Feral Bees and Bee Trees

By Kent Fenley

Editor’s Note: Our January, 2012 issue has an article on Indiana beekeeper Kent’s discovery decades ago of a feral colony in an old bee tree and how it inspired him to keep bees, starting last year with a colony from an about-to-be-demolished garage. When we asked for an update, Kent shared several observations and adventures. Sounds like he’s about up to his knees in bees, which readers of this newsletter will likely agree is a good thing!

My brother decided to harvest the mature trees in the wooded lot where that old bee tree was. The tree was spared the chopping block, probably due to the metal fence embedded in it.

The wooded lot now looks like a tornado went through it.

Death of the Garage Hive

The bees moved in July of 2011 from an old garage unfortunately did not survive the winter. In late February I’d opened the hive and observed:

  • Staining of large black spots of waste matter on the inside and outside of the hive

  • Dead bees on top of the inside cover

  • Dead bees in clusters, three different clusters with dead bees in the drawn comb of each cluster

  • Ten out of twenty frames with drawn comb, only four of those frames were fully drawn

  • Dead bees on the bottom wire mesh floor and some dead bee larvae mixed in that group

  • Patches of capped honey and what looked like honey and pollen mixed; some of that honey pollen mix was black in color

  • Lots of empty drawn comb; I did not see any good-looking pollen stores

  • What looked like cornmeal on the bottom board, but it was comb capping or wax fragments

The temperature that day in late February was around 60° F. I decided to clean up the hive and mourn my losses, though ten frames of drawn comb helped me feel that it was not a total loss. After reading the Walter T. Kelley newsletters I feel these bees starved to death; they did not have enough time to collect adequate pollen stores to get them through the winter since they had some good-looking capped honey.

I also suspect that some of the pollen / honey stores went bad due to the black color of the honey pollen cells. I also questioned my feeding sugar water so late in the fall, and wonder if that contributed to the blackness of some of the comb cells—remembering that a black fungus grew on sugar water that leaked out of the feeders onto the cement blocks the hive was sitting on.

Getting “Back On the Horse”

I didn’t want to wait around to discover another wild hive, so that evening I ordered bees from the Walter T. Kelley Company. I want to compare the purchased cultivated bees with the wild bees so I don’t fill my hives with an underperforming workforce.

I want to see if the wild bees collect and store pollen and nectar as well as the purchased bees; I assume cultivated bees are selected for more desirable traits. I know that the size of the cavities in old tree can be small and the area for the bees limited so there is no need to collect large amounts of pollen and nectar for wild bee survival.

More Bees!

As good fortune and the grace of God would have it—and something of a shock to me—an old tree about a quarter of a mile from the old bee tree was starting to die from the top down. Strong winds knocked off the top and left a large limb in the road.

When I discovered the limb I noticed bees swarming around one end. This was around the first of March; the weather was 60° F and windy. I didn’t even realize those bees existed as they were twenty feet high in the tree.

This tree stood in the front yard of my great, great grandfather’s home, torn down several years ago. Fortunately a week earlier I had cleaned up the hive of failed bees. It was late in the day when I discovered the bees.

I grabbed a chainsaw and skid loader and slowly moved the dead branch and bees to their new home with ten frames of partially drawn comb. That evening, I removed as much comb and bees as I could and placed them in two empty medium supers with the frames and foundation removed.

That night the temperature dropped to the middle twenties and a few of the stray bees were frozen by the next morning. With the help of a chainsaw, the last of the bees that had clustered overnight and the honey comb were placed in their new home.

As I was moving bees I tried to find the queen. However, it proved to be too big of a mess. I took a photo of the limb and hive cavity to show how small the cavity was—a little larger than a basketball.

The bees seemed to be nice and hairy with a little more black coloration on their tail ends. I was able to scare a few out of the hive on a mild but windy day for a photo opportunity.

On April 19th I opened the hive to inspect them and clean out the old comb that was extracted from the tree cavity. I noticed most of that old comb was empty; however I did find some new brood in the old stacked comb.

I then removed the old comb from the empty super boxes and shook off the bees into the frames below, trying to be gentle. I worked slowly to avoid injuring the queen but the queen was not found. I know she must have survived due to the new brood.

I placed the old comb around the base of the hive to let the bees recover what they could before the creatures of the night (coons, opossums and fox) could carry things away. I am happy to see these bees were surviving in spite of the late winter relocation.

Wild vs. Package Bees

May 5th I drove to Clarkson, Kentucky to pick up my new hive of bees at Walter T. Kelley. Everything went like clockwork, with the bees in their new home that evening. These new bees seemed to know what to do and when to do it as there was a small comb in their box with syrup stored in it. This gave me two hives of bees that I am feeding sugar water to; they do love their sugar water.

On June 22, 2012 I checked the two hives to see what progress they had made since I started feeding sugar water. I lost track of how many 4-pound bags of sugar I used.

The bees that came from the dead tree limb had filled the top box of their hive and I tried to remove the top box to check out the box on the bottom but it was too heavy to remove. I saw there were bees in the bottom box so I replaced the top box; they are doing better than expected. They had the advantage of several frames of drawn comb.

The bees purchased from Kelley’s were started on new foundation. They had filled about half the frames in the top box. I decided to double their sugar water to help them catch up.

As I was pulling frames looking for the queen the bees started coming at me in waves so I quit my inspection and was impressed by how intimidating that was for me to have waves of bees flying at me. There are clearly more bees there than when they started and they act like they have something to defend.

I talked with Jack Hawkins (a beekeeper with more experience than me) who decided I need more experience finding the queen so he volunteered to use one of his (nuc) hives for practice.

Editor’s Note: We were inspired by Kent’s story, as it offers several great things to keep in mind. Among them:

  • It pays to have equipment ready, as you never know when you’ll run in to a swarm or wild hive.

  • Mentors are wonderful things.

  • Drawn comb provides a substantial advantage.

  • Quickly spotting queens takes practice.

  • We all make mistakes and have losses; analyze and learn from them.

  • The Walter T. Kelley Company is a great place for all things bee!

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