There is a term heard among beekeepers and professional apiarists from time to time. It often gets the same reaction from an experienced person as hearing “Big Foot” or “Alien Visitors.” What urban myth am I referring to? “Free Bees” Now while there are rare occasions when a phone call comes in from a local neighbor saying there is a swarm hanging from a pecan tree branch or on a fence post and our ability to walk less than a quarter mile with a pillow case or a swarm box and quietly return our unpredicted swarm to the apiary, this is as close to free bees I get and is far from the normal circumstance. You have to drive to that swarm? And it costs what, .10 a mile to drive your car for just the petrol, never mind car insurance, maintenance and all the other sundry associated costs like seat covers and place to hold live honeybees while you drive. It’s not a round trip, you are gong to camp in a cotton tent like Moses right next to the captured swarm come high water or low temperatures.
Let me first clarify between a swarm and a cut out or extractions. A swarm of honeybees is the natural reproductive cycle of a colony of bees in the Spring and Summer. When a beehive become too full for the resident queens liking, she will lay two or three swarm cells housing the larva of a new queen. The day before or the day the first new queen hatches, the old queen of the hive gathers to herself about half of the colony of bees, mostly from the bees older than a week and she swears away. While she clings to that fence post or tree limb she has her scouts out looking for an appropriate size space for a new home. These bees are at their calmest during the swarm, their primary focus is keeping the queen at 98℉ so she may begin the daily process of laying a thousand or so eggs every day of her remaining life as soon as wax comb is built.
The swarm, this is different from a cutout or extraction. If you hadn’t heard, honeybees are becoming a rare find, kind of like the Bald Eagle was in the early 1970’s. Manmade chemicals used in farming, genetically modified crops designed to be insect resistant, the rush to harvest using herbicides to cause ‘red kill’ and reduce tillage of the soil, the harvest of timber on a schedule preventing excess maturation of trees, the ever increasing population of mankind and his building of subdivisions to house more people reducing the natural places bees live. All these things contribute to honeybees seeking places to live near people. The exterminator has referred you to the beekeeper or the county farm extension office.
From houses built before 1960’s building codes requiring wall insulation, to the decorative columns of structures, the eaves of roofs, under a mobile home where insulation has fallen down, all these places serve as a possible place where a gallon or more of space is free from obstruction for a beehive to build. Honeybees are not like termites, they do not eat wood materials and build in the vacant spaces. Honeybees build wax comb in empty space that is away from predators, where they are able to control the temperature all year long and keep their mother at peak egg laying temperature. Because honeybees are not welcome in ‘man space’ often, the first call people make is to the exterminator who will refer them to an apiary or beekeeper, because honeybees are not pest, no matter how afraid you may be.
If you choose to kill the bees yourself with a few cans of insecticide, when the temperature is no longer controlled by the bees, the wax melts seeping into your building materials, the honey flows into the drywall, the larva and young bees die and begin to decompose leaving a lurid odor to attract other pests like rats while you are driven from use of your structure for a few weeks. Companies like ServePro specialize in disaster cleanup and services start at about $2000 for your now ‘hazardous waste’ cleanup site. You see, insecticides are hazardous wastes once they have permeated your building materials. Oh and they wear special breathing equipment to not smell the problem you created.
So now lets consider these ‘free bees’. Momma always said “Nothing is free.” and boy was she right. Even welfare comes with a billion dollar annual operation cost to pay all the people who the government employs to oversee that welfare. But lets consider that a package of new honeybees from a breeder runs about $80 - $100. Minimum wage in the US is $7.25 and hour under FSLA and $5.15 for those not covered by FSLA, On average a cutout is a labor intensive job that takes no less than six hours for two people. Two people, at $7.25 is 12 hours labor; $87. There are those beekeepers who say, “I can do that by myself.” Good for you, you keep saying that, there is a demand for your charity. Now let’s look at equipment and tools needed to gather the bees, cut out all the honeycomb and put it into frames and into a beehive. And never mind the preparation time before the call to get all your equipment ready, never mind the four hours after extraction to situate the bees in a new home, clean up all your equipment and inventory your wares for the next call. I will say to you a single bee hive extraction is a full days work, not just six or eight hours on site, double the time for prep and after action.
