Moving the Bees

Yesterday, I wrote about nuking the bees. Today, it’s moving the bees. My nuc started out on my daughter’s farm, 130 kilometres east of my home in Calgary. That’s over an hour’s drive, out on the prairie, away from the mountains. The farm is near the Snake (as in rattlesnake) River Valley. The Snake is not much of a river, more of a valley with ephemeral spasms of moisture. It’s especially dry this year. Snake River won’t wet the underbellies of many rattlers this summer. But that’s where the farm lies, and you can see its ideal ten acres of beekeeping workshops and sheltered bee spots in the photo above.

The bees. After Justin and Erika set up my new nuc, they stapled a screen across the small round hive entrance. When I moved bees in the past, I never used screens. But a lot of people do, so they’re probably effective. My nuc has one small hole as its only entrance, the rest of the box is solidly bee-tight. Stapling a wire mesh across the entrance helps keep bees safe during a trip. In the photo, you can see the screen barrier after we partially opened it at the nuc’s new home in town. When you move a hive, bees are confused for a few days. A small entrance slows them down and forces them to realize that they are in a new place. I may keep the entrance reduced all summer (unless the weather turns really hot). A small convoluted entrance protects against wasps that sneak into small colonies and kidnap bees.

When we move big loads of bees, commercial beekeepers usually leave hive entrances open. Entrance screens aren’t typical. If it’s a really short haul (less than ten or twenty kilometres), we like to move under the cloak of twilight when it’s cool and the bees aren’t interested in flying. Thirty or forty hives are loaded in half an hour. A short drive later, we quickly set the hives off the flatbed. For long hauls, a bee net covers the load. Moving without a net is probably illegal almost everywhere, so if you’ve got a bunch of bees, buy a nice big fluorescent net.  The one shown here covers 400 double-story colonies. It cost me a few hundred dollars and weighs 100 pounds. There are cheaper and lighter ones available.  Dealers will give you details. I bought mine custom-made from A.H. Meyer in South Dakota.

A trick.  So, here we are – 5,000 bees in a little camo nuc box. I worry about loose screens and dislodged hive lids, so here’s my trick: a large black garbage bag. Big bags perfectly encapsulate a single-story hive. I’ve stuffed dozens of colonies into such plastic bags, usually without screening or closing the hive entrance. It keeps the colony quietly in darkness, and keeps every bee inside the bag if they venture out of their box. The only caveat is a concern about heat. When I moved hives this way, it was always around 20C/70F or cooler. But when I toted this nuc on its 130-kilometre journey, I turned on the A/C in the van because it was over 27C/80F outside. I kept the van’s air conditioning set at 18C and the hive was kept shaded. Too much heat can be a killer when it comes to transporting bees.

A 66×85 cm (26×33.5 inch) 1.2 mil plastic bag perfectly swallows the nuc. The bees stay dark and bees which escape the screen (there were a few) stay inside the bag enroute to their new home, rather than crawling into the drivers’ nose. (Use an extra-large sack for bigger equipment.)  I don’t do this with hives taller than singles.

I’m not sure how much air bees need when they are sightseeing. Putting living thing into a plastic bag should make you feel queasy.  In the past, I never worried about oxygen for the bees on the big loads, not even for the colonies buried deep inside a big semi-truck load of hives, traveling for two or three days. My trip with the nuc-in-the-bag took two hours from bagging to release. There must be some oxygen requirements, but I’m not sure what they are. Recently, researcher Stefan K Hetz studied insect respiration. Here’s a piece from The American Physiological Society regarding his work:

. . . insects, which have a respiratory system built to provide quick access to a lot of oxygen, can survive for days without it.

The insect respiratory system is so efficient that resting insects stop taking in air as they release carbon dioxide, according to research by Stefan K. Hetz of Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany. This allows them to keep oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in balance. Too great a concentration of oxygen is toxic, causing oxidative damage to the insect’s tissues, just as it does in humans.

Bees consume large amounts of oxygen, and so it might be tempting to think they are panting – tiny inaudible pants. They are not, because they do not breathe through noses or mouths. Instead, insects draw in oxygen through holes in their bodies known as spiracles and pump the oxygen through a system of increasingly tiny tubes (tracheae) that deliver oxygen directly to tissues and muscles. Insects typically have a pair of spiracles for each thoracic and abdominal segment.

This system is much more efficient than the system that vertebrates evolved. Insects deliver much greater volumes of oxygen, in proportion to their size, than do mammals. They also deliver oxygen directly to the tissues, while vertebrates dissolve oxygen in blood, transport it to tissues, and then reconvert the oxygen to usable form.

“Insects are able to survive hypoxic environments,” explained Kirkton, the symposium chairman. “They can shut down and survive for hours or days. They have a low metabolic rate and can close their spiracles,” he said.

5,000 bees in a box

The bees survived two hours of bagged darkness with no audible complaints. At home, my 15-year-old was waiting for me. He off-loaded the hive. We started to peel off the bag while the nuc was still inside the parked van, but decided to leave it partly covering the box when we realized that some bees had found a way around the screen. Those strays stayed safely in the bag. We freed the nuc and the escapees, placing the hive in our yard.

Soon, the colony was quietly humming and comfortably settled.  The temporary lack of fresh air was not a problem and the van’s A/C kept the bees cool. If you are moving a single hive or two, as I did this week, consider the plastic bag.  It worked for me.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
This entry was posted in Bee Biology, Beekeeping, Commercial Beekeeping, Hives and Combs, Tools and Gadgets and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Moving the Bees

  1. Emily Scott says:

    UK beekeepers commonly use ratchet straps to keep the lids in place – do you ever use those? Nice that you are raising a new generation of beekeepers!


  2. Claire says:

    This is really helpful, thank you. I am taking one of my hives to a friend’s garden in a neighbouring village so it is good to know some tips for moving them.


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