“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert, published the first Monday of each month.
Several years ago, at just this time of year, I had to go back East for a few months of work. When I returned home to the Ranting Hill, which I missed mightily while I was away, I noticed plenty of changes. Great horned owls had taken up hunting perches on the peaks of my roof and had pretty well cleaned out the local population of packrats and ground squirrels. My native shrubs had survived, though they were cropped by black-tailed jack rabbits. It was clear from scat and prints that both mule deer and pronghorn had grazed our property regularly. But the most obvious difference was that a thousand honeybees were buzzing around the eaves at the southwest corner of our house. Honeybees are unusual here in the high desert. Although we do have some forage plants, including snowberry, rabbitbrush, a few wild mustards, and several types of Wyethia, we just don’t have enough year-round forage to make this severe desert environment very appealing to your average honeybee. I hadn’t seen a thousand bees total in a decade on the Ranting Hill, so it was clear that something was out of the ordinary.
Upon closer inspection, the bees were going in and out of a small hole in the eaves where they adjoined the stucco exterior wall. When I called the local extension agent, she immediately asked “Did you spray them yet?” When I replied that I had not she seemed comforted, and then asked “Are they still swarming? That is, are they in a big clump? A swarm of bees can be captured and moved pretty easily.” I explained that instead the bees were flying in and out of the house. “Well, you’re talking structural removal, then. Hopefully you can do a cut out but you might have to do a trap out. Pest control guys are clueless on this stuff, and most beekeepers don’t want the hassle unless they can get an easy score on a swarm. Big Dan’s your man on this.”
Next I called Big Dan—apparently a legend among local bee freaks—who asked “Spray yet?” and “Still swarming?” before patiently posing a number of other questions, and finally agreeing to come out that afternoon to try to help me. Now let me admit straightaway that as a desert rat I don’t know diddly about bees or beekeeping. But somehow I pictured Big Dan as a dude who would step down from an F-350 looking like an astronaut in his fancy bee fighting gear. Instead, a tiny, ancient, hatchback Honda civic rolled up, and out of it rose a man who was not only tall and large but also graced with an immense, bushy red beard, and a long braid of red hair trailing down the middle of his back. He was costumed not in studly bee wrangling gear, but rather in sandals, brown cargo shorts, and a brightly tie-dyed T-shirt with a swirl pattern. He wore small, black-rimmed glasses that were so nerdy as to be completely incongruous with his hippyfied look. Big Dan looked like a red-haired version of Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, but only if Garcia had also been your local librarian. He responded “I’d be honored” when our then-four-year-old daughter asked if she could call him “Dan Dan the Big Bee Man,” and my own thought in that moment was that this guy was a high desert original—just the kind of character I missed so much while I was back East.
Big Dan was a soft spoken man, a mild giant who clearly had a deep feeling for the miracle that is the simple honeybee. He had the sensibility of a teacher, and he taught me a hundred things about bees while going calmly about his work. First Dan climbed my ladder, right up into the cloud of bees, and used a stethoscope to listen to various spots on the eaves and walls of the house. From this he diagnosed that the bees were not hived up in the eaves, where he could have done a “cut out” by sawing open the soffit and physically removing the nest. Instead, the bees were somewhere up inside the interior walls of the structure, and thus would require a full-blown “trap out.” When I asked for an explanation, Big Dan agreed to trade one for a good beer. So first we drank and talked beer—it turned out that Dan was not only a microbrewer but also a beer competition judge of some repute—and then he turned to describing a trap out.
“A trap out takes eight weeks, sometimes more,” he began. I think he noticed my grimace. “Alternatively, you can poison the bees, risk spreading colony collapse to other hives, and leave 50,000 dead bees in your wall. The rotting smell won’t last more than a month, but the comb and honey left behind will attract ants, wax moths, and mice. When July comes, you may notice honey seeping through your walls.” I fetched another pair of porters and asked him to continue. “In a trap out, we first seal all the entrances to the hive except one. Then we cover that one door with a long, funnel-shaped screen, with the tapered end pointing away from the house. Bees will come out of the cone to go forage, but when they come home they won’t be able to find their way back into the tube. Near the small end of the cone we put a ‘Nuc box’, which is a secondary hive with about five frames of brood comb, cells with eggs and larvae, and of course a queen and a bunch of bees. When the foragers can’t find their way back into the hive inside your house, they’ll give up and join the secondary colony in the Nuc box. It takes a long time because you have to wait for the colony’s full cycle to turn. First the foragers and drones will end up in the Nuc box, but then the brood that’s already in your wall has to hatch and develop to foraging stage before they’ll be ready to fly out and end up joining the secondary colony. It takes time.”
