Bee Culture - October, 2006

by Walt Wright

Most beekeepers, who have moved on to bigger operations, go through a phase of what Shirley called “chasing bees.” In an effort to increase hive count, they collected swarms, or did various types of structural removal of colonies. As they gained experience they learned that chasing bees is not necessarily an economic advantage. It’s much cheaper to add a colony by starting a spring split. Less time and less cost. As fuel prices escalate, that reality becomes more significant.

The increasing price of purchased packages comes into play in this discussion, but it will be ignored for now. The purchased package is the simplest way for the novice to get started, and that has advantages of its own.

I plead “guilty as charged” for going through the chasing bees phase. For my purposes, it seemed reasonable to specialize in feral stock. If studying the internal workings of the colony were the objective, bees that had retained their ancestral characteristics, or reverted to those characteristics, were important to me. Bees selected by the queen breeder for certain characteristics might not be representative of the traits of interest. If a queen was needed on an emergency basis, she was purchased from a local source. Two local beekeepers raised queens from the best of their mongrel stock and normally one or the other had a queen to spare. Acquiring one of their available queens did not seem to dilute my feral stock. But, of course, those colonies were monitored more closely to confirm that they showed no variation in characteristics from the feral.

For three years of building colony count, a yellow page ad under “pest control” was a sound investment. Listed as Honey bee Specialist in a small block in the running list, the number of calls in the swarming season was surprising. That was early in the T mite penetration of the area, and it was actually necessary to engage an answering service to field the calls. Working full time in the city, the answering service would provide morning calls before my lunch break and afternoon calls at quitting time. The answering service was instructed to get a number where the caller could be reached at those times. The caller seemed agreeable in most cases to endure for a few hours. The specified call-back time added a calming factor for those in a state of panic. That was a reasonable delay to hear from a real expert.

The “real expert” that called them back was the rankest of amateurs. By definition, an amateur takes no pay for his services. As a trainee, it was not considered appropriate to charge a fee. In the early part of that period, the trainee was subject to really botch a job severely, and that could be embarrassing. Satisfied that the bees and the experience were worth the effort, no fees were involved for a couple years. With experience and confidence, gradually fees were added, but still quite reasonable. Feral stock was what I wanted and saw no other handy way to get them, but to temporarily get into the bee removal business.

Removal was broken down into several classifications, depending on the level of effort. Natural swarm collection is the simplest, easiest, and least time-consuming class. Enough has been written about swarm collection to fill volumes – no need to dwell on that one.

A “cut-down” is that colony, that didn’t find a cavity after swarming, and started building comb in the open, normally where the swarm settled. They generally are more defensive if they have brood and require protective gear to hive. That’s a step up in complexity with some comb already built to deal with. Dealing with new comb is not as easy as it sounds. It is very fragile, and in hot weather it’s so soft it won’t support its own weight. Holding the comb at the bottom, while slicing it free at the top results in fold-over or collapse. Messy job. It might be easier to collect the bees and let them start over in your box and forfeit the comb already built.

A “trap out” is what we call that circumstance where the colony is entrenched in structure best left alone. Old literature calls it funneling. It looks simple to the inexperienced. Just add a one-way gate on the entrance such that bees can leave, but can’t get back in. Add another queen-right colony adjacent to the entry. Bees that can’t return will join (beg in) the added colony outside. Its works as described, but if you take on a trap out, be prepared for a long siege. What you are actually doing is starving the internal colony by cutting off their supply of field forage. Depending on their stores accumulated, they can survive a very long time. At the end of the main flow, they can last months. It is best done in the early buildup, when the internal colony has consumed a major part of their winter stores.

The gain for the beekeeper is limited to building strength of the outside hive with bees diverted from the inside colony. Although more were done, three different trap outs stand out in my memory. Not necessarily in chronological order the three had different effects from the accumulation of residential bees on the outside of the house. One had such a strong colony that the outside hive was supered on the stand – perhaps 15 feet up. Before the inside colony crashed the outside unit had added three supers of honey. Harvesting three supers with wall-to-wall bees and the brood chamber 15 feet up on a ladder was a major operation, but was accomplished in one evening. Waiting until dark to take down the brood chamber with an added empty super, so as to take all the bees away, complicated ladder work a little further. The job went off without a hitch, but taking down the stand was put off until the next day.

The two other memorable trap outs involved strong residential colonies. One built up three outside weaklings – changed out on about two week intervals. The other generated at least one, and possibly two overcrowded swarms from the weakling provided on the outside. As you can tell from these accounts, trap outs are a time-consuming exercise. Frequent visits to the site are mandatory just to monitor progress. The most time-consuming part is in the early part of the operation. When they learn that exiting by way of the trap means they won’t come back, they search for alternate routes to the outside around the trap. I’ve had them start going and coming from a crack ten feet from the trap. Don’t even think about doing a trap out where siding has been added over the old exterior. Both aluminum and vinyl siding are loosely fitted into end slots to allow for expansion or contraction with temperature change. Multiple paths abound in such an installation.

