Volume VIII, No. 2, Winter 1980
FINDING AND CUTTING WILD BEE TREES
By Melinda Stewart and Linda Lee
With a loud crack that resounded through the quiet timber, the old oak tree slowly fell to the ground. When it hit, the hollow trunk burst open revealing what we had come for. The abundant supply of honey, golden and glistening, slowly dripped onto the dried leaves. Quickly we caught the honey from the leak with our hands. The honey that these wild bees had produced tasted very sweet and strong.
Wrapped in the excitement of cutting our first wild bee tree, we momentarily forgot about the bees, but soon their angry protests reminded us. Buzzing around our heads, they tried to protect their hive by scaring us. The smokers were quickly brought out to help this situation, and the smoke soon quieted the bees, enabling us to get a closer look at the hive and their comb.
Inside the hollow section of the trunk we could see the many layers of comb. Each layer had thousands of geometrically exact cells, and each had its own fascinating color. The wax of the outside layer was white because it was the newest section. Because the comb darkens with age and use, the different layers under the white layer were shades of yellow ranging from dark to bright.
Most of the comb contained capped cells full of honey. Honey is a combination of nectar and water which the bee ingests forming a carbohydrate. After mixing these, the bee regurgitates the honey into a cell. When the cell is full, it is capped with wax to seal and protect the honey.
The brood comb, used to produce the young, is the darker section because it is made from recycled wax that is used over and over. The bees place yellow pollen in each cell after the queen's eggs hatch into larvae. Then the workers cap the openings of the cells. After the larvae develop into young bees, they will eat the cap away, dry their wings and go to work.
Bees hatch out the major portion of their brood from mid-winter through spring. Production of young bees then slows through summer and autumn. The queen lays her eggs at a temperature of approximately ninety-one degrees. This level of warmth is brought about by the body temperature of the hovering worker bees.
Though life within the comb continues year around, the weather plays an important part in the production of young bees and honey. In the summer if the comb is allowed to get too hot, the eggs will be ruined, so the workers cool the comb by fanning their wings. Cold weather can also be a problem to the hive. During winter the bees do not hibernate, but they stay in the hive living off the honey they produced the summer before. When the temperature reaches or goes below fifty-seven degrees, they cluster together to conserve heat, and if the temperature goes below fifty degrees, they lose the power to fly. During cold times the workers cluster around the comb and the queen to keep both warm. Because the bees continuously rotate from the outer layer of the cluster into the middle, there is no freezing of the outer layer.
The workers have other jobs besides keeping the hive warm. Several workers guard the entrance to the hive and when any kind of predator tries to enter, they will attempt to scare it away or sting it to death. Other workers have jobs such as building the comb, collecting pollen and caring for the larvae. Usually five or six workers are the queen's nurses that feed and care for her all the time.
The queen's purpose is to keep the hive organized, making sure enough honey is produced for the coming winter and deciding how large a brood to produce depending on the amount of food available and the size of the hive. When the queen sees that the brood is going to be too large or that she will die, she has the workers develop a new queen.
New queens are developed by feeding the larvae royal jelly after their cells have been expanded. When a new queen comes out of her cell, she will sting the other queens in their cells before they come out. Many times two or three queens will emerge at the same time, and they will fight until all but one dies. If all of the queens die in the fight, as sometimes happens, the workers either develop a new queen or they live without one. Without a queen, the hive becomes disorganized. The workers do not produce enough honey to feed the bees through the following winter and they will starve.
If the old queen is still in the hive when the new queen emerges, the new queen will take part of the hive and swarm to the place that the worker-scouts have picked as the new hive.
Usually the bees swarm only in the spring when they are crowded. But even after the bees are domesticated, they often swarm. "If you dare watch them when they swarm, you can try to get them in a hive," Burl Young explained. "If you beat on old tin pans or honk your horn or holler and yell, they'll tend to want to settle. A lot of times you can catch a swarm that's flying across the country."
After the new queen takes the hive over, she flies up in the air, the drones fly after her and mate with her in the air. The drone then dies. The queen will mate only once in her life. After mating, the workers drive the excess drones off because their only purpose is to mate and they eat a lot of honey. These drones soon starve.
