Ten of us gathered at Rachel’s home to rescue an endangered feral nest from the wall of a building about to be demolished, relocating it to her Warré hive. The bees had been living in a cavity behind a bricked-up window for at least 6 years, possibly over 10.
The meeting was the opposite of our usual low-intervention approach; you can’t get more invasive than cutting out an entire nest and transferring it, along with the bees, their brood and stores into a hive. Yet the bees were incredibly calm. At some point early on, the smoker went out and no one thought to re-light it.
This was the first time any of us had done a “cut-out” but Richard, who has rescued many bees from buildings, had previously surveyed the site and lent us tools including a bee vac, and given us copious advice which proved invaluable.
Our primary objective was to locate and transfer the queen(s), then the brood comb into the waiting hive; then as many bees and stores as possible. Predictably, things weren’t that straightforward. Fortunately the cavity was not rubble filled, which Richard had warned was a possibility – in which case there would have been no sheets of comb to transfer.
We worked from the inside of the building. Jack and Will set to work with lump hammers, masonry chisels and crowbars, but the wall was more solid than expected, and it took 2 to 3 hours to uncover the entire nest, whereupon we felt we could begin cutting comb in an orderly manner and transfer it directly into the hive, which we had temporarily set up in the same room.
We’d been told to use the bee vac on crowded comb, to avoid covering bees with honey; but there were relatively few bees – or sticky honey – on the comb with brood, so there was little risk of harming bees by cutting the comb.
Will snapped out entire combs which Ann trimmed (finding scissors worked better than a knife on this old, chewy brood comb!) and used string to nimbly tie comb into some 4 sided Warré “frames” I made specially to support the comb, and when we ran out of those she simply suspended more comb from bars. Brian has uploaded a 1.5 minute video of this process to YouTube here.
We found three large patches of capped worker brood and one of capped drone brood, plenty of pollen but surprisingly little honey; certainly no excess to take for ourselves, so the honey strainer we’d optimistically taken along stood unused in a corner. We managed to fill one Warré box with 7 combs and lots of bees. The rest of the comb was too old, crumbly and empty to be worth keeping.
We didn’t spot the queen. We found a queen, or a queen sized worker with an unusual greyer colouration; but although I thought she was a virgin queen, others thought her wings too long to be royalty. We carefully transferred her to the hive in a queen clip, but the bees ignored her. However the bees seemed very content to stay in the hive, perhaps because of the brood comb there. The bees remaining in the cavity clustered in an awkward space where the wooden lintel had rotted upwards, but the bee vac got most of them and a mirror showed there were just a few dozen left behind, so we probably got the queen in the end. We would prefer not to have used the bee vac which runs a risk of damaging bees it sucks up, but given the inaccessibility of the rotted cavity to other tools, we had to resort to it there.
Observations on the nest cavity
- Brood were towards the top left, near the entrance.
- The cavity walls were generally very dark, at least some of this was propolis but it was a very thin layer.
- The old comb had plenty of holes through it and in one place, a big channel along its surface (wax moth damage). It was dark, but the very oldest comb seemed to have fallen away and been replaced at some point, because there were patches of lighter comb among very dark sections.
- Will pointed out that the wax moth did a great job of disintegrating old collapsed comb so it did not block up the entire volume.
- We’d hoped to get samples of the floor debris, to see if there were many varroa for example, but the floor was buried by dust and chunks of masonry we’d knocked in while dismantling the wall.
- About 10% of the bees were drones, and we found an empty queen cell.
- There is currently what I’d consider a good nectar flow round the village the nest is in, but the nest held little in the way of stores. This could indicate that the forage conditions for fixed-location bees are very marginal in modern Britain; but alternatively, it may mean the colony is so well adapted to the area, it can fine-tune its brood rearing (food consumption) to precisely match the nectar flow.
After a break for lunch, giving the bees time to settle, we returned to “bee vac” up the last few clusters of bees, transfer them into the hive and move it into the garden.
It was about this point that we got a phone call – our first swarm call of the year. Very early for our area! (I went to pick it up later. There were just a few stragglers, scouts left behind after a swarm had moved on. I took them home and merged them into a queen-right colony.)
Ann had recent experience of moving a hive and had advice for dealing with the fact that foragers need to learn where their new home is, otherwise they return to the original position. Each evening she collected the bees who’d gathered at the old position and put the box of bees next to the hive entrance (in the new position), and after 3 days they’d learnt the new location. Rachel will be using the same trick to minimise loss of foragers, and a screen of twigs and grass in front of the hive entrance to force the bees to re-orient as they emerge from their new home.
Will the colony survive its transfer? None of us had done this before and it is a bit early in the year for it, but the building is being demolished within a week so there was no other option. If it fails, the hive will be repopulated with a swarm. Rachel will let us know what happens and we will update this page with news. Whatever happens, we all learnt a great deal, and gained confidence.
Update – 3 days later:
Rachel tells us she is seeing bees flying in figure of 8 patterns at the entrance of the hive, memorising their new home location. Bees are still returning to the cut-out, where she gathers them each evening in a box and moves them back to the hive in the morning, but fewer each day. Through the windows it is evident the bees are active in the hive. She may have seen one bee taking pollen in, and the bees have remained calm, not bothering anyone.
Update – 4 weeks later:
After about 4 days Rachel bees stopped returning to the old location. Bees are flying in good numbers in and out of the hive, and carrying in pollen. If the queen had died, numbers would have dwindled to just a few by now. The transfer has been successful.
Many thanks to Richard for his advice and the loan of his equipment, and to Rachel for allowing us into her home, which following our ‘party’ will now be demolished.
Next meeting: Saturday May 13th at Gareth’s apiary in West Oxfordshire.