Ed Colby: Unexpected hive yields a surprise
May 20, 2002
The honeybee hive looked like a giant car radiator hanging vertically in the stud wall of the New Castle Congregational Church.
I’d cut out a section of the church’s exterior siding, exposing the inner wall. The space between the studs was two feet wide and six inches deep, and the bees had filled this cavity with a four-comb-thick wall of honeycomb four feet high.
I’d taken most of the bees home already. That project began weeks before, when I sealed off every entrance/exit to the hive, then drilled an inch-and-a-quarter hole in the church’s exterior siding. Into this hole I inserted the big end of a seven-inch-long cone of metal window screen. The small end – just big enough for a bee to pass through – stuck out away from the building.
To leave the hive, the bees had to crawl down the cone and exit the small hole at the end.
They needed no coaxing. An army of foraging worker bees – “field bees” – scurried down the screen, wasting no time in flying off to gather pollen and nectar. So many bees rushed the exit that they plugged it, and I had to enlarge the opening.
Getting back into the hive wasn’t so easy for these field bees. They first had to find the exit/entrance at the end of the cone – a small target. Then, as they tried to crawl into the cone, their sisters poured out of it, blocking their path.
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It was like trying to get back into the classroom when the recess bell just rang.
In a short time, thousands of frustrated returning bees, most laden with pollen or nectar, massed on the outside of the church. I made them a tempting offer.
I’d caught a little swarm of wild honeybees earlier in the summer, hived them and mounted the hive on a little platform nailed to the church wall, with the hive entrance situated just a couple of feet from the cone.
Picture it: Two beehives right next to each other. One’s open. One’s not. What would you do? Returning church bees soon gave up trying to get back into the wall and instead joined the “bait hive” outside.
And so it happened that the nuisance bees, the bees the pastor wanted gone, simply found a new home.
This tale does not have a completely happy ending. Inside the wall remained the queen and her court, perhaps a thousand bees in all.
I am saddened to report that the majority of these bees, including the queen, did not survive being sucked up by a “shop” vacuum cleaner. As a beekeeper, I did my best. Sometimes I’m all that stands between the property owner and the exterminator.
I stripped the comb, mostly old, dark wax with lots of honey, from the wall, and loaded it into my truck. This makes good emergency food for over-wintering bees, if they run low.
But now I was finished. It was late afternoon. I’d cleaned up my mess. I was tired. Not surprisingly, a few bees still landed on what used to be a beehive. Then I noticed bees crawling behind the stud wall, toward a section of the wall still covered by siding.
Where were they going? It had never occurred to me that the colony might have an addition!
After a little nail-pulling, I shined my flashlight behind a sheet of pried-back siding and beheld a prize I did not seek – another stud wall cavity, just as large as the first, filled this time with new, white-wax comb and packed with honey.
You do not climb onto the side of a building and remove a colony of honeybees without attracting attention.
The church’s next-door-neighbor, Doug, was standing on the ground watching. I shouted down that I’d found the honey mother lode, but that I’d just returned my rented “Sawsall” saw to the tool rental shop. I’d have to come back tomorrow and finish the job. What kind of luck was this?
In a minute, Doug was standing next to me on the lower roof with his Skilsaw. Undaunted by a few circling bees, he cut out the siding. Then I stripped out the comb and handed it down to my new partner.
We soon had 20 pounds of honey-filled comb laid out on the lower roof. Doug’s wife and daughters carried chunks of dripping comb into their kitchen, while we all laughed and chewed on beeswax and honey.
It was Norman Rockwell. It was New Castle. It was perfect.
And nobody got stung.
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