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.