Keeping Bees in a Log

This is a guest post by Jamie Dehner

A few months before I acquired nuc colonies for the first time and started beekeeping “officially” I was shown an interesting thing by a friend. This friend is an arborist and a client had once called him about a beehive in a tree. Sure enough, the tree, a tall Douglas fir with a dead top, was home to a colony of feral bees. The history of these bees traces back several years when they occupied a standing dead cedar about 250 feet from the fir they eventually moved into. I remember the first time I was shown this colony. There was a hole in the tree about 100 feet up and even from the ground, it was easy to see honeybees flying back and forth, back and forth from the entrance, the sunlight glinting off their wings. Beautiful!  It was really a marvel to me to see honeybees in their natural environment. I had never seen a feral colony of bees before. To this day, it’s the only colony I have ever been able to observe in the “wild.”  Granted, the wild I was viewing these bees was in a heavily treed area of a basically undeveloped housing development, but these bees had made that tree their own.

Or so they thought.

Knowing I have an interest in honeybees, the woman, Ellen, whose property neighbors this colony would call me when a swarm issued from the tree, and I tried unsuccessfully for a couple of years to entice the bees into swarm boxes I set up near the tree. However, the colony was already about 100 feet above ground and they always seemed to swarm straight up another 100 or so feet into a completely inaccessible fir tree…hanging around a day or two and then disappearing, miraculously, into the big blue. Last summer about a month after the bees had already swarmed, I got a panicked phone call from Ellen. She told me that the man who owned the property had decided to develop it and was having the lot cleared completely. The logger was already on site and had cut several trees. While the tree wasn’t on our property, both she and I had grown fond of the bees (as you can’t help but do!), and she hoped I might have an idea of how to save these bees. I was particularly keen to save them as they are living proof (pun intended) that there are still some feral colonies prospering despite the plethora of bee diseases out there. These wholly unmedicated, unfed, gloriously free and feral bees had been prospering for years on end in their tree and trees nearby. I wasn’t going to let them go down without a fight.

There was no fight, as it turns out. We zipped up to the lot being cleared and were able to talk with the logger. My husband Shawn and I told them about the hive and asked him if he wanted to wear one of our bee suits when doing the actual cutting of the tree. We all talked about our options for a bit and it was agreed that he would use our protective gear while cutting and would take the bee tree down in the evening when most of the bees had returned home. He would call us when the tree was down and we would come up and try to rescue what we could of the colony. We weren’t sure what would happen, but everyone was working together on a unique situation to try and salvage what we could.

The day of the tree’s demise came. The phone call came. We rushed up there, feeling a little gloomy as we considered the likely outcome. A big smash up, the queen crushed, thousands of righteously indignant bees flying about in an impossible to quell fury. Possibly a logger with stings galore lying under his chainsaw.  What we found was, happily, quite different. The tree had snapped at the top during the falling. The entrance to the hive was damaged however, the tree had otherwise fallen well; he had cut it so that the entrance wasn’t buried in dirt. Amazingly, the bees were not only not flying about in a furious gaggle, but were calmly going about their business, apparently unimpressed that they were now working on a horizontal rather than vertical plane. We had about a forty foot section of doug fir to work with, clearly too large for Shawn and I to move at all, much less haul across town in our utility trailer. Some more talk with the logger (who was such a great guy!) and we decided that he would suit up again and cut out about a six foot section of the tree. He put on a 20” bar and went to it. We both had discussed the possibility that the bees might take offense at this and had worked out an “escape route” of sorts that primarily involved me going away and he getting back into his excavator as quickly as was possible and closing himself in. We had tried to figure out the likely size of the broodnest by estimation, which carried a high percentage of error, and had also to keep in mind that we still had to move it across the newly cleared (read: ravaged) lot and into our trailer. Not easy.

The sharp saw cut through the log like butter. Still, amazingly, not a sign of even annoyance from the bees. We had cut through some of the honey stores and a thick scent of wood and honey emanated forth. The log was cut. We appeared to have chosen wisely enough to have not cut into the broodnest and looking into the other cut end, it didn’t look like too much of the honey stores had been lost either. Now it was time to move the log. Not surprisingly, it was impossible to lift and carry this section. It was six feet long and has a diameter of at least 30 inches. Even with the hollow, this was a heavy hive to carry. Our next solution was to rev up the excavator, rumble it over to the log and transport the log using the claw attachment. Would the bees mind?  At this point I really couldn’t say. They appeared quite unimpressed with our stunts and were still trying to get on with business as usual. Possibly this event more than any other has made me love and admire honeybees. Talk about zen masters.

