Rescuing bees is a huge part of what The Tree Bee Society does. They work for many organisations from public authorities right through to individual householders. When bees make their home somewhere awkward to humans, sometimes they need to be moved. Let me take you through the basics of what’s involved.
Why bees can be a problem
Although bees might seem like an alien species to us, we do share some things in common. We just want to find somewhere safe and cosy to live where we aren’t going to run out of food. As humans, we build our own houses; bees haven’t sorted out that part. So bees rely on someone else to build the roof and walls.
Bees are pretty good with the interior design though, knowing exactly how to fit out their home interior to suit their needs.
In nature, bees like to build their hives high up in hollow spaces of trees. Cavities and cracks in a living tree are perfect. Because we humans have reduced the tree population to a tiny fraction of what it once was, options for bee homes aren’t as wide as they used to be.
A lack of natural nesting sites has led to bees looking for alternative accommodation. These days that often means they will look for sites that are closer to us humans than we find comfortable.
So what are bees looking for? A secure space with plenty of room to build their comb. Such a location would also benefit from a small, sheltered, and defendable entrance, so they can fight off raiding parties of wasps and other predators who like to steal their honey.
Here’s the problem. Roof spaces, wall cavities, chimneys are all great spaces if you can reach them from a small gap in brickwork or a hole under house eaves. Sometimes bees can build nests in such places and not even be noticed for years. But when honey starts dripping through your ceiling, you know you probably need to do something about it.
As you can imagine, usually passive bees can change their mood when someone invades their space. Innocently popping your head up into the attic to see where that strange humming sound is coming from might be misinterpreted by a bee colony as an aggressive act. Moving bee colonies isn’t something for amateurs.
Why Tree Bee started rescuing bees.
Tree Bee first got asked to deal with bees that had invaded human territory because they ran a pest control company. Cockroaches, fleas and rodents had been their main line of work. However, one day they were confronted with the task of removing bees. Killing these incredible and increasingly endangered creatures just because they had set up home somewhere inconvenient for humans felt like the wrong thing to do.
They set about devising their own way to move live colonies of honey bees.
First question, what do you do with a box of 30,000 plus live bees after you’ve extracted their home, and they are more than a little cross with you? Tree Bee has the use of a small organic Permaculture based community farm in rural Lancashire, England. An organic farm is an excellent location for keeping bees with large areas of forage available to them.
The bees don’t make it easy to be evicted. They naturally want to build their nest high up and in an inaccessible place.
Although those at Tree Bee want to keep the bees safe, they also have to think about their own safety. Removing a beehive isn’t something you want to be doing up the end of a long ladder. Scaffolding nearly always has to be built around the nest site. You don’t want to be worrying where to put your feet when working three stories up, taking a chimney apart to extract angry bees.
How do you move a bee colony to a new home?
The basic plan is to remove the colony’s honeycomb piece by piece, keeping as much of it preserved as possible. At the core of the hive are the brood cells. These cells are at the centre of the life of a bee colony. It’s here the queen raises the next generation of bees. She lays up to 2000 eggs per day, continually replenishing the ranks of female worker bees who support the hive. She’s the most important member of the colony and wherever she goes the rest of the bees will follow.
The sooner the queen can be found the easier the job will be in recovering the colony successfully.
Some bee colonies are bigger and stronger than others. The most significant influence on that is the food local supply. Tree Bee has rescued bees with massive amounts of honeycomb and lots of honey. They take on this work in the summer because that’s when the bees are at their healthiest and in the best position to make a recovery when they arrive at their new home.
When you see a bee colony that lives in a standard man-made beehive, the comb is neatly constructed within frames that humans build for them. This is for the beekeeper’s convenience, and it makes managing the hive and extracting honey as easy as possible.
When bees are left to sort out their interior design, they custom build things to fit their surroundings. Bees like made to measure ‘furniture.’ Comb takes on the contours of the surroundings, and that probably isn’t going to fit neatly into the dimensions of a standard national hive frame.
The solution to putting odd-shaped honeycomb into rectangular frames is the humble elastic band. Four or more of them stretched out across a rectangular frame allows Tree Bee to suspend the comb within the frame. The depth of the comb remains constant because it’s bee sized for raising brood. The comb is also usually constructed on a horizontal plane because this is the most efficient way of using the wax which the bees must secrete from their bodies.
Although bees are very industrious, they’re savvy enough not to waste energy building something they don’t need to build. The more of their own pre-constructed comb they have to take to their new home, the easier it is for them to rebuild the colony to be strong enough to get them through the winter.
The neatest thing about suspending a piece of oddly shaped honeycomb within a frame with elastic bands is to see how the bees construct new comb around it. They eventually fill in the gap between their pre-built honeycomb from their old nest, and the top and the sides of the frame. They do this with new honeycomb, and it secures the once ‘floating’ piece of honeycomb from their old home to the frame of their new one. When they’ve finished, the elastic bands will no longer be needed.
All the repairs and reconstruction they need to do within their new hive takes its toll, and this is why bee colonies have to be removed in the summer. Energy spent in constructing fresh honeycomb would typically be used on building up food stores for the winter. Bees need sufficient time to literally ‘get their houses in order’ and collect food stocks before autumn arrives and their food supplies dwindle.
When Tree Bee has de-constructed the hive, preserving and re-assembling as much of the existing comb as they can in their new hive, they then have to wait for the foragers to return home.
Bees who may be miles away from their home will continue to arrive back at the site of the removal until the light falls at the end of the day. Tree Bee has to be there to get them back and reunite them with their sisters in the new hive.
When it looks like no more workers are coming home, the entrance to the old colony is sealed up so any stragglers don’t take this as an opportunity to start rebuilding a new colony where the old one was. The space vacated by the old colony will still smell of honey and wax. This could attract a passing swarm or even some wasps. Getting rid of a bee colony to have it replaced by a wasps nest would be a bad outcome.
With a hive full of bees in the back of the car, or sometimes a trailer, they then head home to their base to get the hive in place for the next morning. They know the bees will emerge as soon as it’s light and warm enough. They will start their circular orientation flights around the hive and then slowly increase flight distances until they can routinely fly three to five miles on foraging trips.
Here’s one basic rule of beekeeping. If you move a hive any more than three feet from its former location, you have to move it at least three miles. The bee navigation system is so highly tuned, they know where their home is within a couple of inches. If you were to move the hive say six or ten feet away from its location, any returning bees would circle around the area where the hive used to be. They just wouldn’t find the entrance to the hive.
If you were to move the hive a distance of less than three miles from their current location, any bees leaving the hive would not ‘register’ the fact that the hive had moved. They would try to return to the old site and eventually perish.
Moving the hive a greater distance than three miles ‘reprogrammes’ the bees to start orienting themselves to their new location. Tree Bee often moves bees a few hundred miles cross-country and bees don’t have any problems adopting their new home.
When you open up a hive a few days after it has been moved, you will be surprised how much work they have done to tidy up, reconstruct and put their home back in order.
Rescuing bees is a significant part of what Tree Bee does. They’re committed to making sure the honey bee survives the pressure it is currently under.
Long term, Tree Bee wants to breed more colonies and increase their numbers. This isn’t specifically to increase honey production, though obviously, that’s going to happen with more significant numbers. The Tree Bee Society wants to support the countryside and local agriculture, and they believe more pollinators will have a beneficial effect on the local area.
Sometimes, moving a bee colony is the only option. The Tree Bee Society has developed a smooth, safe, and reliable system for extracting honey bee colonies. They give them a new home on an organic farm, and that’s a great outcome for everyone involved.