Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Strange Removals Part II

I know you have been waiting with bated breath, so here is the rest of the story of my Summer of Strange Removals. After the Conshohocken job, the next bee removal job was in Northeast Philly at Disston Precision, a company that dates back to 1850 and is still functioning as a manufacturer of custom steel supplies, including saw blades. The bees were living in a window cavity, where the window had been removed and the space boarded up. 

View From Outside
View From Inside

We felt that this would be a fairly straightforward job - we'd just remove the large piece of plywood on the inside of the window, expose the hive and remove the bees and comb. And this is pretty much how things went. Although, when we opened the cavity, once again we saw very few bees in the hive. But have a look at these huge, gorgeous sheets of comb.

View from the bottom of the comb

We gradually removed sheet after sheet of comb and while we were seeing some bees, we were only seeing honey comb and no signs of any brood.

We got through the entire hive and there was absolutely no brood at all. No eggs, larvae or capped brood, no queen either.  With no brood comb to worry about and not too many bees, this was a quick and easy job. Because there were some bees in the hive, still working and gathering nectar, the honey was clean and there were no wax moths like there were at the job in Conshohocken. Joel saved the honey to use for making mead. We vacuumed up the bees that were there and Joel just set them free near his hives so they could join another colony.

So for the third time this summer, there were basically no new bees to add to my apiaries. Because there was no queen and no brood, the genetics of this hive would not be passed on and couldn't be preserved. My guess about this hive is that they swarmed some time in the early summer and were unsuccessful at making a new queen. They probably tried to make a new queen but if the new queen somehow got damaged or killed (eaten by a bird on her mating flight?) and there were no more eggs left in the hive, this hive would eventually die out because they wouldn't be able to make a new queen. Once all of the brood were hatched and there were no more young to care for, the remaining bees are left only to gather bunches and bunches of nectar and turn it into honey. And that's what they do, because that's what they know how to do!

Sometimes in this queenless situation, you will get what is called a "laying worker". This is when, in the absence of a viable queen and with no resources to make a new queen, one or more worker bees start to lay eggs. Problem is that the workers can only lay unfertilized eggs, which become male bees or drones. This is a last ditch effort to try to perpetuate the genetics of the hive, hoping that one of the drones will be able to mate with a queen somewhere and thus carry on the genes. There is a possible exception to this hopeless drone-laying worker situation called "thelytoky". Thelytoky is when a female is produced from an unfertilized egg. If the laying workers can create females bees, then the colony would be able to make a new queen with one of the female eggs that the laying worker lays. Confused yet? Dee Lusby, of Organic Beekeepers Yahoo Group fame, regularly insists that thelytoky is not as rare in honey bees as some would lead us to believe.

Ok, sorry for the biology lesson digression - back to the removal jobs. The final job of the summer was in West Philadelphia at a beautiful old Dominican Convent that is now an apartment building. The bees were entering the house through a third floor dormer and lots of bees were getting into other parts of the house via the attic and ductwork. The bees apparently had been there for several years and the owner had them sprayed earlier this summer. An unscrupulous exterminator told the homeowner that these were not honey bees so that he could spray them and make some money off of the job. Boo!!

Here we are getting things set up. The bees were entering the house near the little window to the left of the vacuum set-up. Little did we realize at this point that once again, we would not be needing the bee vac!

Finding the hive in the walls was challenging as the exterior and interior of the building were a mess of angles and weird compartments. We made a few holes in the walls and didn't find anything until our fourth attempt, the one that Jeff is working on in the picture below. 

 Here is what the inside of the wall looked like. But notice, once again, NO BEES!

Looking down into the cavity, some big sheets of comb...

There were a few bees coming and going, but we quickly realized that these were robber bees from another hive stealing the honey and that there were actually no bees living in this hive. One way to tell that the hive was being robbed was that the comb was all chewed up and raggedy with lots of capping wax on the floor.

As we proceeded to remove comb. At first all we were seeing was new, white honey comb and no brood comb. After we removed most of the honey comb, we saw that the comb kind of went around the corner down towards the bottom of the picture above. The rest of the hive ended up being under the little window. Here we found more honey and the dark brood comb and a bunch of wax moths, but still no bees, dead or alive.

We also soon realized that the few robber bees that were coming inside were quickly dying. It is normal for the bees to gather at a window during a removal job, going toward the light to try to get outside. But it is not normal for them to die within minutes. We figured that whatever had been sprayed in this hive was still killing the bees as they stole the honey. The bees that had been living here must have absconded once the insecticide was sprayed because there was no huge pile of dead bees inside the hive as one might expect when a hive is poisoned.

Poor dying bees on the window

Here is a big ol' bag of contaminated honey and comb, it weighed at least 40 pounds. Because it had been sprayed, neither of us wanted anything to do with this mess so we trashed it all.

At the end of the day and for the 4th time this summer, I did a removal job and didn't have any bees to show for it. But the summer wasn't a total loss - it is always great to see the feral hives and how the bees organize things. And all of the homeowners were happy to have the hives and comb out of their walls. And I also made a few bucks to help support this addictive hobby of mine. My next post will be about the Treatment Free Beekeeping Conference that I attended in Leominster, MA a few weeks ago.


  1. Great pictures! I'm just getting started in beekeeping and enjoyed your blog and photos.

    1. Glad you liked it! Take a look at some other posts if you haven't already. Some of the early posts talk a bit more about beekeeping basics. Thanks for reading.