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Hive at your house? That's nothing

July 5, 2006 (Lowell Sun)

DRACUT -- Keith and Theresa Caples saw the bees buzzing around their home and knew they had a problem. The magnitude of the problem, however, was a real shocker. In early May, Tyngsboro beekeeper Rick Reault removed nearly 100,000 honeybees from the crawl space beneath the addition of the couple's Wagonwheel Road home. Removing the bugs took him five hours.

The bees had built a honeycomb that measured 3 feet by 4 feet, probably over two or three years.

"I was shocked," recalled Theresa Caples, a Dracut High School English teacher. "Especially since my husband had killed so many of the bees last summer."

Nearly every day last summer, Keith Caples filled his shop vacuum with bug killer, placed the hose into the crack where he saw the bees entering and exiting his home and managed to suck out enough bees to fill the machine 2 or 3 inches deep.

Theresa Caples estimates that her husband killed about 5,000 bees last summer. Little did he know that his effort was fruitless, he wasn't even making a dent in the population of the metropolis established under his home.

A queen bee can lay up to 2,000 eggs a day, quickly replenishing her colony's stock of workers and drones.

The Caples' story is one that has become increasingly common in Greater Lowell.

According to local experts, the number of homeowners who have discovered honeybee colonies taking up residence in their eaves and chimneys has skyrocketed over last year.

"This is easily the most honeybee calls we've had in years," said Mary Wilson, who along with husband Dale owns Bee-Busters of Acton. "In prior years we have removed about 10 swarms a year. Since March we have received about 75 calls for swarm removal."

And it can be a pricey endeavor.

Reault said clearing a swarm outside a home could cost a couple hundred dollars, while jobs where the colony is embedded inside a home's walls or chimney could range from $600 to $2,500. He and his assistant, his uncle, Don Landry, have taken on 15 projects so far this year.

And the bad news is, most homeowners' policies won't cover the repairs, he said.

Wilson explained that over the past 15-20 years, honeybees were in danger of extinction as a result of extermination and a mite that killed off most of the wild colonies.

The Varroa mite attaches itself to a bee much in the way that a tick attaches itself to a dog or person, and sucks the blood from the bee, weakening it and shortening its lifespan. Bees are also plagued by tracheal mites, which lodge in their trachea and suffocate them.

Mites first became a problem to U.S. honeybees in the late 1980s and since that time, beekeepers have been enlisting a number of organic pest-control practices to protect their hives and rebuild the honeybee population.

This year, bees are back in a big way.

"Because the winter was kind of mild and the extended periods of rain we've had, there is a dramatic increase in the bee population," said Reault, the Tyngsboro beekeeper. "When it rains the bees are confined and the queen can lay up to 2,000 eggs a day, so you have all these bees coming in and none leaving.

"Last year I don't think I got any calls and this year I have already done 15 swarm removals," he added. "The bees are looking for a crack or a crevice, so keep your walls insulated and caulk all cracks, keep things tight, which is difficult to do in older homes."

Once honeybees have established a hive in a home's walls, they will remain there until killed or removed. However, Wilson warns that killing them will create more trouble than the bees ever would be.

The wax from the abandoned honey combs will melt and release the honey, allowing it to melt and drip into the interior walls. The sticky sweet substance will attract ants, rodents and other uninvited house guests.

Also, bees are on a more important mission than just annoying you at a picnic. In addition to producing honey, honeybees are responsible for pollinating nearly $15 billion worth of crops throughout the country, including any seeded fruits and all produce that grows on a vine.

"If you can see a nest and it is about the size of your hand, it is probably yellowjackets or hornets," Wilson said.. "You can handle that yourself with some wasp and hornet spray. If you cannot see the nest, call a pest-removal service."

Removing a honeybee colony from a home, which includes opening the walls, removing and transporting the bees and allowing the walls to air-dry, is labor-intensive work that can take up to 12 hours of continuous labor, Wilson said.

In addition to honeybees, Wilson said there is an increase of carpenter bees -- big fat, bees with a shiny backside -- which tunnel through wood, ruining the structural integrity of a home. They are often found hovering over the holes they drill and build high in the eaves of homes.

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