Monday, February 28, 2011

Bee Removal Phase 3: The Box is Back

It took about eleven contiguous hours of work, but my screech owl nest box is back in business, and not as a bee hive.

The nest box had to be disassembled to properly clean all of the bee grunge out of it. That meant breaking it down into its major components: (1) the frame, which includes the back wall visible in the photos, (2) the fold-down front with integrated infrared entryway sensor assembly, (3) the side compartment with thermometer and perch, (4) the side camera compartment, and (5) the roof, which includes the ceiling-camera assembly. Components 1, 2 and 3 were thoroughly cleaned using a combination of a putty knife, a garden hose with a high-pressure nozzle on it, a bucket of soapy water, and a heavy-duty scrub brush. Spray, scrape, scrub with soapy water, rinse, repeat. The technique worked well, and—apart from the beeswax, which must be a permanent part of the wood at this point—provided the fastest and most effective cleaning of all the methods I used.

The roof component didn’t need cleaning, because the glass window, which separates its camera, infrared illuminators and other electronics from the interior of the nest box proper, kept the bees out. However, that window was the attachment point for most of the combs, so cleaning it took quite a bit of work. For that I used careful handling, hot water, dish soap, a putty knife, and a Scotch-Brite Heavy Duty Scour Pad. That did the trick and, after a few iterations, took every last trace of the comb off of the window. (As I would later learn, it also scratched the window, in a manner that was only evident when light hit it at just the right angle. Those scouring pads are like plastic sandpaper, so I should have guessed, but didn’t. Do not make this mistake yourself.)

Unfortunately, I couldn’t use the garden hose technique with the side camera compartment, because its interior wall, which was the part that needed cleaning, was only designed to keep out insects and owls. It wasn’t designed to be water-tight, so the garden hose technique, or any similar technique, would have leaked water into the electronics inside. So, I had to disassemble the compartment enough to take off its interior wall (which is how I access the internal electronics for modifications and repairs). Unfortunately, in this case, though it’s absolutely necessary in order to get good illumination, the infrared illuminator LEDs are integrated into the interior wall, so washing that wall would have meant pouring water over the LEDs and into all of their wiring. It’s all carefully insulated with heat shrink tubing, but I couldn’t help but wonder whether water finding its way into one of the stranded wires that join the LEDs in series would have caused a problem.

In any case, I started-off with the goal of cleaning the side camera compartment’s interior wall without disassembling anything. That almost worked. A couple of problems cropped-up, however. One was that I found that the bees had sealed the tiny gaps around, well, absolutely everything, including each LED where it projected through the wall. That meant that I could no longer use the small gap between the LEDs and the walls of the holes they stick out of to tweak their angles to optimize box lighting. Also, the bees found the other hole in the wall, the one that is covered with a screen to keep insects out (an especially good design decision under the circumstances, if I do say so myself) and is positioned directly in front of the microphone which is mounted further back in the compartment, thus providing a straight-line air path to the microphone. The bees, however, in their instinctive zeal to seal their hive, had descended into the hole and filled in every last gap in the screen. So, no direct air path, anymore. And no hole, for that matter. Finally, my efforts to get all traces of the bee comb off of the camera window, resulted in my using the same technique I thought had worked so well on the ceiling camera compartment’s window: the scouring pad. This time the pad not only scratched the window, but came close to fogging portions of the glass before I happened to look at the glass at just the right angle to see the scratches and noticed that I'd just ruined the window. (That’s when I went back and checked the ceiling camera compartment’s window and found that it was scratched to, though not nearly as seriously.)

At that point, cleaning the interior wall of the side camera compartment went from tedious to a huge time sink. I had to disassemble the interior wall into its five (or six) components, in order to replace the window. Fortunately, I’ve often made spares of owl box components, and in this case I had about six more windows of the same size on hand. Unfortunately, after finding them, cleaning one with great care, and sitting down to install it, I found that the hardware store glass cutting fellow had not made all of the windows to precisely the same dimensions, whereas I had routed into the wood a socket of precisely the right dimensions (and the first window I tried happened to fit). Now that the first window was history, I found that the other windows were a few millimeters too large to fit in the socket, and ripping the interior wall assembly apart completely so I could put the sheet of wood containing the window socket on my router table and fix the socket, wasn’t an appealing option. There ensued a period of careful, awkward work with a wood chisel until window no. 2 eventually fit.

With the interior wall already fully disassembled, I then took great care with a tiny pick to remove every bit of bee sealant (propolis) from the LED sockets and the microphone hole. After reassembling the whole interior wall, adjusting the LED angles, and making a few more cleaning passes to try to get every trace of bee gunk off of the aluminum walls, I cleaned an accumulation of dust out of the underlying camera compartment containing the camera, microphone, and the bulk of other electronics. Then I reinstalled its interior wall and carefully sealed it.

