[Bees in the Bird box? This is what to do]

When honey bees decide to occupy a nesting box, they can be removed and saved by a beekeeper. The use of insecticide is completely unnecessary and unethical in a time when pollinators worldwide are experiencing serious decline.

This colony was removed from a Hollow Log Homes nesting box at the C&K Cotton Tree Childcare Centre. It had a beautiful queen with distinctive “tiger-stripe” markings.

Birds and many other animals, such as possums and gliders, dasyurids and bats rely on hollows for nesting, roosting and denning.  With the continued clearing of native vegetation, particularly old growth trees that provide these natural nesting sites, the competition increases for these prized sites.  As a result, nesting boxes have an increasing importance to provide alternatives for these animals in a constantly changing environment.

It should be of no surprise that European honey bees (Apis mellifera) as well as Australian native bees find these nesting boxes ideal places to establish new hives.  They provide dry, sheltered homes with a cavity volume sort after by scout bees.

Should bees be removed from nesting boxes?

Consider it a blessing if your nest box is occupied by a colony of Australian native bees.  Leave them alone and let them go about their important pollination work.  It’s time to invest in another nesting box rather than taking any action against the current occupants.

European honey bees on the other hand are best removed to free up the nest box for the native creatures for which they were intended. For biosecurity reasons, it is also much better to have honey bees housed in managed hives where they can be monitored by a registered beekeeper for disease, pests and temperament. Unmanaged beehives pose a risk to the whole beekeeping industry particularly if they become infected with American Foulbrood, an incurable and highly infectious bacterial disease. 

What are the options for removing beehives from nest boxes? 

Bees can be easily removed and saved by a beekeeper. Do not spray them with water or insecticide.

Honey bees can pack a painful sting and while the temperament of a lot of colonies is quite gentle, others can be highly defensive of their hive.  Generally speaking, a hive undisturbed will pose little risk to passers-by, however removing one is best left to someone with the skills and knowledge to do the job properly and save the bees at the same time.  There are many apiarists who are willing to carry out this job, usually for an appropriate fee. 

The idea that a beekeeper might carry out the removal for free or even pay for the hive is a naive proposition considering that the job can be a timely exercise requiring expert knowledge, specialised equipment, the risk of transferring disease and even more work to turn the colony into a honey producing hive, all with no guarantee of long term success.

The quicker you act, the easier it will be for a beekeeper to remove the colony of bees.  Within the first 24 to 48 hours the colony can be treated as a swarm and most likely shaken from the box and relocated into a standard beehive. After 48 hours the colony will have started to build comb and therefore this will need to be cut out of the box. If the colony has had a chance to establish itself, it maybe easier for the beekeeper to take the nest box away to do the removal at their own apiary site prior to returning the nesting box to it’s original location.

Please remember you are dealing with a stinging insect while most probably standing on a ladder at height, there are no quick escapes if things go pear-shaped.

Will the bees eventually move away?

If a swarm of bees voluntarily moves into a nesting box they are highly unlikely to move on especially if they have been present for more than 24 hours.  Some smaller nesting boxes may result in a colony filling the box quite quickly.  This usually results in one of two things:

Look closely to see a nesting box encased by a beehive.

  1. the colony will swarm sooner (they create a new queen and the old queen leaves with half of the population of bees to find a new home, maybe in another nesting box!), or

  2. the colony begins to build comb on the outside of the box, allowing the hive to grow much larger.

If for some reason the colony does abandon the nesting box, it is almost inevitable that the nesting box will attract the attention of other bee swarms as the box will be full of smells from the previous hive.  The pheromone released by the queen is highly attractive  to other bees and will linger inside the nest box for years.

Once removed by a beekeeper, the inside of the box can be torched to remove the residual wax and any honey and a repellant can be applied to the inside of the box to deter future swarms.

Huge beehive in and outside a bird box in Peachester image:  Brymac Native Bees

Huge beehive in and outside a bird box in Peachester
image: Brymac Native Bees

Can you prevent bees moving into a nesting box?

Unfortunately, there is no way of stopping a swarm of bees moving into a nesting box apart from blocking the entry, negating the purpose of the box. If scouting behaviour is noticed prior to the main swarm moving in, then it is feasible to block the entry for a few days until the scouting behaviour stops.  Swarms are most likely to move in from early spring until mid-summer, so this is the time to be most observant of honey bee interest in your nest box. 

The best corse of action is to assume that a swarm will move in sooner or later and therefore take these points into consideration when installing the nest box:  

A D-shackle makes for easier removal and return of the nesting box.

A D-shackle makes for easier removal and return of the nesting box.

  1. Make sure the nesting box is accessible (after all it will probably need to be taken down for cleaning or maintenance from time to time),

  2. If using a coated wire to attach the box to a tree, use a D-shackle to complete the loop to allow for easy removal rather than having to cut the wire,

  3. If attaching the box directly with screws, do not screw through from the inside of the box as this will be inaccessible if a colony of bees builds comb inside the box, and

  4. Use galvanised or stainless steel screws that won’t corrode and can be easily removed and reused to disassemble and reassemble the box.

While bees in your nest box may pose a sticky problem, their removal need not result in their death.  The unethical use of insecticide is unnecessary and avoids contamination of the box. Please contact a local beekeeper to save these very important pollinators.