The sun had just peaked over the eastern horizon early last Wednesday morning when Dwain Cleveland — a.k.a. the “Bee Man” — and fellow beekeepers donned white protective suits, hoods and long gloves. They peered into a wooden barn not far from the front entrance to Fossil Rim Wildlife Center.
A dark clump of honeybees clung to a seam where two plywood walls met in a corner.
“There,” Cleveland said, pointing. “That is a large colony.”
“How many bees do you think there are?” asked Billie Kinnard, Fossil Rim’s communications director.
“Oh, probably about 100,000,” Cleveland responded matter-of-factly.
Bees buzzed from behind the wall where the queen and her drones were busy making more bees. Other bees were busy making honey. Soon they would all get a new home sweet home.
Fossil Rim, being a wildlife conservation center, tapped Cleveland to remove the bees safely. Cleveland keeps 17 hives and sets up other beekeepers with hives. He's developed a special vacuum and storage system to give bees a gentle ride from the colony into catch boxes.
“We decided a long time ago to use non-lethal means to remove beneficial pests” at Fossil Rim, said Darryl Morris, the center’s director of support services and Cleveland’s nephew. “He’s a really good asset,” he said of his uncle. “He puts the bees to good use.”
Fellow beekeepers Greg Marsh and Jack Davidson of Glen Rose and Don Anthony of Granbury also put on their protective suits, making sure to get them zipped up tightly.
Cleveland gave us all some last-minute instructions.
“If the bees really get after you, jump in your car and turn on the air conditioning,” he said. “That’ll clear them out. And if you get a bee in your hood, you'll be tempted to unzip it. But don't. And don't come out of your suit."
Cleveland had started a smoker, a device beekeepers use to calm bees. It had a container about the size of a coffee can and a puffer that looked like a small accordion. Cleveland pressed the puffer to release smoke out of the can's spout. The other beekeepers unreeled a two-inch red hose and attached it to the wooden catch box about the size of a big stereo speaker.
Davidson was filming a video for Cleveland and had a bright light set up and his recorder going to document the relocation. This was a mission with conservation in mind — take the bees out and put them in hives, wooden boxes that each contain 10 rectangular frames filled with honeycombs. And, of course, harvest the honey the old-fashioned way, by squeezing it out of the empty honeycomb.
The beekeepers are committed to conserving bees and educating people how critical they are to our lives.
“People don’t realize the importance of bees with our food crops,” Cleveland said. “They’re very fascinating creatures. They have a culture that’s very complex.”
After vacuuming the bees from the seam, Marsh began prying the plywood loose from the support beams. The colony was holed up in the space between the barn's interior and exterior walls.
More puffs of smoke were released to settle down the bees, which by now were getting pretty stirred up and dashing around the barn.
When the plywood came down, all the beekeepers got a look at the colony and the wax “foundation” where the bees lived. Golden honey dripped from the wood beams.
“Boy hidey,” Cleveland said.
He pulled out a long, sharp knife and began slicing off long strips of honeycomb. Then he and Anthony worked to put the foundation into then wood-framed panels. Each panel then fitted into a hive box.
Cleveland pointed at a peanut-shaped area on the honeycomb. That’s a “queen cell,” he explained. Once the beekeepers capture the queen bee, which emits a pheromone, a mix of chemicals that controls bee behavior, the other bees will follow her.
The beekeepers worked quickly and quietly. Cleveland said he got stung a few times, but the bees didn’t swarm or attack. Altogether the beekeepers harvested 30 panels, or three hives.
Cleveland had brought along a small vial of artificial pheromone. Then he used a ladder to suspended another catch box in front of the area where the colony had lived.
"The artificial pheromone will act like a queen," Davidson explained. "That will bring the bees that are in the field working and right after sundown they'll come into the box."
Finally, it was time to take off the suits, which, after several hours, had become stifling.
“I’m whooped out,” Cleveland said, mopping his forehead. “I’m not used to the heat.”
“I don’t have a dry stitch on me,” Marsh added.
But they all had a sweet time helping the tiny creatures that enrich us all with the fruits of their labor.