Well, the log was picked up and rumbled up and down over the lumpy terrain of the lot, all the way to the ditch line. From there, it was time to set aside machinery and give the log a dead lift. Shawn and I valiantly attempted this, but with our combined weight being under 250 pounds, we really needed some help from the logger. And he gladly supplied it. We hoisted that huge log with still mellow bees into our little utility trailer (not sure the weight rating was just right here, but it made it) and then got ready to roll with it across town to where our other hive was located. By this time, the logger was having as much fun with the adventure as we were and we all went together. He helped us as we navigated the straining trailer through the orchard and into the bee yard. We laid down a pallet and together hoisted the bee log into place. A new home had been found for the bees.

We said goodbye to our friend after giving him a big jar of newly harvested honey (I had just extracted my first ever harvest of honey the day before hearing about the bee tree coming down). It had been a lot of fun. He felt comfortable getting his work done thanks to the bee veil, and we were all able to help each other. It was funny but amazing to be hunkering over the newly downed tree watching worker bees and drones come in and out. He learned a bit about honeybee biology that day (and you could see him getting hooked right away…who doesn’t find honeybees fascinating up close and personal…and how many people get to have an experience like we shared that day?) and I learned that some bees are simply MELLOW. A good time was had by all.

The big question, of course, was whether or not the queen had survived the falling of the tree. I had decided that I would not try to cut the log open and get the bees into a Langstroth hive. I wanted them to survive if nothing else for the sake of biodiversity and I didn’t want to risk killing them by any shenanigans. I figured if they had enough honey stored and the queen had survived that they would prosper and continue to throw a swarm every year. Maybe I could even catch one now that they were lying on the ground rather than up in the air.

We screened off the rear cut on the log with hardware cloth to prevent robbing of the honey stores, which were exposed by the chainsaw cut. The shredded entrance up front we left as it was as they had begun to use it as their main entrance. For the remainder of the summer we watched hopefully as the bees carried on with things. They appeared to be alive and well, hauling pollen and looking busy, though it was still hard to know what the future would hold. In fall, when the rains set in, we covered the log’s body and part of the entrance with a heavy duty tarp and settled in to wait.

Come late winter, I began to do my hive checks, just listening in at the walls to see what I could hear inside. Both my boxed hives were alive and sounded well. It was time to check the log…I peeled back the tarp at the screened in rear entrance and got my ear as close as I could to take a listen. From within the log, beyond my sight, I could hear a buzz. And then a few more. These bees were alive!!

Warm weather finally came (and then went again, sadly) and we’ve had a terrific, long lasting honey flow up here in Point Roberts. The log was booming along with the rest of the bees. I knew the bees would swarm at some point and I put up a couple of swarm boxes hoping to catch their interest.

Wouldn’t you know, these intrepid bees chose a cool and ultimately rainy day to swarm?  Just this past 12th of June we got the call and zipped up to the bee yard with our swarm kit. The bees had swarmed out and landed on the bark of a sequoia in our friend’s yard, about 20 feet or so up. We set up the ladder and I climbed up the tree with a box. This swarm had not hung itself on a branch but was clustered around the trunk of the tree. Shawn waited below as I scooped handfuls of hot, honey and lemongrass smelling bees into the box and then passed it down. He passed up another box and I did the same. There were a lot of bees in the air and we took a little time to examine what we had in the boxes, hoping to spot the queen. I thought for sure it was a useless endeavor to try and spot her amongst thousands of bees, but darned if she didn’t wiggle out after a minute or two, briefly, before disappearing again among the reclustering bees. We had the queen!

The feral colony is now in two parts. The log is still busy as ever, maybe a little less busy after the swarm, but still in action. I hope that their queen will have a wonderful mating flight and live to raise up another good colony in the log. The hived swarm is now sitting in our own backyard, humming away busily and probably drawing foundation to their heart’s content. What happens next year remains to be seen, but I have hopes that this treasure hive will continue to prosper and thrive without chemicals or treatments of any kind. These bees, after all, really are survivors!

Jamie and Shawn Dehner live in Point Roberts and run their own small business where they sell plans for small houses.  You can see a picture of their small home here and learn more about The Small House Catalog Here.

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