Rescuing a Feral Honeybee colony September 2014

Last weekend I had a call to help rescue a feral colony of honey bees from the eaves of a two storey house from a friend and fellow beekeeper. The owner D was having some building work done and had tried to work around the colony until the inevitable happened and the builder got stung on the ear. We needed to do something before Monday morning. As luck would have it the builders had erected scaffolding so we could easily get up to the colony.

In the past when I have rescued wild/feral colonies I have used a method explained to me by my mentor in beekeeping Rog who always gives me the benefit of his wisdom and previous learning experiences. Earlier in the year I had talked to Rog about a wild colony in a chalet in North Devon that I wanted to re-locate as it was next to the kitchen and was starting to cause some concern for anyone staying there.

Rog and I had also collected a wild/feral colony a couple of years before and tried a method of cutting out the brood comb and fitting it into an empty frame with a few wires to support the comb. This had worked but was a little fragile, so we talked about using rubber bands to support the brood comb in the open frame and with this idea I went and made up some frames with a rubber band lattice on one side to support the brood comb before fitting another band over the top of the comb. Five frames and a nuc box and off I went to get the colony from the chalet. You can read more about this in a previous post.

Tried and tested then I made up five frames with rubber bands in a similar way, but I had no spare nuc box. Not to worry my good beekeeping friend C also the neighbour of the people with the wild colony had a small nuc box that we could use.

When collecting a wild/feral colony I have learnt that having plenty of time is helpful to ensure that you collect as many bees as you can. We were informed that we could start at 3.00pm, so we set off early to assess the situation before kitting up and getting the smoker lit.

The colony was behind the soffit in the roof space and there were no bees in the loft so we could guess with some accuracy that the comb was probably just behind the soffit and removing it would reveal it.

We climbed up the ladder to the top of the scaffolding with nuc box, prepared frames, a couple of large plastic containers, a sharp knife, a soft brush, a queen cage (on the off chance that I might spot her without my glasses on). Closely followed by D and his electric screwdriver and crowbar.

D removed the downpipe and then started to remove the soffit section by section where the colony was estimated to be located. A puff of smoke to let them know we are coming.

Looking around us just before starting we could see motorists stopping to have a look at the show, three people in space suits up on some scaffold. Luckily the road was a slow country lane so no problem with causing any incidents, but plenty of interest.

As we started removing the soffit the bees became more than just curious as you might expect and went for D’s heavily gloved hands all well taped up with gaffer tape, but still thin enough for the odd bee to sting him a couple of times. D made a hasty retreat and C and I removed the last bit of soffit to reveal the comb in a relatively small space.

Luckily the comb had not been attached to the soffit. This is interesting and worth noting or remembering that bees naturally don’t attach the comb to anything at the bottom, top bar hive keepers will recognise this more than beekeepers who have frame based hives. So I was pretty sure that they wouldn’t have done this, but we held a large plastic box underneath just in case some comb had become attached and pulled out as we removed the soffit.

Looking up at the comb we could see about 12 or so combs of dark wax indicating an established colony, but in a relatively small space. By this time the bees are quite excited, but as they can no longer defend the entrance to the hive, they were in no way aggressive.

Having rescued several wild/feral colonies like this, once you make a large hole in the entrance and then start spilling honey the bees forget about trying to sting you and you can work on the combs without having to worry about bees attacking your hands or elsewhere. This is my observation and I would be interested to hear from others about their experiences. I would add though that I wouldn’t recommend anyone doing this without careful planning in advance and having the confidence to follow it through.

I could see that the combs were attached on two sides of the space, the vertical wall of the house and the internal covering of the roof overhang at 45 degrees to the vertical. I felt that by cutting along each of these edges with a sharp knife the comb would be loose enough to fall or be easily pulled out. I cut along the roof edge first and then along the wall slowly to start with to see if the comb would come out.

At this time of year I would expect the colony to be scaling its brood down for winter but we have had some good weather in September so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. The outer combs started to come away and were full of honey and were put into one of the two containers. There were four combs with brood and each of these was put into a frame against the net of rubber bands and another band put on top of the comb to hold it in place. In this way very little of the comb is in contact with the band and no bees get squashed.

We were careful to cut away all the comb from the roof space to limit the number of bees returning to it.

The brood frames were put onto the small nuc, the nuc then placed on a stand as close to the old hive entrance as possible to attract the flying bees back to it. In a short while bees start to indicate to their fellow workers where the new entrance to the hive is and the bees start to make their way into the nuc box. This should be an indication that the queen is in the box.

This all sounds very straightforward, what happens in reality is that some bees will make their way into the nuc box and some will return to the old site even though there is no comb there any more.

We left the box until dusk by which time all the flying bees should have returned home. In an effort to get as many bees as possible we put the nuc into a larger plastic box right under the old colony site and then brushed the bees from the old site into the larger plastic box, by this time the temperature had also dropped to about 10 degrees Centigrade so the bees were quite lethargic and most didn’t attempt to fly out again.

The top was put onto the plastic box and the whole lot taken away to their new home.

Here is a picture of me on the scaffold, you can see the small green nuc box sitting on a plastic crate at the same place as the old hive entrance on the right hand side of the picture.

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On my veil there is some honey glistening. This is a very sticky operation and under my veil I wear a cap to prevent bees stinging the top of my head. At some point during the operation my cap worked its way down and was covering my eyes, when I re-positioned it with my gloved hand I got honey all over the veil.

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