I got more nervous before doing this than I was when I first decided to take the project on. I was immediately excited and then later, I started to feel the pressure and the immensity of this large-scale, four wild-bee hive removal. It didn’t help to also receive input from people that tended toward the dangers of this endeavor.
The weather wasn’t cooperating either. I was sure that I didn’t want to do this on a day that also included rain. Bees and rain don’t mix. A bee hive can become very defensive at the slightest drop of barometric pressure.
After several schedule changes, the day finally came but it was not without its bumps in the road. Luckily, the veils came in the mail and we at least had the protection if needed. With a little, I’m-going-into-that-hive-today affirmations from me, everybody seemed on board. We made our move and loaded up the truck with everything and more of what we needed.
We had two bee teams and that was part of the fun and magic of the day. The more experienced crew took on the greater work load and my team took on one of the two largest hives.
I knew our hive was big but the other three hives were somewhat of a mystery until we started removing walls. The cabin, located three miles away from the farm, was going to be demolished and we were intent on saving the bees. I’m not sure what the owner’s of the land would have done had we not volunteered to remove them. I know for sure that no bulldozer operator in his right mind would level the place with 400,000 bees in it.
My team of four were all fairly new at beekeeping and this was only my second wild bee hive removal ever. My first hive removal was a cute, little 5-6 white comb hive under the eve of my neighbor’s house. It took very little time, and had very little risk.
The other bee team of five was more experienced commercial beekeepers who manage many hives in our part of the Island and had done many wild hive removals. I was happy to have them with us.
We suited up, more so than when I go into any one of my eight hives. I even wore rubber gloves which are awkward to work in and hot! We also covered up and wore veils.
To our surprise the bees were somewhat mellow even after we ripped open the wood paneling exposing their whole hive to light. They were still making defensive moves toward us and stinging us right through our gloves.
As a beekeeper, in order to maintain an immunity from the stings, you must get stung fairly regularly. If not your finger might look like a sausage after a sting and take days for the swelling to go down. So getting stung is something we hope to happen at least once or twice when we go into a hive. With your immunity up, a sting will sometimes not even be remembered afterwards.
Once you get stung, it helps to remove the stinger in less than 15 seconds. When a bee stings you, it leaves its stinger and an automatic release pump injects venom into your flesh. If left in for longer, the pump keeps pushing venom into your body. You can actually see this pump moving if you look closely at your stinger. The very next thing you do after removing the stinger, is to mask the bees defensive pheromones with smoke from the bee smoker by applying the smoke directly on the sting.
I initially learned that beekeeper’s use smoke to warn the bees of an impending “forest fire” and that the bees tend to fill up on honey for their eminent departure. Bees with full belly’s tend to be like people after a Thanksgiving meal and can barely move afterwards. What the smoke actually does is cover up the a bees defense pheromone. Bees tend to work as a group, so if one bee is alerted to danger, the rest are soon to follow. A little smoke masks this defense.
Smoke is also good for making bees move off of comb or an area where you need them gone from. Too much smoke will irritate the bees. I tend to listen to the bees and can tell when enough is enough. A hive with their defenses rising will tend to line up to stare at you as well as increase their noise level. Also, if looking for the queen or harvesting honey, too much smoke is a bad thing.
The foremost thing I really wanted to do in this hive was capture the queen. If I found the queen early on, and caught her in a cage, the ability to capture most of the bees would be easier. The bees will follow a queen to a new hive box. A queen only leaves the hive for two reasons, one, for her maiden flight to receive sperm that will last her a life time, and the other, to swarm.
Too much smoke can also leave a smokey flavor to the honey. Honey was not the reason for our mission this day. Saving the bees was.
After peeling off the house’s wood paneling, we gave time for the bees that spilled out to crawl or fly back into the hive, then we started to dissemble the hive. All bees were brushed off their combs over an empty Langstroth bee hive box. Since we wanted to keep this hive with the bees alive, and we were unsure of retaining the queen, we cut out pieces of the hive’s combs and fit them into box frames securing them with rubber bands.
