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Sep. 19, 2011

Survival Instincts – Better Than Hope

by Carl Flatow

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While we wait for our first report from the Apimondia conference, I have an upbeat story to tell.

About 24 hours after hurricane Irene pummeled Long Island with drenching rains and tree toppling winds I got a phone call from a stranger. Kelly had found me through her determined search for local beekeepers who might be willing to save a colony of bees whose home was destroyed by Irene.

A tree on the block where she lives had split in two. Nestled in the half of the trunk’s hollow cavity that now lay on the ground was a colony of bees no longer safe within their wooden enclosure. Their knothole hive entrance was still 20 feet off the ground in the other half.

But nature, in her way, had done these bees a bit of a favor. Half of their comb was intact and a thousand or more bees were still able to work. The tree cavity lay wide open for easy access to a human helper. That would be me.

When I surveyed the situation it seemed very grim and almost hopeless, nevertheless. Large sections of comb lay strewn on the sidewalk and grass, soaked by the rains and cold to the touch. The worst insult was that this contained most of the brood comb and the queen was nowhere to be seen. What could I do?

The only thing to do was to try to salvage whatever little bit of brood comb I could find still attached to the tree and strap it (with a handful of rubber bands I save when ever I buy lettuce at the fruit market) into empty Langstroth frames. These frames were put into a hive box with whatever bees still clung to them. Now what’s left of this colony has a secure protected space, but I needed to get all the bees I could to move into the box with these frames, ASAP.

For that day, I had to be satisfied to cut out the rest of the comb from the tree cavity. I would salvage whatever I could get in the hive box and hope that the bees in the cavity which no longer had their comb would go into the box. I knew that these workers would, instinctively, gravitate toward any viable brood comb that may have survived, but after hours of rain, and nighttime temperature, it was hard to say that any would survive. It was late. I was done for the day.

Now, normally, in a bee removal process, we would vacuum the bees into a container and pour them into the hive box with the frames. In this case, the entire neighborhood was still without electricity. I have yet to find the right battery-powered vacuum (I HAVE been looking), so, all I could do was to fashion a gasoline-powered vacuum out of a leaf blower and go back in the morning. Thank goodness for duct tape.

When I finally got the hive box out of there (the local tree workers would not clean up the site until all the bees were gone) and waited a day for the bees to settle in, I checked inside the box to see what was left of these poor creatures. I saw something, at once pathetic, yet inspiring. They had started to try to raise a new queen. They did not know the meaning of hopeless. They had to do what they had to do.

I fed them some sugar water and gave them some space and time without competing honey bees, until I finally moved them into an apiary where they would be more likely to find one essential resource they were unlikely to find in the isolated area in which I had been nursing them. You see, it’s already September, the time when bee’s in this area have been kicking out their drones for the winter. But if by some miracle they could even raise a queen, these bees needed their new queen to find drones for mating if their colony were to survive.

Today, I saw their new queen among them…. Something I never expected to see.
But they have a long road ahead of them before the end of this story is written. In a few days I will go back to check to see if there is any evidence of her being able to lay worker eggs, and then I will have to work against the very long odds of getting them through the winter. I refuse to associate the word hopeless with this colony.

About Carl Flatow

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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