Sunday, April 28, 2013

A Ridiculously Busy Day Part 1: The Cut Out

There's been so much going on the last few days that I'm going to have to do this in two parts. I don't think anyone wants to read a book in one sitting haha. Thursday started at 8:30 with an hour drive to Loxahatchee (near Palm Beach Gardens) to help with a cut-out and possibly take home a feral swarm of bees. Followed by that was another hour drive back to go straight to work at 5pm. Then while at work I received an unexpected phone call about a local lady who called the Broward Association to report a swarm of bees in her tree. That was from 8pm until 11pm. What a day!

The Cut Out

The location for the cutout was West Loxahatchee, a very rural area by South Florida standards. The property had been foreclosed on a while back and was being attended by a management company. A few days prior, one of the lawn men had been riding a mower and come across a football sized clump of bees on the lawn. He called it in to the property management company and they called it in to Brendan, a fellow Palm Beach Beek Assoc. member and redditor (/u/brendhan), who in turn called Mike to assign to the job to. That clump on the lawn was a swarm, which we will soon find out happened to be very significant to these bees.

I woke up at 8am, took Ren (my Japanese Kai Ken pup) out to do her business, packed my stuff in the car, and set off for the hour drive to Loxahatchee. I was all set to go with my jacket, smoker, queen clip + nuc box, and giant thermos of ice water! Mike sounded like a real experienced, relaxed, fast-is-slow-and-slow-is-steady kind of guy, and had me looking forward to a very educational experience.

The traffic was a bit more than expected, so Mike had already found the entrance to the hive and set up the ladders by the time I arrived. After doing a once-through of the house, listening to the walls for buzzing, feeling the walls for hotspots, we concluded that the bees were concentrated in the eaves of the house. So back outside we went. We suited up, smoked the entrance a bit, and started working the board on the edge of the house/roof. This single board ran the entire length of the house so we ended up having to dig out the nails with hammer and mini-crowbar, eventually cutting the board down at about 10ft in length. There were a LOT of bees, which ended up being another strange thing. The hive itself was split up into three parts as well due to wooden support boards for the roof. If you look at the picture right above this you'll see the yellow comb, preceded by a bunch of bees. The area with bees is one section, then there's a board, then there's the honeycomb. Before the bees is another section of honey/brood comb (it was weird).

We began by cutting out honeycomb with a small paring knife, and got our first sign that something was wrong with these bees. Now normally beetles don't give me that skin crawling reaction like when there's a ton of scavenger insects (ants, bunches of roaches, etc). In this case however... there were just soooo many beetles it was truly disgusting. In this picture you can actually see a dead one that has drowned in the unfinished honey. They're small, scurry quickly to get away from the light, and have a parasitic relationship with honeybees. In short, they're pests. In a healthy hive, especially a feral one, the guard bees will corral beetles into cracks in the hive walls. Once corralled, the bees will actually imprison them by sealing over the cracks with propolis. Or, in the case of screened bottom boards for human-kept hives, the bees will shove the beetles out through the screening. These bees were not managing the beetles whatsoever, and on every comb we took out there were dozens of these little fiends. I truly felt bad for these poor bees.

A quick detour from the play-by-play... I was scanning bees for mites with every panel of comb that we took out. However, there was only a single varroa mite that was apparent with at least five thousand bees scanned over the entirety of the wax taken out. Mike and I talked about what options there were for the hive, and decided that even if the comb wasn't salvageable that he would take the bees to combine with another recovered feral hive that was low in numbers. The bees were incredibly good natured. Even with the sawing of the boards covering the hive, cutting out the comb, scooping up bees in a large Taco Bell cup, and all the chaos we were causing, neither of us were stung. The only stings received were on my gloves when manually scooping them up and being too rough. There were a few workers hatching out while taking out the comb so we gave them some time before dumping the comb in bins. The above picture is a baby bee who is covered in downy white baby bee fur, even on their head!

Like I said, very gentle bees!

Anyhow, back to the action. After cutting out the far right sections of honeycomb, we moved on to the central panels. These panels were very dark brown in color,  meaning it was very old brood comb which had birthed many a bee. But... there was honey throughout all of the brood comb. A normal comb of brood should have an outer "band" of honey, with a band of "bee bread" next, followed by a central area of brood (eggs + larvae + capped brood, or at least larvae + capped brood) with a solid laying pattern. These panels looked like someone had a shotgun loaded with shells of capped brood and loaded the brood on with it. The terminology used is a shotgun pattern of brood. Maybe 10% of the panel was brood, the rest was unfinished honey crawling with beetles. Gross.

We set up a single frame of recovered brood cell, rubber banding it in place on the frame, but then decided at that point it was a lost cause. There were no eggs whatsoever, no larvae anywhere, and a huge Charlie Foxtrot of Small Hive Beetles on every single piece of comb. The swarm of bees found by the landscaper filled out the rest of the story. There was something wrong with this hive. The queen was either sick, injured, reaching the end of her fertility, or something along those lines, and for some reason had decided to swarm. She must not have been laying in the time leading up to the swarming. The remaining bees were left without any eggs that were able to be raised into queens except for one. We found a single queen cell that was their sole hope for survival. If that queen failed to develop then the hive would die.

Even if the queen did hatch, there was such an infestation of hive beetles that the comb would be reduced to a slimy, writhing mass of hive beetle larvae. Since bees only live for a few weeks and the current workers were mostly older bees with barely any new workers on the way, there wouldn't have been time for the queen to go on her maiden flight, abscond to find a new location, build new comb, and then finally lay eggs to start getting new workers on the way. This hive was a total loss. Time to rescue as many bees as possible!

 I don't know if I already mentioned this, but these bees were incredibly nice! I almost can't get over how nice these bees were. I know that if I did as much damage to my Italian-Carniolans as I did to this feral hive that I would absolutely be getting stung. This was the equivalent of putting an old generator on top of a Langstroth box, turning it on, and then roughly pulling out frames. I wanted to do whatever we could to help the girls. These bees buzzed my veil a bit, but nowhere near what I was expecting. They were also desperate for a queen. Mike had housed a queen in his queen clip two days prior (now empty), and the second we started scooping bees into the nuc box (with clip at the bottom) they decided that it was home. Mike handed a large Taco Bell cup up to me and I literally just scooped up cups worth of bees, then handed them down to him to shake into the nuc box. The picture above is the nuc box entrance with the bees fanning their chemical signal into the air to notify airborne bees that the swarm was located at the signal's origin. They knew they were without a queen, low in numbers, and just wanted to get by.

Mike pulled out the bee vacuum after about four cups of bees. This is basically a shop vac connected to a sealed wooden chamber, that contains a smaller "package" box within it to hold the bees, with another length of vacuum tubing extending from the box. We sucked up the rest of the bees and gave them another 15mins. That way the airborne stragglers could find their way to the nuc box.

With that taken care of, the job was pretty much complete. I had to get to work in an hour and a half, so it was time to hit the road. I helped Mike pack up and moved gear back to his truck. Unfortunately there would be no feral colony to bring home, but I learned an incredible amount from doing this cut-out. Mike put all my uncertainties at ease, was very thorough, explaining everything he was doing along the way, and being patient with my mistakes while telling stories or cracking jokes the entire time. There was just one thing left to do...

Eat some honey! There was only a 3"x 2" strip of capped honey, but it split perfectly into a bite for each of us. Maybe it's just fanciful thinking, but it felt like a "thank you" from the bees.