Not to bee: Big hive removed from former Portland church

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PORTLAND — What started with some bees swarming around the roof of an old church turned into something much, much larger.

Andrew Green Jr., site supervisor for Hardypond Construction, said a coworker first noticed bees congregating near the roof of the former Clark Memorial United Methodist Church on Pleasant Avenue. After climbing a fire escape for a better look, Green was able to identify them as honeybees.

He also found out it wasn’t just a few bees.

“I drilled a test hole to see if I was in the right area,” he said. “That’s when I shined the light in and saw nothing but bees flying around.”

Green, a new beekeeper himself, decided to take the bees to his home, where he already has two functioning hives. He borrowed a vacuum designed to secure the bees and transport them. He then began taking down the drywall and plaster on Monday, July 25.

“I thought I had it pretty much under control until I opened it up,” he said.

Inside was an enormous hive, which Green estimates to have been home to at least 100,000 bees. The hive itself he estimated was around 5 feet tall, 7 inches deep and about 16 inches wide, containing between 50 and 80 pounds of honey and nectar.

At that point, Green said, he was committed to the task and began filling boxes with the honeycomb. When he filled his boxes, he hadn’t made a dent.

“I was in over my head,” he said.

So Green called in help: Keith Kettelhut, the president of the Cumberland County Beekeepers Association.

“I have learned …  not to form any expectations,” Kettelhut said of the colony. “But it was one of the largest ones I’ve seen.”

Kettelhut said honeybees typically occupy a hollow cavity of about 40 cubic inches and typically avoid larger spaces. But he said the honeycomb in the church was a mix of old and new; bees are known to find existing combs and build on them.

“But if they feel protected, they can occupy the space” he said. “Being on the second floor of a multi-story building, heat rises. It makes it easier on the bees to survive.”

Kettelhut brought his equipment and he and Green kept working. They ultimately had to borrow a second vacuum because of the number of bees. And despite wearing protective equipment, they still were stung multiple times. It took two days to remove all the bees.

“We were not prepared for what was in the wall; we didn’t have enough containers,” Green said. “But at that point we had to move pretty quickly. I can’t get over how much was there.”

The bees have been at Green’s home in Portland since last Wednesday. He said he will likely check on them this week, since moving bees can stress them out – although, he said, they still seem active. The church wall has been sealed with fiberglass to prevent another hive from being built. Green estimated that a hive of that size took many years, and many colonies of bees, to make.

“It sounds crazy, but it was a really exciting experience,” he said.

Kettelhut, who has 30 hives of his own around southern Maine, said a cavity that has been occupied by bees needs to be filled, otherwise it will likely be reoccupied by future generations. He also said it’s important to move the bees instead of simply poisoning them. Bees regulate the temperature of the comb, so if they’re poisoned, the wax will melt, attracting rodents and probably other bees down the line.

“It’s just a mess, you cause more problems then you solve,” Kettelhut said.

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

A beehive removed from the former Clark Memorial United Methodist Church on Pleasant Avenue in Portland fills a large storage container. The hive was transported by Andrew Green Jr., of Hardypond Construction, to his home in Portland, where Green already keeps two hives.

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Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.