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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Colony Collapse Disorder?

I hereby record my own chapter in the creeping ecological collapse of our humble biosphere.

In 2009, I witnessed the founding of a honeybee colony high in the brick wall of one of the buildings I supervise at work. They had a little ribbon-cutting ceremony and everything. Actually, I just saw them coming and going through a little hole under some wooden fascia, and their numbers were on the rise.

The entrance to their hive was a few feet from a walkover I use regularly to reach rooftop furnaces, investigate roof leaks, etc. At first I worried that the bees would attack me or some repairman and cause a fall to the death, but soon they were confirmed to be reasonable bees with minimal aggression. Still, they were setting up shop in the wall of an office complex. I let it slide for a while, but the more I learned, I found reasons to worry. A lot of honey inside a wall can draw roaches or other pests, and there was always the chance that someone allergic to bee stings would be stung and I would be found negligent.

Eventually, the problem came when the bees started scouting for new territory INSIDE the building. They didn't sting anyone, but they died by the hundreds in some light fixtures and windows. People started asking about the bees. I thought about just blasting their wall with poison, but I didn't want to kill them, especially with all the news about dwindling bee populations. I asked one day at the Nature Center—it turned out they had a list of local beekeepers.

After a few dead ends on the phone, I met a beekeeper who decided to set a box hive atop the wall. We lifted the concrete cap off the wall and set the hive. There were thick honeycombs right underneath. Bruce, the bee man, said the queen would prefer to move upward, so she should move into his portable hive, given time.

Many bees expanded into the box in just a couple of days. I caulked in the old holes in the wall where the bees originally entered, to encourage full use of the new bee condo. Traffic into the new home seemed to constantly increase.

Every month or so, Bruce came to check, but he could never nab the queen, which was essential.
For several weeks, I updated a few of the nearby tenants on our endeavor. But Bruce ran out of steam, I think. By early fall, I hadn't seen him in a while, and noticed one day that the bee traffic was down (which it always was when temperatures dropped; 45 F was the bottom threshold for bee activity). Way down. A few bees still poked around the wall beneath the box, but none used the round drill-hole that was the main door. I'd lately found a roof leak originating from the hive as well, so I was ready to get closure. It was a cool day, so I just lifted the hive lid.

It was full, not of honeycomb or bees, but of black, webby crud with a sort of rotten grain smell. Total lack of bees. I picked up the whole hive, a stack of four interlocked boxes with wood slats inside. Only buggy rot. Survivors still came and went into the wall; an angry drone or two swooped around me.

Soon after, I reset the concrete wall cap and mortared it into place. There were still a few bees staying on task, so I set two little lengths of tubing into the mortar to allow entry.

Here you can see a couple of bees, one with fat pollen sacks hanging on her back legs.
At last check, a few bees still persist here, so I assume the queen still lives, but the overall colony seems weaker than ever.

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