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  • Writer's pictureNona Spillers

Rescuing Bees from a Water Meter Box

Just like people rescue dogs and cats, we rescue bees. The way a colony of bees perpetuates itself is by swarming. The bees make a new queen and the old queen takes a group of bees and establishes a new colony.

Because the habitat bees prefer - the hollowed out trunks of trees - are dwindling, swarms often land in unwanted places. Like in someone’s front yard tree, or shed or water meter box.

Water meter box? Yes. Bees like a space that is about 40 liters - and the plastic boxes that house waters meters (in Texas) fit the bill. Thankfully, in Austin, there are lists and forums used to find a beekeeper who will rescue the colony and give it a happily ever after. We get a number of these calls!

There are “swarm seasons” when conditions are right for colonies to divide.

Bees like a controlled entrance. The tiny hole in the meter cover is a very attractive bee real estate feature.

The colony builds comb on the underside of the cover lid. This colony had been living in the box for about five months. They had 9 plates of comb and three of them had brood (cells filled with capped larvae that will hatch baby bees

Working slowly and methodically, we use smoke to encourage the bees to move out of the way. Each plate of comb is cut from the lid and placed into frames using rubber bands. The frames fit into the hive box. The bees will attach the comb to the top, bottom and sides of the frames then chew the rubber bands off. The bees drag the rubber bands out the front door of their hive once the comb is secure.

Finding the queen in a colony is the best way to insure they thrive, however it’s like finding a needle in a haystack. A solid understanding of bee behavior helps. Removing the outside pieces of comb first allows us to find the frames with brood - that is usually where the queen is. If you work carefully she will move to the last brood frame.

That was the case with this rescue. As I placed the last piece of brood comb on the tray, I spotted the queen’s skittery movement. We use a clear plastic cage to protect the queen (when we find her) while we finish up the transfer.

If you have the queen in the new hive box, the rest of the bees will move in. Sometimes you get to see the awesome site of the whole colony marching in to their queen - they can smell her phermone and will dutifully follow.

Once the majority of the bees have gone into the box, we close up the entrance and move them to their new home.

The size of the colony and how many resources (food & brood) they have will determine how to give the colony the best chance of thriving. Often we’ll feed rescue colonies a bit of sugar syrup allowing them to use their time and energy to build comb vs. foraging for nectar.

Like any new colony, the resources they have are for their survival. Generally a colony won’t overproduce honey in the first year because comb building and growth use all the nectar they forage.

Bee removal is hard, hard work and the bees don’t always make it. So it’s usually a paid service. A beekeeper is using their knowledge, equipment, gas and time to move the bees. And there is a 50 / 50 chance they will have nothing to show for it. That said, there are circumstances when people will rescue the bees for free.

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