At long last it was time to put the whole box back together again. That went smoothly enough, and the nice, clean box with fresh bedding material, adjusted lighting, and the elegant new beeswax coating on its interior woodwork, was hoisted back into its mount in the nest box tree.

The box is ready and waiting, so now all I need is for my pair of owls (or some other desperate pair) to choose it as a nest site. It may be too late to attract an initial nesting attempt in this part of the country, but I’d blame myself mightily for not trying, so at least I’m off that hook. Now we’ll wait and see if owls appear sometime in March. Nest Box Cam’ followers, cross your fingers, knock on wood, etc., because I’m certain that I should have done all of this at least a month ago, and, at this late stage, we either need last year’s pair to prove that they’re highly dedicated to this nest site, or we need luck.

P.S. Now that I know how to kill invading bee swarms, I promise not to let the screech owl nest box be co-opted again. In the future, I’ll either have the swarm moved more-or-less immediately, or I’ll kill it shortly after arrival, before it can do any significant harm.


  1. Susan Gatlin5:23 PM CST

    Wowzer, what a lot of work. Hope we have good results from your hard labor. Thanks

  2. Alison in Indiana8:34 PM CST

    I was thinking you have to seal off the box yourself after the owlets move on, and before the bees decide to move in. Hate to think of you killing off a swarm of pollinators and honey-makers.
    Are you sure you cannot find a bee-keeper to take over the swarm when it appears to take up residence?

  3. Alison, You may be right about having to seal the box. I'd like to avoid that, so that an owl could still use it as cache site, or as a place to hide from predators, or bad weather. However, a box full of bees is no more useful to owls than a sealed one, so the impact in practice (assuming bee residency is now almost inevitable) is no different - except that I can unseal a box come mating season a helluva lot faster than I can remove bees. So, as I said, you may be exactly right. (I'm still hoping to find a third alternative, but am not rich with optimism on that possibility.)

    It definitely is a shame to kill off a swarm of pollinators and honey-makers. As I've said, I have nothing against honey bees (though I have a preference for bumble bees, if anyone knows how to attract a hive of them). Honey bees took over my very first (non-camera equipped) nest box after its second year of service. I built the prototype of my current nest box that year, and let the bees keep the old low-tech nest box. That hive lived six years, and took excellent care of the nest box. They never caused me any trouble, even when I mowed the lawn directly beneath them, and I returned the favor by leaving them to their business (while providing nearby water).

    However, something killed-off that hive, just as something killed-off last year's hive. This year is the first time I've ever killed a hive, and I didn't like any part of it. It was a matter of time-driven desperation.

    As to beekeepers, one did offer to come and deal with my bees (whether that meant killing them in some beekeeper approved way, or relocating them, I don't know). Unfortunately, that person was a friend with serious responsibilities of her own, who’d have to make 100 mile round-trip just to do me a favor. It seemed like too much to ask, and it seemed like synchronizing our schedules to make it possible would take time I had run out of.

    Sallie, the raptor rehabber, provided me with contact information for a friend of hers who might have either been able to deal with the bees herself, or find me someone who would. In the latter case, there was likely to be a fee involved. In the former case, I again would have had to synchronize schedules with someone and take advantage of their generosity, even as I was, in my view, already overdue to solve the bee problem. (And, as the owls aren't nesting in the box yet, there's no certainty that I dealt with the bees in time as it is.)

    In the case of all other beekeepers, I was assured that their services would cost me, and making the arrangements with them would have been even more difficult.

    I also had a nagging doubt about the fate of the bees, regardless. I seem to recall reading that relocating wild hives in the winter just isn’t done. I think that was because bringing their store of honey along (which is all that keeps them alive through the winter) and getting it installed in a new hive, isn't practical - wild combs don't fit into people's nice, neat artificial hives. So the wild bees just become a burden for the beekeeper, and, of course, these days there's the chance of them bringing dreaded contagions with them. (Any beekeepers out there care to confirm or deny these recollections of mine?)

    In future, I'll find some better way of dealing with this situation. If it still requires killing the bees, I'll do it while the swarm is tiny and has just moved into the box, in order to minimize casualties. If sealing the box the only solution, I'll do that. Maybe I can get away with only sealing it during the Spring - I don't think hives spawn swarms in the Summer, though I'd have to go back to my bee books to be sure.

  4. Alison in Indiana2:13 PM CDT

    My suggestion was to get the beekeeper before the first comb is too far along.
    Wonder if when the owls are out of the box you might put a layer of something on the inside for the bees to attach to, fiberglass or styrofoam insulation sheets stapled along the wooden boards, which could be pryed or lifted out when it is time to reclaim the box for owls and would protect glass from the bees' sticky substances. Then the bees could have a summer, fall and winter of pollination before they are eliminated, but clean-up could be simpler.