• Jessica Evans

She's the bee's knees!

First we suit up. Long socks, then unflattering white overalls fitted with zips and Velcro, then gum boots. One of my socks has a hole over my big toe. “Imagine I get stung there!” I say, imagining a wily runaway creeping down the side of my leg. “They shouldn’t get in there,” Perry says, quelling my fears. Perry is a bee keeper. She runs a business for bee-friendly hive removals. That’s what we’re doing today.

Perry has always loved bees, but she's only been beekeeping for about two years. Photo by Perry Richardson.

“My first worry,” she says, remembering her first-ever hive removal, “was ‘oh my gosh I’m going to get stung on the face.” A pretty normal fear I’d say. “You’re hyper-aware of being stung when you start.” And I am, even though I'm not the one getting wrist-deep in stinging insects.

"I feel a little like an astronaut"

We’re fully kitted out (barring the typical protective veils) when we get into her little white Suzuki Jimny, the back full of her equipment. And we head out into the unknown. We get there after a short drive.

“Let me put your veil on.” The sounds of zipping and a feeling of military preparation wash over me. With the huge veil adding to the perceived size of my head I feel a little like an astronaut, in clunky white uniform from head to toe, bracing myself for the harsh elements of… a suburban garden.

Here I am in the bee suit. Perry says her personal hive-removal motto is

"rather safe than sorry". Photo by Perry Richardson.

Today’s mission is a hive removal from an electrical box on the unsuspecting pavement of residential Makhanda.

Bees choose enclosed spots with a small opening in which to build a hive. They need enough space to control air circulation and temperature, and a small enough opening to protect them from the elements, Perry explains. She’s been called out to a meat locker, an office with suspiciously buzzing floorboards, and most commonly, ceilings, cupboards and garages where, over time, swarms have been quietly building their empires, sometimes for as long as months.

Perry removed this hive from a ceiling. Photo by Perry Richardson.

This particular location was sweet for the bees. It was so inconspicuous that humans only noticed it when opening the box to check the meter or something. Imagine the flabbergast looks, the gasps, the awkward “oh”, as you’re suddenly confronted with bees upon bees upon bees crawling over the wiring and each other.

As soon as we arrive, Perry notifies the tenant of the property. “I just advise that you stay away from this area because I’ll be disturbing the bees. We should take about 45 minutes.”

"I can smell the burning grass"

Next is the smoker. Perry has pet chinchillas that hide out in her home in the darkness and aircon all day. She uses the left over hay from their enclosures as fuel for the smoker. Before she’s even opened the smoker to fill it, I can smell the sweet aroma of burning grass that has stained the cannister. Some people use old newspaper or egg boxes, but Perry is concerned about the chemical fumes that come off that stuff when it combusts. “I just want them calm; I don’t want them sick.”

Smokers chase bees out because it makes them think there's a fire approaching, threatening the hive. They get into panic mode and hurriedly gobble up as much honey as their little tummies can handle, in preparation for a big move. Photo by Jessica Evans.

After a few minutes of toiling with the fussy grass, the smoker eventually gets going and the smell of veld burning begins to manifest. “We just want to let them know we’re coming,” she explains, while she pumps a puff or two of smoke into the box through a small hole.

Then she gets her equipment ready: a horsehair brush to gently brush any inconveniently placed bees; a specially-made knife for removing honey comb from its base; and a wooden hive box, with removable layers of wiring on which she can place the comb when relocating the hive.

The style of hive box Perry uses is pretty simple. It consists of a number of wooden frames like this one. The frames are fitted with a few wires going length-wise. The honey comb being relocated is simply pushed into the wires. Photo by Jessica Evans.

The moment comes. It’s time to open the electricity box. There’s a stillness in the atmosphere, an anxious anticipation. She lifts the lid and… nothing. The comb is there, but the bees are gone. No loud, adrenalin-inducing, collective humming. No endless mass of bees.

Bees are what all doomsday preppers dream of being. They’re ready for an emergency evacuation at any time. At the earliest hint of danger, they gobble up as much honey as they can and they leave. They begin new lives at a new, hopefully safer location.

"Bees are what all doomsday

preppers dream of being"

Yesterday it rained. It rained the intense, beating rain that soaks into the ground and leaves it soft even days later. The inside of the box is sodden, and the honey comb waterlogged, eggs and all. They were flooded out.

She’s disappointed. And worried. An empty hive here means a hive will develop elsewhere nearby. Her best choice, even though the chances don’t favour it, is to remove the hive anyway, take it to her base and hope the newly homeless colony can smell it and moves back in.

So she sets about cutting the comb from the substrate of the lid, and she places each little chunk on the wire-strung slots that will slip into the hive box.

A few bees were hanging around. They were either stragglers from the hive that left, or poachers from a different hive, hoping to find some abandoned honey. Photo by Jessica Evans.

It’s sweltering in these damned suits, but Perry calls my attention to something special that I will probably treasure forever – a young bee emerging from its cell (a process called eclosion).

