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Fundamentals & Finesse of Structural Bee Removal

Bee Culture, July 2002

To trap bees from a tree or building you need cones, ladders, duct tape, bait hives…a little bit of luck, and plenty of patience.

Charles Martin Simon

The seminal article on structural bee removal is found in ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture, published by the A. I. Root Company. It instructs the beekeeper to prepare a small colony of bees with a queen cell for the bait hive. It instructs that the platform to hold the bait hive is attached to the ladder, although the illustration included depicts it attached to a building. It tells us, “On arriving on the spot he lights his smoker, blows smoke into the flight hole to drive back the bees, then he places a bee escape over the opening of the tree or building in such a way that the bees can come out but not go back in. Last of all he places his hive with the bees which he has brought, with its entrance as near as possible to the bee escape,” on the platform attached to the ladder. Then, “…his work is now complete, and he leaves the bees to work out their own salvation.”

The article goes on to say that the field bees, having exited the cavity and being unable to reenter, will one by one find their way into the hive on the temporary platform, and, at the end of six weeks, the queen is likely to come out and join the new colony.

The operator then returns, removes the cone, and kills off what is left of the old colony in the cavity, which will be very few bees along with the queen. I wonder what the queen is doing in the cavity if she has come out in the last paragraph and joined the new colony in the bait hive, but let it go for now.

At this point, the operator leaves again, this time leaving the escape off the original entrance. Why? Because the bees from the new colony, including the bees which exited the cavity, are supposed to now rob out whatever stores might be left in the cavity. The article leaves it to the imagination how exactly the leftover bees in the cavity are to be killed. One assumes it would be some sort of insecticide. Is it wise then to let the saved bees rob out combs that have just been contaminated with toxic chemicals? I don’t think so. But let’s forget about that for the moment.

After a suitable period of robbing, the article goes on to tell us, the operator seals the entrance to the cavity and takes the bait hive home.

Such as they are, these are the fundamentals. Now to the finesse:

I have been a removal specialist for more than thirty years, and I almost never use smoke during a removal. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I did, which was probably the first time I did a removal after reading the article. I do suit up, however, and discourage onlookers, although, to be sure, I rarely excite the bees, but you can’t be too careful. I used to get a little embarrassed suiting up fully to manage bees when all the cool beekeepers were doing it without even a veil or gloves. But I’m approaching unknown bees all the time, and in an area where Africanized bees might be encountered, so as the sage once said, “It’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.”

Suspending a bait box high in a tree is safer than leaving a ladder for any period of time.

Suspending a bait box high in a tree is safer than leaving a ladder for any period of time.

These days, there aren’t that many places where you can leave a ladder set up and unattended for six to eight weeks, unless it’s chained to something, but even then, you can’t afford to have it tied up for that long. Ladders are expensive. Often in the middle of one job, you are called to another, more pressing job. Even if you have several ladders and a secure place to set up, that’s exactly when you’re going to need that particular ladder. And another thing: There are children everywhere. If the ladder is set up leading to a beehive, some kid is going to climb it for sure, and poke a stick in the hole to see what happens. It’s inevitable. So it’s not a good idea to attach the platform to the ladder. Sure, if you’re hiving a swarm maybe (but even then, I’ve found it much more expedient to hang the box with a rope than to attach it with a platform), but not for an extended removal. I advise attaching the platform to the host structure, be it a building or a tree, leaving the ladder free. And having said that, I want to say that I do leave the ladder set up sometimes, if it feels right, but never with anything attached to it except a chain and lock – so I can get it down immediately if necessary.

The Root article describes the wire mesh cone of the bee escape, but does not go into details. The details are important; the cone is a critical appliance in the operation. If the hole at the small end is too small, obviously, the bees won’t be able to pass through. But if it is too big, the bees will end up going right back into it, and the operation will fail. If you set it up with too big a hole and then leave the bees “to work out their own salvation,” they will do so very nicely, and remain in the location they chose for themselves, ignoring completely the destiny you have chosen for them. You will come back in six weeks to a colony in the cavity, right where it was, and no bees in your box, except maybe a few of the ones you brought with you. The hole has to be just right, not too small and not too big. But it must be big enough to allow drones to pass through too, or maybe not. But if your drones can’t get out, expect many of them to die in the narrow of the cone and block the flow.

Speaking of blocking the flow, even when your hole is exactly right, bees will often either die in the neck of the escape or leave a carcass wedged there from an attempt to drag it out. When the escape become blocked, the operation is stopped. So you can’t just leave it for six weeks and realistically expect it to be the way you want it at the end. You can’t even leave it for a few days. When the escape gets blocked, and it will, the bees become desperate for egress and might find ways they might not have found otherwise. If the entrance gets blocked on a removal from the wall of a house, for example, and you don’t correct it right away, you might find the people inside severely distressed by an incursion of honeybees into their living quarters. If pushed, bees will travel far through the walls to find ways out, spaces around light fixtures being prime. You have to check it nearly every day.

Now, if the progress of the job is going well, the bees using the bait hive and showing no sign of going back into the cone hole, I will sometimes enlarge it by snipping off the last half inch or so, to allow them to exit easier and reduce the incidence of blockage.

I mentioned before that if your hole is too big, the bees will go right back into it. That is less likely to happen a week or so into the process, after they have started working the bait hive. So enlarging the hole can sometimes be a good move, but not always. So be careful and watchful.