One of the biggest problems for wild bees in recent years is the widespread use of herbicidal spray to clear the woods. There are fewer wild bee trees today because there are fewer hollow trees for bees to hive in and also the sprays poison the wood, killing the bees.
Though there are less wild bee hives, by no means are they extinct because they are constantly replenishing themselves when they swarm from their crowded wild hive or escape from man-made hives. People still cut the trees either to rob the hive of honey or get the bees to domesticate. In past years most people were interested only in the honey, but most people today are interested in getting the bees themselves.
We found several people who knew about the bee trees. Paul Odom, Stanley Wilson and Ray Flannery shared their knowledge with us. We also accompanied several men in capturing wild hives. Burl Young and his son cut a tree to retrieve a hive of bees which had previously escaped from his hives and had gone wild.
Mitch Morgan, Melvin Gregory and Gene Chapman salvaged a hive of bees from a fallen log. All of these men helped us stalk the wild bee.
The first thing is to find the bees. "You kids have heard the expression, 'the old bee line?'" Burl Young asked. "Well, that's how you track them. I use some sugar or a little honey to attract the bees. Then I watch the direction after they get loaded up. I trailed these for about a half mile."
"When a bee gets loaded," Ray Flannery said, "he'll just take off and go right straight to the tree after he's made a trip or two and knows where he's going. I generally use a syrup bucket to lure the bees with. I punch a few holes into it. I get the bees to working in that and when they come out, you can see right where they're going. You can watch them for a while, and they will go in a straight line to where you know the tree is that direction from you. Then go out there when there's a lot of bees in the bucket and just drop that lid over it. Have some holes in the lid so you won't smother the bees. Pick that bucket up and just carry it in a line the way them bees are going. Pick you a good open place with no timber where you can watch. Set that bucket down and take the lid off, and when the bees come out, they will just spiral and keep getting higher because they are lost. They don't know where they are. They are going so fast you can't watch them, but you just let them alone, and when they get started working steady and they know where they are, they'll just raise up out of that bucket and go in a straight line to the tree."
Paul Odom said, "To find a bee tree, we'd go off down in the river hills and catch a bee on water. When that bee would get his fill of water, he'd get up and take off. They just make a bee-line to that tree where they live. You can get a course on that, go down a little further, and pretty soon you'll find the tree if you have good eyes.
Usually after trailing the bees, you will find that they are in a tree or another sheltered place. In early morning after a rain many times in the vicinity of a bee tree you can hear the bees as they beat their wings around the comb to evaporate the water. Also most hollow trees have several dead limbs to help you spot them.
"I don't think there are any certain trees," Ray said. "You'll probably find more bees in oak trees but that's because there's more oak. Down in Arkansas I've seen them in big pines, and pines are hardly ever hollow. They find a hole and go into it. I've seen them going in the root of a tree. I got stung that way one time. I was out squirrel hunting and I found a bee tree. Boy, they was really working. There was a hollow root of the tree. My wife came down and was right in their line of flight. When a bee hit her it just stung her, too. They sometimes make hives in hollow logs and I've seen bees right out in the open with honey just hanging in the tree. I've also seen them in a concrete bridge on a highway in Kansas City."
Burl said, "I've found them in walnut trees and even cliffs and rocks. In the Bible they tell of bees under rocks. The bees don't prefer any special trees. They send scouts out before they swarm, and they look around and find these places, and then whenever they swarm, they get together and go there."
"I've had them come inside of my house," Stanley said. "There was a little hole by the back door where there had been an electrical wire. Somebody had cut it out before I moved in. I came home one day and the bees had moved in."
Many amateurs to beekeeping, like us, are terrified of being stung, so when we did go on the bee
hunt, the experienced people we talked to gave us some advice. "Don't fight the bees if they come
after you," Burl said. "If you don't frighten them or become frightened of them, they won't sting.
