Untamed Lowcountry

Effort to rescue thousands of Beaufort honey bees a lesson in patience

Jack Mathison zipped on a white jacket over his black Harley Davidson T-shirt and affixed the accompanying mesh face guard.

He left the white gloves on the grass as he prepared to approach a landmark oak tree on the USC Beaufort campus. Honey bees buzzed around the base of the grand tree, a small fraction of the thousands that made a home inside.

Now Mathison is trying to woo them out after an alert campus police officer opted to call a bee keeper before an exterminator to move the insects away. The area will be busy with students and visitors who will be in town for upcoming major events and the insects are active with the warmer weather.

Honey bees are essential pollinators and in recent years have been in widespread decline faced with threats from the changing climate and pesticides.

“Bees are beneficial in a lot of ways,” Mathison said Thursday.

Mathison, 68, is a retired Beaufort firefighter and former Marine. He started keeping bees as a hobby last year and built his own boxes from scrap wood in his shop to go search for swarms.

He almost walked away from this job when he saw the size of the tree and how the hive was nestled somewhere deep inside. Most of the swarms he sees are in the open, such as on a tree branch, where the queen is easy to corral and the other bees obediently follow.

Collecting the bees could take weeks if the queen doesn’t emerge to lead them into the box, Mathison said.

The large old oak rises in front of the USCB performing arts center off of Carteret Street. Mike Chapman, a USCB police sergeant over the Beaufort campus, remembers the tree from when he attended Beaufort Elementary School in the building during the 1960s.

The bees have been in the tree for months but not as visible during the cooler weather, Chapman said. He was concerned for school children who often visit the auditorium or play around the tree.

Chapman discouraged suggestions to call an exterminator. After warning someone doing a photo shoot near the tree, the photographer contacted Mathison.

“We realized they were honey bees and said no, we don’t want to kill honey bees,” Chapman said. “They are few and far between now.

Mathison has since embraced the tree’s challenge. He used a large canvas strap to affix his box to the base of the tree, inserted a plastic funnel into the opening where the bees come and go and covered the rest of the hole with foam from an old seat cushion so the insects can’t return.

Numerous bees flew in the open gate on the side of the box just beside the funnel one morning this week. Mathison is hoping enough bees leave the hive to draw out the queen, but he’s not optimistic.

“I’m hoping I’m wrong and she’ll show up,” he said.

He tried shining a light up into the tree but is unsure how deep the colony resides.

The insects are friendly, Mathison said. He left off the gloves while screwing pieces of board to the base of the tree to secure the foam.

The bees might sting his bare hands, but they are more likely to sting the white gloves, he said. The smell emitted by the sting would only attract more bees.

He’s prepared to wait days to collect the bees and would then close the gate and bring them to his Laurel Bay area home. They might produce enough honey to harvest in a few months before leaving the rest for the bees to endure winter.

Then Mathison will try to seal the hole at the bees’ former home.

If not, another swarm will smell the honey and move in.

Stephen Fastenau covers northern Beaufort County as a reporter for The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet, where he has worked since 2010 and been recognized with state and national awards. He studied journalism and political science at the University of South Carolina in Columbia and lives in Beaufort.
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