Equipment list: Knives, putty knives, scrappers, drywall saws, circular saws, tool boxes, surgical gloves, plastic buckets for loose honey comb, plastic sheeting, movers blankets, drop clothes, frames and rubber bands for ‘sized’ honey comb on frame, wood and metal files, rasps, respirator masks, pry bars, crow bars, brooms, bee suits that will become soiled with honey and dirt and sweat and become not cleanable, heat sensors, fiber optic tube camera, stethoscopes, hammers, drills and bits, extension cords, battery chargers and spare batteries for portable equipment, head lamps, flash lights, smokers, bee vacuums, vacuum hosing and attachments, queen clips, bee hive boxes, duct tape, putty and drywall paste, shop vac and bags for cleanup, hand trucks, trailers for haling equipment, trash cans, water spray bottles, smoker fuels, rags and portable water for tool cleaning, hive tools, goggles, training and experience to capture the queen, explaining your every move to the concerned homeowner who is curious…… Oh did I mention insurance for your protection, insurance for your trailer and tools from accident or theft while you work. Rental equipment like man lifts, cherry pickers, scaffolding. Ack..., you don’t need this stuff! Its ‘free bees’, you will get them direct deposit into your garden hive, you don’t need to remove them.
Let’s look at the dangers of working above your head or off the ground 20 feet for four to six hours. Look into the possibility that all your work will be for naught if the queen is damaged or killed during your cut out. Consider that the property owner was not expecting the construction and remodeling quote provided by the remodeling crew to replace the dry wall you removed, the siding of the building, the ceiling damage caused when you put your knee through the drywall. Consider the litigation costs if you are sued. Consider the cost of the lawyer you use to draft the properly legal, hold harmless agreement your property owner needs to sign before you begin work.
Consider the milage to and from your apiary, the multiple trips you may need to make to assure you have gotten all the bees or that you make to assure you have the right equipment in the changing nature of the extraction, taller ladders, longer extension cords, cordless drills, saws, flashlights, plastic sheeting to protect surfaces from homey, drop cloths to collect dead bees, wax and propolis and all the dozens of other materials you find you need like an extra bee suit, rubber bands, extra bee boxes and frames.
Now consider that the federal government requires you have health insurance and that you provide health insurance for those you work with. Did they mention it was just $500 a month from a large employer or $1000 a month from a small employer to give ONE employee a subsidize by the employer health plan? That's why you pay a lower premium, it's subsidized by the employer. Did anyone advise you that anyone can become allergic to bee sting? Did you know that one Epi pin for emergency use costs $100 and that use of an Epi pen recommends you travel to an emergency room after use? Did you know an Emergency room visit for a bee sting is $800 to start? You say, I’m not allergic to bees. And what about everyone around your extraction? How many times will you get stung before you become allergic? After all, YOU stirred up a beehive and if you were not there they never would have been stung. Do you have that hold harmless agreement signed? Does the property owners property insurance cover bee sting victims?
So, ‘free bees’ would indicate you already own all your equipment that never breaks, never needs maintenance, never runs out. You give out God like immunity to all bee stings to everyone in a 100 yard radius, you have extra bee suits for workers helping you do the deconstruction, you are a lawyer in your state and have prepared for free your own legally binding hold harmless agreement and you are the offspring of the only judge in your jurisdiction who will throw out any case brought against you for property damages while removing your ‘free bees’. Oh and you don’t work and do not receive any public benefits so the time you use to extract these bees has no comparison value. They are actually free because your time has no value. You were given all the stuff you use to ‘get them bees’ and were going to throw it away soon anyhow. So your stuff has no value either. Mmmmm, momma always said, “Nothings free!”
Stay tuned for comments from that old beekeeper.... nobody ever gets stung and free bees are not a myth.