Is it really worth it? What is the cost of free bees?
The sting in the tail of saving these sweet honey producers.
Doing bee removals is a little like shopping at a sale, sometimes you pick up a terrific bargain, other times you end up with a lemon. Don’t get caught saying, “look at the money I saved” when in reality you should be saying “this is the money I wasted.”
I have lost count of the number of swarms I have collected and beehive removals performed over the years. Some colonies turn out to be brilliant honey producers and others turn out to be complete duds. Of course so much depends on the genetics of the queen, the population balance of the colony, the local conditions, and environment I relocate them to and how well they deal with the disruption of the transition. This raises some crucial questions, “Is it really worth it? What is the real cost of free bees ?”. Let’s explore the risk versus reward of bee removals.
If the main reason for doing bee removals is to increase the number of honey-producing hives, I would suggest that there are much better and ways. Performing splits, acquiring queens from experienced breeders and buying nucleus hives is a much more reliable method of building a high performing apiary.
Collecting swarms and removing feral beehives does have an upside. Swarms are usually fantastic comb builders and can draw out 8 to 10 full-depth frames in the first week, particularly if they are on a good nectar flow or are fed sugar syrup. Feral beehives can be an instant honey producing colony. They can consist of up to 60,000 bees and contain many kilos of honey, wax, and brood. While I generally feed most of the honey back to the colony to help them re-establish, I have on occasion been able to collect amazingly fresh virgin honeycomb, crush and strain some honey for consumption and there is sometimes a good quantity of wax that can be processed.
If excess to requirements, swarms, and cut-outs can be turned into hives to be sold. This economic return doesn’t come without extra investment and work. I always quarantine hives for at least 3 months to check for disease, temperament and make sure that the queen is productive. An unproductive queen needs to be replaced before a hive can be sold ethically. Cut-out colonies really need the cut brood comb to be cycled out of the hive and replaced with quality frames before the sale so that they won’t cause issues for the customer.
A feral colony, especially if captured or removed locally, can have perfectly adapted genetics to local conditions and therefore can be a valuable contribution to the gene pool. These genetics, however, can significantly affect the temperament of the colony, its ability to produce honey and draw wax. Most beekeepers will tolerate a defensive colony if they are wonderful honey producers, or an extremely gentle colony even if they are a bit lazy, but no one wants an aggressive colony that underperforms. This is just one of the risks of taking on a new colony of an unknown origin.
The most significant risk, however, is undoubtedly the potential of disease. I can speak from bitter experience here, discovering American Foulbrood in a colony that I cut-out of a building. It was not something noticed at the time, but it was diagnosed about four weeks later when I was doing a follow-up health inspection in my quarantine apiary. As a result, I had to euthanise the bees, burn the frames, and have the hive and my bee-vacuum and equipment irradiated. I estimate that result is also an additional 40 hours of inspections on other hives within the apiary to make sure that this insidious disease has not been spread.
On another occasion, I was called to help an elderly gentleman collect a swarm that had originated from his hive. Luckily I checked his hive before dealing with the swarm. What I discovered was his hive with advanced AFB infection. The smell of dead brood was overwhelming, and the swarm was, in fact, the entire colony that had absconded from the hive. The only solution here was to euthanise this swarm bu shaking it into a bucket of soapy water and burn all of his equipment. Fortunately, my equipment wasn’t contaminated, but this swarm could have quite easily ended up in the neighbor’s yard or a kilometre away, only for a hapless beekeeper to collect this diseased time-bomb. It certainly pays to have a proper quarantine and biosecurity regime in place for any bees collected from unknown sources.
Risks aren’t limited to exposure to disease, some jobs can present significant personal and the public risk that needs to be managed. Public liability insurance is essential.
Every job needs to be risk-assessed before beginning; however, every situation has the potential to deliver something unforeseen. While experience may allow me to foresee the unexpected and react appropriately, I would never want to be in a situation where I would need to access my public liability insurance. The joy and excitement of a new job can be short-lived when things don’t go to plan.
