Monday, August 27, 2012

Freebies... er, I mean Free Bees

Ever since I started keeping bees, I've flirted with the idea of capturing swarms and putting them in empty hives, thereby increasing the number of hives I have, without the expense of ordering new bee packages from a commercial supplier.  Since I still consider myself a novice beekeeper, the idea of catching bees in the wild is still a little scary.  I'm not sure when I would have gotten around to pursuing it, had I not gotten a phone call the other day from a guy who got my number from my friend CJ, the County Conservation Officer.  The guy had a boarded up basement window with a feral colony of what he believed to be honeybees in it.  He said he wasn't sure how long they'd been there but at least since early spring.  He asked me to come take a look and see if there was a way to save them.  I said I would.  After I hung up the phone, I immediately kicked myself because although I sounded totally confident on the phone, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

I set up a time to go over and have a look, telling myself if this wasn't an easy access, or required some amount of demo, I was out of there.  Turns out, the window was not terribly large, and was right at ground level.  Pretty much ideal in terms of access.  There was a rotted piece of OSB plywood over the window, with a small hole at the bottom.  This is where the bees were coming and going to their nest.  It seemed like it might be a small enough job that I could handle it without getting in over my head.  I told Brad I could get the colony and try to re-hive it in one of my empty hives.  We set a date the following week, which gave me time to do a little research, and build a contraption to vacuum the bees out of the cavity and trap them in a screen cage.

 I set about watching numerous youtube videos of experienced beekeepers collecting colonies out of various inconvenient places, and drew up plans for my bee vacuum contraption.   I hit Menards over the weekend and picked up a small Shop Vac, and some plywood and miscellaneous hoses and fittings, then set about building a box with an inlet and outlet hose.  Inside this box, I left room for a screen cage to catch the bees and prevent them from being sucked into the Shop Vac itself. The Shop Vac hose attached to the outer box, creating suction inside the box.  Then, I attached a second hose to the opposite end of the box and this is the hose I would use to manually vacuum up every bee I could find.  Inside the box was a smaller screened box so everything that I vacuumed up would be caught in this smaller box, essentially a trap, but the air would pass through the screen and exit the larger box through the Shop Vac hose.  Clever design.  No I didn't come up with it, there are numerous variations on YouTube that I used as a guide. 

The night before my scheduled bee capture, I called my Beekeeping Class Instructor, Craig, and talked through what I was planning to do.  He raises queens in addition to being a commercial beekeeper, so I wanted to make sure I could get a replacement queen if the one in the feral colony didn't make it through the capture process.  He made some recommendations, and gave me a lot of support, and told me to call if I had any questions once I got over there.  He also gave me some tips on what to do once I got the bees home. 

On the big day, I loaded the truck with all of my equipment, including my suit, smoker, veil, tools, Shop Vac, bee vacuum contraption prototype (the Suck-A-Bee), and enough 5-gallon buckets to hold 10 hives worth of honey.  I stopped by the pharmacy and bought a bottle of Benadryl (just in case, LOL) and arrived at the house.  I drove around to the side of the house where the window was located and talked to the homeowner for a few minutes and hatched my plan.  He backed off and sat in his jeep while I set everything up in easy reach of where I'd be working, suited up, duct taped my gloves to my wrists, lit the smoker, and grabbed the big crow bar he'd left for me.  I took a couple of deep breaths and laid into the plywood with that crowbar.  It was partially rotted so it came apart in several pieces. 

Once I exposed the nest, I got down on the ground and had a look.  It was my lucky day.  The colony did not fill the entire window cavity, which was good news for me.  I had hoped this first "cut out" would be small and easy, and it looked like that would be the case.  There were about seven individual combs, each about 1.5 inches thick, 7 inches wide and 10 to 12 inches tall.  The comb was pale yellow so was probably no more than a few months old, meaning this colony probably took over this window sometime this spring.  The nest was shaped roughly like a basketball, and was about that size.  The bees were surprisingly gentle, and there weren't many in the air buzzing around.  I did not get stung.

I took my hive tool and started cutting the combs loose from the top of the window, which luckily was the only place they were attached.  Each one was full of brood and honey, and completely covered with bees.  I put each comb into the five-gallon bucket, along with the bees that continued to cling to it, then fired up the vacuum and started sucking the remaining bees into the box.  This went on for several minutes and then the vacuum hose lost suction.  I'm not sure what happened by my best guess is that the hose got clogged by some of the stuff other than bees that was getting sucked in.  I made the decision at this point to abandon the bee vacuum and suction the remaining bees with the actual Shop Vac.  I was worried it was too much suction and would kill the bees, but I didn't know what else to do and I had to capture as many bees as possible to get them out of this guy's window. I carefully finished vacuuming every bee I could see, and hoped for the best.  When I finished, I grabbed my roll of duct tape and tore off several pieces of it, then shut off the Shop Vac, pulled the hose off, taped the inlet hole, and the outlet hole, and put it in the truck.  I then opened the box and removed the screened trap inside, and taped that opening as well.  I put a plastic bag over the 5-gallon bucket, and taped around the rim to keep those bees inside, and that all went into the back of the truck as well.  I removed my bee suit, gathered up the rest of my equipment, and got ready to leave.  The homeowner cautiously came out and I recommended to him that he stay away from the window for a couple of days and since the queen was gone, and all of the comb, they would eventually leave.  I recommended that he board up the window tightly so a new colony doesn't move in.  

