Whatever they're paying Keith Kettelhut, it's not enough.
It's a hot afternoon in Lewiston. Beyond a dense stand of shrubs next to a Main Street business, a colony of bees has established a hive in the corner of a window. The hive is about the size of a large pizza and it's absolutely crawling with bees. How many bees?
"I'd say about 25,000 of them," Kettelhut says, setting up a ladder so he can reach them. "This is going to be an easy one."
A second later, he's climbing the ladder. To me, this feels like a horror movie where the teenage girl runs into the woods to escape the deranged killer. It's just got bad news written all over it. And the moment the thought occurs to me, it happens – thousands of the bees detach themselves from the hive and begin to swarm around Kettelhut's head. I figure the next time I see him, his face will be swollen to the size of a very large pumpkin.
So long, buddy. It was nice almost getting to watch you work.
But a strange thing happens. The bees form a cloud around Kettelhut's head, but they don't bother him much. A few crawl up his arms. I spot another perched on his calf. Kettelhut gets to work on the hive with the serene patience of a man who is dusting a shelf.
"They're oblivious," he tells me. "They know something is going on, but they have no idea that I'm the cause of it."
Kettelhut has to yell this bit of information. Although I'm dressed from head to toe in a protective bee suit, I'm already starting my sprint to safety. Find a body of water, I think. That's the ticket. Find a lake or a pond or a very large puddle and jump into it.
Kettelhut just keeps on working. It's his bee suit I'm wearing. It includes mesh around the face and every inch of my body is otherwise covered. Kettelhut, on the other hand, is wearing shorts and a T-shirt. I figure if he's not considering the fact that bees could fly up into his shorts at any moment, he's got to be unbalanced.
He's using a pair of smokers – small canisters stuffed with smoldering pine needles. The smoke smells sweet but it also serves a more important function: The smoke that billows out of the gadgets masks the alarm pheromones emitted by the bees. It completely disrupts their intricate communication network. It makes them dopey and somewhat docile.
"So now you can kill them," I say. "Right?"
Kettelhut has no intentions of killing the bees – they're honeybees, he tells me. Possibly from Italy.
What he is doing is dismantling the hive section by section and sort of rebuilding it within a set of wooden frames. He hacks out big chunks of the hive with a kitchen knife and then uses rubber bands to secure them in the frames. This way, the bees will continue their work of building the hive and creating honey as though nothing has happened. Once a frame is filled, it goes inside a briefcase-sized box, which can later be moved to a safer location.
Like maybe Antarctica, I'm thinking.
While he works, Kettelhut explains each step, to me and to an employee of NeoKraft Signs, the business on which the bees had settled over the course of a week or so.
Once the bees are inside the boxes, he'll leave them there until dusk. That way, any bees that were out foraging during the day will have had a chance to return home and join the colony. It's very humane, actually. No bee left behind, or something to that effect.
Before he removes the next section of hive from the wall, Kettelhut scrapes a knot of bees from it. He holds out his hand so I can see the roughly 100 bees that fill the palm of his hand.
I feel a wave of horror but manage to remain conscious.
"That's pretty psycho," the man on the other side of the windows tells me later.
His name is Patrick Bolduc, as it turns out. He works at NeoKraft and he's about as brave around bees as I am. He's a little timid about the stinging creatures, but he is fascinated by them. For a week and a half, he's watched the bees build their nest. Now he's watching Kettelhut remove them – he's just inches away but protected (he hopes) by the barrier the screen provides.
"I'm trying to get over my fear of them," Bolduc says. "The fact that I was watching through a screen really helped. That's a big step for me."
Meanwhie, Kettelhut is still working. He can't just move the bees down the road, he tells me. They'd just come right back. At the same time, you can't move them too far, either. In the bee business, it's known as the "Two-feet, Two-miles Rule."
"Bees have an internal GPS of sorts and can orient to a particular location, " Kettelhut explains. "Bees don't get the concept that their home could move, so you have to move them less than two feet (initially) so that when they return to their hive (at the end of the day) and it has moved, they hover in the air looking for it, and smell for their hive. If it is within a couple feet they will find it and be OK. If you need to move them farther away, it needs to be at least two miles so that they exit the hive and say to themselves, 'Somethings different,' and reorient to the new location before departing to forage."
