The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, August 1, 2008

Rare wild beehive found on construction site

Carlisle beekeeper Ernie Huber and apprentice Susan Lehotsky try to lure the wild hive into a portable beehive. (Photo by Ellen Huber)

Last week area beekeepers began a long-shot operation to save a colony of wild bees found in a white pine logged during site clearing for the Hanover Hills subdivision project off Westford Street. According to Carlisle beekeeper Ernie Huber, the hive had been located 20 to 30 feet above ground in the trunk of a massive tree. The tree was dragged by the equipment after being felled, but the hive appeared to survive, because afterward bees were seen flying in and out of a knothole. Site manager John Durkin, Jr. contacted Conservation Administrator Sylvia Willard and asked if any local beekeepers were interested in trying to save the bees, and Willard in turn contacted Huber.

Beekeeper Jeff Atwood uses smoke to calm the wild bees. (Photo by Ellen Huber)

Huber said, “A survival colony is unique. The last wild colonies died about 15 years ago, when mites started coming in.” Mite infestations are one of the problems that have also troubled domestic hives in recent years. A wild colony that could withstand the mites might provide valuable genetic material to strengthen domestic hives, if the queen, or her eggs could be salvaged.

How to entice the queen to leave the tree?

Huber first tried to lure the queen out of the tree trunk by using a pheromone attractant. He covered the knot hole with a small cone attached with duct tape, forcing the bees to enter and leave through the tip of the cone. The hole in the tip was only about the size of a bee, so it was much harder for the bees to return once they had left the old hive, especially if they return

Worker bees exit the wild hive through the narrow cone tip that directs them toward the alternate hive. (Photo by Ellen Huber)

laden with pollen. Next to the old hive Huber placed a small empty hive with five frames and the pheromone attractant. Unfortunately, the pheromone did not work, because when he checked later, only about 100 bees were in the new hive and they were not making themselves “at home” building or repairing honeycomb.

Plan B was to bring in a “nucleus” or “nuc hive” of Huber’s domestic bees. Assisted by apprentice beekeeper Susan Lehotsky, Huber brought a sampling of bees of all ages, including nurse bees and eggs, but no queen. Would the nucleus hive attract the wild worker bees and eventually the wild queen?

On Monday, the forager bees were “actively filling” the new hive, which was half full, and they were bringing in pollen and making themselves at home. However, because worker bees are infertile, their addition to the nucleus hive would not preserve the wild genes, unless the queen followed. Would she follow once most of her workers switched hives?

According to Huber, the bees in the nucleus hive began converting the egg cells from Huber’s

The comb is removed from the tree by Atwood. (Photo by Ellen Huber)

domestic hive into cells capable of raising new queens. (The shape of the cell in which the egg grows and its food determine whether it will grow into a queen or worker bee. Queens require larger cells and a diet of royal jelly.) “At least one of these queen cells was active, and not a dry cup, with larva and royal jelly. The lack of visible new eggs and the construction of active queen cells is all consistent with the log queen not having come out to join the new nuc box colony.” Would the wild queen learn of the developing queens and leave the old hive to kill her “rivals?”

Although showing promising activity, the experiment was curtailed on Tuesday evening, because the bees were delaying the construction project. It was time for Plan C. On Tuesday at dusk, Huber and Lehotsky removed the nucleus hive from the construction site. Huber was able to determine that while a lot of wild bees had moved into his hive, he did not have the queen. On Wednesday morning, shortly before the Mosquito went to press, another area beekeeper, Jeff Atwood, first calmed the bees with smoke, and then used a chain saw to open up the section of tree trunk containing the wild hive (see photos left and below). Many of the remaining bees came along when he pulled out sections of honeycomb. He attached string to the comb in order to fasten the wild comb into his box to make a hive. If he has the queen, or wild brood cells that grow into new queens, the genes of the hardy wild bees may survive. ∆

© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito