Keeping Bees

By Loree Griffin Burns

colorful bee boxes outside with flowers“You’re not going to believe this, but she’s got honeybees living in her roof! Like, thousands of them!”

“What’s she going to do?” I asked the housepainter, worried that his client’s plan was extermination.

“That’s the best part,” he told me, shaking his head. “She found some crazy beekeeper willing to come and take them out.”

The housepainter shared this story with me after he’d spotted my own hives, set in a grassy spot far from my nearest neighbor. I’d said yes when a friend who was moving asked me to take her bees, and I’d spent the past six years trying to figure out how to keep them alive.

Beekeeping is not a hobby for the uncurious or the faint of will. Here in the unforgiving Northeast it’s an exercise in humility and, increasingly, biochemistry. Old-time bee wranglers will tell you about the days they grew their hive numbers by splitting thriving colonies and sharing extra with their friends. I, on the other hand, have to buy bees from vendors in the southern part of the country, because very few people up here have extras. What’s more, I have to nurse these bees with supplemental sugar water, antibiotics for gut parasites, and two kinds of hive chemicals that keep Varroa mites under control. I’m heavy-handed in my beekeeping because every time I try not to be, my bees die.

And it’s not just my inexperience or the New England climate that puts my bees at risk. In the winter of 2008, things went suddenly and inexplicably wrong for honeybees. After millennia of thriving in the wild and, for the last couple hundred years, in wooden hive boxes in the fields and backyards of farmers, home gardeners, and honey lovers, honeybee populations suddenly began to collapse. Beekeepers reported once-healthy bee colonies undergoing a sudden and rapid population loss, most often ending in colony death. This phenomenon, dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, was widespread in North America and after a decade of research, we still don’t know exactly what causes it. What we do know is that our modern world is a hard place to be a honeybee. There are many reasons— the types of pesticides we use, the way we’ve developed land that was once honeybee habitat, how we treat our lawns and public green spaces to keep them free of weeds, the way our global economy spreads bee pests (especially the dreaded Varroa destructor mite), and how those pests, in turn, spread bee diseases. None of these factors alone appears to cause CCD. But research has shown that together, these things are making it nearly impossible for honeybees to thrive.

I’ve spent years following the CCD story, and none of the scientists and beekeepers I’ve spoken with believes honeybees will die out completely. Are they struggling? Yes. Is the species going extinct? No. But honeybees are critical to food production; they are directly responsible for one out of every three bites of food you put in your mouth. That’s why I’d said yes to taking my friend’s hives, and that’s why I had to meet the crazy beekeeper.

With the painter’s help, I contacted Lynne and Tammas McVie, owners of the roof that housed the errant honeybees, and asked if I might watch the upcoming removal. I arrived at their home in Weston, Massachusetts on the hottest and most humid Saturday of the entire summer, just as a bucket truck pulled in the driveway. Tammas explained to the drivers of this rented truck how their vehicle was going to be used that day, and the amazed men asked if they could watch too. That’s how there came to be a crowd in the McVie yard when Jon Nelson pulled up.

Jon parked his beater pick-up behind the bucket truck and stepped onto the lawn dressed in gray sweatpants that had been cut into shorts, a black T-shirt, and open-toed sandals. Clean shaven, boyish in the face, he looked to be in his fifties; his blue eyes scanned the roof.  

 “That’s the perfect spot for bees,” he said by way of greeting us. “They’re going to love it up there.”

After the briefest of introductions, Jon continued to educate all of us about honeybees. He told us that a brick chimney facing south would keep a hive in a nearby wall toasty all winter. Come summer, though, things could get a little too toasty. Then the bees would be forced to cool off by hanging around outside the hive entrance, sometimes in a giant mass that looked like a beard. 

As Jon talked, he unloaded tools from the back of his truck: large plastic buckets filled with hammers, pry bars, hive tools, a drill, a blow torch, and a smoker. He lifted out a large wooden box and set it on the grass. Emblazoned with the words B.B. Nelson Apiaries, the box had an accordion-style hose hanging off one end.

“I don’t know how you do a job like this without a vacuum,” he said.

And then he launched into a detailed description of his bee vac, designed and refined over a decade of honeybee rescues and, to his knowledge, the only version in existence guaranteed not to kill any bees. As he told us all this, he’d loaded the lifting bucket of the rented truck for a bee rescue.

A short time later, the McVie family and the landscapers and I watched from the ground as Jon, dressed for the beach and leaning out of a bucket truck thirty feet in the air, ripped boards off the edge of the McVie roof and exposed the honeybees they’d been living with. Their hive filled one six-foot length of their roofline: a dozen sheets of honeycomb and about forty thousand bees.

In the summer of 1972, when Jon Nelson was 12-years-old, a massive honey bee swarm appeared on the branch of a tree in his Rhode Island backyard.

“It was a foot deep, and four feet wide,” Jon says, pausing dramatically. “It hung six feet off the branch!”

Jon and the other neighborhood kids were mesmerized. It hung there for days, and eventually one of the kids, Jon’s friend Tony, had the bright idea of throwing a rock into the crawling mass of stinging insects, just to see what would happen.

“I told everyone that if a bee landed on or near them, they shouldn’t smack at it.  No matter what.”

The rock hit the swarm, the swarm crashed to the ground like a small bomb, and Tony got stung.

“He smacked,” Jon says, shaking his head. “His neck blew up like a balloon, and his mother was immediately out for blood. She said she was going to poison those bees.”

Jon decided not to let Tony’s inability to follow simple instructions cost thousands of honey bees their lives. He ran home, pulled out a phone book, and looked up beekeepers in the Yellow Pages. He dialed the first number he found and explained his emergency. A beekeeper showed up the very same day, hauling a couple wooden boxes in the backseat of his car.

“So technically,” Jon says, “that was my first honeybee rescue.”

This was just one of the many rescues in Jon’s childhood, the first in a long line of stories that feel, at times, like tall tales. Jon’s was a wild growing up, mostly outdoors and filled with deep connections to the animals he came across. His dad, a naturalist, encouraged all of it. When Jon was six years old, family lore has it that he wandered into a barn at an Amish flea market, climbed onto a horse, and rode it bareback out of the barn. This caused more than a little stir. When both boy and horse were safely back in the barn, Jon’s father said only, “I knew it was you the moment I heard the commotion.”

When he was a little older, Jon and one of his brothers came across a litter of raccoons on display at a bird sanctuary near their home. Believing the animals deserved a wild life, they snuck into the place under cover of darkness and freed them.

honey comb with larvae

And once, in the woods of Virginia, near the military base where his Dad was stationed, Jon found a turtle with the letters USMC painted on its shell. He knew that a turtle’s shell was too sensitive for all that paint, so he took it home and gently scrubbed it until every last trace had been removed. Then he built a proper pen in the yard and, with his Dad’s approval, filled it with a few more turtles from the woods around their home.

This devotion to animals was not a boyish phase.

In his early twenties, after years of moving around with his military family, Jon settled in southern California, as a carpenter and home builder. In his new yard, he built another proper turtle pen, and with guidance from the San Diego Turtle and Tortoise Society, filled it with rescue turtles from local pet stores. At one point, Jon housed 35 box turtles and 15 tortoises back there. He fed them fresh starlings, which he shot himself. (Starlings are an invasive pest bird in the United States.) He spread the dead starlings around the yard for his healthier turtles to find and devour, and he ground up the meat of a few birds to hand-feed the turtles that were too sick to forage on their own. When Jon eventually moved back east, he relocated every last one of his turtles; even still, according to his neighbors, sometimes when it rained, baby turtles emerged from the jungle that was once his yard.

The rescue lifestyle comes with bumps and bruises, Jon told me. He’s been bitten by turtles, snakes, raccoons, a monkey, and a gopher. He’s had his hand stabbed through the palm by the talons of a frightened red-tailed hawk. He’s had to strip to his underwear on the side of a road, because the fishing-line ensnared cormorant he’d recently untangled had apparently shared its body lice with him. And since life has brought him full circle, back to honey bees, he’s been stung by a lot of those, too.

Jon was 47 years old and settled back in Rhode Island, planning the renovation of a three-decker when CCD became big news. He was single, still working in construction, and doing a few odd jobs on the side. But the plight of honeybees changed everything.

