Rescue of a Small, Open-Air Colony

“Can anything be done to help these bees?” The query came across my Face Book page, along with a photo of white honeycombs hanging from an exposed tree limb.

Sometimes, bees do not manage to find a safe nest, and they begin making a home wherever they have landed. Now, if the bees are in warm country, and have built out beneath a rock ledge, this works pretty well, but bees here in the Northwest will not survive the winter exposed to our long, cold rainy seasons.

It looks like all these combs once housed bees. The small group between the two combs was all that remained…

I could see live bees between one of the combs, and something just told me I needed to step up and offer help. In early November, the bees would be not survive much longer. We’d already had some freezing nights. So, I called my bee friends Thea and Jennifer, who were both up for an adventure, and we contacted Tyler, the fellow who had come across the bees while out with a class in the woods. Outfitted with a plastic bin, some clippers, and our bee veils, we rendezvoused in the parking lot of Oaks Bottom Refuge, and headed down a steep deer trail into the woods.

“What will you do with the bees?” Tyler asked as we walked.
“You know, I won’t know til I see them.” I answered. We would need to see how many bees were left in the combs, and whether they had a queen with them.

If they had their queen, and any evidence of honey or a small patch of brood and seemed robust enough, we could place them in a small, safe hive for the winter, and see how they fared through the cold months. But, I was suspecting their queen was gone. That is often the case with small colonies of bees in autumn. Somewhere along in the summer months, the queens are lost, or injured, or perhaps never made it back from their mating flights. And the remaining bees simply forge on gathering nectar as their numbers slowly dwindle to nothing.

Making a plan…

When we arrived at the site of the colony, the sun was shining bright and cold through the yellow leaves still on the trees around us. The honeycombs were the color of moonlight on the branch, and against the backlight of sun, a small number of bees coming and going from the combs glinted amber and yellow in the shafts of streaming sunlight.

I crept through the blackberry vines and dead branches to get close to the combs, placing my hand close to a small throng of bees who had come out to greet me. They sniffed me curiously, offering no threat. Our plan was to try and clip the whole branch, and set the entire colony of combs into the carrying bin, but as soon as we put the clippers agains the wood, most of the empty combs fell off. With no bees on them, and in the cold weather, the fresh wax combs were as brittle and fragile as thin ice.

Once I cut the last two combs off, I hung my vest over the branch, so that the smell of bees and wax would not attract foragers back to the old colony location.

“I’m going to just cut the last combs with bees off. Can someone had me a knife?” I asked. Thea passed me one, pushed the plastic bin close to me and steadied it as I cut away the two last combs. The bees offered a small, startled buzz as the combs came off into my hands, but still offered no resistance.

Thea and I held the two combs low in the bin and separated them. The bees wandered across our hands, waving their antennae every which way, humming to each other as they tried to divine what what was happening to them. A few foragers returned from the field and did an about-turn from the now-empty branch, and slipped into the bin with their sisters.

There were probably about 300 bees in total, and no queen in residence. They had stored two palm-sized caches of ivy honey on the combs, but that was all that remained of the colony. They would not have survived the week. With no queen, there was no hope for them to survive at all on their own, so we decided to place them in a hive already occupied with bees.

I figured that the bees had been queenless for sometime, and with the winds and recent rains, I imagined the queen scent on their bodies had most likely worn off. It is this scent that would make them unwelcome in a new hive of bees, so these few stalwart survivors should have no trouble being accepted into another hive. Thea offered her skep as a home for them, and we planned to lift the two combs where the bees were settled and simply place it into the eco-floor beneath Thea’s Raven hive. The new bees would benefit from the warmth of the hive above, and could wander up into the combs of the resident bees as they felt comfortable.

We place the comb into the eco-floor. I could almost feel the relief of the bees: “Dark! Warmth!”

There is a wonderful feeling—hard to describe—when a plan comes together. It is a sense of fullness, and satisfaction, like a good meal. By the time we reached Thea’s house, the bees had snuggled together on one comb. We opened the face of the eco-floor and gently set them in. As soon as I placed them onto the dried leaves and old bark chunks, the parent hive began to buzz. The rescued bees answered. There was no arguing, no kerfluffling. The two were simply, quickly, one.

Thea left the eco-floor entry door cracked so that the few remaining rescued bees in the plastic bin could find their way to their sisters. The following morning, when the sun came out again, Thea told me the rescued bees were out and orienting in front of their new hive!

The bees begin singing on the comb…

So, this little escapade took us the better part of the day. We gathered 300 hopeless bees who would perish in the next few weeks anyhow, as all the summer bees begin their autumn death march. Why do such a thing? Why spend the energy? The gas money?

In this particular case, I followed my instinct to step in. I don’t always choose to do this. Sometimes, I choose to let bees be. I can’t even say what the criteria would be for me to interfere or to chose not to, because I simply don’t have any. This just felt like the right thing to do. I am trying to live more like the bees, whose mission is to be of benefit to all, and whose way of being is to be present to each moment. Something urged me to help, I made the call to Tyler, and the rest just fell into place, the whole process flowing smoothly and swiftly.

How do you make the right choices in life, how to you choose when to step in, when to stand aside? Here is one guide: Does your choice bring a smile to your face, a sense of fullness, as though your heart had just eaten a nourishing plate of soul food? There used to be an old phrase back from my hippy days: If it feels good, do it. I’m older now, hopefully a bit wiser, so I would update that sentiment: If it feels right, do it.

Be warm and safe, little rescued bees. In these, your last weeks of precious life, enjoy the company of new sisters, and a renewed sense of belonging to something larger and enduring. We are so happy to have been of benefit!

A fine winter home!

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