Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Colony Cutout with Les Crowder

Every subject area seems to have its icons, people you look up to because of their years of experience and the knowledge they have gained. Top bar hive beekeeping is no exception.

I had the privilege of meeting Les Crowder during my time in Jamaica. In top bar hive beekeeping, Les is very prominent and well known. With 40 years of beekeeping experience, many look to him as one of the authorities on this system of managing bees. He is the author of a book, a speaker at conferences, and a trainer of beekeepers.

Top bar hive authority Les Crowder with a recently removed bush bee colony in Jamaica.

Like me, he has also been a Farmer to Farmer volunteer with the top bar hive beekeeping project in Jamaica, having gone there several times. He just happened to be on the island visiting his girlfriend while I was there. This gave me the opportunity to meet him and even get into a colony of bush bees with him.

Bees had established themselves several months beforehand in one of the hollow branches of a large mango tree at his girlfriend’s house. At night some bees would enter the house, Les said, attracted to the light. He saw this as his opportunity to get a bee hive started in Jamaica while eliminating a nuisance.

The jury rigged smoker used to cut the limb off the mango tree. The result—hundreds of mangos all over the ground.

He had called over to Yerba Buena Farm asking for the use of a smoker. He jury rigged a simple one from a paint can and black plastic tubing but he had a problem keeping it lit. James, who was the intern at Yerba Buena, and I went over to there with the smoker and willing to give a hand if needed.

When we got there he had already cut down the limb. What a disaster! Not with the bees, though. There were mangos and branches everywhere—literally hundreds of mangos.

The bees were still in the limb, awaiting the arrival of the smoker. After greeting one another and talking for a bit we got the smoker going and put on our veils. Les grabbed the chainsaw and began cutting sections off the end of the branch, trying to locate exactly where the nest was situated.

Upon finding the bottom of the combs inside the limb, Les cut a wedge from it in order to open up the cavity. It was a bit tricky. You need to judge how much you need to cut into the trunk to free the wedge while not cutting so much that you cut into the combs and bees.


The limb was sawed off in sections until the bottom of the combs were located. Les then cut a wedge out of the top to open up the colony’s nest.

The removal itself was then simple. The bees were calm. The combs were easy to remove. The queen was found and put in a cage. All the bees marched in after her.

Les didn’t have the ideal hive box for the transfer. It was a bit “rustic” since he had to make do with what he had available. He put a couple boxes together from some old boards the family had left over from the original house on the property. The grandfather had cut them by hand 40 years before.

He didn’t have any comb savers so he just set the combs on the floor of the hive at the back. Les said that once the bees began building some new comb from the bars he would press the old combs onto that in order to attach them.  The hive would also be moved little by little over several days to its new location at the back of the house.

 The combs from the colony set at the back of the hive box.

Les looked at each comb as he removed them, trying to find the queen. When she wasn’t located on the combs he started checking the cavity. I found her in a clump of bees that was on the wedge that he cut out to open up the cavity. Les put her into a cage and set her among the combs.

 Les carefully scoops out a clump of bees from the hollow in the tree limb while also looking for the queen.

He is uncertain about the colony’s survival. Les said the queen seemed to be damaged. The colony was small. It is also the dearth period so flowers with nectar are scarce.

But, according to Les, it had to be removed. They were a nuisance. The tree itself was also a threat. It was hollow inside and full of termites (the chickens seemed to love that). A strong wind from a passing hurricane would probably have knocked it down, possibly on top of the house.

I had the chance to talk with Les further after we finished. It turns out that we have things in common. Both of us speak Spanish and have experiences in Latin America. He worked for a large commercial beekeeper before turning to top bar hives. We both even have experiences with dairy farms. 

 Les Crowder and myself.

There are always some beekeepers I wish I could meet. Living in Honduras the closest I normally get is reading something about them on the internet. But when that opportunity does come around, what better way to have it than with a bee veil on and playing with bees.



  1. Yeah!! I always feel so good after saving some bees from a cutout! And the fun thing is, each job is different and needs a different plan and approach so it's always engaging. I wonder if this lil colony made it. Sometimes even smallish ones get going and make a new queen.

    1. Saludos Beestrong. Thanks for the comment. I don’t really know what happened to this colony. Even though I was back in Jamaica since that cutout, I didn’t think to investigate its fate.

      Wild colonies can start in strange places, especially here in Honduras with the Africanized bees. They don’t seem to be that particular about where they begin their new hive—an old sofa stored outside, water meter boxes in the ground, mausoleums in the cemetery, drainage pipes, an old tool cabinet at the gas station, roofs of houses, and then the occasional open-air colony. Each one is a different type of challenge.