Lay your hand up there easy and if they get on it, don't fight them. They'll crawl all over. They
don't sting you when you don't fight them. They're like any other animal you know. When you're
friendly, they are. They're a little more sensitive than a cat or a dog. You just get a little sassy with
a cat or dog, and they'll move out away from you, and if you pet them, they have some way of
telling if you are fearful of them or if you're angry. They sense out all of your inner activities. You
fight them or tease them, and, boy, they're after you then. Let them know you understand them
just like you do with your cat or dog."
Some people prefer to clean the honey before using it, though it is not necessary. One way to clean it is to heat it slowly (not above 150°F.) until all the wax has melted. Then allow it to cool. The wax will rise to the top, trapping the impurities with it as it hardens. When the wax is firm, remove it and store the honey at room temperature. Heat will not harm the honey, but cold will cause it to turn to sugar. If this happens, put honey in container and heat in water. The sugar will dissolve.
It is a common belief that bees won't sting some people, but Ray doubted that. He said, "Now take myself. Bees aren't bad to sting me but they will sting me. Just don't pay any attention to the bees and don't make any big fast moves because here's the best way to think of it. If a bee flies up here and starts buzzing around your head, he isn't intending to sting you. A bee is like a wasp that comes straight to you. When he hits you right then, you're stung. He's got that tail ducked under when he flies out if he's going to sting you. I've been working out near the hive and not even hear a bee, not even know one was close to me, and directly one'd just bat me beside the head and leave the stinger sticking there. Bees are interesting things to fool with. You'd be surprised what they'll do."
Even when they did get stung, the men who had experience with handling bees were used to it. Their main concern when they were stung was that the bee would die afterwards. The long hollow tube of stinger has barbs that stick in its victim. Part of the bee's abdomen is pulled out when it flies off after stinging.
"See, here's the stinger in there right now," Burl showed us on the bee hunt when he got stung. "It's got a little bag on the end of it and if you go to take the stinger out, just scrape it out." Pulling out the stinger causes the bag to break, shooting the poison into the wound. "If you get stung," he added, "it's a good thing to have a lot of turpentine along. Just a little turpentine right on the sting takes all that fire out of it."
Another precaution to take while cutting the tree is not only to watch for the bees, but also to make sure you don't get too hot. Mitch Morgan became overheated while cutting a tree on a warm day when most of the bees were out collecting pollen. He wore heavy denim coveralls over his clothes and also his heavy veil and hat. The fallen log he was cutting was down in a ditch surrounded by brush which cut off the breeze. As he cut open the log, the heat that the clustered bees had collected inside radiated out from the hive. Mitch had already been stung five times, and because of the bites, the exertion of cutting, the heat of the protective clothing and the trapped heat from the hive, he became very dizzy and sat down. Though he kept warning us that he was going to pass out, we thought he was kidding. But we were convinced when he grew very pale. We helped him out of his veil and two men caught him just as he passed out.
People who work with bees use some type of protective clothing and equipment. On our hunt with Burl, we walked through the woods to the tree to which Burl had trailed the bees. We had to carry the equipment to the site and even in that short distance, the hive, chain saw, bee brushes, axes, smokers and the protective clothing were getting heavy.
The smokers were filled with smoldering burlap and cotton batting. The wooden bee hive was necessary because he was going to salvage the bees. It is also helpful to have a large spoon and bucket to use for getting the honey.
Some people wear gloves to protect their hands, and most people wear some type of veil, comprised of a wide brimmed hat and some type of fine mesh, usually nylon netting or screen wire. The mesh is attached to the brim of the hat all the way around, putting the seam at the rear. This keeps the bees away from the face and neck. Many people simply place a drawstring at the bottom of the mesh to gather it around the neck, but some more cautious people choose to sew the mesh to a shirt, keeping the bees from crawling down in their clothing.
The main disadvantage to wearing a veil is that it slightly limits your vision. As Mitch put it, "It's just like looking at a pretty girl through a window screen. You can't get the full picture."
Tying the bottom of pants tight around the ankles prevents bees from flying up and stinging legs, for many bees land on the ground when they are subdued by the smokers.
