Disastrous Bee Cutout
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Bees top to bottom in wall of shed.

Bees top to bottom in wall of shed.

I had a bee cutout this Saturday to do. Last week I built a bee vacuum, sure it was going to cut my cutouts from four hours to two hours. Yep. Just suck all them bees up then cut and mount the comb at my leisure then pour the bees in when done. That was the idea.

But ideas and reality rarely mesh…

This cutout was in the wall of a shed – as are most of my cutouts. It was a well established hive just from a basic visual inspection – it had several entrances in holes in the siding from top to bottom with bees bulging out of them. Lotsa bees.

So in my infinite wisdom, I prepared two bee cages for the vacuum instead of one. It is a 5 gallon vacuum – a nifty piece of craftsmanship if I say so myself. I used a Shop-Vac Hangup Mini for it. The vacuum part resided in an upside-down bucket with the vacuum head mounted to the bottom. A suction-moderator hole was drilled in the side over which I put screen to keep bees from being sucked into the impeller. To moderate the suction, I used duct tape to cover part of the hole. The bee cage was another upside-down bucket with big, screen-covered holes in the bottom, and a pvc inlet in rim. It was designed so that when done I could just put a cap on the pvc and remove the cage and there you have it – vacuumed bees ready to be transported, tucked in the shade while I worked, then dumped back in.

I got to the cutout that morning in high spirits. This was going to be easy. I might get home by lunch even. The wall was so easy to access and the siding was that fiber stuff that just breaks off easily by hand. Suited up and with vacuum at the ready, I start the demolition project. I found fresh comb down near the bottom. Yep – big hive. The bees were coming out in droves so I vacuumed up some – the vac did as it was designed to do. I could look thru the moderator hole down thru the screen of the inner bucket and see the bees crawling around. All is good.

But as I continued working my way up, the bees just kept coming. I’d clear a comb and in a few seconds it’d be covered again. The combs were at an angle within the cavity – not flat on with the siding but attached to the inner sheet-rock and outer siding at an angle. Very pretty and orderly comb. With several entrances, I wasn’t sure what to expect – but true to bee construction, the combs on either side of the cavity were full of honey, while the combs in the center were full of brood. Then I had honey in the bottom-most comb – and as I pulled off siding, discovered old honey in the top-most comb. In the center was the brood.

But most importantly, was the number of bees. They just kept coming and coming and I kept vacuuming and vacuuming and a couple of hours later filled up one bucket and was working on the second. I had started cutting comb – putting the fresh honey in a bucket, and the brood comb in a box.

Bees bulging from every hole.

Bees bulging from every hole.

It started occurring to me, a little over three hours in, that had I done this the way I usually do cutouts, I’d be nearly done stringing up comb and almost ready to go home. It was a very easy cutout – the combs very straight – but I was exhausted with the vacuum and not progressing like I thought. I didn’t use smoke because I didn’t want the bees to hide further in away from the vacuum’s reach – but in a manual cutout smoke does help herd the queen and attendants to ball up near the top, out of the way while I cut out comb and string it up. Now, I had no idea if I vacuumed up the queen or not or where she was.

Finally, I decide that the vacuum is bogus. The suction moderator kept getting clogged with bees, making for full strength suction in the hose that was no doubt killing bees. The drone of the vacuum was getting to me too. Like mowing for hours and hours on end. And the heat and thirst. The bees were a bit irate – I couldn’t open the veil to get a drink of water so I went hours in the heat sucking up bees without water. All my other cutouts I was able to retreat a bit and get a sip – but here the bees followed me where ever I went. So, the vacuum ticked them off too.

I ducked into the car and drove home for my hive bodies. Now I’m at the stage of trying to salvage the cutout. I had about a third of the comb still left to cut out – much of it honey. The bees in the vacuum were sitting in the shade. Perhaps I could make this work yet. Once I got back (after taking the a moment to cool off and get some water) I got to work cutting comb. It was too late to smoke them so I didn’t even bother. I had a good work area on a nearby well cover – tall enough to double as a counter.

Bees even overflowing inside shed.

Bees even overflowing inside shed.

