there might actually be something worthwhile that I’ve been involved in that can help others in this industry – two industries even! So after encouragement from Dr. Jerry Bromenshenk and Bee Culture’s Kim Flottum, here is some of that material. First, let’s make this semi-official for the class’s sake. My research question is: How do we retrieve bees that are inside a structure and can we improve the efficiency, reduce the damage required, improve success with technology, as well as what are some lessons I have learned along the way?
Let’s assume a few things: 1. We’re talking experienced beekeepers. (Youngs and Burgett, Removing Bees From Buildings, 1989) It’s not recommended for the industry’s novice beeks to be messing with bees & structures; collecting swarms is a better starting point. Let those wings grow a little bit first, walk before you fly! 2. We are dealing with honey bees and not the yellow jackets that nine out of 10 of my voicemails are regarding every August and September. 3. That we all understand that, unlike wasp and yellow jacket nests, we should not entomb, seal up, or leave a honey bee hive in a structure without an informed decision of the risks. If the homeowner were to manage to kill the caretakers, there is still a great big ball of goo that gets formed on a hot Summer day from the honey, wax, bodies, pollen, propolis, etc, and it’s bound to make its presence known as it seeps through drywall, plaster, ceilings, walls, floors, and so on. This then is followed up with attracting even more undesirable tenants than the bees, such as rats, roaches, mice, skunks, ants, etc. In short, hives must be removed, nests do not. 4. There are very few resources available out there for the experienced beek to turn to when he/she wants to move up to a level in which they are able to safely remove bees from structures. One resource that I found invaluable is Honey Bee Removal by Cindy Bee and Bill Owens. I highly recommended this short publication if this facet of beekeeping appeals to you.
So let’s get started with the easiest hurdle first. Isn’t it great when swarms present themselves right where we can scoop them up and capture them during bivouac? This can be considered our ‘almost ideal’; with the only better condition being that they move themselves into the empty bait hives all on their own. Unfortunately, all too often the bees move into structures where they aren’t wanted, that weren’t built for them, and quite often where they are not welcomed as tenants. Those scout bees just return to waggle their butts off excitedly for attics, wall cavities, floor joists, cellars, soffits, sheds, under bathtubs and even the occasional outhouse. Apparently those scouts are quite effective lobbyists as they build consensus (Seeley, Honeybee Democracy, 2010, Chap 6) too because they keep ending up in all these less-than-ideal places.
Now before we go on, we should mention that beekeepers tend to be an opinionated bunch, aren’t we? As the widely accepted saying goes, “If you ask three beekeepers their opinion, you get four answers. ” We find that there are a lot of rules, but there are exceptions happening all around us. So one of the things I’ve learned is to be very careful using is the word, “never.” Here’s a good example; it had been said that bees would never swarm to the same tree, simultaneously, especially with many trees nearby because it would interfere with the scents and they would rather spread out. Here’s a picture of not one, not two, but three swarms, all in the same tree. They had emitted from hives that were kept about 10 feet away. No other trees anywhere else on the property were occupied, but all three of those queen-right swarms decided that one tree was the place to be. We captured all three with one going to the tenant beek with just enough on-hand spares to make one more hive, and the other two traveled back to be installed in another apiary. So the lesson here is there are times we get surprised dealing with honeybee behavior; that’s all part of the fun. Hold that thought.
Sometimes things are just one step past a swarm and one step before involving floor and wall panels, siding or cutting accesses. Here’s one where we climbed up into an attic and found a gorgeous hive with four by three feet curtains of honeycomb. The white debris pile on top of the insulation under the hive was actually a nice accumulation of wax scales! This removal was as plain as removing the hive by cutting manageable sections of comb out, searching for/finding/capturing the queen, rubber banding the sections of comb into empty frames, and saving as many of the bees as possible.
