In recent years honey bee populations have suffered serious declines, most likely due to pesticide exposure. So when bee hives are now discovered in inconvenient places, every effort is made to safely move them.
When last week's storms took down trees along the Mid-Atlantic coast, some of those trees contained hives. That set up a conflict between bee preservationists and the frazzled work crews assigned to clear the debris.
In Richmond, Va.'s historic neighborhood, The Fan, the storms damaged at least two towering oaks containing bee hives. Urban bee keeper Randyl Walter, who also has construction experience, found himself in the role of “bee rescuer.”
“They called me and said there's a tree down and they're going to spray the bees if you don't get over there and get them out,” Walter said. “So I went over there and started collecting bees before the city arrived on the scene.”
Extracting bees from their natural hive is a delicate task. It requires cutting the comb out, putting it in frames, and then vacuuming up the bees so everything can be relocated. And even though a bee rescuer has the best of intentions, the bees usually don't see it that way.
While they usually treat you as a benign presence when you bring them food, they react differently when you try to remove them from a hive. Walter says it's all based on bees' keen sense of smell.
“Now your scent is associated with destroying the hive, because basically, when you do a cut-out to save the bees that's basically what you do, you destroy the hive,” Walter said.
And as he stood in a bucket truck 30 feet in the air, Walter felt the bees' wrath.
Nightmare at 30 feet
“My suit had come open, and I didn't know, and the bees got up inside my suit and inside my veil, and I got stung in the face about one hundred or two hundred times on the back of the neck and across the face,” Walter said. “My eyes were so swollen I could barely even see. But I finished the extraction and saved all the bees. As many as I could.”
While others might have fled the scene and gone to the emergency room, Walter said he is not allergic to bee venom, and in fact considers it beneficial. His girl friend practices apitherapy to treat her MS, finding occasional bee stings relax muscles. And he certainly doesn't hold the incident against his winged friends. Bees, he says, are mostly misunderstood by most people.
“I find that if you don't hurt them they won't hurt you,” he said. “But as soon as you hurt one of them, that one will tell his friends and his friends will all come after you.”
Walter says reputable exterminators now refuse to eradicate bee nests and instead refer homeowners to bee rescuers or other professionals who can safely remove them. As for the Richmond bees, Walter says they now have a new home in a city park.