After I got home, I set up my empty hive, and covered the entrance at the bottom with a piece of window screen, to keep the new bees inside, and any bees from my other hives, or the local area from trying to get in there and rob the honey.  I'll wait a few days and put this hive somewhere and take the screen off, and then they can decide whether or not they are going to stay in their new home.  All in all, this was a pretty successful experience.  I learned a lot, and the failure of the bee vacuum wasn't as bad as it could have been.  It appears that the majority of the bees in the Shop Vac survived.  Hopefully the queen did.  I'll know in a few days when I open up the hive and look for newly laid eggs. 

I will need to figure out exactly what happened to cause the loss of suction and then go about fixing the problem, or redesigning it.  I think I either need a bigger, non-corrugated hose or I need a way to periodically clear the current hose.  Not sure a more powerful vacuum would have made a difference if the inside of the hose was clogged with debris glued together with honey...   I need to figure out a way to not pick up a bunch of debris while I'm vacuuming up the bees, because there was all sorts of stuff in the Shop Vac that was not bees.  Most of it looked like pieces of old comb, and dirt from the bottom of the window well. 

Hopefully I won't need to do this again until next year, and I can work out the kinks over the winter.  I'm putting the word out among the people I know that I'm willing to capture swarms, and do cut-outs as long as they're fairly accessible and don't require a lot of demo (or the use of a ladder!).  I'll capture them at no charge, in exchange for the bees and whatever honey is in the comb.  Unfortunately, not all colonies take up residence in easy-to-reach places so they can't all be saved.  Sometimes there's nothing to be done except call an exterminator that specializes in bee removal.  If you can find one. 

I wish I'd gotten a few more pictures but once I taped my gloves to my wrists, it was not easy to even handle the phone, much less push the buttons.  Next time I'll plan ahead for that. 

Thursday, August 2, 2012


So, Friday was an ordinary day, just like any other Friday this summer.  Hot, humid, unpleasant to be outside.  I got everything done outside that I needed to do and was inside doing some things when Greg got home.  He casually mentioned that he hadn't seen Gibbs and Sophie out with the sheep when he came through the gate.  Hmm, I thought.  I wonder where they are.  I went outside to find out and to put the sheep up in the barn.  No Dogs.  Anywhere.  This has been an on again, off again problem since Gibbs came to live here but I thought I had solved the problem with the fence.  He's a wanderer.  Sophie pretty much sticks with the sheep and has rarely if ever shown any interest in what's outside our perimeter fence.  Gibbs is not a purebred Great Pyrenees.  He's half Pyrenees and half Anatolian Shepherd, and the instincts of Anatolians are a little different from Pyrs.  I would describe him as more of a Sentry than a true Sheepdog.  He patrols.  The entire property.  He walks the fence.  He barks, even when there's nothing to bark at. 

Inevitably, he has "discovered" ways to escape the fence and when he does, I have to figure out how he's getting out and patch up the fence.  I know, it seems like this would be a simple task but remember this is 40 acres and most of the fence was here when we bought the place.  He doesn't go over, he finds ways to go under it.  The fence is overgrown with weeds, sticker bushes, small trees and vines, and Poison Ivy :(   so it's not like just looking for holes in a nice pristine fence.  Sometimes the only clue that I've located the escape route is little tufts of white fur tangled in the barbed wire. 

Anyway, Gibbs has escaped maybe four or five times in the last seven months.  On two occasions, he convinced Sophie to go with him.  The last time they left together, I got a phone call from my neighbor about a half a mile away, letting me know that they were in the pond in his pasture.  That was a simple fix.  I just drove around to his place, went through his gate, drove down to the pond, and convinced them that they needed to get in the Jeep and come home.  Other than a smelly back seat, no harm, no foul, although Greg was not pleased at the condition of the Jeep. 

Fast forward to Friday and Gibbs had managed to get out of the fence.  Somehow, he coaxed his well-behaved sister to join him.  Here's how I think that conversation went.

Gibbs:  Hey Sophie, look, I'm outside the fence!

Sophie:  So?

Gibbs:  I squeeeeezed between the gate and the post.  Come on, try it.

