First Honeybee Cutout – The Act

Bees ready for relocation

Bees ready for relocation.

I don’t think anyone should lightly contemplate ripping a hole in a wall and sticking your hands into thousands of angry bees. It’s just not something that normal people do. And yet, if I was going to get my honeybee hobby started with any kind of frugality, sans any other opportunities – I had little choice. Cons – this was my first hive of honeybees – my experience isn’t extensive. A cutout isn’t ideal in this circumstance. Nevertheless, I’ve spent the last year researching bee documentation extensively and listening to beekeepers advice – I may have preferred a simple swarm, but I wasn’t going into the cutout blind. I spent the last couple of weeks gathering together the tools and implements of beekeeping to make this a successful honeybee removal. I refreshed myself by reviewing documentation, watching numerous videos and reviewing beekeeping discussion groups, not to mention pestering these groups with the usual newbie questions – fine-tuning my understanding as much as possible in preparation for the cutout. Now, I have all the required gear, the hive is ready, and an opening formed in the schedule of the home-owner from whom I was removing the bees. It was time.

I didn’t sleep well. I’m sure I’ll look back on this and wonder why I made a big deal out of it – but not knowing what to expect was a real challenge. I had a good idea from my research but book knowledge doesn’t hold a candle to actual hands-on experience. However, I was still exhilarated at the same time – I was going to get my first honeybees. I was finally stepping into a hobby I’ve wanted to get into for several years. The morning was a bustle of activity, gathering up all the items I was going to stuff into my little Ford Focus. Crow-bars to remove the wall panel, scissors to cut string and comb, various bee-tools, rags, buckets – I’m surprised a rubber-ducky didn’t end up in there at some point or other. But all of a sudden, the hive was in the back seat and I’m pulling out of the drive – gonna get me some bees, baby!!!

The hive in need of cutting out resides within the back wall of a workshop/game-room. The bottom of the exterior cladding had degraded enough to provide a gap that was perfect for the bees, and the wall cavity is completely uninsulated – making a perfect home for the bees. However, the owner is re-cladding the building, so the bees have to go. A local bee-keeper quoted him more than he was willing to pay to have them removed and he was considering just poisoning them and being done with it when I got ahold of him. Me, I just want the bees – he can keep his money – so it was an equitable trade between us. It helps that the owner is a son of my boss.

Hive and tools

Hive and tools.

When I got there the owner had moved some junk out of the way and cleared the way for me to rip out the cladding. He really wanted to keep it the cladding intact, since his over-cladding was going on top of it, but it was so rotted out at the bottom and the nails were so deep – and extracting the nails would have resulted in lotsa pounding right by the bees that it was just impossible. No worries – another panel can be installed in there cheaply enough. From what I’ve read and seen, cutting out often involves some form of demolition. I came prepared. I brought a good crow-bar.

Smoker sitting on brick

Smoker sitting on brick.

After unloading all my stuff, setting up the hive near-by, setting up the bar-stand that would hold the bar while I tied on the comb, I suited up and got the smoker going. First burn for the smoker. Stuffed it full of brown paper and got it burning. Once it was burning good, I plopped in a handful of broken pecan sticks and closed it up. I smoked the entrance and pried it to have a looksee. I really had zero idea of what I was going to see. The bees had been estimated to have resided there for at least a year. I expected that they would have started from the very top of the cavity and built their comb downward. And there was an equal chance that they would have built the comb the short way – resulting in 4″ wide combs, rather than long way, resulting in 15″ wide combs. No way to find out but to start ripping the wall out.

First look at combs

First look at combs.

After smoking the entrance pretty well and a bit on an open seam where I’d start pulling the wood from, I popped the wall on that side from the nails gingerly, peeking in at each step – not seeing anything so another nail and soforth. The bees were angry but were not in full attack mode – very docile. The smoke helped surely. Finally, about a third of the way up, I saw the comb. In this case, rather than building from the top down, the bees built from one of the studs out – and I was fortunately pulling open the wood from the stud opposite the combs.

A better look at the combs

A better look at the combs.

