Rescuing a Free-Living Colony.

Mac and Linton assess the entrance before making a start.

Three days ago a farmer felled an old Scot’s pine because it was rotten in the middle and liable to fall down in a storm. Little did he know that there was a nest of wild bees living in the middle of this hollow tree, but when he started sawing he soon noticed clouds of agitated bees around him.

Luckily for farmer Neil, Rick Stewart recently set up an out-apiary on his farm land near Wester Hardmuir in Nairnshire. Rick was asked if he could remove the tree bees but this was not a task to tackle alone. Mac (of The Lochness Honey Company) Cynthia, Linton and I had done this before so we got a team together including Rick, and newish beekeeper Stuart Thompson. We planned a date and time to suit all and yesterday at 13:30 we commenced. It would take us almost 3 hours to complete.

Mac collected up rubber bands to secure bits of comb into empty frames. His tip is to chat up the local postie who is usually happy to dispense with a few extra large bands. This is where a wee jar of honey comes in handy. Rick collected nuc boxes, a full-sized hive and lots of empty frames. He also brought his small chainsaw. I brought my smoker with enough Tomatin whisky bung clothes to reek of the good stuff and cheer up the bees. I brought marking pen, water spray, bucket for honey comb, tweezers to check brood cells for disease, water to drink, scissors, string in case Mac forgot the rubber bands, camera, queen cage. Linton brought a couple of axes and a mell/sledgehammer.

The bottom of the brood nest which stretched over 5 feet vertically.

Tolerant Bees.

Given the tremendous upheaval, the colony was easy going. An advanced party of guard bees met us as we parked some 40 yards away from the tree but the bees in the nest allowed us to saw segments of wood so we could expose the length of the nest gradually and remove peices of comb. I was stung only once as I squashed a bee on a chunk of comb heavy with honey.

Linton holds the first segment to come off as Rick stands by with saw.
Mac examines the first wedge looking for the queen.
The second wedge out exposes more nest, but more wood needs to be removed.
Stuart takes his turn sawing.
Ann about to cut out comb.
Mac finds the queen and Ann picks her up.
Mac placing the box with queen and brood so that the remaining bees can easily enter the hive.
Smiles all round; job’s done.
But not complete till we finish our coffee and cakes at Wester Hardmuir fruit and vegetable farm courtesy of Rick. We ate custard creams, fairy cakes and iced chocolate sponge.

Having a good team makes all the difference and getting just the right number of beekeepers is key so that you don’t end up tripping over each other, and having a case of, “too many cooks…………

New Home.

Rick will leave the hive of relocated bees for a couple of weeks before taking them to another apiary more than 3 miles away. He reported in 24 hours later to tell me that the bees had left the tree and the hive was really busy.

With hindsight, I don’t remember seeing much propolis so I’ll go back and check the empty tree. I noticed a few propolis covered knots supporting comb but there was not as much propolis as I was expecting.

I don’t think we would need to do anything differently next time because it all went remarkably well. Perhaps bring a larger chainsaw.

Marking Queens.

Last year a friend gave me a present of a numbers and glue marking kit which I was excited to try out on a calm still day when the miniscule discs were unlikely to blow away. I went to my out-apiary with a post-covid fuzzy brain and clean forgot my hive tools. I rummaged in my friend Sally’s shed (she was away for Easter) and found a door hinge to work as a lever and managed to inspect our 4 colonies and mark our queens. Number 3 belongs to Sally.

Marking kit and improvised hive tool.

I cut a cocktail stick in half with scissors and used the blunt end to apply the glue to the queen’s thorax. With the sharp end, I pushed out the numbered discs which I then placed face up on a white plastic bucket lid. Once I had the queen securely held by her legs between my left thumb and index finger, I painted a tiny glob of glue on her thorax. I licked the tip of my right index finger and picked up the numbered disc on the tip of my finger and transferred it to the queen’s thorax. With my phone, while the glue was drying, I got a shot of the finished job.

Bees Away.

I’ve been getting a colony ready for sale and the weather finally settled enough for them to go to their new home near Aviemore which is a week or so behind us in terms of forage. The sycamore trees have not flowered there yet but there is enough willow still. The colony had plenty ventilation and a spray of water to keep them comfortable. The frames are lined up in the direction of travel and securely strapped for transport to their new home about an hours journey away.

11 thoughts on “Rescuing a Free-Living Colony.”

  1. Thank you for this lovely story. Similarly, I helped some friends do a cut-out on the side of a wood-panelled house last spring. The comb was very spread out and it took us hours to find the queen. The bees remained obliging during the cut-out, but once re-hived and relocated they quickly rediscovered their defensive qualities!

    1. Hello Mark, thank you for commenting and sharing your experiences. I think that defensive qualities are important in terms of defending against robbers carrying disease. It is good for us during a cut out if they are quiet as the job would almost be impossible otherwise. We didn’t use any smoke at all. Best wishes, Ann.

  2. Ann! This is fascinating – it the level of detail given that makes this account so valuable. And the accompanying pictures – just great and it really felt like I was there. This is how we learn and pass on the skills. I also appreciated the specifics about biscuits. 😉

    You are clearly a natural Girl Guide, as the hinge was perfect for the job. ‘Queen handling skills’ is on my list of intended achievements this year – you make it look very easy.

    Thank you!

    1. Hello Liz, Good to hear that you enjoyed the story of our day out with wild bees. I lasted a day in the guides but I grew up on a remote sheep farm and learned to be observant and resourceful. I’m returning the hinge this morning! A pity you are not closer and we could mark the rest of my queens together. I always leave that job till spring when plenty drones are on the scene in case the bees bump off the newly marked queen. Best wishes for your season.Ann.

  3. Was looking but could not see if there was much of a Propolis envelope.?
    I guess you were too busy, but a follow up on the varroa drop rate would be interesting if you get a chance Ann.

    Thx for sharing.

    1. Hello Frazer. Glad you enjoyed the account. There was little propolis visible. Hopefully the person who will take on the colony will monitor for varroa. I saw one bee with DWV. Best wishes, Ann.

  4. Lovely report of your wild colony rescue operation, Ann. I appreciate the abundance of photos and the written details. I enjoy especially your Scottish wordings, such as “His tip is to chat up the local postie who is usually happy to dispense with a few extra large bands. This is where a wee jar of honey comes in handy.” Fun, too, to see the gorse in bloom.
    The dearth of propolis is thought provoking. I wonder if the bees use less propolis when they nest in conifers, because their wood is naturally resinous. Thank you for giving us such an informative report of a fine team effort.

  5. Such a fascinating and carefully documented story of the wild bee rescue team.Lucky wild bees to be relocated by such an accomplished team! The depth of the comb formation of 5ft is amazing
    I am matching this also with your in depth coverage of propolis creation in a previous blog.Curious there was less on this tree.
    Did the pine tree have a naturally smaller hive entrance?
    Also wondering if a lone tree by a field and exposed to wind would produce less resin and therefore the bees would make less?Is it also possible there is some kind of beneficial symbiotic communication between bees and trees?

    1. Hello Gelda and thank you for commenting. I gave an update last week and reported that the nest was in fact 135 cm in length though the cavity was longer. There was propolis lining the nest on closer inspection. I think that the nest entrance was what can be expected in a tree that has been damaged by disease internally, narrow but with several access points. The pine was one of only a few in a field corner. I imagine that resin is collected from various sources and is produced by the tree to protect buds and prevent damaged parts becoming infected. Anything is possible, and our world is so exciting because we don’t know everything or have all the answers.

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