018 – Honoring the Bees with Charlie

I got a call from Charlie on Tuesday, would you like to come tomorrow to help with a cut-out?

Charlie Rivers rescues bees on a daily basis.

I’ve never done such a thing in my life. But I have the day off. I’ve said to him before that I’m curious about what he does. So, the answer is “sure, just tell me where and when and what to bring.”

After some clarifications, we met, and rode together to some friend-of-a-friend’s farm. The bees were in the back of the barn, a two-story board-and-batten sided structure with an open garage on one end and a closed storage on the end with the bees. We didn’t go inside; it is relatively easy to take off board and batten. It’s a typical barn, with “stuff” stashed along every edge — but in this case some of the stuff was useful: they had components for a scaffold and some boards and plywood. So Charlie build us a platform about four feet high, up to the bottom of the tall skinny beehive. Meanwhile, I got the smoker lit, and put on my long shirt and got my veil out of his truck.

That’s me with the service end of the bee-vac. The bees get pulled (fairly gently) into a standard hive box.

I climbed up on the platform and started to give the bees some smoke. Up close, I could see that there were multiple entrances at different heights and behind different battens. Judging by the buildup of propolis along some of the edges of the battens, and by the apparent age of some of the combs, Charlie guesses that colony of bees had been there for five years. They were a very vigorous and active colony, and Charlie wanted me to put on my veil. He had just set his bee-vac up on the platform and I didn’t quite understand his urgency about my veil until the crowbar came out.

Now I said that board and batten is easy to disassemble. That is true. But it requires some banging and some prying and some shaking and pulling. And honey bees are very sensitive to vibration. When the walls of their cavity start to have bangs and creaks from prying, they think a big old bear is after their brood, and they get very defensive. In this case, it is two smaller bears, and we really are on the side of the bees, but they don’t necessarily understand that. So Charlie told me with a little more urgency, “Might want to put on that veil now.”

Charlie said this is that largest cut-out he has ever done.

And so we deconstructed their hive, board by board, comb by comb. We used his vacuum to suck as many bees as we could into a standard hive body with some empty frames in it. Each comb we cut from its board, holding it to keep it from falling and slicing and scraping its attachment to the wood, vacuum the bees into the box, and put the comb gently into a bucket. Old comb got sorted to be melted down, honey comb got sorted to be crushed and strained out, and comb with brood in it was stacked with extra care to cause as little damage as possible.

Piece by piece we worked our way to the end of the bees’ nest. It was perhaps the largest colony I’ve ever seen. Healthy. Vigorous. Organized and intentional. To cut out a comb, I would reach in behind it with my left hand so to cut it with my right. Well there are lots of bees in there, even after the vacuum, and so I would have to be very touch-sensitive and gentle with my grabbing because I can’t see where the bees are; I can only feel them and try not to pinch one. They were gentle bees, but I still got stung more this day than in the two years previous, almost entirely on the fingers. I don’t react or swell up nearly so much as I used to, but sometimes when they get close to a nerve ending it sure does hurt!

I took about twenty stings by the end of the day, but my fingers still look like fingers.

Which is all to say just this: here is a very special batch of honey, not ever to be duplicated! These bees were feral, completely unmanaged for five-ish years, foraging in a largely undeveloped environment. The honey I got from them is all there will be from them, except that Charlie will reestablish them in a new location under direct management. But this chapter is over. Celebrate it! These bees were rescued from a situation where they were becoming pests, without undue harm or rough treatment, and certainly no insecticides. We hope to breed new queens from this stock and continue the line, but that’s another story … until then, Love Me Some Honey!