Sunday, September 28, 2014

Musings About Beekeeping in a Cemetery 02: The bees are still there?

Bees in Honduras often set up their colonies in unusual places, including in graves. This is the continuation of the previous blog entry where I told my tale about having to deal with such a colony on the morning of someone’s burial. I thought we had taken care of the problem but things turned out to be otherwise.

About seven or eight weeks later I happened to run into one of the family members in the street. She said that there were still bees in the mausoleum. She wanted me to go take a look at it.

“What?,” I thought, a bit confused about the whole thing. “Was there another crack where the colony could exit from? Did the bees somehow make another entrance?”

I went down to the cemetery to investigate. There were bees there alright, but it wasn’t the same hive. A swarm had arrived and they had decided to move into the last empty grave at the top part of the mausoleum.

The colony of bees, hiding behind the dried flowers

The combs were fairly large so they had been there maybe two or three weeks. The odd part was that it was basically an open air colony. The entrance was about three feet by three feet and they were located close to the front edge of it. Although Africanized bees are not particularly fussy about where they set up a new colony, you don’t usually see them so much in the open like this. 

“Okay,” I thought after studying them for a while. “It should be a fairly simple process to remove it and get them into a box.”

I went home and got some comb saver frames ready for a top bar nuc box I had on hand that would be plenty big enough for these girls. These frames are made to fit inside of my trapezoidal top bar hives. It makes dealing with the comb from cut outs easy. As combs are removed they are set into and then wired into the frames.

My wife Sofia also agreed to come along and give me a hand—as long as we would be out of the cemetery before dark. She’s not the type who cares to be among tombs after night falls. 

I planned to do the removal in the late afternoon. If the bees would get ornery it would get dark real fast so they could settle down. Safety is always a concern when doing cut outs of an Africanized colony. I don’t worry about myself but for people who might be wandering by when they shouldn’t. In this case the nearest house was probably at least 75 yards away, giving me a pretty good buffer zone.

This removal was actually fast and easy (usually they aren’t). The colony was basically right in front of my face. Access was no problem. The frames worked like a charm for the combs that I removed. They are perfect for new combs such as these that are fragile to begin with. Add in the extra weight from the amount of brood they had and it compounds the care that needs to be taken.

I’ve never had a colony in a more convenient situation for its removal as this one. It was all right there in front of me. No stooping, no climbing, no chopping, no prying. All I needed to do was cut off the comb, check it for the queen and then tie it into one of the comb saver frames.

Just about done with the cutout-- only a couple more combs left. Each comb was put into a frame with wire zigzagging back and forth to hold it in. The wire wrapped around several small shoe tacks.

The only problem was that I didn’t find the queen. I was looking but couldn’t locate her. There was one, however, since the combs were full of nice brood which included eggs. I could only hope that she had somehow gotten into the box, which I left in the grave so all the stragglers could crawl into it.

The stragglers needed to crawl into the box with the rest of the bees.

I think it was probably two evenings later when I went to the cemetery to collect the colony and take it to one of my apiaries. This was at night, so no, my wife did not tag along with me.

I didn’t actually look inside at the hive until about two weeks later. I always make sure the bees have time to settle into their new home before disturbing them again. What a nice surprise I had.

Most of the empty spaces inside of the frames had been drawn out. All the combs were full of nicely capped brood. They had their queen because I again saw some recently laid eggs. I still didn’t see her though. She was pretty good at playing hide and seek.

That surprise came later when looking at the photos I had taken. There she was, right in the center of one of the combs!

There she is, right in the middle of the frame! I didn’t notice she was there until I looked at this photo later. Her darker color helped to camouflage her (or maybe I just needed some new glasses).

So does this mean that the story is over? Not quite. There’s still one more chapter.

To read this blog entry in Spanish, go to my other blog, “Reflexiones Sobre Apicultura.”

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Musings About Beekeeping in a Cemetery

A beekeeper never knows where he may end up playing with bees. Swarms have been known to set up shop in many unusual places. So they may even lead one to do a bit of beekeeping in a cemetery, as has happened in my case. Several times now.

A typical Honduran cemetery.

