I was a bit startled to get an email that read: "It's a feral colony. Are these your bees?"
A nearby Missouri S&T fraternity, Beta Sigma Phi, was removing limbs from a storm-damaged tree. In the process of cutting up the limbs with a chain saw, they found a 15-inch wide, 5-foot long limb full of honeybees.
Bees will swarm, or move out of a hive, in mid- to late spring. Bees swarm when the hive gets too crowded. The old queen stays behind and a new queen leads part of the colony to a new nesting site.
Sometimes a swarm will settle into a tree, or tree limb, as they wait for scouts to find a new home.
Since they don't have a home to defend, swarming bees are tame and easy to handle. All one has to do is find the queen and the rest will follow her.
This was how honeybees used to keep their colonies, in tree and limb hollows, before the advent of movable-framed hives. To get honey, and bees wax, the tree and bee colony had to be destroyed.
The movable-framed hives developed in the mid-1800s made it possible to get honey, and wax, without destroying the bees.
The wax-covered frames, where bees store baby bees, bee bread and honey, were also reusable. Multiple use of wax combs cut down the time, and energy, bees need to invest in making comb before honey.
The bees in this tree limb had been there for awhile. Besides bees, the limb housed wax comb where bees had been raising young and storing food. It usually takes a colony one to two years to build enough comb for storage.
By the end of summer, however, it's too late to try to establish a bee colony in a hive. They haven't stored 70 pounds of honey to get them through winter, nor have they had time to build up the comb they need to set up housekeeping.
Not a problem for retired Missouri S&T Computer Science Professor Ralph Wilkerson. Working with wire mesh and a healthy dose of silver duct tape, Ralph secured the bees inside the tree limb in preparation for the move back to his home.
He added a wood platform to one side and covered the other side with wire mesh. The one entrance in the center of the limb was covered with some of his wife's Mary's quilt batting before he quickly taped it shut.
Enlisting his friend Dr. Wayne Huebner, chair of the Missouri S&T Materials Engineering Department, and a fraternity house member, the three carefully moved the tree limb into the back of Ralph's truck.
Once at their destination, the tree limb was removed and secured to a standing tree.
Page 2 of 2 - "Within hours, bees were bringing back pollen so they settled in fast," Wilkerson said when I checked up on the success of the move. "I call it my hillbilly hive."
Ralph's plan is to help the bees make it through winter housed inside the tree limb. He made a nice roof top for the limb so bees will have ventilation and keep the colony dry.
Next spring, he will locate the queen and move the colony into a new hive box. The early move will give the bees a whole season to make beeswax and store honey for next winter.
If Ralph's lucky, they may make a little extra honey for him, too.
Charlotte Ekker Wiggins is a certified gardener sharing gardening tips in a changing climate. Copyright 2013 used with permission by Rolla Daily News - St. James Leader Journal - Waynesville Daily Guide. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. Contact Charlotte at chargardens@ gmail.com.