South Dakota family specializes in rescuing honeybee hives

Farm Forum

DEADWOOD – In the early evening of a recent Friday, a black sport utility vehicle turned onto Interstate 90 East from U.S. Highway 85, leaving Deadwood with a rather unorthodox group of passengers: about 70,000 live, buzzing honeybees.

They were in a large cardboard box, methodically sealed with tape, sitting in the back of the car next to a large barrel filled nearly to the brim with white plastic trash bags full of honeycomb, oozing with honey – the remnants of the bees’ former home, which the car’s driver, Bill Clements, and its front seat passenger, his daughter Dustie Clements, removed from behind a wall on the top floor of the historic Smith Apartments in Deadwood.

Members of the Clements family are honeybee rescuers, beekeepers, honey processors and honeybee advocates. The elder Clements is president of the ”Wannabee Hobby Beekeepers” Black Hills area beekeeping club. And as acting president, Clements gets calls about removing and relocating honeybee colonies regularly – sometimes multiple times a week in the summer months. Clements calls these bee relocation missions ”hive rescues.”

The Smith Apartments hive rescue began like any other, with a phone call. Cody Dercievich, whose father, Greg Dercievich owns the historic apartment complex, contacted Clements after some of the building’s elderly residents voiced concern about the bee population around the building.

Clements came out not knowing exactly what kind of flying, stinging insects he’d encounter. What he found were honeybees – two hives, to be specific; one in a large tree next to the sidewalk in front of the building, and one roughly four stories up behind the wooden siding on the backside of the building. As a beekeeper and fierce bee advocate, Clements engaged Dercievich in a conversation about honeybees.

”We talked about honeybees and how they’re so important for our food sources, and that got him thinking about how he wanted to save the bees and save the honey,” Clements told the Black Hills Pioneer. Clements told Dercievich there wasn’t much he could do about the small hive inside the tree out front, but he could safely remove and relocate the entire bee colony from the back of the building as well as save almost all of the honey. An appointment was set for the hive rescue.

Clements and his daughter brought their entire hive rescue kit with them to the operation: two beekeeper suits, three netted beekeeper hats (the third for Dercievich), two pairs of leather gloves, two pairs of heavy boots, a hand-held bee smoker, and a shop vacuum with a custom attachment, a white plastic bucket modified by Clements specifically for this particular mission.

”A regular shop vac has too much power, and it will kill the bees,” he said. ”We put this bucket contraption on there, and then we drilled holes on the extension and then taped them until we had perfect vacuum, which was just enough to pull the bees in. And the screen in the bucket kept them from getting sucked into the vacuum itself.”

Dercievich and Clements both have a background in construction, so cutting bits of wooden siding off the nearly 100 year old structure with a circular saw, 30 feet up on tubular scaffolding, didn’t faze either of them.

The operation began at roughly 2:30 p.m., about the same time some ominous looking storm clouds drifted over Deadwood, producing staccato rain the rest of the afternoon. Dercievich sawed free rectangular sections of the old wooden siding and then carefully removed them with pry bars while Clements pumped smoke into the hive to calm its tens of thousands of residents.

When bees encounter smoke they begin eating their honey voraciously, filling up with as much as they can in case they have to move the colony to escape a potential fire, Clements said. This keeps the bees occupied, which in turn keeps them from stinging.

With each section of siding removed, Clements exchanged his smoker for his modified shop vacuum, gently but effectively sucking great swaths of bees into the screened bucket. With each layer of honeycomb de-bee’d, Clements cut away that waxy section and handed it down to his daughter, who placed the combs (and all of the honey within) in white plastic trash bags for safekeeping. Clements would then switch back to the vacuum to collect the next pulsing layer of bees.

It went on like that for three hours. By about 5:30 p.m., the bee rescue team had removed the brunt of the roughly 6-foot by 3-foot hive, the vast majority of its residents – which Clements estimated at about 70,000 bees – and most of the honey. The team was also fairly certain they’d captured the queen.

Capturing the queen bee is paramount in relocating a hive. If the queen weren’t captured along with the rest of the bees, the few remaining bees would start to rebuild the hive in the exact same spot, Clements said.

With the job finished, the team placed the several white plastic bags, heavy with honeycomb, bees wax and honey, into a barrel and transferred the bees from the screened bucket to a large cardboard box, which they carefully taped shut to minimize the potential of a bee leak in the back of their car. Clements said no bees got out on the drive home to Piedmont, but that the ride would certainly have been interesting to those that don’t regularly perform hive rescues like he and his fellow beekeeping club members do.

”There was kind of a loud roar (in the car),” he said. ”That cardboard doesn’t seal it (the sound) very well; you’re just kind of hoping that they don’t find a way out.”

As for the honey, Clements has yet to weigh it, but he estimated that they pulled about 100 pounds of it out of the wall of the Smith Apartments. Organic honey like this, once processed, goes for about $8 a pound. Clements processes honey by hand at home, selling the finished product directly to local farmer’s markets.

Clements has been keeping bees, and performing hive rescues, for about four years now, and he says he’s only been stung about 10 times. Each time he was being careless.

”People are just scared of bees, and sometimes when they come across a hive, or a cluster of bees in a tree, they’ll try to kill them with (bug) spray,” he said. ”They aren’t just killing a bunch of stinging insects, they’re killing a whole population that’s really doing a good thing. Bees actually pollinate about a third of our food crops – there’s other pollinators out there, but bees do most of the work.”

Worldwide honeybee populations have been dropping steadily over the past several years – an estimated 31 percent of total worldwide honeybee colonies died in 2012 alone – due to the mysterious colony collapse disorder.

As for the Smith Apartments honeybees, they’re now happily rebuilding their hive on the Clements’ acreage near Piedmont.