The next step in complexity is having to remove an easy cover like fabric or a hatch cover. I went on a call to a nearby town where a homeowner reported bees entering and exiting the corner of the cinderblock foundation under a trailer. The first trip was to scout it out, confirm the location, view the activity, and determine what I would need to bring for the removal. It wasn’t planned to be a recruiting trip, but it happened that the owner wanted to join the ranks of beekeepers and wanted to start with those bees. GREAT! Welcome to a fascinating and fun hobby newbee! I gave them the short list of what they needed, stacked the hive boxes next to the house, and left instructions to call when they got their suits and equipment. Four to six shipping weeks later, they called and we set a day to remove the hive. We suited up, accessed the crawlspace, removed the fabric covering the floor joists and – there it was. A beautiful six foot long by 16” hive with diagonal combs filled to the brim with honey from one end to the other. But where are the bees?!? Remember those rules? The bees would “never” leave an active hive like that, right? Oh well, one exception we can think of would be if it was absconding, right? Darn, they must’ve left, so let’s just remove all this comb and honey. I guess we don’t need to worry about rubber banding comb in place on frames anymore, because there are no bees to occupy them. We removed the entire hive’s worth of comb and honey which filled numerous trash bags and dragged them out of the crawlspace. We had a good chuckle because the hive actually involved the underside of the main bathroom’s tub. “Honey, I’m trying to relax in the tub, what’s that sound?” We started loading equipment back up and noticed the stored boxes had bee activity, a lot of activity! What we found was that the bees must have left that perfectly-stocked-for-Winter hive, walked out the front door, across the wall to where the boxes were leaning against the house and moved into the langstroth boxes; the very boxes that we prepositioned to put them in a couple of months prior. They moved themselves into where we were going to put them. Surprise! If only they were all this easy. They had actually made pretty good progress in the first box. With Winter approaching quickly we ended up devising a hive-top feeder to put their honeycomb mash into for them to re-store and feed. The hive made it through the mild winter and the world gained a couple of new beekeepers out of it. Not bad at all.
Another time I got a call for bees that had just moved into an outhouse a “couple weeks before”. Not your blue porta-potty type (thankfully) but instead it was a lumber-built outhouse with the bees unable to access the inside, only the outside (again, thankfully for human occupants). We found the seam for the panel and just pried the whole 4×8 section off exposing new comb at the top and old comb at the bottom. Out on a Montana ranch, a homeowner called up to say bees were living in a soffit at the peak of a gable. A convenient cherry-picker ride later and they were in a temporary hive bouncing down the highway on the return trip to the apiary. These examples are pretty typical of the removal process; Find hive, access hive, remove hive. It’s straightforward, sometimes brute force, but still effective. But how can we improve on this? Let’s concentrate on finding the hive because the others will follow if we can just enhance that first part of the equation.
When the hives are obscured, we need to have a few tools at our disposal. We can always drill pilot holes and see if the bit comes out wet, but before we grab our wrecking bar and bee vacuum, we always want to try non-invasive tools and techniques first so as to be as precise as possible on the location. This can be as simple as using a hand to feel for the warmth of the cluster, or a stethoscope to find the loudest amplitude. Even with those tools, we often find that it still comes down to our doing exploratory surgery to find out the extent of the hive. But wouldn’t it be great to get a more accurate picture before you go in the wrong direction? Like when we did this one:
My team went out to an old grain storage building where bees were coming and going through the outside corner siding. Looking at the construction, we assumed they were travelling up into the wall cavity, similar to many others; so we started to remove siding planks. We got three planks up and found hard blocks preventing them from moving up in the wall. We chased an assumption and we were wrong. Now if they aren’t moving up, then they must be moving across; and the chase was on. Once several tons of grain were moved out of the building, we were able to access the floor corner. We cut an access opening and it kept going and going. Upon inspection we saw they had moved into the floor joists and with enough space under them to move between joists they setup home involving a three feet by five feet space under the floor.
