Saturday, 22 May 2010

Honeybee Cut-out

As part of YABeeP's swarm collecting duties Ali and I performed a 'cut-out' of bees from a window hip roof of a property in a nearby village yesterday. These were wild bees that had been living there for a year. The whole operation and surrounding story is detailed below - click on any image to enlarge it.

The story starts in June last year (2009) when, as part of our swarm collection duties, I had been called to a property in the next village. The owner had bees coming & going from the hip roof  of a downstairs window. At the time I was able to confirm that it was a established colony of honeybees, however, I was unable to remove them as this would call for the dismantling of part of the roof and a builder would be needed to make good. I gave the usual explanation about the honeybee life-cycle and advised that, in my opinion, the bees would probably not be a problem for the householder. However, there was also a wasp nest in the same roof which were clearly a concern to the owner. We left it that I would be happy to attempt a 'cut-out' once she had spoken to her builder and had agreed to their costings to repair the roof.
Bees entrance under top corner of tiles
Like most amateur beekeeping groups, YABeeP normally just collects swarms which by their nature reside in the open. Once a swarm has moved in to its new home it ceases to be a swarm and becomes a colony. Removal of a colony is a far trickier business and an established colony requires a lot of time and care if one is to preserve the bees.

In the event the builder didn't manage to speak to me until the autumn when it was clearly too late in the year for a cut out to have the chance to rebuild their colony and survive the winter.

First peep at the prize
Move forward one year and, just as we were settling down for last week's monthly YABeeP meeting, the owner arrived reporting that a swarm had issued from her roof colony, darkened her sky's and alarmed both her and her neighbour. A wild swarm, what an exciting prospect for us so we agreed to attend as soon as the meeting ended. It is worth mentioning here that as a sustainable bee group we particularly appreciate wild or feral bees as they managed to survive without being subjected to the chemicals, additives and butchery that many conventional beekeepers practice. 
Does my bum look big in this?
As soon as the meeting ended a small party of YABeePers went a-swarm-hunting – a bit like Morris dancing but with bees, not bells! Unfortunately, the swarm had high-tailed away and could not be found but arrangements were made to meet up with the owner's builder to discuss the cut-out to remove the bees. 

As subsequently arranged Ali & I attended yesterday morning, planning to avoid the full heat of the sun as the weather had turned hot. We  arrived with ladders, bee vac, swarm boxes, comb boxes, buckets, and all the paraphernalia necessary for collecting an established colony of bees. We were exhausted before we even started just carrying in all the equipment and setting up!
Healthy and strong despite earlier swarm
The exercise started with the removal of the mortar sealing the top tiles which entailed multiple hard blows with a hammer to break the rock hard line of sealing mortar. All this bashing on their roof meant the bees knew full well that something was up so sent their guard bees out to greet us. 
Once a few tiles were removed we established that the comb was attached to the rather old and disintegrating roofing felt which was now now sagging under the weight of a years worth of very laden and sticky honeycomb. With the assistance from a very brave and willing Jenny, the household gardener who I loaned a beekeeper's suit to, 3 of us attempted to cut out the felt trying to rescue at least some of the brood comb.  It may have been the hot weather weakening the comb though more likely it was the weight of honey combined with a weak and flexing felt but we totally failed in rescuing any so it ended up as a damage limitation exercise removing slabs of oozing comb a piece at a time without crushing bees, especially the queen who we needed to preserve to keep the colony viable - what a sticky exercise ending up with cardboard sheets of rescued comb littering the floor! 
Given that this colony had only swarmed a few days earlier there was a mass of bees remaining and a loads of honey, it was a truly healthy colony. Their health is all the more surprising given that last summer the owner had called a pest company to poison the massive wasp nest which was just inches away from the honeybees - see photo. This just goes to prove that bees left alone and not interfered with by the beekeeper can and do make really strong colonies. They know what they are doing, just give them the space and allow them to do it; as with many things in nature man really does not know best! What a nonsense that some, more ignorant, beekeepers are calling for wild swarms to be destroyed – and yet they they still wonder why the bees are having problems!!!
After a while we had managed to remove all the comb and, for the most part, had left the bees undamaged – although there were a couple of hundred honey-drenched bees on the ground wondering what had hit them. With some improvisation we rigged up a Warré box above the void of bees hoping that the bees and queen would move up into it so that we could return at dusk and remove the bees and hive them up in a members hive – in effect they would have made a wild bee shook swarm. 
With honey everywhere it was time to clean up ourselves and all the equipment used – boy does the sticky stuff get everywhere! Then, in the full heat of the day, we had to remove all the imported equipment all the way back to the car. Arrangements were made to call back at dusk and, if successful, remove the bees. There was a nagging fear that the bees might ignore the box we had so helpfully provided for them and just move further into the roof space, though we had a contingency plan should this happen to return the following and and vacuum them up in out YABeeP patent bee vac.
Warré box in situ
We managed the whole exercise with just a couple of stings each taken through our gloves – so much for Ali's kevlar protection! I had one exciting moment when we were clearing up when a bee flew into my ear canal. The sound and tickling makes it very frightening and I probably acted like a total woose but I had experienced the same thing last year when I also took a sting when trying to extract the bee so, with Ali's caring demeanour (she laughed her socks off really), we waited and allowed it to reverse out and fly off with no harm done to either of us – phew!.
The story develops
Just inches from poisoned wasp nest!
Later that afternoon I received a further call from the owner reporting that a swarm had been found in a neighbour's garden. Could this be last Saturday's swarm, that would be 5 days outside so not likely but just in case I got there asap to retrieve the prize. In the event I got arrived just too late – they had been there half an hour beforehand but the swarm had just left with just a few stragglers remaining on the rose bush. Scout bees had been seen earlier nosing around two spots on the nearby house and upon investigation we found them at the second spot still in the process of 'moving in' to a rainwater drain that entered a really substantial porch roof-space. Cursing that I'd just missed this swarm I advised the owner of their options then left. 

The Prize
Job done
Ali and I returned as promised that at dusk to hopefully remove the bees from the original site only to find that they'd totally absconded; not in the box or the rest of the roof space. Disappointing for us not to get those bees given all that hard work we'd put in but the owner was happy that they'd gone at last and at least we have helped contribute to the local feral population.

Post script
We'll never know for certain but piecing together all the evidence it is highly likely that the swarm I just missed earlier that evening was probably the absconded bees from our cut-out. It's surprising that they found their new abode so quickly but then they knew the area and, after all, had just exchanged one roof space for another. So much for the recession, these bees had bucked the economic trend and moved up market!

I just marvel at how healthy these wild bees were and only hope that their new landlords accept them and allow them to stay and they can then throw off swarms which we will happily collect in the future.

22nd May 2010

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