I’m running a bit behind on blogging – this cutout occurred on the last weekend of April. My friend Ty of Windy Hill Organics wanted to get into beekeeping so what better way to introduce one to keeping bees than with a cut-out? You get a complete hive, bees, queen, brood-comb – and you get introduced to the structure of the colony and get a chance to experience a LOT of bees flying around you. My first hive was from a cutout I did solo and it’s been an adventure ever since.
The particular colony in question had taken up lodging in the eave of a house. The homeowner had tolerated them for a bit but needed roof-repair work done and it was time for the bees to go. Since it was late in the year, I convinced the homeowner to wait until the Spring to give the bees a better chance of survival. And a good thing I did because local organic farmer Ty decided it was time to get into beekeeping and the timing worked out perfectly. He got his equipment and top-bar hive shortly before the cut-out.
There are no better honeybees that a beekeeper can keep than those that don’t require the beekeeper for survival. Many potential beekeepers spend money on equipment, build up high hopes and buy an expensive package or nucleus colony of bees, only to have the hive collapse after a year or two, and after spending a lot of money on and applying a lot of dopes in an attempt to keep them alive. For me, my favorite bees are those that cost nothing to get – so at worst case I’m not out anything and have empty wooden-ware to fill with other bees, and at best case I have bees in my wooden-ware that are trouble-free and don’t require dopes to survive.
So we have a hive that’s in an eave of a house to remove. We decide on a day and meet at my house to get loaded up for the removal. As usual, I bring much more than I need, while at the same time end up leaving behind things I would have found useful, like my water-mister bottle. Oh well – not a critical piece of equipment. With directions to the location, we’re off to retrieve a bunch of bees. My first cut-out of the year. Ty’s first cut-out altogether. I got my start performing cut-outs – for me it’s the normal way to acquire bees. One I prefer – comb, brood, queen, bees – I get a complete colony with a cut-out that is ready to rock-n-roll.
After a quick survey I decide that we could reach the cavity from the bed of my truck. I had hoped so, since climbing up and down a ladder would be very tedious. Being able to stand on my tail-gate really made the cutout go easier. I backed the truck up close to the hive, trying hard not to hit the house or the peach sapling growing in the corner then got to work setting up. We suited up and I got the smoker going and gave the entrance a few puffs. It would take a few minutes to get everything else set up so I wanted to give the smoke some time to waft deep into their hive.
The top of one of my Lang hives would be the cutting bench to cut the combs. I was going to bring some cardboard to put on top of it so clean-up would be simpler, but that didn’t quite work out. However, now I tend to keep a bit of cardboard in the truck – it would have made things a bit easier to have a sort of cutting board. Anyway, the tin top of the hive worked just fine – better than some of the surfaces I had to use to trim comb in previous cut-outs. With the tools to cut the comb positioned on the shiny tin surface, I got the distinct impression of some mad scientist operating table. Perhaps it’s just me, tho.
Ty’s top-bar hive sat on the ground next to the truck. I pulled out various implements of demolition and cutout – a couple of pry-bars, a fancy paint scraper, a bread knife, bunches of rags and whatnot. We got busy cutting cloth strips to tie up the combs. These strips will form a hammock around the comb and are tied to the top-bar on either end. I’ve found that this method keeps the comb pressed to the top-bar far better than string which can cut into the comb and cause it to sag.
With everything prepped and ready to go, it was time to begin the demolition. I smoked the entrance again, then got to work removing the soffit. In this case, the soffit was flush with the rafter-tail, which meant that the maximum height of the combs would be four to six inches or so. Not ideal for a top-bar hive cutout – I prefer a deeper comb, but not a show-stopper either. The soffit was rather difficult to remove but I was able to get it down to look into the first section between rafter-tails and saw nothing but mud-dauber nests. No beehive! They had completely skipped the first cavity closest to the entrance. So I kept prying at the soffit until I finally got it completely down and there it was, a cavity completely filled with comb and a LOT of bees. They were less than happy with the ruckus, of course, but were still pretty docile all things considered.