Cutting the tree at the right time of the year is important. Some people cut in late summer or fall, but this can kill the entire hive unless you are domesticating the bees, for if you rob the honey, they won't have enough food for the winter. Many people who cut in the fall to domesticate the bees either leave the honey with the hive or plan to feed the bees all winter. Most people cut in the spring or early summer so the bees will still have enough time to store honey for next winter. Some like to cut the tree on a cold day so the bees will be listless and not cause much trouble.
Others like to cut on a warm day so most of the bees will be out collecting pollen. Burl picked what he thought was the last cold day of spring to cut his tree when the bees would be more tractible.
When we were ready to cut, Burl first determined where the bees were entering. When cutting the tree, try to cut it so the side of the log with the opening doesn't hit the ground, so you can get to the log with saws and axes to open it up. Any woodsman knows how to make a tree fall in the desired direction by cutting a wedge in the trunk and driving a splitting wedge into the cut.
After the tree is cut, to find the section that contains the hive, cut halfway through the log in several spots with a saw. Then chop the top half of the log off with an ax, section by section, to reveal the comb.
"When you get to cutting in and busting out, the queen will take off and hide wherever she can," Burl said. "That's why you cut in at both ends. You try to head her off and trap her in the middle. If you lose the queen, you lose the bees. The queen looks just like a red wasp with short wings. She's bigger than the workers."
As Burl removed the comb with his bare hands, he tied it in the frames of the wooden hive he brought to house the bees. When he was putting the comb into the hive, he made a point to include as much of the larvae comb as possible, but also he made sure that there was plenty of honey for the bees to eat in their new home. He said, "The eggs will go ahead and hatch in the hive. The workers will make a new nest for the queen. She'll go ahead and lay eggs and they'll raise a brood. The rest of the workers will go ahead and harvest the pollen."
As he put the comb and buzzing workers in the wooden hive, he continuously searched for the queen until he found her. Without her, the other bees wouldn't go in the new hive, or shortly after entering, they would leave.
After filling the frames with comb, he put the lid on the hive and placed it with the mouth as close as possible facing the bees that stayed in the tree. He used the smoker to subdue the bees. The smoke overcomes the odor that the bees give off when they get excited. When he tapped on the top of the hive, the bees migrated toward the mouth and entered.
After most of the bees were in the hive, we gathered some of the excess honey from the log which the bees would not need, leaving the rest for the bees. As soon as they calmed down, they would gather up the spilled honey and store it in the new hive.
Burl left the hive on location for a week or two, until the bees were well settled and had moved all the honey into the new hive. Then he moved the hive closer to his house.
Once again another wild bee hive was domesticated. Through man and bee's history there has been a relationship in which man has sought the honey bees for their honey. But the bee has often managed to remain partially wild, escaping occasionally their manmade wooden hives at swarming time to live in the wild.
It is thought that the honey bee is not native but was first brought to America by Europeans. When they swarmed, these bees became the first wild bees of this continent. They slowly moved across the continent, staying about one hundred miles in front of the settlers. They were probably the first Europeans to occupy the rocky, hilly Ozarks in the days when the quiet forest life was interrupted only by the songs of birds and the calls of animals. The bees thrived because the open areas were filled with beautiful wild flowers and the wooded areas had an abundance of old hollow oaks.
These peaceful sounds of the woods were soon violated by the sounds of wagon trains and the railroad, as once again man closed in on the bee. He used the same process on these bees that his ancestors had used on the earlier generations of honey bees. But even after the recaptured bees were domesticated, they sometimes managed to find a way to escape to the wild when they swarmed.
The process still continues. Even today man is still stalking the wild bee.
The following eighteen photos illustrate step by step how to cut a bee tree and salvage the bees.
Even after bringing the bees home in their hive there is a chance the queen may leave and the bees
may swarm. This happened with one hive of domesticated bees. Because the weather had been so
dry and hot, there was a food shortage. The hive swarmed and sat as a group in a nearby tree
while scouts searched for a new place to hive.
The owner of the bees saw this happen. Wanting to save the bees he put a cloth sheet on the ground under the swarm and shook the branch. The bees fell on the sheet and after he placed the hive near the sheet he tapped on it. The noise attracted the bees and they went back to their home. There is a chance that they will leave again but if the owner watches closely he will be able to go through the same procedure and save the hive again.
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