Backyard Honey Bees

The honeybee population is declining everywhere but in my backyard.  Nationwide beekeepers say they’ve lost at least 40 percent of their beehives. These bees pollinate fruits, vegetables and nuts, or put another way, without bees we would lose a third of our crops, according to experts.

The decline of bees appears to follow the widespread use of a pesticide based on nicotine—that started back in 2005. For some reason the EPA needs five more years from now to study the effects of neonicotinoids on honeybees. Last week the European Common Market voted to ban three types of neonicotinoids for two years. Five more years to decide???

Now back to my backyard and this double-sided wood wall where the bees had been huddling inside for about three weeks. About ten days ago a local beekeeper put a wood box full of honeycombs next to a hole in the wall in hopes that the queen would eventually go inside the box, followed by thousands of drones and worker bees. Frankly, the hollow fence/wall is pretty safe and miles from any place where pesticides might be used. Still, the beekeeper, who has seven beehives, said we needed to be patient. The bees didn’t bite.

A few days later the beekeeper returned with his wife, also an experienced beekeeper, and an array of extraction equipment. They each wore protective suits.  First, one side of the wood wall was dismantled as gently and quietly as possible. This task took over an hour—hard work to say the least. Next smoke—from something fittingly called a “smoker”– was directed into the wall—this simulated forest fire is supposed to stir the bees out of their safe place.  Then three large honeycombs were pulled out of the wall—a few bees clung to them, but thousands of bees remained inside with the queen. The beekeeper gently brushed the huddling bees into a wooden beehive box—hundreds per sweep. He covered the box—now the only way in was through a tiny front “door”. If the queen were inside, the bees would fan the smell of the queen out of the box, a signal for the others to join them. Slowly bees made their way inside this man-made beehive—the queen was inside.

Three hours passed to allow more bees to enter the hive, especially the worker bees returning from a day of collecting nectar. And while all this was going on, a Blue Jay perched on a nearby fence, proceeded to catch errant bees one at a time. I never knew that one bird could eat so many bees. I counted six kills for the bird.

By nightfall the beehive was on its way by truck to a honey bee haven. All was quiet.

The next morning. I found a few bees buzzing around what had been their home. I asked the beekeeper to return to save about 40 bees without a queen.

The bee’s new home was by a eucalyptus grove and a stream. But I had a sense of guilt over removing the bees from my backyard. So, I bought a beekeeping suit and a book on beekeeping.

When the beekeeper returned to my house, he offered me the chance to rescue the 40 or so huddled bees inside the fence where the queen had once been. It was almost dark and the bees were quiet. With my protective gear on, I held the box over my head with one hand and a soft-bristled brush in the other. I blindly I guessed where the bees were and gently flicked the brush. I could barely detect the added weight in the box. The beekeeper said I had about 10 seconds to check the box before the bees would become active. I expected to see one or two bees, but there were dozens. I covered the box and repeated the process with another container to capture a few more bees that had not moved. An hour later these stragglers were reunited with their queen.

I asked the beekeeper to teach me the art of beekeeping so that next time honey bees move into my backyard, they can stay.

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