“For most of my life,” Jon says, “if you’ve got dandelions in your yard, you have honey bees. Always. But suddenly, even though I had apple trees and peach trees, even though I was growing tons and tons of flowers, all organically, I was not seeing honey bees. None. I’d been reading about colony collapse, but to see it …” Jon lets his thought trail off. “I decided to get into bees. Full time. Heavily.” 

Based on what I watched Jon do in the McVie yard, he is, indeed, heavily into bees. Perched in the bucket truck, using the bee vac, he sucked bees from one side of the first honeycomb sheet, moving slowly and methodically. When it was clean, he flicked off his vacuum, hung the hose on the side of the bucket, and picked up a butcher’s knife. Gently, he sliced through this first honeycomb sheet at the place where it met the roof beam it was hanging from. Gently, he pulled the freed sheet into the bucket with him, laying the bee-free side against his bent (and bare!) left arm, and switching the bee-vac on with his right hand. Then he sucked the second side free of bees. Somehow, the bees barely noticed. When this first sheet of comb was completely free of bees, Jon placed it carefully into an empty bucket.

Did I mention that Jon was still in a T-shirt, shorts, and sandals?

He repeated this process twelve times, working in full sun for hours, with the temperature locked well into the nineties and the humidity barely tolerable. By the time he finished, the landscapers had gone back to work and the McVie family had wandered in the direction of the swimming pool. But a little crowd assembled again when the bucket truck finally came motoring down.

On the ground, Jon opened his vacuum, tossed aside the compartment housing the motor and turned the other side, now crawling with thousands of honeybees, toward his audience. Behind the screen that trapped them in the wooden box, the bees extended tongue-like proboscises in search of water and Jon sprayed them with a bit. Then he dragged the entire box of bees into the shade and turned everyone’s attention to the buckets of honeycomb he’d brought down from the roof. He showed off sheets filled with developing honey bee larvae, giving a quick biology lesson as he did. When he showed off sheets filled with honey, he pushed his finger right into the center, releasing the golden liquid. As he popped a dripping finger into his mouth, he closed his eyes and sighed.

“This McVie honey is incredible,” he said.

Later in the day, I followed Jon to the small, organic farm where he keeps about a dozen of his bee hives. He pulled his truck into a grassy field beside a fenced garden splendid with sunflowers and vegetables. Nearby sat a line of the most spectacular beehives I’ve ever seen. There were twelve of them, each four or five boxes high, and the boxes were painted in vivid colors: bright green, red, orange, yellow, or blue. Jon told me later that he’d chosen the colors by bringing flowers he picked at the farm with him to the paint store and asking the clerk to match them. 

As I took pictures of his hives, Jon turned the back of his truck into a work station, dropping the tail gate, laying down a piece of plywood, and setting to work with the buckets of honeycomb from the McVie rescue. His goal now was to reassemble what he’d taken apart earlier in the day. He trimmed flat pieces of honeycomb—the ones filled with developing bees and the ones filled with their nectar and honey—into the rectangular shape of a hive box, a task simplified by a metal guide he’d welded himself. (Think oversized cookie cutter.) Then he strapped each perfectly sized rectangle of honeycomb into a wooden frame with rubber bands. By the time he began slipping these frames into the empty hive that was to house the McVie bees, thousands of bees from the other hives on the property had wandered over, attracted by the scent of nectar and warm honeycomb. It seemed to me Jon enjoyed their company.

About seven hours after I’d first met him at the McVie house, with the heat of the day finally waning and a bright July sun dipping toward the horizon, Jon dumped the rescued honeybees out of his vacuum and into their new home. 

You might be wondering if it would have been easier—and cheaper, too—for homeowners to just spray bees that build nests in unwanted places with insecticide?

Jon is emphatic with his answer: No.

First of all, we live in the age of CCD. Destroying even a single colony should be criminal. (For the record, because I hear otherwise over and again, destroying a honeybee colony is not a criminal offense. It’s just a bad idea.) Beyond that, once you’d killed the colony in your roof or your walls, things might not be over. The honeycomb left behind will either attract a new swarm or, worse, an army of hungry mice, squirrels, beetles, ants, flies, or wax moths, each intent on eating the remains of the hive. As animals break down the comb, it will leak honey and decaying bee larvae. The ensuing mess, detected and cleaned up, only prepares the space in question for the next passing swarm of honeybees … who are very likely to move in and begin the process all over again.