I grabbed the box of brood-comb and frames and started cutting and tying the comb up and plopping them in the hive-body. Then I’d take a square bucket and bee brush and mist the cluster of bees and brush them into the bucket, then dump that into the hive-body and go string up more comb. Each time I’d brush dump bees into the hive as I put in another frame and grabbed an empty. Once I got enough I cut out the rest of the honey comb and strung up a frame of that and scrapped the rest – putting it in bucket for the bees to rob.

With all the comb out of the cavity I took to brushing bees into the bucket and then dumping that into the hive repeatedly, waiting a bit for flying bees to land. I’d mist them with pure water to reduce flying and encourage them to walk down into the hive-body. And slowly, but surely, the number of bees in the cavity reduced. I started spraying the cavity with Pinesol to kill the hive scent, making sure to avoid clusters of bees.

I had no idea if the queen survived or not. I wasn’t seeing the fanning on the entrance that I’m used to seeing from my other cutouts – perhaps she got sucked into the vacuum?

DIY Bee-Vac with two cages.

DIY Bee-Vac with two cages.

But the vacuum killed a LOT of bees. Very tragic. Was she still alive? I opened the buckets and scooped out live bees with my gloved hands and dropped them into the hive-body. One of the buckets had a cluster hanging from the top and was very noisy. The other bucket was very quiet. The noisy one had a good chance of the queen as most of those bees came from the brood area. Once I had done all I could, I closed up the hive, laid the buckets on their side so bees could walk out and called it a night.

The next day I returned to check on the hive. There were bees going into the hive – that was promising. Bees were robbing the old honey pretty good too – not a lot of that left. There were no more clusters in the old cavity so at least the customer will be happy. It was a very neat cutout – all the pieces neatly stacked on the ground beside the cavity so it’ll be an easy cleanup. I decide to leave the bees there one more night.

Yesterday I visited the hive again. Just didn’t seem to be as much activity as I thought there’d be. I inspected the shed to make sure bees had not taken up residence in another cavity. Nope – the shed was clear. Then on intuition, I looked at the peach tree immediately behind the shed and there just 7′ up was a large cluster of bees! Perhaps even with the queen!

I rush home and got geared up for a swarm capture and then went back to the tree where I grabbed my swarm bucket – a 5 gallon bucket with a PVC entrance that’s covered by a queen excluder – and positioned myself below the swarm. I misted the swarm a bit to reduce flying and tighten it up a bit then I put the bucket directly underneath the swarm and gave the bottom of the branch a very sharp rap with the side of my fist knocking the branch sharply up. This basically knocked the branch out of the grip of the bees and the whole mass just dropped into the bucket with very little flying. Credit goes to J. Waggle from the Feral Bee Project for that recommendation.

Hive back home in apiary.

Hive back home in apiary.

I quickly go dump the bees into the hive and put the cover back on and wait. The swarm mass started recollecting again. Either the queen had been holding tightly to the branch and didn’t fall off, or she flew back to the branch. I tried again with the same results. Then I wait a bit for the mass to collect up nice and large and hit the bottom of the branch a third time, then this time I put the lid on the bucket. I took that back to the hive and kept the lid on. The bees clustered around the PVC entrance of the bucket this time, instead of going back to the tree. If the queen survived the cutout, she’s in the bucket now. This I placed with the hive over on the well-cover, putting the pvc entrance next to the hive entrance and left it there.

After dark I came back. I had one of two plans. If the bees had all retreated into the bucket and/or the hive, I planned to cap the PVC entrance of the bucket with a screen-cap I made for it, and tape up the hive entrance and take that home and then once there place a queen excluder on the bottom of the hive-body and pour the bees in the bucket into this and close it up and be done. The other plan was if the bees had not all gone inside, I’d do that right there and leave the hive there another night.

Well, most of the bees had gone back into the bucket, and many into the hive, but there was still an appreciable amount outside by the entrance. So, I grabbed the queen excluder and put it under the hive-body. Then I removed three frames to make room to pour the bees. I took the bucket and pried the lid off it – noting that the bees were all on the bottom. I misted them well to reduce flying then gave the bucket a good rap on the bottom corner away from the pvc entrance to dislodge any bees within the PVC pipe (and the queen if she was up in there) and then without pomp, I dumped them into the hive.

The bees are happy at home.

The bees are happy at home.