The queen lays eggs in the neat compartments of the honey comb (called cells). Then the little cells are sealed and the eggs grow and hatch and the larvae pupate until they’re almost fully-formed bees - as you’d see revelling in spring’s sweetest offerings. At this point they’re just a little soft.

When the bee is ready to begin its life in the hive, it chews through the seal over its cell and is met by nursing bees who feed and look after it and teach it how to be a bee.

The young bee gets familiar with its new world. Photo by Jessica Evans.

There, on this hand-sized chunk of honeycomb, is this small, big-eyed, curious head, nibbling its way out of its cosy ‘womb’ of sorts. It leaves all it ever knew behind, and welcomes the new world with inquisitive antennae.

"I believe you should look after

every single little life"

Sadly, this young, still-soft bee won’t survive. Without other bees teaching it how to bee, it will die.

After collecting the entirety of the remaining hive, Perry starts packing away. The last thing the Jimny’s little boot is waiting for is the hive box. Before closing it, she checks the ground, unsure.

“Can I help?”

“No,” she says, leaving the word hanging. “I’m just looking for any more baby bees that may be on the ground,” she explains, while she tenderly collects one or two on her fingers and leads them to the hive box.

I ask why she bothers.

She says she’d rather have them comfortable and surrounded by their own hive whilst in the throes of death. “I believe you should look after every single little life and I want to be responsible about that,” she tells me later.

Proud of another (somewhat) successful hive removal. The box here is the hive box. It's just a wooden box, but inside are all the wired slats with the honeycomb and some bees. The entrance to the box has been taped over so the bees can't escape. Photo by Jessica Evans.

She closes the boot, and with that, Perry and I head back to her home.

While most people get into their car and worriedly contemplate the likelihood they left the stove on, Perry worriedly contemplates whether or not the hive is closed, or ventilated enough. “It really is something when you have a whole hive in your car with you and you’re transporting them,” she’s telling me.

“You’re busy driving along the road and you hit a little bump and you realise ‘oh gosh, have I secured the lid on correctly? I’ve got 40 000 bees in my car!’” We laugh and she tells me she can be seen driving fully kitted from a hive removal sometimes. Imagine that.

"I've got 40 000 bees in my car!"

The yard where Perry parks her car is littered with bee stuff: a black metal rack for keeping hives and honey traps; two wooden dividers to separate the hives she temporarily keeps there from the rest of her home; and a few extra wired slots for the hive box.

A squashed piece of now unused honeycomb rests on the top of the hive box. Bees make honey comb out of wax. Hives consist of layers and layers of honey comb. Photo by Jessica Evans.

“You can take your suit off now,” she says, and I feel a bit of tit for waiting around in it. I peel the suit off, and the cool 29 degree air sticks to my skin immediately. Perry takes off her propolis-stained suit and packs things away. Propolis is a yellowy substance bees make out of tree sap. They use it as “concrete” in their hive-building.

"I'm distracted by the endearing yelling"

She tells me about the best weather for hive removals and I don’t listen. I’m distracted by the endearing yelling emanating from her two toy poms as they wait, almost unbearably, for their mom to open the damned gate. (If you’re curious, the best weather for hive removals is cool weather because the bees tend to stay in the hive and don’t get left behind).

A healthy natural hive (one not tended to by a beekeeper) is home to about 40 000 bees! Photo by Perry Richardson.

Perry only really began researching bees in 2016. Her casual research nurtured a love for the stripey insects, and eventually she bothered a local beekeeper enough for him to agree to mentor her (her words). She’s been doing professional beekeeping ever since.

“You can get a good indication of your environment by looking at your bees and how your bees are coping.”

She’s studying entomology and her main interest is in the effects of our way of living. “You can get a good indication of your environment by looking at your bees and how your bees are coping.”

Perry wants to put Africa on the map with her impending research. When it comes to the science of bees, we know a lot about Northern hemisphere honey bees, but not so much about elsewhere.“I’d like to look into research that puts apiology [the study of bees] and apiculture [bee keeping] into a South African context.” A noble aspiration.

Perry’s love for bees reaches far more than just scientific knowledge of them. As if the love in her facial expressions isn't tangible enough Perry even has art featuring bees and honeycomb in her bedroom.

This is the young bee that eclosed before us. Photo by Jessica Evans.

“Number one I think they’re cute,” she says, her smile deforming her words. “They are so adorable, especially when they sit there and they clean their little face and when they enter their little hive with their little pollen baskets.”

Her eyes are as open as they could ever be. Her eyebrows high with emphasis and passion. She talks with an unwavering clarity. I can tell. She really does care for “every single little life”.

If you have a hive that needs removing, or if you'd like to know more about Perry's business, check it out here.

Everything she does is bee-friendly, and if your hive has any honey, you get to keep it!

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©2018 by Bite-sized Sci | Jessica Evans