One very important tool which also cannot be overlooked is a good bee vacuum when doing commercial scale removals. Once we’ve found the hive, gained access, and found the queen, we have the option to step up the collection a notch by using a gentle bee vacuum. I emphasize gentle because the idea is not to recreate the near total vacuum of space and turn the inside of bees into the outsides. Any vacuum design used, and there are many out there to choose from, needs to include a variable vacuum head or a regulator to adjust the amount of suction delivered. (Honey Bee Removal, Cindy Bee & Bill Owens, 2010) The operator should ensure that the bees remain intact with wings, legs, and antenna all staying where they belong so they can function post-relocation.
There are more advanced tools on the market that help as well. A pinhole or borehole camera can be fished into a cavity to get a better picture of the inside and can remove the question of “does the hive go up or across?” However, these cameras have their limitations. It’s very easy to get turned around, twisted and lose your perspective using them. So wouldn’t it be great if we can just point a camera at a wall or ceiling and get a picture of what we’re dealing with?
Forward-Looking Infra-Red cameras, aka thermal cameras, are similar to the no-touch or laser thermometers that take a temperature on a surface from a distance, usually with a laser dot for aiming. But thermal cameras look at thousands of those surface temperature points simultaneously and compose a picture with it. Thus you can find things like the wall cavity your building contractor forgot to insulate, electrical panel breakers that are running hot, which hives are alive or dead in Winter, whether your dog napped on your sofa or the floor while you ran to the store, and of course the cameras are extremely adept at locating hives inside walls, ceilings, floors, etc, which you’ll see in a moment.
I received a call from a condominium building that reported bees between a 9th floor suite and the roof. After a futile chase with all the previous tools we tried using a FLIR camera that I use for house inspections. We found that we could see from where the bees entered an exterior panel, the bees spread out on the lower edge to the left and right within the panel. We also found out that what is contained within the blueprints is not necessarily what gets implemented in the final building. The panel contained insulation on the top, but was not insulated in the bottom as designed, which provided the cavity where these bees decided to make their home. Since this call, I’ve had chances to prove the thermal camera time and again as being a very valuable tool in finding and orienting hives for removal. I only wish I had the camera sooner.
I received another call about bees inside an exterior wall on the 2nd story of a building that moved in “a couple weeks ago” (there’s that phrase again; learn to politely ignore it if you hear it, it’s often wrong). We could see the hole, but when viewed thermally the warmth radiating around it didn’t match with the amount of traffic and certainly didn’t mesh with such a small space between the exterior coating and interior sheathing. It turned out there was another hole through the sheathing leading to the main cavity between the studs. So we knew it was bigger than indicated, but we just didn’t know how much bigger. Time for some exploratory surgery on the inside wall opposite the entrance hole. Turns out the hive was 16” by about eight feet with four layers deep of just curtains and curtains of honey and brood.
My most recent call is probably the best and clearest example for FLIR technology. I got a call about bees in an exterior wall with wood siding. Sure enough, there was a notched hole in the siding along with a round puncture through the exterior sheathing made by a woodpecker with bees coming and going. Everyone else had just assumed that they were in the wall and there were already plans afoot to start ripping siding planks off. A quick verification of the small hole on the exterior was followed by an interior scan which revealed that they were not in the wall but instead in the ceiling, all neatly contained within the width of one floor joist. While the second floor had a nice hardwood floor, it was quickly determined that the easiest and most cost-effective way to retrieve them was through the ceiling drywall on the first floor. You can now understand how the thermal camera saved a lot of wasted time, work, damage, money, and frustration that day! All these examples just to save bees and get them to where they are wanted and appreciated; but what a noble cause indeed!
So in conclusion, I have found several tools that have earned their place as being essential to the toolkit for anyone that goes beyond the occasional tree branch swarm capture; the newest being the FLIR thermal camera. These tools start to allow efficiency and finesse beyond the typical: find hive, access hive, remove hive with brute force. The tools mentioned reduce the damage required, helps the capturer efficiently use time and resources, saves the property owner unnecessary charges and stress. Any time we reduce the disruption of a very chaotic event for the bees, the likelihood of success increases. My final lesson learned – I’m pretty sure the presentation in Missoula went so well because the material and pictures were great and it had nothing to do with the fact that the event was held at a brewery; at least that’s what I continue to tell myself.
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