This week I extracted two hives from one building project in Corte Madera. I responded to a notification through the Marin Beekeepers Club that a new building project had hives that had moved into the unfinished walls. I met Joe Clarke at the construction trailer and he showed me the place where the hives had taken up residence.
We walked around to building four, where he pointed up to the base of the second story. Bees were happily flying about the entrance to their hive, located at the metal support structure that tied the second story balcony wall to the first story. The second hive had taken up residence in the same manner just two apartments down in another balcony wall.
The first step was to determine exactly where inside the walls the bees had built their hives. While they are typically nestled between studs inside the wall, they sometimes can straddle a stud or be in more than one open chamber inside as their hive grows.
Joe's crew quickly took up the task of drilling pilot holes new teen the studs to look for comb and bee activity. At each hive they'd drilled at the base of two panels and again at the top to see the comb inside. Good news was they were easy to access from the balconies.
Joe had grown up with a hive of bees in his historic NY state home as a kid, so he personally assisted me by cutting away the wall panel so I could access the hives. We decided on using a circular saw instead of a Saws-all, reducing the overall vibration to the hive and damage to the comb beneath the wall panel.
While Joe cut away the panel, I readied my equipment. I'd brought with me three buckets to hold the comb, another full of wash water to keep my hands and tools clean and not too sticky. I'd also brought my not-so secret tool- my bee vacuum.
What's a bee vacuum, you ask? Just googling "bee vacuum plans" turns up dozens of homemade solutions for how one sucks bees into a vessel, and some are downright bizarre. The big idea is to gently pull bees from their comb without harming them in the process, and having them land in a place where they can be relocated into a hive.
David Peterson of Ross showed me my first bee vacuum in person, and being that he is the most practical beekeeper I know, I decided that I'd use his plan to make my own. This is the general idea. The end result being that you can simply remove the shop vacuum from the top, plug the hole in the bottom where the hose was attached, and the hive can be moved with no additional disturbance to the bees while en route.
The first of the two hives had taken up residence only weeks earlier. The fresh white comb had not yet been filled with honey, and the queen was only just beginning to lay eggs. The combs were small and easily accessible inside the panel, and great place to start. This is where I put my camera down and went to work.
Needless to say, the first extraction took only a few minutes. I was able to find the queen and put her in a queen cage for transport. No comb was saved, since it was fragile and mostly empty.
Joe and I reassembled our tools at the second of the hives, where he repeated the process of cutting open the panel.
This hive was much further along, having filled the entire space with comb. I began first to suck the bees on the outside into the bee vac, being sure to get the guard bees first. Next step was to remove the honey comb on the outside, placing it gently into a bucket with a honey gate to catch the drips. Beneath the outside honey comb was the brood chamber, as seen in the next image.
It was beautiful to see a feral hive in its entirety, with the brood in the center ringed by pollen and then honey. Once again, I set my camera aside and concentrated on gently removing the hive. I patiently sucked the bees into the vac, as more and more poured out of hiding to cover the brood nest. I must admit, it can be a bit overwhelming unless you calm yourself and concentrate on one task at a time.
Once the bees were mostly in the vac, I began cutting the comb, one piece at a time. The most important thing to remember when pulling out the comb is that it can be very heavy, and the weight will destroy the comb if the pieces you cut are too big. Later when I get back to my apiary, I will cut the comb again to fit into empty comb frames, so I make my pieces approximately the size of my frames. I carefully brush the bees off the brood comb and into a lidded bucket before placing the brood comb in its own bucket, stacking the pieces so they don't crush one another and air can still flow to most of the brood inside their comb.
The idea is that when you return to your apiary to finish the job, you will have a bucket of just bees, a bucket of just honeycomb, and a bucket of brood comb. This keeps things simple, keeps bees from drowning in their own honey, and makes sure the brood is safe too. Its tough to catch a queen when there are so many bees, and she may not survive the process, no matter how carefully you do it. Saving as much brood comb as possible ensures that if a queen is lost, they can rally and make a new one from existing eggs in the brood comb.
Time is of the essence, and one must work quickly so ensure the survival of the hive. It took approximately two hours to complete the task of removing this hive. When the wall panel was free of wax and bees, we quickly covered the buckets and moved them into my truck along with the two hive boxes and the rest of the equipment. The buckets need to be kept out of the sun so the wax doesn't sag and melt.
The next step is to place the hive and buckets where they will live in the apiary. I placed this hive on an old beat up stand with free space next to it so I could work on getting the comb cut and set into the hive. This ensures that when the bees reorient themselves, the will be able to locate their own hive and not get lost.
I worked quickly to cut the comb and place it onto the hive. Brood needs to be kept warm to survive, and eggs must not dry out. I preload frames with rubber bands before I begin, and use a flat surface to work on.
As each frame was filled with comb I placed it in the hive, ensuring that nurse bees would make a beeline for their babies and begin setting everything back in order. The bees will set to attaching the comb, and then they chew away at the rubberbands, until they fall to the bottom of the hive.
This image is from a hive that I rescued two weeks ago. Poor bees had taken up residence in an owl box that was never designed to hold the weight of so much honey. I got the call after dark, and couldn't get there until the next morning. Even so, the hive survived and went on to make a new queen, with a little help. The frame image above is from their hive.
Once all the brood comb was placed in the largest of the two extracted hives, I took a step back and evaluated my setup. Its very important to feed the bees with pollen and honey or their equivalent as quickly as possible. I didn't have any sugar syrup prepared, so I started by giving the largest of the two hives some chunks of honeycomb in the top above a queen excluder in an empty honey super. Below the queen excluder, just on top of the brood frames I dribbled pollen substitute.
Both hives settled in their new home, it was time to take a break and eat lunch. I also made the sugar syrup, a 1:1 ration of sugar to water to stimulate wax production. Then I set to evaluating the smallest hive. First I released the queen from her cage and marked her with a green pen for 2014. They didn't have enough bees to fill out all the frames of a hive body, so I placed a follower board in and made the space smaller so they can begin to draw comb and keep the place warm. Keeping the hive as small as possible is important so they can regulate their environment and concentrate on recovering. First day I fed both hives my sugar syrup. By the second day I'd extracted the honey from the comb and fed it back to them. They'd already consumed all the sugar syrup- a good sign. I normally don't feed bees honey back to them this way unless its a situation like this with an extraction and lots of honeycomb.
In the next few days I'll check in on the larger of the two hives to see if I got the queen, and when I do I'll move the hive onto a real bottom board. I'll be monitoring regularly to feed them until they've drawn out ten frames of comb, at which point I'll let them continue on their own.