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Wrapping a feral colony for winter

This past spring, in a remote little outpost in the high desert of Oregon, a feral swarm of honey bees decided to nest. They chose a massive cottonwood adjacent to a popular campground and hung their combs from its aging limbs. With no protection other than a nearby garage and a canopy of leaves, the bees spent the summer raising brood, expanding their nest, and ignoring the flux of campers playing on the Deschutes River.

But as fall approached, the property owner began to wonder about the coming winter. Would the colony be able to survive a central Oregon winter with no protection from the elements? It didn’t seem likely.

In mid-September, the homeowner asked his friends, Rob Deez and Alicia Taylor of Smudgie Goose Farm, to look at the colony. Can it survive? Enthralled by its beauty but unable to say, they in turn contacted beekeepers Larry and Naomi Price and asked them to have a look.

A few days later, Naomi and Larry arrived at the scene with a truckload of tools ready to remove the bees. But after one glance at the fully-exposed colony, they scrapped their initial plan and several alternatives as well. In the end, they covered the colony with a tarp to protect it from the expected rain.

Back home, Naomi contacted Dewey Caron (author of the popular textbook Honey Bee Biology and Beekeeping) and asked for advice. Dr. Caron came up with several suggestions:

  • Cut the combs from the tree and tie them into frames
  • Cut out the piece of tree they are clinging to and put the whole thing in a box
  • Leave them alone, but improve their chances by providing some rain and wind protection

After hours of discussion during the next three days, the four of them—Alicia, Rob, Larry, and Naomi—came up with an ingenious plan. They agreed it was too late in the year to cut the combs and expect the bees to patch things together. So instead, they elected to provide a temporarily shelter to help the colony survive the winter.

Using electric-fence wire, they planned to construct a framework that would support a multilayered canopy of canvas, insulation, and waterproofing. Once the colony was covered, it would be on its own till spring.

The plan proceeded without a hitch, and the Maupin, Oregon colony is now tucked in for winter. In the following series of photographs, taken by Naomi Price and Shannon Taylor, you can see the story unfold. If the colony survives the winter, it will be removed to Smudgie Goose Farm in Prineville to be used as an educational tool. Let’s keep our fingers crossed for the bees.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Click on any photo for slides and captions.

Comments

Miriam Valere
Reply

Wow! What a cool story and those photos are awesome! I’ve never seen a hive in the wild, so that was fascinating to see! Many thanks to Alicia, Rob, Larry, and Naomi for taking such good care of these bees. That is just so wonderful. Thanks for sharing the story with us, Rusty!

Rusty
Reply

Miriam,

The story was fun to write, and I agree: the photos they took are great.

ksirovy
Reply

Very cool! Again thanks for the article, that hive is a piece of art.

jenny mccomb
Reply

Bravo!

Fingers crossed for the well-being of that colony. What a valiant endeavor!

Best,
Jenny in St. Louis

Debbie
Reply

Great story and pictures! Thank you so much for sharing 🙂

Barbara
Reply

Bravo!!!! What a story!!!
Can’t wait for the follow-up next spring!!!!

Barbara in Oregon

JoAnne
Reply

Kudos to those caring people and best of luck to that colony. I am also eager to hear next spring how they fared. The pics are so fun to see.

Mary P.
Reply

So glad they thought to document this with many photos and that you were able to bring this to us, Rusty. I have some reactions to the wisdom of trying to rescue a colony that didn’t have the sense to come in from the rain but I know most of us would try to save it anyway.

With the holiday season approaching, please remember to donate to Rusty’s site so she can continue to bring us these gems of information including the exquisite photos, either hers or others that she showcases for our entertainment and delight.

Rusty
Reply

Thank you, Mary. Much appreciated!

Linda Rivers
Reply

Rusty, this was so well written, and the pictures are priceless. This could be made into a documentary of some sort. How fascinating! Thanks for sharing because I have never seen anything like this before.

Emily
Reply

I wonder if bees building an exposed nest like this is due to a lack of suitable nesting sites. Fascinating photos, what a magnificent colony.

Nancy
Reply

Great story, Rusty, and great work and pictures, Larry, Naomi and Shannon!

IMHO it was very wise to leave the colony where it was and protect it.

One of our club members started out as an exterminator, but got so many calls about bee colonies in walls, he started specializing in non-lethal honey bee extraction. He has removed some enormous colonies from floors and attics. He has very generously shared a number of swarms and extractions with other members.

Sad to report, cutting comb away from where the bees want it and wiring it into frames seldom succeeds. It’s very hard to find the queen, and even harder not to compromise any eggs or larvae that might become a new queen. The active bees seem to quickly join an adjacent hive and give up on the mess.

At least that’s been our experience. If anyone else has managed it, I hope they got pictures to share.
A truly beautiful wild colony!

Nan
Shady Grove Farm
Corinth, Kentucky

Mary P.
Reply

Possibly the swarm alighted on that branch while awaiting for scout bees to come back with directions to their new home – and the scout bees never returned? Or never found a more suitable place (real estate being what it is these days)?

Larry S
Reply

I noticed that they didn’t leave an opening at the top for ventilation. They may get to much moisture inside of that cocoon. What do you think Rusty?