Bee removals can often mean working at dangerous heights or in cramped conditions. Removing a 3 weeks old gentle hive at waist height from an exterior wall in a shady spot on a beautiful sunny day, where you find the queen as soon as you expose the hive and get no stings along the way is what I would consider the perfect job. Naturally, this is rarely the case, bees like to get into places that they can easily defend, areas that are hard for humans to access.
I have removed hives using a cherry-picker, 9 metres off the ground from a make-shift platform, off a 5 metre A-frame trestle, in the crawl-space under a house, and most commonly using ladders. Such jobs can be physically demanding and usually involve a degree of contortion. Working off a step ladder in a shower cubicle, cutting a hive from a ceiling over 12 hours is an arduous job! I usually need to take it easy the following day after one of these big jobs.
I am not a carpenter, electrician, plumber, plasterer, tiler or cabinetmaker but I have built my own home, honey house and done numerous building projects and have a good understanding of how buildings are made. These are essential skills to have when removing beehives from structures. It certainly helps to know the best options to access a hive and have an idea of what to expect before a colony is exposed. It is paramount to understand how to deal with electrical or plumbing services, recognising asbestos and other dangers, and not to interfere with the structural integrity of a building when accessing a hive. It’s not just a matter of minimising any damage in the process, it is also protecting personal safety as well. All the beekeeping skills in the world will count for little without having the knowledge of building construction to safely access the hive.
Performing bee removals to increase hive numbers or for income needs to be balanced with managing my own hives. It is a false economy to be chasing swarms if I’m unable to perform swarm prevention on my existing hives. The time spent, and remuneration received undertaking beehive removals needs to be weighed against managing my existing hives, ensuring their health and maximising honey yields. There is nothing more frustrating to be 60km from home collecting a swarm only to get a call to say one of your own hives is swarming!
Swarm removals come with their own challenges and conundrums. It always pays to ask lots of questions of the swarm caller before heading out to collect a swarm and always remember an inexperienced person can have a vastly different interpretation of reality when they are faced with the “terrifying” situation of a swarm of bees. Some people are terrible at estimation, and in my experience, the size of the swarm is invariably smaller, and the location higher than most people tell me. It also pays to ask how long the swarm has been there, has any other beekeeper been called, do I have permission to access the location and am I going to be paid? I have driven 50km to respond to a swarm call only to arrive and find another beekeeper already on the job. I’ve rushed out to deal with a “massive” swarm that I could just about carry away in my pocket!
While swarm collection is a service to the community and the environment, is it reasonable to charge for this service?
Many beekeepers collect swarms for free; however, there are costs incurred even if it just the cost of travel. It takes time and often requires a second trip back to remove the swarm catch box after dark. As previously discussed there is also the risk of a swarm having a disease like AFB which will ultimately have serious cost repercussions. I’ve removed queen-less swarms and swarms so starved that half of the bees die within the first week, neither is an example of a swarm that is of any use to a beekeeper.
Sometimes swarms are located on public land or in situations that would make it difficult to charge a fee for removal, but often they end up in locations that require an “emergency” response where a property owner wants it gone as soon as possible, even if it is a pocket-sized swarm. In these circumstances, it is reasonable to charge for this service. It may be an exciting and enjoyable job (most of the time!), but that doesn’t make it unreasonable to charge for this service.
All bee removals jobs take time. I value my own time, I value my expertise. These are jobs that require a set of skills performed, and therefore I expect to be paid. It is odd that some clients expect me to work for free or ask for a discount, do they expect their plumber to waiver their fee? Do they ask for a discount at the supermarket?
Beekeepers have a passion for bees and honey, and often the economics of the pursuit are secondary concerns. But all things considered, from a financial point of view, is it really worth it to do bee removals? If working for free to increase hive numbers, then the time and risk aren’t worth the reward. However, to charge a fee that accurately remunerates for time, costs, risks and expertise makes it a useful extension to a beekeeping operation and can make all the stings and effort worthwhile, after all, saving bees is a very rewarding vocation.