Honeybee colony survives fire – Cut Out

I was asked to join Andrew from Greenway Integrated pest management to remove a honeybee colony which had taken up residence in a chimney stack. The grade II listed building, an old vicarage, had unfortunately been damaged by a fire in late 2020. It is thought it might have been started by a firework. The vicarage is in a small town near Alnwick, Northumberland and is called Eglingham. All mature trees are protected in Eglingham and it is a Conservation Area.

A church
The bees are thought to have arrived from hives which were placed around this church in Eglingham.

We started at 9am and after a quick chat with the person living in the old vicarage who told us that the honeybees had been there for many years, and thought to have come from a swarm from the nearby church, we started moving tools and forming a plan. Andrew set up a winch at the top of the ladder which gave access to a platform made out of scaffolding boards. This platform wrapped all the way around the rooftop. The winch made getting kit up to roof level extremely easy.

scaffolding surrounds the building
Andrew set up the winch making it incredibly easy to transport the tools.

To access the chimney stack, we climbed ladders, walked on scaffolding board around to the back of the building, and up another ladder. At the chimney, we used another set of ladders (each!) to get to the top of the chimney stack. We had taken a utility bar, our bee suits, and smoker.  The ladders were secured to the chimney stack and up we went to assess the colony. A big heavy stone was laid over the chimney, sealing it. Our first action was to remove the stone. We flipped it over and it rested next to the opening. The chimney stack was split into four chimneys, we now had access to two, and one was host to a colony of honeybees. Recent fire damage was evident in the neighboring chimney.

Looking down at the colony and the comb they had built were seven sections of comb. Three ran across the corner and the next three were separated by a section of comb which was in the shape of a y (looking down at it). We wondered how far down the sections were drawn. The comb, which was closest to me, was not very busy, so we decided to begin removing that section first.

We returned down to the earth discussing the possibilities and ironing out the extraction method before moving up the rest of our equipment including a hive with a brood box full of empty frames, garden wire, hive tool & knives, a bag for discarded comb, water, and determination!

Returning to the chimney stack we began removing the first section of comb. It was brittle and I removed a full arm’s length. Towards one foot down I was squeezing honey and had found some stores (sealed honey). I moved on to the next section and again removed a foot or so of comb. It was on the third section of comb where we found a small patch of brood.

A piece of garden twine was laid out on top of the stone we had removed, and an empty brood frame placed on top of the twine. The honeybee comb is placed inside of the frame and the twine tied around the wooden frame to stop if from falling out when placed in the hive. 

The comb containing sealed brood, upon closer inspection, also contained larvae and eggs. This told us that a honeybee queen had probably been in the hive within the last three days.

An egg remains an egg for three day, it hatches into a larvae and remains so for 6 days. The larvae are capped off (sealed with wax) and the pupae forms into a worker bee after 12 days. It was encouraging to see brood in all stages on this piece of comb. I expected to see more brood as we removed more sections.

Three sections of comb had been removed, maybe one foot of each section. It was decided that we would continue to remove the first three sections before continuing with the remaining comb, getting a better idea of just how far down this honeybee colony had built.

We managed to remove the remaining pieces of the first few sections of comb – it was mostly brittle and appeared to be rather old – or maybe it had become dry and brittle due to the heat from the fire?

Andrew went to get some lengths of thin metal which he would bend at the bottom to create hooks, to get under the comb. He also attached a blade onto a long pole, so we could cut the comb away from the brick – great problem solving! It was agreed that it would be better if we could remove the remaining comb intact, instead of breaking away chunks, as we thought there could be more brood on the busier sections of comb. While he was gone, I decided to give some of the comb a wiggle and a piece broke free. I lifted out a HUGE piece of comb, it was easily three foot high! This was incredible to see. The honeybee comb was mostly empty, with a patch of sealed honey – no brood.

honey comb removed from the colony living int he chimney
A huge piece of honeycomb removed from the chimney

I popped back to the car to get my lantern and tied a length of rope to it. I lowered the lantern down the chimney so we could get a better idea of how far down the comb went. It was easily 5 foot from the top of the chimney where the bees began building the comb.