The experts who contend that insects don’t “think” have not done trap outs. The honey bee not only learns that the trap is a one-way route to oblivion, but activity seeks alternatives. If an alternative route is found they can communicate that alternative to other colony members. It may not be thinking as we know it, but it’s close enough to impress me.

To summarize trap outs: By any measure, the gain to the beekeeper is not worth the time spent. You can’t reasonably charge the homeowner for all the trips to the site over an extended period. Figure three visits a week for a month to check for effectiveness of the trap and a visit a week to check for internal colony crash for another month. Just the transportation cost will erase any net gain. That’s for optimal season timing. Later in the season is even worse. For my purposes of acquiring feral stock those were a dead loss. The feral queen perished by starvation and took the genetics with her. Trap outs were done primarily to offer a full line of removal services.

We call a removal operation where structure has to be disassembled to provide access to a colony a “tear out”. Knowing how residences go together when built is a distinct advantage. I was fortunate in having that background. Working summers as a carpenter’s helper in school years and building two separate residences for my own use, from scratch, had given me that advantage. Tearing bees out of a residence did not intimidate me. I promised the homeowner minimum structural scarring, but drew the line at touch-up painting. He was responsible for painting – I would reassemble and someone else would paint. I had no intention of being called back periodically because “the paint doesn’t match.” He was also informed that no matter how carefully pieces are removed, some will splinter or break when pried loose. He would refund my replacement cost in addition to the removal fee. If rental scaffolding was required, he would reimburse me that cost. No problems were encountered with those conditions and a lot of happy customers resulted from my work.

If you think you might be interested in doing removal (the AHB will be moving north) let me give you a tip. It is imperative that you confirm that a colony actually is in residence before you start splintering wood. On at least two occasions, nest scouts staking out a potential nest site were mistaken for residence bees. In one case, I was waiting for a break in weather to set up a trap out. The incoming swarm arrived while I was there. They had been waiting for a break in the weather for two weeks – just as I had been. In the other case, a 4x8 sheet of cedar paneling was removed to find no bees inside.

Obviously, it was necessary to learn to differentiate between nest scouts and resident bees. The following provides a clue for you to use in your judgment. When a swarm moves into a new location, foragers start bringing pollen within a couple hours. Arrival of foragers with pollen indicates the colony has moved in. However, one or two bees milling about with pollen is not a firm indicator. Sometimes a pollen forager is recruited as a nest scout before she unloads her pollen. She makes your judgment a little more difficult. When you see several pollen foragers arriving that know where the entry is located, and go directly to it, you can be fairly sure the colony has moved in. It wouldn’t hurt to wait a day or two more, and check again. By then, there should be a stream of returning pollen foragers. Starting brood rearing is a top priority for the swarm in a new location, and having pollen to feed brood is a necessity. (They didn’t bring any with them for the relocation.)

When this submittal was started, it was anticipated that the major part would be about “Gimmes” – another classification of free bees. The gimme (southern mush mouth for “give me”) is the best of the lot. It typically comes as a colony housed in conventional woodenware. A couple of examples follow:

A divorcee who had retained possession of the residence had a bee hive in the backyard abandoned by her ex. She wanted some compensation for the hive (in good condition) but settled for a quart of honey.

A city couple bought a country property with three hives on the place. They wanted to be rid of them and were pleased that I agreed to do it with no charge. One was a dead-out and the other two were live colonies. Even with the propolis clean-up, that was a pretty good deal.

Well, one more, for its interest: A country homeowner had a blackberry thicket in the middle of his backyard. He said there was a beehive in there that was there when he bought the place. The thicket was a result of his avoiding the hive when mowing. After chopping my way into the wild blackberry canes, the hive condition was interesting. The bottom board had rotted, and the hive toppled backward. Apparently, the propolis held the upper hive parts together in the fall (perhaps somewhat cushioned by the blackberry canes.) What was interesting was that the colony had completely closed off the bottom of the lower deep with propolis, except for a small entry at the bottom. They were happy as clams in their long hive.

My best gimme provided 12 colonies and extra woodenware. That’s such a stroke of good fortune, that the story has been added to my yarn list. There isn’t room for it here.

Tip Of The Month

If you are interested in collecting swarms or gimmes, put your phone number on your label. The homeowner in a panic is not going to write you a letter. He or she wants action now. You might be surprised how many calls you get. The feral bee is making a come-back.