Beeing careful with a colony

Joel Eck­el climbs up to the rafters to re­move a bee hon­ey­comb from a gate­house at Glen Fo­erd on the Delaware. KEV­IN COOK / FOR THE TIMES

— The bees must be skill­fully re­moved, re­lo­cated and pre­served be­cause of their eco­lo­gic­al and eco­nom­ic im­port­ance.


Birds and bees filled the agenda at Glen Fo­erd on the Delaware on a re­cent Sat­urday, but the day’s pub­lic pro­gram­ming had noth­ing to do with hanky-panky.

In fact, it was largely edu­ca­tion­al.

That morn­ing, about 15 am­a­teur or­ni­tho­lo­gists spot­ted an ori­ole, a com­mon loon and oth­er avi­an spe­cies dur­ing the Spring Bird Walk at the 19th cen­tury man­sion. Then in the af­ter­noon, two bee­keep­er sib­lings demon­strated their rare craft by re­mov­ing a dec­ades-old hon­ey­bee hive from the rafters of the his­tor­ic es­tate’s gate­house.

And in a surp­ising co­in­cid­ence, Joel and Jeff Eck­el of Ger­man­town-based We Bee Broth­ers dis­covered only after ac­cept­ing the job that they are dis­tant re­l­at­ives of Glen Fo­erd’s wealthy long­time own­er, the late Florence Fo­er­der­er Ton­ner.

Ton­ner was the cous­in of Joel and Jeff’s pa­ternal grand­moth­er. So the bee re­mov­al al­lowed the broth­ers, along with their fath­er Phil Eck­el, to play a part in the pre­ser­va­tion of what might be loosely con­sidered an an­ces­tral home.

Sadly, there was no in­her­it­ance to be had for the Eck­els.

“I was won­der­ing about that,” Jeff Eck­el joked after he and Joel re­moved tens of thou­sands of bees from the gate­house.

Glen Fo­erd, at 5001 Grant Ave., is owned by the city’s De­part­ment of Parks and Re­cre­ation, which leases the 18-acre tract for a nom­in­al an­nu­al fee to a com­munity-based, non-profit con­ser­va­tion cor­por­a­tion.

Meg Sharp Walton is the ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or. She learned about the bees last fall when a long­time gate­house ten­ant in­formed her of the hive in ad­vance of mov­ing.

“He said, ‘Oh, by the way, there’s a bee­hive and it was there when I ar­rived,’” Walton re­called.

The former ten­ant had been rent­ing the place for the last 18 years. The bees nev­er had posed enough of a dis­turb­ance to war­rant at­ten­tion. Non­ethe­less, Walton knew the bees had to go be­fore she could place the four-bed­room gate­house back on the rent­al mar­ket.

“There’s po­ten­tial for honey to leak and do dam­age to the walls,” Jeff Eck­el said. “Bees can be a nuis­ance if they swarm and cluster in your yard. (And) if the bees leave, (the hive) can get too hot, drip and at­tract oth­er pests.”

It didn’t take long for Walton to find We Bee Broth­ers. Ac­cord­ing to 27-year-old Jeff Eck­el, the com­pany is about four years old and one of only a hand­ful of prac­ti­cing com­mer­cial bee­keep­ers in the city.

And des­pite sharp de­clines in do­mest­ic­ated hon­ey­bee pop­u­la­tions in re­cent years, wild or fer­al colon­ies still pose a com­mon nuis­ance, par­tic­u­larly in urb­an areas. The bees must be skill­fully re­moved, re­lo­cated and pre­served be­cause of their eco­lo­gic­al and eco­nom­ic im­port­ance.

“They say thirty per­cent of our food is pol­lin­ated by hon­ey­bees,” Eck­el said.

The bee­keep­er’s job is de­mand­ing.

At Glen Fo­erd, the broth­ers and their fath­er con­struc­ted a multi-tiered scaf­fold­ing just to reach the nook that the bees called home. The broth­ers donned jump­suits, gloves, buck­et hats and fa­cial net­ting. Joel climbed some 30 feet to the rafter and sawed away some cen­tury-old roof­ing boards to reach a hefty hon­ey­comb, much to the dis­gust of thou­sands of bees guard­ing the site.

“The hive had swarmed a week or two be­fore, so there wasn’t a full colony of bees. But there was a lot of comb and capped brood in there,” Jeff Eck­el said.

Eck­el ex­plained that bees swarm when the colony grows and splits. Some of the bees will scout for new loc­a­tions to col­on­ize, then re­turn to the hive to alert their queen and the rest of the bees to the new nest­ing spot.

Mean­while, “capped brood” is the term for the de­vel­op­ing larva and pupae that are en­cap­su­lated by wax in the hon­ey­comb cells.

Typ­ic­ally, a full colony has 50,000 to 60,000 bees. The Glen Fo­erd colony had about half that. But the Eck­els found 10 to 15 de­vel­op­ing queens in the comb, in­clud­ing three that were close to hatch­ing.

“Gen­er­ally, the first queen out (of her cell) will go and chew out all of the oth­er (un­hatched) queen cells to en­sure her po­s­i­tion,” Eck­el said.

Sal­va­ging queens is a primary ob­ject­ive for bee­keep­ers be­cause the work­er bees al­ways re­turn to the queen, even if the keep­ers take her else­where.

To move the colony, the Eck­els sep­ar­ated the comb in­to man­age­able seg­ments and in­stalled them in­to wooden frames. The frames slide in­to a cus­tom-made box. Phil Eck­el is a re­tired in­dus­tri­al arts teach­er and does all the car­pentry work for the broth­ers.

After re­mov­ing the colony, the Eck­els re­turned to the gate­house at dusk to catch any strag­gler work­er bees that had been away from the hive earli­er in the day.

In time, Walton hopes to have a hive in­stalled else­where on the Glen Fo­erd grounds to keep bees in the area and sup­port the es­tate’s flower­ing gar­dens.

“We’ll be get­ting a hive, one you stick on the ground, and we will be do­ing edu­ca­tion­al pro­gram­ming,” the dir­ect­or said. “Florence (Ton­ner) and her mom were really in­to hor­ti­cul­ture, and with the bees, it’s a nice way of teach­ing it.” ••

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