Feral honey bee colony near the Nut Tree Airport before its removal. (Kathy Keatley Garvey photo)

Rescuing A Feral Nest, After Collapse

By: Kathy Keatley Garvey

A collapsed feral honey bee colony in a hollowed-out Eucalyptus tree in a secluded area near the Nut Tree Airport, Vacaville, now has a permanent home: the Bohart Museum of Entomology at the University of California, Davis.

 The colony, sheltered from the elements and located in an unpopulated area, buzzed with activity in June but collapsed in late September. 

“We’re really glad to get this and it will be a wonderful educational opportunity,” said Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum and professor of entomology at UC Davis. “Not many people have seen a feral honey bee colony and we haven’t seen one as nice as this. Many thanks to the folks who saved it so carefully for us.”

It all came about as the result of Karen Cometta Shepard of Vacaville walking her dogs in the area. On one spring walk, her friend’s eight-year-old daughter, Madison Marshall, noticed something unusual. “What are those stripes in the tree?” she asked.

The stripes were a feral honey bee colony.

Shepard posted a photo on a community Facebook page but kept the location a secret to avoid disturbances. Some readers clamored for the bees to be destroyed. Some worried they were Africanized. Some wanted the honey. Shepard shared the location in late June with the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, which led to the permanent home at the Bohart Museum. (See photos of viable colony at http://ucanr.edu/blogs/blogcore/postdetail.cfm?postnum=21427)

“Luckily, the hive is so hard to see and protected,” Shepard said. “I’ve walked by that area twice a week with my dog for the last five years and if it weren’t for my little friend, Madison, I probably would never have seen it.” 

The colony successfully escaped public view and predation. Last June Extension apiculturist emeritus Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology weighed in on the find and said the colony was a good thing; “the bees are out pollinating our fruits and vegetables” and it’s in unpopulated area and “not bothering anyone, “ he pointed out.

In September, however, bees began abandoning the hive, and by early October, the colony was no more. One speculation: Varroa mite infestation and the bees left to find a better home?  (A basketball-sized swarm appeared on a nearby tree.)

The Eucalyptus tree, on Solano County land, was one of the dead, dying and hazardous trees removed through a county contract with Atlas Tree and Landscape, Santa Rosa. The removal began in mid-September, according to Robert Arndt, building trades mechanic at the Nut Tree Airport, and new trees will be planted.

Solano County Board of Supervisor John Vasquez of Vacaville said he’s glad that the feral honey bee colony is being used for educational purposes and “is an opportunity for the public to see what one looks like.”

Through arrangements with Arndt and project leader Jose Garcia of the Atlas Tree and Landscape, the section containing the collapsed feral colony was cut and saved Oct. 4. It was then trucked to the Bohart Museum where it is being prepared for display. Thousands of visitors are expected to see it.

The feral bee colony produced some five feet of honey comb in the hollowed-out tree. “That could have been for one season,” Mussen said. The average honey bee colony in California yields about 60 to 100 pounds of honey per season. Many beekeepers remove 60 pounds and allow 30 pounds to carry over through the winter.

The Bohart, open to the public Monday through Thursday, from 9 a.m. to noon and from 1 to 5 p.m., in Room 1124 of the Academic Surge Building on Crocker Lane, is the home of nearly eight million insect specimens. Admission is free. The Bohart Museum hosts special open houses on specific weekends, which are free and open to the public. See schedule at http://ucanr.edu/blogs/blogcore/postdetail.cfm?postnum=22066