Removing a swarm of bees from their home and transplanting them to a new home is kind of a combination of surgery and defusing a bomb.
Tom Geiger and Tracy Baker set up a table and laid out their tools on top of it like surgeons preparing to do surgery.
After preparing the tools and the new bee box — which will become the bees’ new home — Baker climbs into her protective bee suit. Geiger takes a Sawsall out of its case, carries it with him part way up a ladder and cuts a square hole in the ceiling. He drops the piece of ceiling he’s removed onto the floor and peers into the hole.
Directly above him, he finds several hundred bees swarming over five combs of honey, which are attached to the underside of the roof.
The bees, finding their home has suddenly become exposed, increase their activity. Quite a few of them fly out of the hole Geiger has created, but they’re not yet aggressive.
For the last year, the bees Geiger and Baker removed have been making their home in the space between the ceiling and the roof in one of Aramark’s employee housing units at Wahweap.
Geiger’s plan was to remove this colony of bees from their current habitat, transplant them and their honeycomb inside a box and transport them to a new, acceptable location. Before removing bees, Geiger always finds a person who is able to house the bees somewhere on their property.
Safely removing bees from structures where they’re not wanted and finding them a safe, new home is something that Geiger has been doing for the last couple of years. Since he began doing it in 2015, he has successfully transplanted 13 or 14 bee colonies.
When transplanting a colony of bees, it’s absolutely necessary that their honeycombs come with them. The combs contain the colony’s food source, in the form of honey and raw nectar, as well as the brood, which is the next generation of bees. Removing bees without their food or their next generation is a death sentence.
For Geiger and Baker, the next step in the removal process is to remove the honeycombs without damaging them. This is the part of bee removal that can get intense, said Geiger.
“Now we’ll hear the RPMs really increase!” he said.
The bees are still quite content and undisturbed. Indeed their combined humming sounds like a car running along smoothly in overdrive. To help keep the bees calm for as long as possible Geiger douses them with several puffs of smoke. The smoke comes from a tube of smoldering burlap inside a can.
When bees become agitated, they release a pheromone, specifically isopentyl acetate, which acts as a warning signal to the other bees. Introducing smoke to the area masks the bees’ warning pheromone, which keeps them calmer, longer.
After Geiger covers the colony with smoke, he then climbs the ladder with a knife in his hand to begin the process of removing the combs. This is the part of the process that feels less like a surgery and more like the defusing of a bomb. The room now has a palpable feeling that the whole thing will explode at any second.
Geiger begins removing the first comb by running a knife blade between the comb and the roof to which its attached. Despite having just doused the bees with a serious cloud of smoke, the colony erupts. Hundreds of bees explode out the hole, like so much intelligent shrapnel, and go in search of the culprit behind this raid of their home.
And yes, Geiger was right, the room’s RPMs have increased significantly, to that of a sports car climbing up the Cut in third gear.
Geiger successfully fillets the comb away from the roof. About half of its cells contain red nectar, the rest are sealed over with wax, which, Tom explains, means they’re topped off with honey. The comb is nearly the same size, texture and coloration of a lung. Geiger hands it down to Baker, who takes it from him carefully. The future of this colony is contained inside this comb.
The comb is crawling with dozen of bees. Using a soft bristled brush, Baker gently brushes the guardian bees into the new bee box. She has prepared a frame on the table to receive the comb. She places the comb inside a rectangular frame, then snaps five rubber bands over it vertically and two more horizontally to hold it in place, then lowers it into the bee box. The wild comb, though longer horizontally than it is vertically, still isn’t what you’d call rectangular. But this box, into which Baker transfers the bees frame by frame, will be this colony’s new home. In future weeks the bees will add on to the combs, cell by cell, until they completely fill the slides. Once the bees have secured the combs into the slide they cut the rubber bands and drag them outside.
“One day you come back to check on the hive and find all these rubber bands discarded outside the box,” said Baker. “I find their behavior so interesting.”
Geiger still hasn’t donned his bee suit and he gets stung a few times on his hands while removing the first comb. After that, he descends the ladder and reluctantly puts on his bee suit.
Bee removal is delicate work, and the bulk and veil of the suit, interferes with the fine movements that are necessarily involved, so Geiger postpones this step as long as he can.
For the next hour, Geiger carefully removes the honey combs and Baker carefully frames them and installs them into the box.
With the colony’s food and their next generation safe inside their future home Geiger goes in search of their queen. Finding and safely securing the queen is the most delicate part of the entire process. If the queen is killed or escapes, the process becomes a great deal more complicated.
Several pods of bees still cling to the underside of the roof. Geiger removes them by way of a homemade vacuum. He’s rigged his vacuum to have less suction than most, which is gentler on the bees. The vacuumed bees end up inside a bucket. Every few minutes Geiger and Baker remove the lid of the bucket and release the captured bees into the bee box. Geiger watches their behavior. He’ll know he’s captured the queen by the way the rest of the bees act.
Geiger used to be a beekeeper when he lived in Ohio and started rescuing bees not because he misses his old hobby but because bee populations are in serious decline and they need to be saved.
In the last two decades, bee populations worldwide have suffered a dramatic decline due to habitat loss and increased exposure to pesticides and pathogens. During the last decade, bee populations have decreased by more than 50 percent.
In recent years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has added more than a dozen species of bees to the endangered species list.
“The bee population has dropped so low we can no longer afford to treat bees as if they’re pests,” Geiger said.
Baker has been helping Geiger with bee removals and relocations for more than a year now. Baker says she’s been fascinated with bees her entire life.
Baker and Geiger both belong to the same hiking club and she learned about Geiger’s bee rescuing efforts during one of their hikes, and told him if he ever needed help to give her a call.
In the meantime, Baker purchased a bee suit. Geiger called her about a week later.
“My first removal was helping Tom remove bees from a water meter box,” said Baker. “It was a free-for-all. It was loud, dirty, sweaty work and I loved it!”
She now keeps two hives on her property from bee swarms she and Geiger rescued last year. She says giving the bees a safe home gives her a certain peace, knowing that she’s helping an endangered insect, and one that’s so vital to the food supply.
“And, not surprisingly, everyone in my neighborhood has commented on how much better their fruit trees looked last summer,” she said.
In addition to housing two hives, Baker often uses her property to temporarily host a box of rescued bees until a permanent home can be found for them.
Geiger cuts another square out of the ceiling and finds another large cluster of bees inside. He and Baker spend another 40 minutes vacuuming them out and placing them in the bee box with the others.
And with the new cluster, he believes he has captured the queen because the other bees begin exhibiting behavior to suggest so. The queen gives off a pheremone which attracts the other bees to her. The bees that have been flying around the room now begin swarming on the bee box.
It has taken several hours of hard, yet delicate work but now the job is done. Geiger and Baker clean up their tools, turn off the light and lock the door. Geiger believes the bees that remain outside the bee box will calm down during the night and move inside the bee box of their own accord to be with their queen.
When Geiger returned early the next morning, he found a few stray bees still buzzing around the bee box like electrons around a nucleus, but the rest of the bees have found their way into the box during the night.
He had made previous arrangements with a property owner in the Ranchettes to keep the bees there. Everything this colony of bees needs to survive — the queen, the brood, the honey — is contained inside the box.