If you’re still not convinced to choose rescue over RAID, there’s this intriguing tidbit: the bees Jon pulls out of homes are often shockingly healthy. Not always, mind you, but sometimes the bees he rescues are thriving, living on their own with no beekeeper oversight season after season, sometimes for decades. They are a remarkable and little seen phenomenon: honeybees that have figured out how to live in a world that contains more pesticides, less habitat, fewer foraging sites, and rampant blood-sucking, disease-spreading mites, honeybees that don’t seem to need the supplemental sugar water, or antibiotics, or chemicals that most managed honeybees—like mine—appear to need. They are survivor bees.

screen with bees and smoker

 “Jon is collecting a valuable natural resource,” says Richard Cowles, a lead scientist with the Connecticut Agricultural Station. “Having survivor bees available, having a diversity of bees with traits that allow them to survive without treatment for Varroa, that is going to be the key to having healthy honeybees.”

Jon, of course, agrees.

“You know, the common beekeeping wisdom is that if you don’t treat your bees, they’ll die from Varroa,” Jon tells me. “And I’ve found bees that have been fine on their own for sometimes ten, sometimes thirty, sometimes even two hundred years. Continuously.”

Jon and Dr. Cowles have begun working together on a project to breed better, stronger, healthier honeybees. The most important tool in this work is the unwanted survivor honeybees Jon rescues from homes and other buildings. These bees know something that managed honeybees don’t, and while beekeepers and bee scientists work to figure out what exactly that something is, Jon collects the bees who have it and brings them home to his apiary.

Jon estimates he has rescued four hundred hives over the past eleven years. Each involved a long day of delicate and extremely physical work that is only finished when the rescued bees are tucked into a new box hive. It’s challenging work that very few beekeepers have the patience to take on. It doesn’t pay well, even when you factor in the collected honey and the bonus bees.

Of course, rescuing bees is not about the money for Jon, or about the honey, or even about building his own beekeeping operation. It’s not about making his own hours or working outside or inventing the perfect tools for the job, either, though he loves those aspects of his work. For Jon Nelson, rescuing bees is about something much simpler: he is not now, nor has he ever been, the sort of person who could let lives be lost while he was around with the skills and the heart to save them.

Last summer, Jon called to tell me he’d successfully reared honeybee queens from a survivor colony. I was thrilled to know that the ideas he and Richard Cowles had shared with me were becoming a reality. We talked for a long time, Jon sharing his entire queen-rearing adventure in the dramatic and endearing way he shares all his rescue operations. Finally, at the end of the call he said, “So, do you want one of these survivor queens?”

My husband and I drove the hour to Jon’s place in Rhode Island the very next day. We watched as Jon packed one small brown and waxy peanut—that’s exactly what a queen in her cell looks like—into the tiny cardboard jewelry box he’d instructed us to bring. We took our precious cargo straight back to our yard, where we followed Jon’s instructions for transferring the peanut into a queen-less hive.

 Our soon-to-emerge queen was genetically related to a queen from one of Jon’s most successful survivor colonies and we all hoped she had genetic knowledge that would help her raise a colony of bees better equipped to thrive in this world. I can tell you for certain there are doubters; lots of my beekeeper friends think this strategy can’t work. But I’m feeling hopeful. It’s not easy to be a honeybee these days, and it’s not easy to be a keeper of honeybees, either. Still, there are survivor bees. There are families like the McVies. And there are crazy beekeepers like Jon Nelson.

Loree Griffin Burns writes books and essays that celebrate our natural world and the people who study it. She has beachcombed on both American coasts, surveyed birds in Central Park, stung herself with a honey bee, wintered with monarch butterflies, and lived on an uninhabited volcanic island, all in the name of a great story. She and her husband Gerry make their home in central Massachusetts, along with a few bees, a couple chickens, three young adults, and one springer spaniel. (

Photos by Christine Raine