The original entrance (bottom), and a double cone setup.

The original entrance (bottom), and a double cone setup.

But it’s trickier than that. Sometimes, even when your hole is exactly right, a clever bee will figure out how to reenter anyway. And once one knows the way, her sisters will be right behind. That can be frustrating, but fortunately there is a simple solution. You place a larger cone over the original cone, with the upper end of the base unattached, so the bees reentering keep finding themselves back on the outside – and innocent bees, exiting for the first time, have to exit twice, which they are more than happy to do. The reentering bees will go round and round many times before they give up and join the bait hive. Some will never give up but hang on the cone until they expire.

I have never experienced a second cone defeated, but knowing bees and the strength of their motivation, I do expect it to happen someday. But I have a plan for that. I will use a third cone, and, if that doesn’t work, remove the cone(s) and install a standard Porter bee escape fixed to the entrance of the cavity for a few weeks, monitoring it carefully for malfunction and plugging. Then, when the offending bees have either accepted the bait hive or perished, I will replace the standard bee escape with the original wire mesh cone for the duration of the job.

A precarious job. (Hive on chimney) Note the cone opening facing up.

A precarious job. (Hive on chimney) Note the cone opening facing up.

The graphics in the Root article depict the cone extending horizontally from the entrance of the cavity. This is logical since most entrance holes are positioned in vertical surfaces and the cone would naturally form a 90-degree angle from the face, but it’s not the best arrangement. Bees will get out better and the cone neck will have less tendency to clog if you position the cone pointing upward. This will often not be convenient, but a little carpentry in advance can make the job go much more smoothly. Sometimes, of course, the entrance will be facing downward, and you will not be able to engineer it to face upward. You have to go with what you get, although I have more than once built a tunnel to the edge of an overhang, in order to have the bees exit in an upward direction.

As for baiting the bait hive, I gave up trying to find appropriate combs with queen cells 29 years ago. It seems queen cells, routinely encountered during routine hive inspections, are never there when you need them. After taking apart too many hives in the effort to go by the book, I finally settled for combs with as much uncapped brood as possible, though often this would be few. But this works just fine, just as well as a queen cell or even a mature queen to bait the hive. To complete the bait arrangement, I use a frame or two of empty honeycomb and a few empty frames in five- or eight-frame nucs.

The advantage to using smaller hive boxes should be obvious, or would be if you have ever tried taking a fully loaded ten-frame deep down a ladder from a third-floor roof before dawn. You should do it before dawn, when all the bees are inside. But if the bait hive gets too crowded during the process, you simply remove a frame or two and replace them with empty frames, then add the removed frames to a weak hive back in the bee yard.

I have also found it’s best not to use a small colony in the bait hive as the Root article instructs. The bees in the bait hive will fight off the new bees, instead of welcoming them in. Even bees on brood comb will fight off new ones. So I leave as few as possible on the bait combs, trying to brush them all off at the bee yard, which is impossible. There always are a dozen or so that make it along for the ride, and I try to shake those off before I position the bait hive. But there will still be a few left, and those too will fight, but fighting with a few bees doesn’t matter and is soon over. The field bees easily overwhelm the few that come with the bait.

With difficult colonies, when the bees absolutely refuse to cooperate, it can help to leave the brood comb outside the bait hive for an hour or so, leaning against the building or tree right next to the entrance cone, until it is covered with bees – then put it in the bait hive.

Whenever possible, and it often is, I like to position the bait hive with one side directly against the surface of the structure, with the entrance either directly to the right or left of the cone and close to the same level. When this is not possible, if for example the entrance to the cavity is up under a roof overhang, you leave the hive top open a crack for an upper entrance until the bees are using the hive strongly, several days or longer, then close it up and let them reorient to the bottom entrance.

There will be colonies that will not get with the program no matter what you do. The bees will cluster on or next to the cone and hang there until they die. And I’ve found it doesn’t work to scoop these bees and pour them into the bait hive. The will just march right out again and reform the cluster. Fortunately not many are that resolute. These clusters can be removed on a daily basis and mixed into hives in the bee yard, and the colony thus removed the hard way.

The biggest problem will be bees finding other ways back into their cavity. They can be quite sneaky about it, often covering up with a mass of swirling bee activity, often while using the box nicely, often when you’re sure they’re not doing it, so you have to watch carefully for a long time in order to catch them in the act. You follow them around with duct tape and the caulking gun. Sometimes with a particularly rotten tree or building, especially if the entrance is in a shake roof, there will be so many holes you can’t seal them all. I’ve had a few roofs literally covered with duct tape. In situations like that, you use a tarp to cover a large area. The trouble is it can be windy on a roof and difficult to secure the tarp, but it can be done and has to be sometimes.

Structural bee removal by trapping out is a slow process, elegant when it goes right, and it usually does when you take the time to set it up right and properly monitor the progress. When you’re young, you want everything to happen fast, but when you’re old, you want it to happen slow. So the older I get, the more I appreciate this method of bee removal. I can still take a heavy five or eight framer down a 28-foot ladder on my shoulder or head. In fact, I can do it better now than I could when I was young. Ten framers can get too heavy, and then I use a rope and improvised pulley to lower them to the ground.