Two things we hoped to do is maintain the same orientation of the comb as was in the hive. Bees build their comb at somewhat of a downward slope to hold the nectar in and prevent it from dripping out. Secondly, we wanted to keep the brood and eggs alive. Uncapped brood can also fall out of the comb if not careful in keeping the comb upright. Not too concerned with the honey comb, we brushed the bees off it and put in a bucket.
The bees tend to stay where the queen and the brood are. With the box now holding some of the brood comb the bees mainly stayed there while we worked on finding the queen and collecting as much bees as possible.
It took about 4 hours at this point to remove all the comb, discarding some drone comb and saving worker bee brood. The hive was 2′ w x 3′ l and was 2-3 combs deep. It was a solid wall of bees and comb.
In the meantime, the other experienced bee team was successful in their first two removals. Both hives were smaller and both times they retrieved the queen. We would hear shouts of joy as the team spotted the queens. This kept our hopes up that we to would find ours.
Being in a bee hive is a big adrenaline rush. I also think that being stung also increases this. If I am stung more than five times, I usually have a hard time falling asleep that night. Sometimes when I’m done with working on my hives, I find that 3 hours have pasted and it felt like only one. Bee work does make your back ache and afterwards it feels good to relax those muscles.
We took a break at this point to get re-hydrated. The other team soon joined us. It’s hot and sweaty in those suits. It’s also irritating to look through a screen for that long. It felt good to pull the suit off for a while and let the bees group together again. I felt sure that we would find the queen on the second trip back.
The other bee team was up for the fourth and last hive removal so we urged them on seeing that we were slower and hadn’t recovered our queen. They took on the shower stall hive, which may have been bigger hive if not the same size as ours. This hive was particularly hard to work on because it occupied a corner of the second structure and wrapped around a fiberglass shower stall.
We went back into the main cabin and the bees had balled up together holding on to each other without the benefit of comb. We brushed bees down into a cardboard box and emptied them into our hive box.
I looked around for the queen and saw a grouping of bees about the size of a 50 cent piece on the floor under the once grand hive. I brushed them on to a piece of cardboard to have a better look and found the queen. I was excited at first until I discovered that she was not well. She had gotten critically injured sometime during the removal.
Spotting the queen in a hive full of worker bees is not the easiest thing to do. She moves constantly but at a slower pace and she usually has a full escort of bees around her moving rather more frantically. Her abdomen is enlarged and is longer than a worker bee because she is the only bee with ovaries. Spotting her is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Most of the time, in my hives, just seeing larva and eggs is my affirmation that I do have a queenright hive– a hive with a laying queen.
The look on everyone’s face showed our disappointment. If she was found healthy we would have placed her in a cage and put her in the hive box. We would have taken her back to the farm with all the bees and they would have begun their gather honey, pollen, and wax making ritual with little to no effort or great loss. But as it was, she was dying. We put her in a cage and banded her to an empty frame and placed her into the hive box.
Bees need to morn the loss of their queen, also keeping her there encouraged them to stay in the box and not fly out. We then gathered up the rest of the wayward bees, put them in the box and then sealed it up for transportation back to the farm. We then rejoined the expert team.
They were busy ripping open panels and collecting bees. A guava sapling was in their way, so I grabbed a saw and cut it down. Guava is invasive in Hawaii. In some areas it takes over so much that one cannot walk through it. Recently, the DOA released a biological control for it.
The second team had a homemade bee vacuum using a 5 gallon bucket system. Attached to the bucket was a Sears battery operated vacuum that comes with portable drill sets. They had several batteries as back up to replace the spent ones. On the lid was a clear vacuum hose with about 4 feet of line. With this they sucked away the bees in no time flat. Because of the week suction and a barrier inside the bucket to prevent the bees from getting sucked into the mechanics of the vacuum, they are able to safely remove the bees. The bucket was almost to the top when they used up all back up power they had.
This hive was so full of bees that they gave us half. They did not see the queen in this large hive and were sure she escaped around the corner of the fiberglass shower stall. As is was getting late, we hurriedly packed up our things and made our way through the overgrown lot to our vehicles. We stopped to talk story and regale our days activities.
Seeing that we were running out of daylight, we soon left and headed back to the farm to unload the bees and get them settled for the night.
To Be Continued… Bee Hive Removal IV