So much for the perfect game
While he's sawing through the honeycomb, Kettelhut finds a brood of baby bees. He doesn't see the queen in there, but she's around somewhere. Everything I thought I knew about bees was wrong, apparently. I thought that the creatures were so protective of their queen and their young that they'd attack an interloper without asking questions. Instead, they're just buzzing over Kettelhut's head and letting him go about his work.
"They are going to figure out that something's going on," Kettelhut says. "As I crush bees – and I am crushing some – and as I spill nectar, eventually they will catch on and they won't be happy. Hopefully, by then, we'll be almost done."
What impresses me the most about Kettelhut isn't his bravery, although that's nothing to sneer at. What impresses me is that while facing down 25,000 stinging insects who could transform his life into a burning, swollen hell, he seems more worried about their well-being than his own. He's careful not to crush the babies. When a bee lands on his naked, fecund flesh, he doesn't squash it like most of us would, he gently flicks it back into the hive.
Kettelhut doesn't want the bees to die. He doesn't want to ruin their day any more than he has to. To achieve this, he relies on years of experience and study. Do something wrong at any phase of the relocation process, the entire hive could perish.
"It's a failure when I lose a hive," he says. "I've had hives die. I can attribute that back to things I have or have not done."
It also impresses me that while what he's doing is completely invasive, he has not yet received a single sting. So awed am I by this fact that I make a rookie mistake: I say it aloud.
"Nice going," says Bolduc, on the other side of the window. "That's like telling a pitcher he's got a perfect game going."
True that. A half-minute after I committed the faux pas, Kettelhut got tagged on the tip of a finger. Before I could apologize for cursing him, he got hit again, in the same spot.
He was down the ladder a second later. The pain wasn't too bad, he said, and it in no way inhibited his ability to get the job done. Instead, he had to soak the stung areas in alcohol, because when a bee stings you, the bee dies, but the stinger left behind sends out a pheromone to let other bees know that they might want to join the party.
Good to know. If I worked with bees, I'd keep a bottle of alcohol nearby, too.
"I don't mind getting stung," is Kettelhut's philosophy on it. "I don't go out of my way to get stung, but if it happens, it happens. It's part of the fun."
Honeybees only sting once.
"Yellow jackets, wasps, hornets and bumble bees can all sting more than once," Kettelhut says, "and more apt to, and they hurt a lot more than a honeybee sting."
If that's what he considers fun, Kettelhut gets a lot of it. Few days go by where he is not responding to one insect emergency or another. Bees here, wasps there, hornets in between. A colony in Freeport, a swarm in Brunswick and, of course, the hive in Lewiston, where the work continues.
The terms confound me. I always thought a hive was the same as a swarm and that a colony was just a fancy way of saying the same thing. Not so, I learn, by listening while I watch. A hive is where bees live. A colony is comprised of the bees themselves, while a swarm is a large group of bees looking for a place to settle.
Don't call me honey
Using a putty knife, a butcher knife and a hive tool (which looks like a small crowbar,) Kettelhut completely dismantles the hive and has all of its parts stuffed into frames and boxes. The bees are no longer flying about. They are back to the work of producing honey, toiling inside their new home as though nothing extraordinary has occurred.
As he finishes up, Kettelhut is holding a few chunks of honeycomb literally dripping with nectar. He holds one out for me and I notice a stray bee crawling along the side. Kettelhut collects the creature with a finger and flicks it into one of the bee cases. I taste the nectar, which is not officially honey until it thickens. It's so sweet, it hurts. One taste is enough for me, but the others who have been watching Home Makeover Bee Edition slurp with abandon.
The job is done. Come dusk, Kettelhut will return to NeoKraft to collect the bees and take them to Durham. There were very few casualties – a few crushed bees and the red tip of Kettelhut's finger is about all that I can see. Pretty remarkable.
"Bees are amazing," the people of NeoKraft posted on their Facebook wall, "as are beekeepers!"
Honeybee facts from 'Benefits of Honey'
1. The honey bee has been around for millions of years.
2. Honey bees, scientifically also known as apis mellifera, are environmentally friendly and are vital as pollinators.
3. It is the only insect that produces food eaten by man.
4. Honey is the only food that includes all the substances necessary to sustain life, including enzymes, vitamins, minerals and water; and it's the only food that contains "pinocembrin," an antioxidant associated with improved brain functioning.
5. Honey bees have six legs, two compound eyes made up of thousands of tiny lenses (one on each side of the head), three simple eyes on the top of the head, two pairs of wings, a nectar pouch and a stomach.