Beware on the smoker tho – use as little as you can get away with. And when you put your smoker down, be sure that it’s placed out of the way and on a non-flamable surface. I placed mine on a brick positioned so that the breeze would keep a little bit of smoke in the area and except for a few puffs to keep the smoker going and puffing the comb once and a long while working the combs as I extracted the bees, it didn’t get used a whole lot. Even then I probably used more than a more experienced keeper would have used. Less is more for smoke.

Exposed comb

Exposed comb.

Once I saw where the combs were, I started ripping out the board. It came out in chunks, so I just ripped out pieces carefully until I had the combs better exposed. The bees weren’t happy, but still weren’t complaining too much either. Once I got close, I noticed that the outermost comb had anchor-points on the outer wall, so I broke out the bread-knife and started cutting the anchor-points carefully. After a bit of cutting, I got it clear enough to rip the board almost to the stud which the combs were jutting from – it was time to start cutting comb.

Cutting the comb

Cutting the comb.

Cutting the first bits of comb was a bit heartbreaking because this comb, closest to the entrance, was the brood-comb. Cutting it meant some of the brood was killed and I really didn’t like that. But, it was that or have the whole hive poisoned. Before cutting the comb, I set a top-bar on the bar-holder and attached three strings to it, ready to be wrapped around the comb and tied off. I cut the first section off with the bread-knife, using a top-bar to help gauge the proper size to cut. This comb was a bit thin, covered with brood and was darker than I expected. I gingerly positioned it over the comb and wrapped the strings around it and tied it off. A couple of the strings cut in a bit so I loosened it, repositioned it and accounted for the cutting in so that the comb was held as close to the top-bar as possible.

Comb strung up

Comb strung up.

Even with the best of eye-balling, the comb would invariably be just a touch too big for the cavity of the TBH – Top Bar Hive, so I’d pull it out, trim a bit and put it back in, until it was able to fit. It touched the walls, but I figured that it would help the comb stay put for the trip home. Next comb to cut was the one immediately behind the first. I tried to keep the combs as close to in order from entrance of hive as possible – taking the comb closest to the original entrance and tying them to top-bars closest to the entrance of the TBH. There were mostly two layers of combs to remove and a third layer near the bottom. After a bit, it got monotonous. Put next top-bar on the holder, cut and tie three strings, measure the comb and cut it, tie it up and put it in the hive and trim where I needed to make it fit. It wasn’t the neatest job tho – some of the comb was rather irregular in shape. When I started getting up into the honey comb, some of it was very oddly shaped – flat until it got to the outer rim where it would buldge out.

Pretty Honey Comb

Pretty honeycomb.

Suddenly, I was cutting out the last of the comb. It was very quickly time to attempt to gather the bees and put them in the hive. I tried scooping up bees on the combs into a dust-pan with my bee-brush to pour into the hive, but most of them flew off and the greatest mass of bees was at the very top of the cavity. I ripped the old cladding as high as I could go without disturbing the mass too much. In my collection of gear I had a rectangular bucket – perfect for this job. I removed 3 top-bars from the back of the hive, grabbed the bucket, brush and a water-bottle and climbed up the ladder. A few sprays of the water bottle misted the bees well. I put the bucket against the wall below the bees and dislodged them with the bee-brush. Thousands of bees fell into the bucket and seemingly as many more flew out and around me. It was exhilarating! To think, some people jump out of airplanes for a thrill! I quickly climbed down the ladder and poured the bees into the hive, then replaced the top-bars to keep them all from climbing out.

Scrap Comb

Scrap comb.

After a few moments – waiting for the bees in the hive to move up and find the combs, I removed the top-bars again, climbed back up the ladder for the next batch. Most of the bees that flew out returned and settled back into the mass of bees at the top. I knew the queen was up there. More misting of the bees, a little more misting than last time to get them nice and moist so they’d not fly so much – and I brushed another mass of bees into the bucket. The bucket was discernibly heavier – more bees fell into it this time. Again, down the ladder I went and the bees were dumped into the hive. I put the top-bars back on then waited a while. I finally saw bees hanging out at the front of the hive. Many were buzzing wildly with their tails up in the air- an indicator that the queen may be inside the hive. The mass on the front of the hive had hundreds of bees easily. I watched as they went in and out thru the entrances I had drilled for them – it was very gratifying seeing my work being put to good use.

