A pandemic tale of making the world a better place
by Christian Lewis
As you may know, honey bees are responsible for pollinating one-third of the food we eat. Their population is in a decline with pesticides being the main culprit. —Christian Lewis
This spring has certainly been less than sweet. As a business owner in a tourist town that found itself suddenly without tourists, the normal sounds of laughter and chatter were suddenly replaced with nothing more than the sounds of the birds and the bees… which leads me to my tale.
In the bustling spring of 2019, a colony of bees chose the side of a Buckeye Tree Lodge cabin as their ideal hive location. With lack of time and concerns about guests getting stung, we quickly sprayed and powdered the hive entrance until the bees were gone, solving the problem with a shortsighted approach and much guilt. How I bee-came a better
This year, a new colony of bees decided to start their home in that same location, entering a hole in the wood siding created for an old cable wire and settling into a nicely insulated space between the cabin’s floor joists.
It was early April when I noticed them flying around the familiar spot again. Fortunately and unfortunately, we had no guests staying at the lodge, allowing me to take my time to learn a bit more about these bees and how I could help them move elsewhere without harming them. As you may know, honey bees are responsible for pollinating one-third of the food we eat. Their population is in a decline with pesticides being the main culprit. How I bee-came a better
My first attempt to find a solution was to follow the “trap-out” method, which involves making a mesh cone to cover the bee hive entrance/exit. The cone allows the bees to exit the hive through a small hole. The mesh allows the bees to smell and communicate with each other, confusing them and preventing them from knowing they could re-enter through the small opening in the cone.
Initially, this method seemed to work as many bees left the hive and could not get back in. As they exited, the bees started to congregate around the base of the cone looking like a small swarm of bees. It was a big ol’ ball of bees just sitting there! With the bees seemingly homeless, I hastily built them a “bee box” out of two scrap dresser drawers, with a one-inch hole on one end and a few drops of lemongrass essential oil to attract them to the house. It seemed like a long shot, but after a few days of the bees investigating this potential new home, they took to it. The group of bees around the cone disappeared and my “vintage” bee-box was busy with bees going in and out.
To bee or not to bee
More importantly, the bees were exhibiting some key behaviors indicating a healthy bee hive. Some bees were standing outside the entrance guarding it against intruders and checking all incoming bees. Others would come out and fan their wings in an attempt to adjust the temperature inside the hive, and still others flew out and back in with bags full of pollen! All good signs that the colony was healthy and was likely building comb to store pollen and honey reserves and for their queen to lay eggs. How I bee-came a better
I felt quite confident in my success but I had an important step ahead of me. I had to take the bee box down off the cabin wall, open it, and transfer the bee colony and their new comb into a proper bee hive with frames so that they would be enabled to continue to grow as a colony.
I waited for the perfect weather to make the transfer. Midday, when it’s warm and sunny, is the best time to work on a bee hive as the bees are in a good mood when it’s sunny (aren’t we all?) and most of the worker bees are out and about gathering pollen and nectar. To begin, I lit up my smoker (it took me about 30 minutes to do that, apparently not as simple as I thought), put my hat and gloves on, and proceeded to take down the bee box. Imagining finding a beautiful bee comb inside, I took down the box carefully. My poor craftsmanship came in handy allowing me to take the box apart easily.
It was now time for the big reveal! I opened the box, but disappointingly, I found nothing spectacular inside. There was only a small group of bees in the upper corner of the box closest to where the original hive was located in the wall, a clear indication that something was wrong.
What had happened? At this point my internet searches were becoming a bit too specific so I reached out to a talented local beekeeper, Jonathan Humphrey from Blossom Peak Apiary. Jonathan was extremely helpful in answering my questions, (believe me there were many) and guiding me in the correct direction. (P.S. Thank you, Jonathan!)
As it turns out, with the trap-out method, the queen rarely leaves the hive and that means that she and many other bees will stay inside with only the worker bees getting trapped out. Since the worker bees supply the pollen and nectar to become the bee’s source of food, eventually the remaining bees starve inside the hive. Obviously, this harms the bees, which was counter to my goal. Another negative of the trap-out is that it leaves bee comb inside your walls, and that will not only attract other critters, but can rot and smell like a dead animal. It can also attract a whole new bee colony into your wall come next spring. How I bee-came a better
Beekeeping lessons learned How I bee-came a better
I took the trap-out cone down and allowed the bees to reunite for a few weeks to gather up their strength before my next undertaking.
This time, I attempted the most common (but also the most intimidating) bee hive removal method, called the “bee hive cutout.” While this is the most straightforward way to address bees in a building, it is not recommended for beginners like myself. The cut-out basically means that you will locate the beehive, cut out whatever material is between you and access to the hive (.ie.: drywall, wood siding, etc.), and then you will manually remove the hive from your wall and transfer it to a standard proper bee hive with frames that will allow them to continue to grow as a colony. This method would allow me to inspect the colony for any potential issues and, also, allow me to harvest honey at some point!
There are some important considerations when tackling this project. First, though bees are usually pretty docile, they don’t particularly like it when you attempt to break in and take their honeycomb. Next, most beekeepers recommend the usage of a bee-vacuum for the process (and yes, it is exactly what it sounds like). Especially with the state of our spring finances, I was not ready to spend a few hundred dollars on a specialized bee vacuum. I did have old vacuum parts (being a hotel) and so with research I was able to cobble together a free bee vacuum of my very own. Lastly, I purchased a standard bee hive box to transfer the bees to after removal. How I bee-came a better
Ready for the cut-out project, I determined the exact hive location by cutting a few holes in the cabin’s first floor ceiling and a few small cuts in the exterior wood siding. Once the location was verified, I got into my gear and started cutting out the wood siding and part of the floor joist, gaining access to the full hive. I used my bee-vac to gently suck the bees away from the comb and into the container. This allowed me to safely cut out the comb and transfer it into my new standard bee hive box. Once the comb was in frames in the new bee box, I took all the vacuumed bees and dropped them into the box with the comb (and indeed, they were all alive and well!). Lastly I repaired the large hole in the side of my cabin. How I bee-came a better
So what happened to the bees you ask? Well, it seems that through my trials and experiments, many bees left the hive and the queen may have also left at some point. As a result, the bee colony did not stay inside the new home I bought for them. As of today, a small group of 50 bees remain in my box, but I fear their odds for survival through the winter are small without a queen and proper honey stores. How I bee-came a better
And just like that, my six-week bee project has ended. My main goal, to remove the bees from the cabin without any poison, was successful. Through weeks of research, my fascination with bees grew, and I spent many quarantine hours watching movies about them and sitting outside studying their moves for signs of what was happening. How I bee-came a better
I look forward to the spring of 2021 and putting this year behind us, but if I’m honest, mostly I am excited to welcome back the bees and hopefully provide them a proper new home where I can continue to study them, interact with them and. who knows, maybe even come across a little fresh honey. That would be an especially sweet ending to my quarantine tale.
Christian Lewis and his wife, Shannon, own and operate the Buckeye Tree Lodge and Sequoia Village Inn in Three Rivers, the nearest lodging to the entrance of Sequoia National Park.