I believe it was in 2005 when my Aunt Margaret called me from Brooklyn, ecstatic about a story she’d just listened to on NPR about a team of Bee Whisperers. Apparently a house was about to be condemned, it’s walls were nearly vibrating with honeybee activity and liquid honey poured out of cracks. The family who owned the home was preparing to evacuate and start over again somewhere else. As a last ditch effort, perhaps with some skepticism, the family hired the Bee Whisperer team for swarm removal. Well, it worked. The honeybees were coaxed out of the walls and taken alive to go make honey elsewhere. The family did not have to leave their home, and no poisons were used. (100 bonus points for any friend who can track down a link to this newscast.) This story has always haunted me. A creative, earth-friendly solution to a real puzzler of a problem- done organically to protect bee and humanlife.
Imagine my delight when I recently learned of a local apiary with the same mysterious skillset as the one broadcast on NPR! The proprietor of Pleasant Valley Apiary invited me to visit his scenic farm, which is located in the foothills of the Adirondack mountain range, roughly 20 minutes north of Saratoga Springs. Thomas Wells does not refer to himself as a “bee whisperer,” instead he speaks practically of the swarm removal service he offers. He and his colleagues use smoke to encourage the honeybees to evacuate the hived-up home or structure. When the bees smell the smoke it tricks them into thinking there’s a natural fire and they power eat the stored honey before exiting the hive. I mean they gorge themselves and become bloated: they don’t know how long it will be until they get to eat again. When they emerge from the smoked out hive, they are docile and slow from all the honey they stuffed into their bellies. (Somehow this reminds me of something else…) Capturing the swarm as they emerge seems to be the art of what Thomas and other swarm removal specialists do. I asked Tom if there was a metaphysical aspect to this work. He explained (in so many words) that it’s just necessary to project an attitude of love. He’s observed that if a bee is smooshed or if any impatience is shown, the entire colony is aware and they all get agitated and begin stinging.
I inquired about native bees, if Pleasant Valley Apiary had any services or experiences with bumblebees or solitary bees. I explained that many of my garden design clients could never be persuaded to keep honeybees- they don’t even want to weed their gardens. Tom said that bumblebees live in colonies, and he can build a special hive for them if that was requested. Bumblebee colonies are much smaller than honeybee colonies, but great for pollination and easier for kids as bumblebees sting humans less often. A small bumblebee colony is a fine project for a busy wildlife gardener: it is low maintenance, it’s lovely to create bumblebee habitat and excessive garden pollination is how they say thank you. He even said- to my astonishment- that bumblebees make honey! But they are very stingy with their honey, they make less of it than European honeybees, and they eat it before people can harvest it. We also talked about the simple, open faced wooden boxes for native species bees that have thimble sized holes for solitary nesting. In the winter, Thomas builds hives and honeycomb foundations in his workshop to provide for the swarms he sources for area beekeepers. The collection of hives at his apiary produced over 1000 lbs of honey this past year that went to markets and health food stores around our region.
I asked Tom about the gardens surrounding where all his bees live, and what sort of flower’s pollen can be collected. Being on the farm, the bees have free reign over acres and acres of organic wildflowers, mostly native species except for the invasive Purple Loosestrife that terrorizes our wetlands. Tom does make a point to plant nutrient dense Buckwheat for his honeybees (he mentioned the stout colored honey that buckwheat pollen produces), but for the most part they feast on a seasonably available mixture of Burdock, Clover, Nettle, Staghorn Summack, Tree pollens, New England Aster, Joe Pye Weed, Goldenrod and many other wild native species. He showed me how different flower’s pollen makes the honeycomb (and the honey, too) change color. Below, the honeycomb is yellow because it is from late season Goldenrod pollen collection.
Having a conversation with a Bee Whisperer at his Apiary after eight years of curiousity about the methodology of humane swarm removal was a distinct pleasure. Anyone who is capable of clearing territorial, hived-up honeybees from a home peacefully and without chemicals for their vocation adds more to life than they take from it, in my estimation. Seeing the bees fly around did my heart good in this last stretch of March cold.
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