We now began using the modified tools to lift out huge sections of comb. Andrew used the pieces of metal to hook underneath the comb before I used the blade attached to a pole to cut the comb from the wall. The comb could then be lifted out. Very dry, brittle, and empty comb was put in a plastic bag although the comb which contained stores including pollen & honey, were placed on a nearby piece of scaffolding. We were not seeing any more honeybee brood and we did not see any drones or drone brood. We wondered if the colony were not yet building up from winter – after all it is only May and we have had some terrible weather in the North East.

We did find slugs living in the chimney, on the comb, with the bees. This was so peculiar considering just how high up the chimney was from where you expect to find slugs!

The chimney was soon clear. We went through some of the discarded comb and attached chunks of pollen & stores to empty frames which could go either side of the brood. With all seven sections of comb removed, we had only one deep frame of brood.

Whilst loading up frames we were talking of how it was a shame we had not found the queen honeybee and that it was highly likely she was there or had been there when we started the cut out. Eggs in the comb suggests she had been there at least three day ago, and the lack of swarm cells, or even signs of any queen cells were indicative that they had not recently swarmed. More so, the honeybee colony was exceedingly small (in number of bees) and appeared to not yet be building up from winter. That we had not found any drones, or drone brood, suggested to me that this colony had not yet swarmed.

Conversation flowed as we finished up the job, discussing different aspects of beekeeping, pest management and swapping personal stories; we both had become fathers in the last few years – it had been a good day’s work, not overly complicated but included some problem solving and required teamwork.

And then I spotted her.

She was exactly where I hoped she was not!

From the corner of my eye, on a piece of comb I had discarded and placed on the nearby scaffolding, I saw a fat queen honeybee stomping around. Queen bees move in a different manner compared to worker bees, their legs are bigger, and she moves with what can appear to be more purpose and maybe greater intent. Although I had been recording most of the day using my phone, I wasn’t recording at this time and I wasn’t going to waste time hitting record (which takes longer when your gloves are sticky and phone is covered in the residue of a colony extraction!).

I had kept the queen cage in my top pocket all day, frequently patting the pocket to ensure it was where I wanted it – just in case. I grabbed the cage, opened it, and let her walk on in. SNAP, the cage was closed, and we cheered; “what a belter!”. The caged queen was placed on top of the frame of brood, worker bees soon surrounded their queen.

The hive was filling up with bees, but many were still clustered in the chimney stack – others were in flight zipping around the area. Our next action was to leave the queen on top of the open hive and let the bees track her pheromones and leave the chimney. Smoke was used to mask the pheromones she left behind on the chimney and we left the area to eat our sandwiches and have a coffee.

A caged queen is placed on top of the frames

When we returned, we found more bees in the hive and less at the chimney. The roof was placed on the hive and the stone we removed from the top of the chimney was replaced. Before placing the stone, the brickwork was scrubbed and cleaned. We placed the hive on top of the chimney with the hive entrance just above the entrance the bees had been using to access the chimney.

It was time to clean up the area and remove the tools – leaving the hive in place. Bees soon began flying into the hive and some stood at the entrance fanning the queen’s pheromones to help other bees find their new home.

The bees, now in a hive, were sealed up and taken to one of my apiaries in North Tyneside.

A video of the honeybee colony removal

After leaving them for two days I returned today to see how they were doing. I found bees nursing their brood and the queen doing what she does best! They are surrounded by drawn comb and were eating through some of the stores we took from the chimney. I left them with a block of soft fondant to help them build up. They will be assessed again in a few days and if required they might get a frame of emerging brood from one of my stronger hives, offering them a boost in numbers.

This was an amazing experience for me as a beekeeper, I was able to again observe a honeybee colony in ‘the wild’ and see how they had set up their home. I also took great interest in learning more about pest management from Andrew.

How remarkable was it that they survived the fire? A great outcome that building work to repair the fire damage could continue and better still, we removed the colony including the queen, and they look to be able to recover and build up on a farm surrounded by diverse forage.

What a great way to start off the season.

5 thoughts on “Honeybee colony survives fire – Cut Out

  1. Keith says:

    Brilliant, so well written too. Very descriptive, I felt as if I was there. Good to know the bees were saved rather than destroyed.

    Reply

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