A healthy bee colony will outgrow its hive most years. When this happens, a swarm is sent out, dividing the colony into two or more: the original queen leaves with half the hive and those left behind raise new queens from left-over eggs. The swarm parks itself in a convenient location as a large mass of bees surrounding the queen. Scouts go out to find a new cavity for the colony to occupy. They’re looking for something with about 1.5 sq ft. Often, scouts will find abandoned hive locations and the swarm will move into this “furnished” apartment, which might have comb already built, saving them a lot of work.
Two weeks ago, a household in Brodhead, Wisconsin, contacted the local beekeeping group because they had a colony take up residence in their walls. A colleague and I volunteered to help remove the bees, hoping to put them in managed hives and closing up the entrance.
When we arrived, bees were flying out of the place where the porch met the brick structure. It was clear that this had been a previous home for a colony, as another beekeeper had put on “exclusion cones” on another entrance on the second floor. These bees came in this spring, according to the owner. It was clearly a big colony, judging by the volume of traffic. We went into the foyer and could hear bees within the exterior wall but not the ceiling. We used a sawzall to cut the plaster out from between the interior studs and found honey combs running up and down the wall. All the comb came out and was tied into frames that go into a layens hive. We sprayed the milling bees with sugar water to distract them, while we brushed them into a box and then dumped them into the hive.
Once we had all the bees out, we sealed the entrance. Bees returning from the field congregated at the old entrance, and we would periodically spray them down with sugar water and get them into the hive. But inside the foyer, a strong “brumming” noise could still be heard. Even though we couldn’t hear bees in the ceiling, I cut out a small bit to check and found combs, dripping with honey. I ended up cutting out another three feet of plaster. Unfortunately, this was above my head and the honey comb kept breaking and dripping down on me, attracting bees to my suit. We cut out these combs and boxed them up, as we had plenty of comb saved in the hive’s frames already.
The Cutout becomes a Trapout
We boxed everything up at the end of this first day, but unfortunately, we got a call from the owner that many bees were still coming and going. Bees continued to congregate on the old entrance, so a few days later, I made a mixture of mint oil, a drop of dish soap, cinnamon, and cayenne pepper into a 2-gal sprayer. Bees hate the smell of this and it did a good job of repelling them from their old entrance and the porch in general. I also sealed up the walls with cardboard to encourage the bees to use an old entrance on the second floor instead of just exiting through the new holes we made during the cut out. Of course bees can chew through cardboard, but since they have another exit, they might not bother.
After a little exploring, we found that the bees had made comb up into the second floor wall, which was inaccessible. I built a exclusion hive, which has a hole in the back that can be attached to the mouth of a colony (in this case, the building itself), forcing the bees to travel through the hive. Eventually, they’ll adopt this new location as part of their home. Once that happens, I’ll put an excluder on the old colony space and the bees will be drawn out into the new hive boxes, which I can remove and put in another bee yard.