I tried to put the frames back in but the bees didn’t spread out right away. I worried that the queen may escape again – and indeed I believe I saw her on the frame when I pulled it back up and I quickly shook her back into the hive – so the frames were left out as I put the inner cover back on. I’ll put the frames back in this evening. But that was that. There were a few bees left in the bucket but no queen so I sat the bucket next to the entrance for the stragglers to crawl into the hive. I noticed this time that there were bees on the entrance of the hive-body fanning – there way of saying to other bees that this was home – so that gave me a boost.

I gathered my gear and left for home.

This evening, the 26th of May, I went and put the frames in. When I moved the inner cover – sliding it rather than lifting it, a mass of bees that had been hanging on it fell down to the bottom. I misted them tho so not many fliers at all. A drone flew out, making me panic – no, that’s not the queen – whew. Anyway – I carefully put in the frames. The last one wouldn’t sit all the way down so I just let it rest there and the bees will get out of the way – it was low enough that the inner cover could go back over it without a problem. I have a screen over the escape so Mrs Queenie is still “trapped” within. I put a custom entrance reducer (I only use the 3/8’s side of the bottom-board) mainly to keep the nylon queen excluder tight up against the bottom of the hive-body. I used some wood scraps last night stuffed in the entrance to keep the nylon excluder tight against the hive-body because it bows a little if not and the queen may find a way to escape. Nope – no bowing now. Then I put the telescoping cover back on and wrapped the strap around the hive and ratcheted it nice and tight. The hive is ready for transport.

Mow what grass? But the bees like it - there's flowers in there.

Mow what grass? But the bees like it - there's flowers in there.

There was appreciable activity on the entrance. No bearding but a fair number of bees hanging out and flying around. That gives me much more confidence in the validity of this colony. But – they’re still in absconsion mode. As I let the owners know that I may likely be driving back behind their house after dark to retrieve the hive, she let me know that the bees had been swarming. They’d swarm and form a ball on the fig tree, then go back to the hive, then go to another tree, then go back to the hive. That tells me that the colony wants to leave but the queen being stuck was keeping them from doing so, so when they realized that there was no queen with them, they’d retreat back to the hive. They were actively flying this evening but I saw no evidence of more swarming so hopefully I won’t leave behind a ball of bees when I pick up the hive. I doubt it tho – the bees like to tuck in for the night with their mother.

Moving the hive to another location altogether should help with that absconsion desire, I hope. Plus, once I park the hive, I’ll leave it there for a couple of weeks totally ignored. By then they should be at home and I can remove the queen excluder. Fingers crossed. I did see a few bees dragging out dead bees, junk and dead larvae as I watched them for a bit – so it seems that they’ve taken up to house-cleaning and hopefully will take up home-making…

It wasn’t quite dark, but storms are on the way. Perhaps the oncoming storms would motivate the bees to tuck away. And as I pulled up, shutting off the headlights to not alert the guard bees, it looked like they did exactly that. It was nice not needing to juggle a flash-light while I taped up the entrance. Since this was a trip of only about two or three minutes, I used straight duct-tape over the entrance. A trip of more distance would have warranted taping screen over the entrance to ensure that the bees had fresh air. I tucked the hive into the back seat, scooted home and trotted the hive across my back yard into the apiary. Strap off, duct-tape off and all is done. In the next few days, we’ll see how they settle in.

The next day after work I visit the hive to see that the bees are busy coming and going and working the little flowers on the weeds around it. The first chapter for this hive has passed successfully – despite a near catastrophic disastrous cutout. Mercy has smiled on me this time and a lesson has been learned. Moral of story – use what has worked well in the past – manual cutouts. At least I now have a couple more swarm-buckets and a shop-vac to use around the house. And I am very happy to have been able to salvage what ended up a disaster.

UPDATE — June 22: Ignoring the bees did lotsa good. They cleaned up the dead brood from the cutout comb and the queen started laying. I removed the queen-excluder covering the entrance a couple of weeks after placing the hive in my apiary, and a couple of weeks after that I pulled a frame for a peek and saw fresh brood and freshly capped brood. Hive was building up nicely. I put another deep below this one so I can ignore the hive over most of the summer – they’ll grow into it as they go and then I’ll start moving the old cutout comb up and up until I can remove it – it’s rather sloppy compared to their freshly made comb. All in all – the hive recovered nicely and is actively growing…

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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