Donna Hartley: Continued Musings of a Mad Beekeeper

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In the wintertime bees don’t migrate anywhere beyond their hive. They hibernate, live off of their stored honey and stay put. We generally start to get removal calls in the springtime. We’ll get a phone call telling us that we need to come and remove bees from a house. “How long have they been there” is my first question. “They were at our house last year and they returned in this last week or so.”

In fact the bees didn’t go anywhere but lived in that wall, quietly clustered together for warmth, ate from their honey and pollen stores and raised young. We call it “going dormant” over the wintertime much as a bear hibernates only the bees don’t really sleep. With the warm weather they emerge from their dwelling and are out foraging for pollen and nectar as the days become warm and the flowers start to bloom.

It’s time to replenish the stores of honey because the average hive at the high altitude along the Palmer Divide and out east around Calhan needs about 95 to 125 pounds of honey to make it through the winter. A beekeeper leaves that much on a hive when he harvests the honey from his bees in the fall, otherwise his bees won’t survive the high country winter.

Unfortunately no one tells the bees not to emerge from the hives all at one time and so a beekeeper who does removals gets a rash of calls, non-stop, to come and get these bees. Roofers, painters, window and various other installers are all intimidated by the active honey bees running out and going about their business. The beekeeper has two hands and some help if he’s lucky, but removals are still an arduous process. The beekeeper who works too quickly and too clumsily will definitely kill more bees than he saves.

One of the worst mistakes a homeowner can make is to decide that the bees in his wall have to be exterminated. There are several serious problems here. Reputable pest control companies don’t exterminate bees except in extreme circumstances but generally refer the homeowner to a beekeeper as the honeybee is a protected species.

If the hive has been in the space between the walls or in the house somewhere for an extended period of time, the hive has built up honey and comb. Removal means not only removing the living bees but removing their home as well. If the bees are exterminated and the comb remains in the wall, the comb will melt in the hot months when the bees aren’t around to keep the honeycomb solid with their wings. The honey bee is a hard working animal and fans the hive in the heat to keep the comb solid with it nectar or honey. The individual comb cells have a seal of wax to keep everything neat and tidy.

My husband has had to cut a lot of comb out of established hives in walls in years past but the comb and wax is important to the bees. One of the larger entrenched hives was a ceiling with 7 feet of comb above it. The hive had been exterminated by a prior owner the previous year and the comb remained and honey leaked through the ceiling, onto the sofa and the rug. It was an expensive disaster for the homeowner. The odor of the previous hives also attracts new bees and therefore the entire comb and all honey should be cleaned out before closing up a wall.

Removing bees in the fall is often a death sentence for the bees. They have built up and prepared their hive and stores for winter and so the hive in a wall is often best left undisturbed for the coming cold season. More than once my husband has had to advise a homeowner to leave the bees in a wall until the following spring.

Often a beekeeper gets late summer calls for “aggressive bees” that are really yellow jackets. A beekeeper keeps bees but the yellow jackets are dealt with by an exterminator and there is a lot of confusion about this. If unsure, the homeowner may have to have an exterminator or beekeeper stop by and take a look.

Since these calls are so numerous and there is always a wait, some people prefer to snap photos, google the species on the internet or look up the information and photos of these animals. It takes a macro lens to capture a nice clear shot of an animal that size.

One young woman was very brave and caught a yellow jacket in a jar for inspection before she called us and told us she had yellow jackets. I don’t normally recommend this as yellow jackets are aggressive and can sting multiple times. However we do recommend people ask the questions that will help them decide who to call.

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