I wanted to start this blog entry by saying “the most memorable beekeeping experience was…” but the truth is they are all very memorable. They have to be when a cemetery is involved. 

The cemeteries in Honduras seem to be the perfect place for bee colonies. The graves are usually in mausoleums build above ground. Over time they tend to crack. This gives the bees a place to enter into a nice nesting cavity.

Now, before I go any further, maybe I should clarify that I’ve never seen the bees directly in a casket (luckily). They are always in the space outside of it but still inside the mausoleum. And I have only dealt with these types of colonies because family members ask for my help.

 Cracks appear in many of the older mausoleums due to their deterioration over time. This gives the bees a door to enter the cavity and start their colony.

One of these experiences happened about six years ago when a young man from town died in a traffic accident. The morning of the burial several men went to the cemetery to clean out one of the empty spaces in the family mausoleum. They had the surprise of discovering that bees had taken up residence in it. That’s when they came looking for me to get a bit of equipment to take care of the problem.

I had no problem lending them a couple suits and a smoker. Upon thinking about it a bit more, however, I decided I had better go with them. They weren’t beekeepers and I might be needed. I really wasn’t up for taking out a wild colony of bees that day but it did sound like it could be interesting and my conscience told me I should be there (just in case).

We walked over to the cemetery and suited up. I got the smoker going for them and showed them how to tie their veils. The bravest of the men, Don Chico, started pumping smoke into the empty grave before crawling into it. It turned out that the bees weren’t directly in that one, but the occupied grave next door. The wall between the two had cracked at the back of the mausoleum, giving the bees access to their nesting spot. 

 Don Chico, undertaker turned momentary beekeeper, gets suited up to deal with the bee problem. The bees were entering and leaving through the empty grave at his feet but were actually nesting in the grave that has the flowers in front of it.

The mausoleum was otherwise in good shape and the grave with the bees was sealed up tight in the front. I really didn’t like the idea of busting it open to literally remove the bees and their combs. So we decided the easiest thing to do was just mix up a bit of cement and seal the crack. That grave would become the colony’s tomb also.

The burial was supposed to take place late that afternoon so there really was no other option. Wild colonies of bees are almost too common in Honduras so I didn’t feel bad about sacrificing it. The Africanized bees here swarm frequently so wild colonies can easily be found. Many times, such as in this case, they are a nuisance.

Other than Don Chico almost being asphyxiated inside the grave with the smoke while sealing the crack, it went well. The only problem was that the bees were already coming and going by the time we started taking care of the problem. It was almost mid-morning when they came to get my help. A good many of the field bees were already out foraging and came back to find their front door all sealed up.

Don Chico first removed some trash that had been thrown into the empty grave. He then crawled into it to seal up the crack at the back where the bees entered into the neighboring grave that had their nest.

I left the men with the suits and the smoker. They said they could take care of the problem of the returning foragers.

Later that afternoon I decided to go back to the cemetery before the burial. I wanted to see how things had turned out. There were a couple empty cans of the local version of Raid and a bunch of dead bees here and there. They had also started a fire to try and kill some of the foragers.

Joaquin shows me some of the bees that were killed after going through two cans of the local version of Raid. Even though they had started fires in the empty graves of the mausoleum, there were still some lost bees loitering about.

There really weren’t a lot of bees hanging around. The few that remained were very annoying, however, buzzing your head and being a nuisance. At least they weren’t directly attacking us as Africanized bees generally do. The problem was that most people would automatically start swatting at them and someone would probably get stung when they came with the casket.

It was decided that most of the grieving family would have to stay back a bit while Don Chico and Joaquín, still wearing suits and veils, would put the casket into the grave and then seal it up. A couple of the younger men (who were liquored up pretty good after the all night, all day wake) were brave enough to get in there without any gear. It was getting fairly late in the afternoon and I think that helped to calm these last bees even more. 

I discretely took several photos while watching the whole event. I couldn’t resist. It is not often a beekeeper has an experience like this.

So that was that…or so I thought.

This will continue in a future blog entry.


To read this same entry in Spanish, see my companion blog, “Reflexiones en Apicultura,”