Wild about Wild Bees Part One of Three Parts

A friend contacted me about a friend of his who was tearing down a house that was full of wild honey bees. Did I want to try to get them out?

Time and money are limited commodities. Let me promise you that I have much more time than money. So when I am offered the opportunity to put together a bee hive for a little bit of work, I am right there to do it.

I said, “Absolutely”. Then set out to learn how to do it. The first rule of learning anything new is that it is never as simple as you might believe. The second rule is that it is never as complicated as those who are trying to tell you how to do it make it out to be.

When I learn about electricity I really do not know it until I get shocked. Probably more than once. Most of my life has been fly by the seat of my pants experience and, beside the seat getting a little threadbare, I see no reason to stop now.

So what did I do?

1. I contacted people who knew something about what I was going to do to ask for their advice. Never turn down free advice, it is at least worth what you paid for it. What I learned from this is that you are essentially pulling the hive, comb, brood, honey (if any) and bees out and taking it with you. Easier said than done. One piece of advice I ignored was to use a vacuum with a variable or low setting to gather up the bees. I will do that next time.

One thing I learned which made me delay the whole procedure was not to try moving a hive too early in the spring because they were still weak from winter so I talked to the owner and he agreed to wait about a month.

Also, I learned that pulling a hive of bees out of a dwelling or tree has a pretty low success rate even for experienced beekeepers.

2. I read about it. The two reference books I reach for most are First Lessons in Beekeeping by Keith S. Delaplane (in the tradition of C. D. Dadant’s 1917 original) and Homegrown Honey Bees by Alethea Morrison. There are others, that might be better, but these work for me.

3. Yes, I went on YouTube. Who doesn’t? If you find yourself needing to do kitchen table brain surgery I suggest you check YouTube. They probably have a video about that. So I watched the videos I could find and learned what I could.

There is an old military saying, “Amateurs study tactics and strategy while professionals study logistics.” That is because no matter how well you plan you must have what you need when you get there or you cannot complete the mission. So we checked and double checked what we took with us.

First, of course, something to put the bees in, I took one deep hive box and, just to be certain, a Nuc Box. Also, safety equipment for two people. Second, this was an old house so I would need to get into the wall that would require a saw (I took two; one battery operated sawzall and one  hand saw), two different styles of pry bar, and basic carpentry tools.

I did not know if I was going to go in from the outside or the inside. My “plan” was to work from the inside but the situation would dictate which way I went.

So Connie and I went over our list, tried to assure we had everything and I loaded the truck the night before because, military again, nobody ever gave me extra duty for getting there early.

The next morning we got in the truck and, thanks to Google, got there without any trouble. Here comes another old military adage referred to as Murphy’s First Law of Combat which says, “No plan survives initial contact with the enemy.”

The house was a very dilapidated old structure. My guess would be late 19th or early 20th century frame house with one and a half stories. Approaching the house, even in my two wheeled drive truck, was no issue because the owner had cut a rough track in with some form of tractor.

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Looks pretty rough right? That window back there is our only viable entrance. 

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Here is another view. Bet this was a really nice house back when I was a kid. 

After we got parked and before we prepared to approach the bees, we did a little reconnaissance around the house where we found an old hand pump well and, just up and right of it about two and a half feet up the outside of the house, the bee’s entrance. So, from the window above the well, the entrance was two feet left and two and a half feet up from the floor. Easy enough to find from the inside.

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That brown spot on the wall there, that is the bee’s entrance. Beside it is an old well pump and well which I am surprised Connie did not make me take with us. 

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The entrance when we got there. 

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Now it is cleared enough to get in and out and I am getting equipment inside. 

Next, we reconned the way in and out. We were looking at a floor strewn with junk, broken glass, old furniture, etc. Our entry was through a broken out window. More glass, more junk. So my next job was to make certain we had a clear path in and out as best I could because we were going to have to step over that window sill no matter what.

I did all this with Connie’s help and we still were not suited up for the bees because they seemed not very concerned about our human foolishness. Having cleared everything that we could out of our way and having moved our necessary gear into the room we got ready and entered “suited, booted and ready for war”.

We went into the room and found the walls were lathe and plaster: a process of finishing walls and ceilings used up until the late 1950s. This might make things a tad harder, but I had a sawsall with two batteries. I was good on that. There were no bees flying around inside the house but there were a lot of dead bees in the window sill to the left of where we were working.

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There are bees in that wall. We had no idea how many. 

The first thing I did was experimentally drive a nail puller into the wall above my head to see how sturdy it all was. The nail puller drove into the wall but the wall seemed fairly sturdy. So I found and marked the spot inside the was about where the bees were coming in and out outside then I started preparing the sawzall to do a little work when I noticed that I now had bees flying around my head.


So where did they come from? I looked around the room then Connie pointed up. My knock with the nail puller had been a bit more productive than I thought. Bees were pouring out of the hole I made and were not the least bit amused.