“Yeah, but what about all that pest-attracting honey that’ll still be inside the house?” I asked. “Here is the true beauty of the trap out,” Dan continued. “Once the colony in your wall has failed, the bees adopted into the secondary colony will have no loyalty to it. At that point we remove the one-way cone and let the bees go back inside your house!” I told him I’d need one more beer to grasp why I’d want to allow what would now be 60,000 or even 80,000 bees free access to my house. But Dan was evangelical about the elegance of the trap out. “Bees in the Nuc box will fly into your walls and rob out every last bit of wax and honey, transferring it to the new colony. They’re thorough! Because there’s no telling where inside your house the hive is, this is the only way to leave your place clean. So, what’ll it be?” “Trap out for sure,” I answered. When can we start?”
Without saying a word, Dan set his porter down on the stone wall, cracked a wide, gentle grin, and walked over to his Honda. He opened the hatchback and lifted out a bright white hive box, carried it back by the eye bolt in its top, and set it down next to my beer. The humming and buzzing emerging from that box was so loud that it seemed to be vibrating. Dan then strapped on a tool belt and ascended the ladder, climbing twenty feet up into a cloud of bees. He wore no veil or protective gear, and I could see bees crawling on his shoulders and head, and even gathering in his bushy, red beard. Dan stayed aloft for a half hour, caulking holes and patiently constructing and attaching the cone that would guide the bees out of the house and prevent them from reentering it. He also screwed a large hook into the wooden eaves, and attached to it a heavy-duty carabiner. He then descended the ladder, lifted the white hive box, climbed back up again, and hung the hive by snapping the carabiner through the eye bolt on the box. Next he stapled the narrow end of the cone to the face of this dangling hive, so that bees exiting our house would be sure to discern the alternative colony. Finally, he removed the long, rectangular block that had kept the bees bottled up in the Nuc box. When he came down the ladder for the last time, Dan was wearing a wide smile beneath which flowed his flame red beard, now with at least a dozen bees crawling through it.
Eryn and the girls and I soon came to love having the bees around, and we watched their patterns every day for weeks. We’d observe the foragers emerge from the cone early in the day, return laden with pollen in the afternoon, and circle the funnel in an attempt to find a way back in. That failing, they would beard on the outside of the cone for an hour or two before giving up and joining the growing secondary colony in the suspended hive box. After some weeks the traffic subsided, and we knew the brood in the wall colony was maturing and preparing to forage. Eventually a torrent of bees resumed, and we had several more weeks of the pleasure of observing their daily missions before bees once again ceased emerging from the cone.
After a week of this inactivity, Big Dan came out to the house again. He drank some stout, removed the trap cone, and watched with satisfaction as bees from the hanging hive reentered the house in droves. I confess that I didn’t find this reversal of the bee stream consoling, though I tried to imagine the alternative of having honey exude from the walls of my house. After a few more weeks the bee activity once again stopped, and Dan reckoned that the house hive was robbed clean and the new colony was settled and happy. He came out to the house a third time, hoisted a few IPAs, and then climbed up the ladder. He sealed the bees’ sole entry hole to the house, blocked the entrance to the hive box, and climbed down carefully with what was now a heavy load. Opening the hatchback of his Honda, he lifted the colony in. There were still quite a few bees clinging to Dan and to his box, and as he drove away in his Honda, waving to the girls, I could see him smiling, and appearing not to notice—or at least not to mind—the honeybee that was attached to his forehead.
The trap out was a wonderful reminder that sometimes the best solution to a confrontation with nature is to work with, rather than against, the problem. Bees in my house was the problem, but it turned out that bees in my house was also the elegant and effective solution to it. Instead of a wall full of pesticide-soaked, rotting bees and rancid honeycomb, I had clean walls and a story to tell. But it was even better than that, because I learned so much about bees, and was able to give my young daughters the experience of living with their own “pet” colony—even if it was twenty feet in the air. I also had the pleasure of meeting a fine high desert character in Dan Dan the Big Bee Man, who later gifted me a jar of the sweet honey produced within the walls of my home.
Michael P. Branch is Professor of Literature and Environment at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he teaches American literature and environmental studies. He has published five books and many articles on environmental literature, and his creative nonfiction has appeared in Utne Reader, Orion, Ecotone, Isotope, Hawk and Handsaw, Whole Terrain, and other magazines. He lives with his wife and two young daughters at 6,000 feet in the western Great Basin desert of Nevada.
Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.