Garage work takes a break while expert frees the bees
ANCRAMDALE — Along with all their regular summertime chores, the Ancram Highway Department crew is busy working on converting the old Borden Milk Factory into a salt shed. But work on the project was put on hold for a few days recently when the conditions there got a bit too risky to continue.
It seems the renovation work was disturbing some of the building’s inhabitants — tens of thousands of honey bees – which had work of their own work to get done and a schedule to keep.
“We knew they were there,” one hive in a wall, another in the concrete floor, said Highway Superintendent James MacArthur, who decided to find a beekeeper to relocate the bees to more serene surroundings.
He called Kenny VanKeuren, 31, of West Copake, the son of Mike Scheller, who works for the Public Works Department in Philmont.
In his first year as a beekeeper, Mr. VanKeuren told The Columbia Paper, he got hooked on honeybees after reading about the collapse of their colonies. He built 17 of his own wooden hives with frames and started inviting local homeless (feral) bees to come live in them. He put out some swarm traps and once the bees established themselves there he took them home to his hives, which they now treat as their own.
Excited to talk about the bee removal project, Mr. VanKeuren said one of the colonies in the old milk factory was thriving in a hollow spot under about 10-inches of concrete (two layers of about five-inches apiece), which the bees entered through a 6-inch crack in the floor.
To get them out, the floor had to be cut open, so Mr. VanKeuren could get at the hive. Using a Shop Vac that he transformed into a “Bee Vac,” he sucked the bees into a screened box he put inside the machine. When the box gets full, he opens a trap door slides the bees out and moves them to a portable, full-sized hive, which he carries around in the back of his pickup truck with some fishnet draped over the top. He also puts a little sign on his tailgate that says, “Warning: Live Honey Bees” noting, “You’d be surprised how far back people stay when they see that.”
Being vacuumed doesn’t harm the bees, said Mr. VanKeuren, who can regulate the pressure. Plus, before he starts, he shoots the bees with a couple of “good puffs” of smoke, which he said makes them think a forest fire is coming and they should settle down and start gathering up their honey, before they make their escape.
The only protective gear Mr. VanKeuren wears is a veil over his face and special beekeeping gloves that bees cannot sting through. Otherwise, he just wears ordinary shoes and long pants, the cuffs of which he stuffs into his socks. He said he doesn’t like to put on a full protective suit because it is too hot. Sweating, he said, releases pheromones, which rile up the bees. “You have to be clean, but not too clean and wearing less is better,” Mr. VanKeuren said.
Based on the color of the honeycomb, the beekeeper determined that the hive in the floor was about two years old and the one in the wall was three to four years old. The darker the comb, the longer it has been around. He said the floor comb was 14 layers thick, and about 14 by 12-inches in size. He removed all of it and cut out a square piece of it containing the most “brood” or young to give the bees a piece of their former life to start building their new lives with.
Mr. VanKeuren said the two milk factory hives were very healthy, based on his check for varroa mites, which are the culprits that have been wiping out bee colonies.
The mites come into a hive by attaching to the bees that are out gathering nectar. Once inside the hive the mites enter a cell that contains bee larvae, lay their eggs, then leave just before the bees seal up the cell.
When the mite eggs hatch, they feed off the bee larvae, leaving the young with a half chewed off wing and unable to fly.
It took him two days to remove the hive in the floor and another day to get the hive in the wall out. He ended up with 80,000 honeybees or eight pounds-worth of bees. He only got stung twice.
“It’s quite an amazing sight to see a wall of bees and know you can work with them,” said Mr. VanKeuren, adding “you can read a bee and get a sense of how aggressive they are going to be, you approach the aggressive ones a little slower.”
Mr. VanKeuren can be reached at 518 329-4108.
With the bees gone, Mr. MacArthur expects the salt shed to be finished sometime in late September.