The Sideboard Bees

~ By our Norfolk correspondent, Jan ~

Many of you know that I volunteered to be a swarm collector a few seasons ago: I’m not fearful of the bees and thought if I could help save some – before a worried owner calls a pest exterminator – then I have done some good for the environment. This has resulted in many delightful days spent moving bees around the county to new homes.

Late last summer, I got a call from a man who said he had bees in an outside sideboard on a patio in a village not far from us. We agreed he would monitor the situation, as he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with them, but a few weeks later he called back. I went over to review the situation and found that the bees had taken up residence in a cupboard, building several healthy looking combs attached to the drawer above. They seemed quite fond of the bees, who had been buzzing in and out for several weeks now, and it seemed clear to me that moving them at that late stage might cause the colony to fail, with temperatures dropping at night, and food supplies dwindling. So, with their approval, we agreed to leave the bees where they were until this spring.

Over the winter, I sought out advice on how to remove the bees without damaging them, but of course, unless we could get the queen out easily, this was going to be impossible. A cut-out seemed the only way. Fortunately a beekeeper at our local club had done a cut-out from a bird house, and filmed it to boot, although this involved dismantling the bird house…I wasn’t sure if I was capable of dismantling a nice sideboard, even if the owners agreed to this course of action! Meanwhile they had built a National bee hive to house the bees – it was evident these bees were now part of the family.

I had lined up to move the bees around Easter, but the weather proved troublesome – it simply didn’t get about 10-11C, hardly warm enough to be exposing brood and larvae to cold air. We moved the sideboard out from under the awning, and put the National alongside, but a lot of bees congregated on the wall behind the sideboard, so they put it back – possibly we had moved it too far, and too cold!

Fortunately, Saturday arrived with a bright, sunny day and no wind, and this had to be the day for the main event. With supplies at hand (bread knife, bee suit for the owner to assist, rubber bands, National frames with foundation removed, twine, a box for any spare honey or comb that fell off, hive tool, hive brush, Cetrizine), I cautiously opened the door to see how the colony had expanded. It looked as though there were about 5 -6 combs attached to the drawer ceiling.

We had already had a chat about The Plan, who would do what, and what we would do if we needed to abort. I would cut the comb, bring it over to the National to shake or brush bees off the comb and into the box, then I would hold the comb within a frame while he attached 2-3 rubber bands to hold it in place.

I tentatively got the bread knife and started sawing off the first comb. Of course, it was newish comb and very soft, so quite hard to shake the bees off into the National base! But we soon got into a routine, working fast and efficiently. But before long, the inside of the cupboard was starting to look like a gooey mess, my gloves were getting very sticky and difficult to work with, and of course, we were surrounded by panicky bees. I washed off the gloves in a water hose nearby, and started back. What I thought was the last comb, in the back, was not – there were two more! So we had to quickly move foundation out of two more combs.

It wasn’t a pretty sight really, mainly because I couldn’t cut the comb easily at its attachment with the drawer – it was above the door opening, meaning you had to lie down to get the right angle! By this time there were quite a few dead bees on the floor outside, and my hands had already suffered several stings, presumably from pulling the comb out, not knowing what I was hanging onto.

But we got it all, put the queen excluder on the bottom box, some syrup in a mini-Ashworth (sp?) on the crown board and just hoped we had got the queen. We put some carboard boxes in the cupboard in case we did not have the queen, and I left for the afternoon. At dusk I returned: no bees in the box, but life seemed to have settled down, so he stuffed the entrance for the night. I was a bit worried about the queen – after all, she could have drowned in the gooey mess, got squashed….

By the next morning, David noticed a crowd of bees under the sideboard, and after a quick review, it became clear the queen must have dropped off a comb, and found her way to the nearest dark place, and the stragglers followed! He managed to scoop them up in the empty box, shake them in the National, open up the hive entrance, and by mid-morning, there was a crowd ‘walking in’. In many ways that was a relief, because it suggested we had NOT got the queen the day before, but had found her now.

He closed the hive entrance for two days, and by Tuesday, when lockdown was over, the bees were flying in and out like nothing had happened!

All in all, we achieved what we had set out to do. It wasn’t pretty, but it did allow us to save a colony that others might have just thrown out to the wind. The key points of learning:

  • Be calm and organized. Discuss the plan and assign tasks. Be swift and purposeful in your actions.
  • Have a calm assistant!
  • Have a photographer!
  • Have all sorts of tools and supplies on hand – including a bucket of hot water to wash gloves in.
  • Have a cover for the National – a bit of board, a dish towel, anything to stop the bees you have shaken into the box getting out while you move to the next comb.
  • Have a tub for bits of comb and honey that the bees can clean up later
  • Have Cetrizine and a cream on hand for stings.
  • Don’t attempt an impossible feat e.g. in a box so high you have to go up a ladder, or onto a place at height.

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1 Response to The Sideboard Bees

  1. annchilcott says:

    Hello Jan. That’s a great story and a well documented account of a successful beekeeping adventure. Thank you for sharing it with us.Ann.


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