So it begins.

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Drought!

According to Drought.gov, as of August 14, our portion of Missouri is in an “exceptional” drought or “D4”. That is as high as the scale goes. As of the end of July, our recorded rainfall was 13.4 inches below our yearly average. There is a lot of praying for rain going on here. I heard a few weeks ago, that a county official was calling area churches asking the congregations to pray for rain. It’s that serious. The Lord has been answering those prayers, because we have had some rain, and yesterday we had a nice slow drizzle. We still have a long way to go though.

This creek is up the road from our house.  I took this picture a couple weeks ago. As you can see it is dry.

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nothing but mud and trash

This picture was taken yesterday. There is a little water in it, but it is still low. Just past the other end of our road, the same creek crosses under the road again. That end is damp, but there is no standing water.

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a little better

So what does a homesteader do during a drought? First we pray for rain. Second, we need to have back up plans for water. We haven’t done too well in that department. In some ways, we did better with it at the place we rented before we bought this place. The house in Independence literally sat on a rock. It was on the side of a cliff, and the dirt was only a few inches deep. There was no city water hookup and no well, so water was brought in and kept in a cistern. One load of water usually lasted about a week, as long as we were careful, and we were very careful, watching the water levels in the cistern closely. I think it only went dry on us one time in the four years we lived there. Running out of water completely was bad on two fronts. One, the obvious one, we were out of water. Two, turning on the pump, which is what happens when you turn on a faucet or flush a toilet, when there is no water, can burn up your pump. Then you have a really big problem. Anyway, we were careful.

So, when we decided we wanted a garden, we had to build box gardens, because there was no soil to speak of. Then, in order to keep it watered, we built a rain barrel to catch rain water. Of course, those years, we had rain. It worked beautifully. I only remember carrying water from the house two or three times.

Ed and raised beds

Ed and our box gardens at the house in Independence

Ed and rain barrel

Ed with our blue rain barrel. Notice the jugs on the ground underneath the barrel. Those are old kitty litter containers that we used to carry water from the barrel to the garden.

When we were considering buying this place, we were both excited to learn that, yes, the house was on city water, but there was also a well that was used to water stock. Awesome right? Well, yes, there is a well. I’ve showed you pictures of it before. It’s an old, open, stacked stone well, that has a pump running down into it. However, it looks like someone tried to fill it in, and all the wiring to the pump has been stripped.

These pictures were taken right after we moved in.

The well and pump

The well on the left and some part of the pump system on the right.

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As you can see, all the wiring has been damaged. When we first saw it, it was full of yellow jackets!

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Looking down the well. You can see the water past all limbs, etc.

These pictures were taken this morning.

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Yes, it’s in there somewhere.

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Looking in. Ed said it was damp, but he couldn’t see any standing water.

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Overgrown here too

There are spigots outside the barn and at a few other places on the property, but they are old and do not turn. The one outside the barn is competing with a mulberry tree, and losing.

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The spigot and hose outside the barn

There is what is probably a cistern outside the detached garage, but it is covered with a cement slab that would take a tractor or a pair of mules to move.

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Possibly a cistern

We made plans to fix all that, and install our rain barrel that we brought with us.

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The rain barrel today.

Have we done any of that? No.

So, here we are, four years later, in a serious drought. County officials have asked that we use water for people and livestock only. Our trees seem to be hanging on, and we have had just enough rain lately, to keep our little bit of garden alive. It isn’t producing well though. In addition to the super dry and hot conditions, there have been pests I’ve never seen before, like Blister Beetles.

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Blister Beetle Image from blog-yard-garden-news.extension.umn.edu

The did a number on my tomato plants before I discovered them. Then I dusted with diatomaceous earth and haven’t seen them lately. I’ve also seen wild plants I’ve never seen here either, but I’ll save that for another post.

What should we have done? We should have cleaned out the well, fixed the pump and got the water tested. Even if we couldn’t drink it, we could have watered plants with it. Then we should have repaired and/or replaced the spigots at the barn and pastures. We should have fixed our rain barrel (the spigot is missing), got more barrels and set up a rainwater harvesting system. The University of Missouri Extension has an interesting three page PDF about rainwater harvesting. Lastly, we should have opened that cistern, repaired it if we needed to, and used it to store whatever water we harvested.

A couple weeks ago, I was talking to a neighbor who has lived in his house for about 30 years. This year, for the first time, he opened his cistern and pumped out what he thinks is 30 year old water, to water his garden. He doesn’t ever remember it being this dry, but he did have a backup plan, didn’t he?

As they say, hindsight is 20/20. The good thing is that we can still do those things, some of them will just take a little more work than they would have four years ago. Guess what just got moved up on the priority list after fixing the chicken coops? We’ll keep you posted on how it’s going.

Connie