The big hive was buzzing beneath Ken Kegel’s shed — a nest perhaps 40,000 strong, with “guard bees” not at all pleased about approaching intruders.
“OK, these guys are a little aggressive,” said Kelly Yrarrázaval of the two-woman team, Backyard B Keepers, as she suited up behind Kegel’s home in unincorporated Orange County near Tustin. “They’re on you as soon as you go over there.”
She and her partner in the effort, Janet Andrews, are as busy as, well, bees this time of year, capturing problem, unwanted bees and transporting them to small farms that need them for pollination.
The women say they are rarely stung.
The operation is long on heart and short on funding; while they don’t charge a fee for the service, they gratefully accept donations to pay for hive boxes and other equipment.
The point: to offer an alternative to calling an exterminator.
“Most people aren’t willing to save the bees,” Yrarrázaval said.
She prepared a “smoker,” a can full of burning material with a bellows attached so smoke can be pushed out a nozzle. The smoke, she says, causes the bees to gorge on honey, an instinctive hedge against destruction of the hive by fire; the gorging calms them down.
Soon, with the owner’s permission, they removed part of the floor of the shed to reach the hive.
Andrews has been rescuing bees for about five years, ever since she had a backyard bee problem of her own.
“They got into the roof of the house,” she said. “I didn’t want to kill them.”
She phoned a rescuer who came out to retrieve the bees, and Andrews was hooked.
“I thought that was neat,” she said. “Of course, I didn’t know what i was getting into.”
Yrarrázaval, a mother of four who has worked as a school counselor, joined her two years ago, and the two seem to work together seamlessly.
“I went from rescuing the kids to rescuing the bees,” Yrarrázaval said.
In Kegel’s backyard, the bees were definitely having a bad day, and not only because of bee-suited intruders; Andrews noticed something else.
“There’s a trail of ants coming in and she can tell by the sound of the bees that they’re disturbed by the ants,” Yrarrázaval said.
Kegel, an elementary school teacher, said he doesn’t mind bees, and even has a separate hive box of his own — the same bees removed from his shed on an earlier occasion by the beekeepers.
He called them out a second time, he said, because the second colony was just too close to the door of the shed, where his sons store bikes and other items.
The next step: removing the honeycomb, placing it on a frame, and placing the frame in a box. With luck, the queen will be carried into the box with the honeycomb.
“When we come back in the morning, if the queen’s in there, they’ll all be in there,” Yrarrázaval said.
While the guard bees in the hive seemed riled, the other bees remained calm during the removal process.
“If you go real slow and easy, you can establish them in the box,” Andrews said. “That’s not that traumatic for them.”
But watching the removal without a bee suit, even from a distance, can still attract the bees’ wrath. As Andrews and Yrarrázaval worked, a guard bee went after a reporter standing in the yard, sending him running down the street and batting his head — likely either puzzling or amusing any onlookers.
Even when the women were finished and walking back to their trucks, bees clung tenaciously to their bee suits.
“We’re pretty sure we got the queen, because all the others are fanning,” Andrews said — vibrating their wings to spread the queen’s scent as a signal to the other bees.
Distributing bees to hobbyists and small farmers is not the only use the Backyard Beekeepers make of the rescued hives. They also sell the honey, and use the wax to make products for sale – lip balm, a body bar, lotion.
“Beeswax is good for any part of your body,” Yrarrázaval said.
“You could even eat it,” said Andrews.
The two often speak at schools or or libraries, and are planning to start a non-profit corporation: “BeeCause.”
They confirmed this is their busiest time of year, when bee colonies are swarming — embarking in large masses to find new nesting spots.
Then they drove off to check on their other hive boxes around Orange County.
Yrarrázaval said she and Andrews decided to give the bees in Kegel’s yard a few more days to settle into their new home before removing them.
She and Andrews say they’ve seen an explosion of interest recently in beekeeping.
“I started because I’m fascinated by the whole bee thing,” she said. “Now we have a lot of people shadowing us who are interested in bees.”