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 JoaquĆ­n, 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,”


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