April 21, 2008

beekeeper's lament *


Floridian One to Call When Bees Move In

CAPE CORAL, Fla. — In a county with one of the nation’s highest foreclosure rates, empty houses have attracted a new type of nonpaying tenant: bees.

Tens of thousands of honeybees, building nests in garages, rafters, even furniture left behind.

When a swarm came to the foreclosed ranch house at 3738 Santa Barbara Place in Cape Coral, town officials called B. Keith Councell, a fourth generation beekeeper and licensed bee remover.

On a recent evening, Mr. Councell stood at the light blue house’s open garage door as hundreds of honeybees buzzed over his head and past his ears, disappearing into a hole behind the water meter. The house has been without a human occupant since December.

Then he did what he does at most foreclosed homes: nothing.

“If it’s in the yard I just take care of it,” Mr. Councell said. “But if it’s in the structure, usually I can’t get permission to go in. And it’s a problem, because somebody’s going to get stung. It creates a risk for everybody around.”

Foreclosed houses around the country have been colonized by squatters, collegiate revelers, methamphetamine cooks, stray dogs, rats and other uninvited guests. Mr. Councell, 35, only has eyes for bees.

Last year, he said, he answered calls about bees in more than 100 vacant houses, and the volume was higher this year.

Lee County, on Florida's southwest coast, was until recently a boom area, with brightly colored ranch houses and Spanish-style bungalows drawing investors, snowbirds and refugees from colder climates, followed by new malls and big-box retail stores. Muscovy ducks wander through yards. But like other fast-growth regions, the county is now a focal point in the foreclosure meltdown. By one measure it had the highest foreclosure rate in the country earlier this year. “For Sale” signs and abandoned houses dot high- and low-income neighborhoods alike; billboards advertise foreclosure rescue services.

But for area bees, the real estate boom is just beginning. “Abandoned buildings attract bees,” said Roy Beckford, the University of Florida agricultural and natural resources agent in Lee County, who said he had received “quite a few calls” about bees in empty properties.

“Bees anywhere in the world will make homes in any building that is not occupied,” Mr. Beckford said. “They send scouts out, and find a place where they will not be disturbed. They’re looking for a sheltered place to build colonies and make honey.” Bees also live in occupied homes.

Most hives have 15,000 to 60,000 bees, said Prof. Jamie Ellis, a bee specialist at the University of Florida.

Mr. Councell said he noticed an increase in calls to vacant houses two years ago, and steadily more since then. “If that continues, then we’ve got a big problem,” he said.

An unlikely player in the Florida real estate market, Mr. Councell has not had a permanent home since 2004, when Hurricane Charley destroyed his trailer. Since then he has lived in a room at the St. Nicholas Eastern Orthodox Monastery, to which he donates all the honey and beeswax from his 300 or so bee colonies.

At a time when honeybee populations are dropping nationwide, Mr. Councell sees himself in competition with exterminators.

Because Africanized honeybees, sometimes called killer bees for their aggressiveness, have appeared in Florida, the current trend is toward exterminating rather than removing them, Professor Ellis said.

When Mr. Councell removes a colony, he kills the queen and replaces it with a European queen. “If I can remove a box of bees and put them to use, so they’re pollinating fields, instead of that guy spraying, it makes more sense,” he said.

On a typical job, Mr. Councell, who works without netting or gloves, scoops the bees by hand into a wooden box, which he brings to the monastery for keeping. Stings are part of the job. The bees travel by day within a five-mile radius, pollinating plants, then fly back to the box at night. He starts his work days shortly after 7 a.m. and continues to around midnight, sometimes clearing five or six colonies in a day.

“Mostly I live in my truck,” he said. “This is all I do. I don’t have a family, I don’t have a girlfriend. My mom is after me to have a wife and kids. It’d be nice to have a house to come home to, but I’m fine with what I am.”

He does not have air conditioning or a radio in his truck, and he does not wear a watch, telling time, he said, by watching the bees.

When a house is vacant and in foreclosure, Mr. Councell, who rarely uses a computer, finds himself in a tangle of red tape, following trails of loan records to locate the owner, often an out-of-state lender, then a local managing agent. Generally, he said, even when he finds the necessary people, they do not let him on the property, either not wanting to spend the money or not wanting to risk the liability.

“If it’s in foreclosure, it can be very difficult to find the owner,” said Frank Cassidy, the code compliance division manager for Cape Coral, whose office often calls Mr. Councell about infested houses. “The owner may not want the responsibility. We have to wait for a court to determine responsibility. Our requirements are to make the property safe and secure. If they refuse a beekeeper entry, that becomes a civil issue.”

At the monastery, Mother Andrea Nicholas spent a recent morning dipping racks of wicks in a vat of amber beeswax, a faint honey smell permeating the room. “It’s my favorite obedience,” she said. “If I don’t do it prayerfully, the candles get lumpy.”

The candles go to other Orthodox churches, where she said they burned cleaner than paraffin candles. Mother Andrea’s bee revenues, too, have been affected by the foreclosure crisis. Since the crisis, she said, more people come to the church for help, but the church’s donations are down. “There’s families with children out on the streets. We give them honey. They come to church, they light a candle — out of beeswax — and send up a prayer to God that this whole foreclosure mess will be taken care of somehow miraculously.”

Mr. Councell often does not charge to remove bees from financially distressed homes, and he said 70 or 80 people owed him money. Often, he said, they make no attempt to pay until the next hive appears.

“Basically I’m floating, continuously,” he said. “A lot of times my account will go into the red. I do it because I have the love for the bees. They’re a part of my close-knit family. If I take care of them they’re going to take care of me eventually. Regardless of what I do, they’re always there for me.”


*click on title to watch NY TIMES video.

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