6. Honey bees have 170 odorant receptors, compared with only 62 in fruit flies and 79 in mosquitoes. Their exceptional olfactory abilities include kin recognition signals, social communication within the hive and odor recognition for finding food. Their sense of smell is so precise that it can differentiate hundreds of different floral varieties and tell whether a flower carried pollen or nectar from yards away.
7. The honey bee's wings stroke incredibly fast, about 200 beats per second, thus making their famous, distinctive buzz. A honey bee can fly for up to six miles, and as fast as 15 miles per hour.
8. The average worker bee produces about 1/12th teaspoon of honey in her lifetime.
9. A hive of bees will fly 90,000 miles, the equivalent of three orbits around the earth to collect 1 kilogram of honey.
10. It takes one ounce of honey to fuel a bee's flight around the world.
11. A honey bee visits 50 to 100 flowers during a collection trip.
12. The bee's brain is oval in shape and only about the size of a sesame seed, yet it has remarkable capacity to learn and remember things and is able to make complex calculations on distance travelled and foraging efficiency.
13. A colony of bees consists of 20,000 to 60,000 honeybees and one queen. Worker honey bees are female, live for about six weeks and do all the work.
14. The queen bee can live up to five years and is the only bee that lays eggs. She is the busiest in the summer months, when the hive needs to be at its maximum strength, and lays up to 2,500 eggs per day.
15. Larger than the worker bees, the male honey bees (also called drones), have no stinger and do no work at all. All they do is mate.
16. Each honey bee colony has a unique odor for members' identification.
17. Only worker bees sting, and only if they feel threatened; they die once they sting. Queens have a stinger, but they don't leave the hive to help defend the hive.
18. It is estimated that 1,100 honey bee stings are required to be fatal.
19. Honey bees communicate with one another by "dancing."
20. During winter, honey bees feed on the honey they collected during the warmer months. They form a tight cluster in their hive to keep the queen and themselves warm.
The Swarm Team
Got bees? Keith Kettelhut and other bee handlers around the state respond to a hot line maintained by the Maine State Beekeepers Association. Report your problem and a bee enthusiast will get on it faster than you can say "bread and butter."
"There is a Google Voice translator that converts their (hot line) message to an email that goes out to everyone on the swarm team," Kettelhut explains. "It has a link to the actual recorded message. That's a good thing as the translations are rarely clear. There is also a form people can fill out online that comes to us in the same fashion, so people can call or fill out the form; either gets to us."
Email, call or fill out a form at: mainebeekeepers.org/beekeeping-resources/honey-bee-swarm-removal. It's also a good site to get a glossary of terms and information on where you can go to study the business of bees.
A list of bee removal experts can also be found at the Bee Removal Source: http://www.beeremovalsource.com/bee-removal-list/maine/
So you want to be a beekeeper?
Here's how Keith Kettelhut got there, in his own words:
I have had an interest in bees for quite a while. I read all I could get my hands on, but working a mid-day to late-evening shift, I never could take a class. Four years ago that changed and I took a basic beekeeping class offered through the University of Maine Cooperative Extension program. There are several around the state annually as well as some private classes offered by local beekeeping supply businesses and long-term beekeepers as well.
There are two main ways to get started with beekeeping.
* You can purchase a package of bees, which is a wood-framed box covered in window screen with about three pounds of bees, a queen bee in a queen cage, and a can of sugar syrup for them to feed on in transit from the south, usually Georgia.
* The other way is called a nuc or nucleus hive. A nuc . . . holds five frames with a mixture of honey, pollen and bees in various stages of life, from eggs, capped and uncapped brood and a laying queen.
A package is available in Maine usually in late April to early May; a nuc is available a month or so later. . . . A package costs less, but has to be fed more, so you have to figure in the cost of sugar to make syrup, which evens it out pretty well. So the choice is a matter of personal preference. I started out with one of each.
A hive is made up of individual bees that form a "super organism" if you will. The queen is the most important bee in the hive; she spends her life laying eggs that all the other bees will come from. She also excretes pheromones that regulate all sorts of activities in the hive.
Females are the workers, they take care of the queen, the brood, clean the hive, forage for food, regulate the temperature of the hive and, when necessary in the protection of the hive, sting, after which they die. Honeybees can only sting once.
The males or drones only serve one purpose and that is to mate with virgin queens to allow the formation of a new colony of bees, and if they are successful in mating they die in the act. If not, they are shown the door of the colony when times get lean or cold weather is coming.