Sophie:  No.  I'm busy.

Gibbs:  Come on Soph, let's get out of here.

Sophie:  Where will we go?

Gibbs:  The lake, Silly!

Sophie:  What about the sheep?

Gibbs:  They'll be fine.  It's the middle of the day.  What could happen?  Hurry up.

Sophie:  I dunno.

Gibbs:  Let's go for a swim.  We'll come right back.

Sophie:  Welllll, Okay. 

Gibbs:  Sweet! 

(four or five hours pass, it's getting dark and I'm driving around the lake and up and down our road trying to find them)

Sophie:  Gibbs, we really should go back.  We're gonna be in deep shit if Mom finds out we're gone.

Gibbs:  Nah, she'll never miss us.

Sophie:  Come on Gibbs, I'm leaving.

Gibbs:  Oh, alright.  I'm tired anyway but lets do this again tomorrow.

Sophie:  We'll see...

Okay, so by now it's 10:30 p.m. and Greg happens to be out on the deck.  Here they come up the driveway.  Sophie sees him and drags herself up the steps onto the deck, with her head and ears down, and rolls over on her back right at his feet.  She knows they're in trouble.  Greg takes her by the collar and they head out to the barn and Gibbs follows, jumping around like a kangaroo trying to get Greg to play with him.  He locks them in the barn and comes back in the house.  Everyone is safe and sound.

So, Sunday morning, we get up, head out to the vineyard to mess with the bird netting, and when we get back to the house I decide I'm going to give them both baths because they stink and they are covered with burs and muck from who-knows-where, and so forth.  I mean literally covered with thousands of little quasi-sandspur dealies, all tangled in their long fur. 

Here's where it gets ugly. 

Gibbs was the worst so I put him on his leash and took him out in the yard and gave him a bath, then dumped probably eight ounces of conditioner on him and let it sit for about five minutes, then proceeded to try to comb the burs out of his fur with a fine comb.  This worked okay but there were literally thousands of burs.  I abandoned the little comb, rinsed off the conditioner, and decided I would just trim the burs off with scissors.  Well, about 30 seconds into this, I almost amputated Gibbs' front leg.  Yep, I cut him with the scissors over his front left elbow where the loose skin of the armpit area (or whatever the dog equivalent to an armpit) is.  As soon as I did it I knew I'd cut him.  He flinched a little but didn't cry, and then just stood there staring at me with this pathetic look.  Well, immediately there was a huge gush of blood, and it was as bad as I'd feared.  It was a flap and when I lifted it, I could see his elbow joint.  Awful.  I grabbed him and took him over to the hose and washed the blood off and then picked him up (all 77 lbs of him) and ran to the garage, grabbed my Vet First Aid kit, and then hauled him and the kit up the stairs onto the deck.  I put him down (fortunately he was still on the leash) and opened the door and yelled for Greg to "get me a towel, Gibbs is hurt" and he came running with a big bath towel.  He asked what happened and I simply said "I cut Gibbs' leg with the scissors."  He responded "why'd you do that?" to which I had no explanation. 

I used the towel to stop the bleeding and then took a look at it.  It was a big gash, probably an inch and a half long, curved like a "C" and right over the elbow joint.  I doused it with peroxide, squeezed a big glob of Neosporin into it, mashed the flap down and wrapped the area with an Ace bandage. 

Then I started crying. 

I called the vet's emergency number and got the recording telling me to call another number.  Since the bleeding had stopped, I decided it was probably not necessary to drag the vet into the office to stitch up my dog, and decided to wait until the following morning.  Since he was still pretty much covered with burs, I decided to keep him up on the deck and work on removing them, and also keeping him from messing with the bandage and possibly making it start bleeding again.  I brushed him until he was dry and got probably 95% of the burs off of him, and then I brought him in the house (which I never do) and made him lay down next to my chair for a while.  After a bit, I took him out to the barn and locked him in there with Sophie and hoped for the best, as far as the bandage was concerned. 

Monday morning I called the vet's office.  Lisa, my regular vet, was there and said to bring him in right away.  When I got there, I told her what I'd done, and that if Gibbs was a child, I'd have already been visited by Child Protective Services.  She laughed and said "don't be so sure.  My sister accidentally cut my niece's Achilles tendon with a hoe while working in the garden and no one came out to investigate her fitness as a mother."   She recommended stitches and said to leave him with her.  She called at about 2:00 and said I could pick him up but I decided to leave him overnight just to give him a day off, and keep him reasonably clean.  I picked him up Tuesday morning and except for a stitched up elbow and a shaved upper leg, you'd never know there was a thing wrong with him. 

He's back to his normal self.  If the stitches are still there after 10 days, I'll take them out.   No more scissors.  My sister suggested I invest in a pair of clippers for occasions when I feel like playing Edward Scissorhands...