Using the smoke, I gently cleared the first section of comb and cut it out with my nifty paint scraper tool. Since there was a lot of comb, I decided that we’d only use the best of it for tying up so after a few smaller pieces I got some nice comb suitable for tying up. I cut and attached it to the top-bard and handed it to Ty who put it in the top-bar hive and we went like that as a team, cutting comb, selecting good ones for hive, trimming and tying them up and putting them in the hive. As I went along I’d give a little puff of smoke to clear the next comb and corral the bees further back into a cluster. The goal is to keep them pretty much together as I remove comb so it’ll be easier to sweep them into a bucket later on and so it’ll increase the chances of getting the queen, who will feel safer in a large cluster rather than a bunch of smaller clusters.
Before long I started coming across honey. This I do not like to tie up so I put this in another bucket. The honey-comb is drippy, sticky, heavy and just too unmanageable to tie up onto a top-bar. Most of this would be fed back to the bees so they can make repairs to the comb and put it where they wanted it. Of course, that also meant I was nearing the end of cutting out comb, since the honey is almost always furthest away from the entrance. The bees themselves had formed a massive cluster hanging at the back of the cavity and now when I remove the comb I carefully pull it away with part of the cluster and hand that to Ty to shake the bees off into the hive. The brood-comb already in the hive has by now filled it with the scent of home, and many of those bees are nurse bees that are not as prone to flying just yet so we very quickly accumulated a lot of bees in there as I removed the last few pieces. Many of them hung out at the back of the hive, interestingly and some started festooning from the comb-guides even, forming drapes that herald the creation of new comb.
Before long I got to the point where any bits of comb left were now covered by the cluster. It was time for the bee-brush and bucket. Normally I mist them with water, but seeing as I brought everything and the kitchen sink with me, the mister was the one thing I forgot to bring. So I did without this time. Speed is key to collecting the bees. The brush is used to more knock them into the bucket than sweep them, using quick flicks. This way bees are not dragged along the face of the building which would produce more alert hormones which would produce more flying bees. Instead, most of the cluster was startled into releasing and falling into the bucket. This I quickly passed to Ty who in turn dumped the bees into the top-bar hive and then covered up the top-bars to help prevent them from just flying out.
Collecting bees this way takes a bit of persistence and patience. The cluster had split to the next cavity so I had to alternate, flicking bees from there then when I get the bucket back, flicking bees from the other cavity as the flying bees return to start clustering again. As the cluster fragmented I waited for them to build up to a decent number then I flick them into the bucket and hand that off to be dumped into the hive. Before long, the sizes of the clustering bees began to significantly reduce and not build back up as more and more bees remained in the top-bar hive. As I waited for the remaining bees to re-cluster I strung up a few more choice pieces of comb to pass the time. Interestingly, the bees we put in the top-bar hive were clustering at the back of the hive, far from the entrance – similar to how their old hive was configured. And that’s where they formed new comb too. Definitely some interesting bees.
Once we determined that there were no more clusters to get, I sprayed the interior of the cavity with diluted Pinesol to destroy the hive scent, avoiding the remaining bees, of course. That helps reduce clustering and returning foragers are more likely to smell the new hive scent. We closed up the TBH tight and that was that. There were still a fair number of bees flying around but not so many now. A lot of bees were on the entrance of the new hive and there was traffic going in and out – a very good sign. A few bees clustered by the old entrance of the old cavity but the bulk of the colony was now in their new home.
Shortly before sunset we returned to retrieve the hive. There were still a fair number of foragers clustered up in the old cavity so we decided to give the hive one more day and get it the next night. That morning the foragers would depart then most of them on returning would migrate into the new hive. There were still a few left the next night but not nearly as many. We taped screen over the entrance of the hive and put it in Ty’s truck. Unfortunately, since the roofers were coming the next morning and one was extremely allergic to bees I couldn’t sweep the stragglers into a bucket because with a full moon there would be many flying bees that would remain the next day to be a threat to the roofers, so I spritzed them with water and vacuumed them up in my shop-vac. We spot treated any stragglers until there were none left. That was the saddest part of the job, but there was no other choice.
Ty reported a week later that the bees had formed combs at the back – six or so, tho they were still using the cutout combs too. It is an interesting hive to say the least. But they were foraging and have brood – which means we got the queen thankfully. Another successful cutout and another beekeeper on the road of natural beekeeping. May this be the first of many hives for Ty.