Rusty
Reply

Good question, Larry. The two inner layers, both fabric, will collect and transmit moisture. The outer tarp is held open at the bottom so air can freely move around the fabric layers, which should keep them dry. I tend to think that is plenty of ventilation. Any other opinions out there?

Dana
Reply

Everyone already voiced any comments I had about the bees (and a lot lot more). I think wishing them well again is in order and being grateful for all the efforts on their behalf.

My only other comment may seem a bit silly, but for what it’s worth, the bees tree appears to be a Box Elder, Acer negundo, a type of maple.

Dana (Genus Acer).

Rusty
Reply

Dana,

It’s not silly. I asked about the tree as well because I, too, thought it looked a little maple-y. Not having been there myself, I’m relying on information from others. But yes, good observation.

Naomi
Reply

Dana, thank you for correctly identifying the tree the colony is homesteading. The leaf said the tree is a maple, but central Oregon’s automatic response to tree identity is cottonwood. Wrapping the colony took center stage leaving the tree to being poorly identified. May the tree proudly stand until it is time to relocate this colony to Smudgie Goose Farm.

Rusty
Reply

Naomi and Dana,

You all have sent me to my books. Trees to Know in Oregon doesn’t list it, which I assume means it’s not native. Pacific Coast Tree Finder shows it living in northern to central California. Acer negundo is listed as boxelder (one word) because it’s not actually an elder. The Field Guide to North American trees, Western Region says it has naturalized in many areas, especially along roadsides. Of note, the book says it “is short-lived and easily broken in storms” just as this one was.

I will correct the post as there are quite a few references to “cottonwood.” Thank you both for your help.

Danielle
Reply

Great story and so well-written. Thank you! And thanks to the rescuers!

Randy
Reply

Maybe this is a stupid question because nobody else is asking it yet, but where is all the honey? Shouldn’t it be showing?

Rusty
Reply

Randy,

It’s actually a very good question. I can see a small amount of honey towards the top of some of the combs, but it certainly doesn’t seem like a lot. For a variety of reasons, most feral colonies don’t make it through their first winter, and I’m sure lack of food is a major factor. Of course, it’s hard to see from the photos. Maybe the beekeepers can fill us in on the honey situation?

Johann
Reply

My guess is……
It takes about 8 lbs of honey to make 1 lbs of wax, and that hive looks big compare to the amount of bees on it. So it takes a lot of honey to built combs.

That is a open hive and those bees are exposed to the weather. It would be difficult to keep the hive and brood at the right temperature in cooler and hot weather so bees have to work harder to either keep the temperature up or even to cool it. And all of this will take energy from the bees and the bees have to eat more food resources to generate that energy, heat or to fan the hive to cool it.

Also, an open hive has too many robbers that the bees can not fend off, especially while they try to keep the brood warm or while they try to keep it cool while fanning them.

Bee death would be also high in an open hive, so it will require more pollen ( which I did not see either) and honey to feed new and /or more larvae.

Heidi
Reply

Thank you for those fabulous pictures and your report. Lovely work.

Kind wishes,

Heidi

Bill Catherall
Reply

That was a brilliant solution using the wires and cloth! Nice work and great pictures!

Jonathan
Reply

A picture is worth a thousand words, these define two words in my opinion: compassion (for the bees) and passion (for beekeeping).

Janet
Reply

Love this story, this is so sweet and thanks for helping, what we all need to do to help the voiceless.

David R
Reply

Two nights ago I was contacted by a friend of a friend of a friend about a tree that had split open and exposed a feral colony. It is too far for me to travel to but I have copied this article to several beekeepers in that area. One never knows just how far their words travel these days. As always thank you Rusty for sharing.

Rusty
Reply

Hey David, thank you and wishing you and your family a bountiful Thanksgiving!

Lindy Lou
Reply

Hallo Rusty, I am amazed at all this. The bees seem so quiet whilst all that activity is going on. Even with electronic tools adjacent to the nest. It seems to me that they must feel that these people are providers and not takers. I have passed this link to my bee friends here. We would like to follow how the hive gets through the winter too. I hope someone takes photo’s very often for on your site Rusty thank you for sharing this with your readers.

Naomi
Reply

Randy,

We witnessed robbing by a relatively few yellowjackets and other honey bees the day the colony received their winter wrap There is a yellowjacket trap hanging on the fence nearby almost filled with the dead. The colony was quick to attack robbing honey bees, however the yellowjackets appeared to have a free pass into the cluster.

The inside comb has some winter stores; however, we were not able to assess the total amount of feed through the colony’s comb configuration.
The nest mates are healthy looking with their foragers bringing in pollen and possibly nectar the day of their hive-wrapping.

Our intent is to not second guess their feed stores.The carbohydrate options being discussed: crystalized honey, fondant, or candy canes. The serving will need to be thinly shaped to allow insertion between the drawn comb and placed up against the cluster for access. Now we wait for the weather to cooperate before entering the hive from their cocoon’s bottom.

Pamela
Reply

Wow, what a beautiful hive, so happy to see these hard working beekeepers working to save it. Looking forward to hearing how they overwinter.

Diana
Reply

What ever happened to this colony?

Rusty
Reply

Diana,

I know it made is successfully through the first winter and thrived during the follow summer (2015). After that, I lost track of it. I’ll see if I can find out.

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