Final cluster of bees

Final cluster of bees.

One last major scoop of bees. There were far less this time but enough to be brushed into the bucket. I got the presence of mind to photograph them first. Then up the ladder, a lot more spritzing with water and into the bucket I brushed them. Back down at the hive I removed three top-bars and poured the bees out. Then I saw her – the queen. Sitting right next to the opening that I poured the bees into so she must have fallen on top rather than into the hive. Suddenly she flew off as I reached to nudge her into the hive. My heart almost stopped, but my brain told me that she wouldn’t go far. I looked around, hoping to find a ball of bees on the grass or in the nearby bush – but nothing. I looked down and there she was again!

Bees on the hive

Bees bearding on the hive.

This time I nudged her into the opening and into the hive, then I put the top-bars back on, careful not to squish any of the bees. The queen has entered the building! From then on, my job was basically done for the rest of the day. I scooped a few stragglers from the cavity and poured them on the mass of bees at the front of the hive. The bees must have either smelled the queen pheromone on the brood-combs and mistakenly thought she was there and was calling all their sisters, or they may have been calling them because they found the brood-comb itself. Nonetheless, now they had the brood and the queen. A total success for me.

Gratuitous Portrait

Gratuitous portrait.

Tho I had fed the smoker frequently for the job, by this time I had allowed it to mostly burn out. I spritzed a bit of water on the coals and ashes which was all that was left in there and put it to the side while I gathered my gear up. The bees were home and the TBH was going to remain there for the rest of the day so that the foraging bees could be collected up too as they came in for the night. Once I had cleared my stuff out of the way, back where I could retrieve it once I’d doffed the bee-suit, I went and mixed another spray-bottle with water and a bit of Pinesol. This I sprayed into the cavity where the old hive used to be so that the scent of the hive was masked by the Pinesol. This will help returning bees make the transition to the new hive just a couple of feet away.

Calmer Bees

Calmer bees making themselves at home.

By the time I was nearly ready to pack up and go home for the day, the bees had settled down greatly. Enough for the owner and his kids to peek around the corner. Most of the honeybees had gone into the hive, leaving only a small mass of bees on the front, and I was seeing what looked like foraging trips resuming, as if nothing had happened. The bees were hugely forgiving and stuck to their priorities, even tho their home had been ripped out of the wall and transplanted into a wooden box. I received few stings on my gloves – less than I thought there’d be, and the bees never really bombed my veil like I feared – only occasionally hovered around it while I tried hard not to breath on them. So all in all, it was an incredible experience and at the same time, very calming and relaxing. At no time did I feel anxious during the job and I was able to enjoy the thrill of discovery as I stepped into my long awaited hobby.

Nearly four hours had passed since I arrived. I had no idea – time seemed to lose it’s tangibility while I was in the middle of collecting my bees. But, I was tired, a little hot, and very thirsty. Interestingly, the cotton/poly suit wasn’t nearly as hot as I thought it might get – and the breeze puffing thru the veil really helped too. Definitely a good buy. With the bees starting to calm down a bit, I doffed the suit and loaded up the equipment in the car. The hive would remain there for the rest of the day. A last act before I left for the day was to place a pair of 2×4 studs on the top-bars to hold them down and wrap a few pieces of duct tape around the hive to hold everything in place. Then, I was done for the day. Soon it will be dark. Once it was dark, they’ll all be in their new hive and then I can come collect the hive and bring them home.

Michael Vanecek

I've been keeping bees with no treatments whatsoever for several years. I've followed a basic philosophy of if the bees don't bring it into the hive then it doesn't get put into the hive with good success. After a life-time of naturalism, this was simply the logical course to take with honeybee husbrandry and proof is out there buzzing and making honey right now.

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First Honeybee Cutout – The Act — 2 Comments

  1. Pingback: Taro & Ti Home | Bees: First Honeybee Cutout - The Act

  2. Again, enjoyed you story. It’s good to see someone else’s approach to this – ya got me rethinking some approaches of my own.