Princeton Facilities Staff Discover Enormous Honeybee Colony

staff with bee hive
Posted on April 6, 2017

by Somi Jun '20

During February's record-breaking warm spell, Princeton University Facilities staff members, Drew Slimmer and John Castles, went to McCosh Hall to do repairs, noting honeybees flying in and out of a hole under a vestibule roof. Upon closer inspection, Slimmer and Castles found not only a roof in need of repair, but also a large hive, its intricate honeycomb swarming with perhaps 25,000 honeybees.

Slimmer, who has been working on Princeton’s campus for about 20 years, remembers removing a beehive from the same viscinity about 18 years ago. He speculates that some of the bees survived that removal, came back to McCosh, and have been producing honeycomb and pollinating campus flowers for the better part of the past two decades.

honey comb Honeycomb close-up

In fact, he estimates that he's found over 20 old hives in roofs around Princeton during his employment at the university, but this is the first time that he has encountered an active nest up close and personal. 

“I’m 50 years old, and this blew my mind. This was one of the highlights of my life,” Slimmer said.

The bees needed to be relocated so that roof repairs could be completed. To safely remove them, Slimmer, Castles, and local bee keeper, Robert Simonofsky, extracted them from the nest over the course of about five hours, using a vacuum device designed by Simonofsky to make transporting the bees to a new home easier. Slimmer and other Facilities staff then removed the comb and harvested about 30 pounds of honey, which they jarred and gave as gifts to people around the university.

“It’s our choice, it’s not policy. It’s just something that we’ve always done--we never kill the honeybees,” Slimmer said. “I’m really impressed with them and I don’t see why you’d want to kill them.”

Simonofsky, who always donates extracted bees to local beekeepers, recommended that the bees be taken several miles from campus to prevent their return to the same location. Shana Weber, Director of the Office of Sustainability, has been beekeeping for 2 years with her family in Hopewell and offered an empty hive and stored honey from last year for the bees. After a nine mile trip, the bees adopted their new home readily. 

"It was not at all an ideal time of year to move bees, and we were all worried that the coming cold weather was going to stress them too much, or that the queen was not captured. But it was definitely worth considerable effort to give them a chance," said Weber.

Unfortunately, the very cold weather that followed did stress the bees and after several weeks their numbers dwindled. When inspecting the hive, Weber and her family found no evidence that the queen had been captured with the swarm, so the bees had no way to reproduce. What that likely means is that the queen is still on campus, out of reach, with the remainder of her hive. 

Another common reason beekeeping can be challenging is Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), resulting in colony die offs. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, among the potential factors contributing to CCD are invasive mites, emerging new diseases, pesticides, and changes in habitat where bees forage. Because many agricultural crops worldwide are pollinated by western honey bees, CCD causes significant economic losses.

"In Hopewell, about nine miles from campus, we know a number of beekeepers who struggle every year to keep their colonies alive. The pest load, including mites, wax moths, and hive beetles, is much higher than in decades past and they weaken colonies to the point where they can't survive the winter. Having early warm spells like we had this year, followed by extreme cold, may also be a factor. Almost every beekeeper we know loses more than half of their colonies every year. Its a problem worthy of intensive research, not only for honeybees but all native bees," said Weber.

According to Dave Wagenblast, Crew Leader of the Landscape Grounds Shop, and unofficial advisor of the student-run BEE Team, founded in 2009 by Michael Smith ‘10, beekeeping as been increasingly difficult during a time when the ecological and economic importance of honeybees as pollinators is making national headlines. Wagenblast, who has kept bees with his family for about 25 years, reflected on how beekeeping has changed since he first got into the hobby.

“Now, every year, something pops up,” Wagenblast said. “It’s a little harder. It’s a little more expensive. It’s a little sadder, as you nurture a hive from year to year and all of a sudden, for almost no apparent reason, you go in and they’re all dead. It’s like losing a puppy or a kitten.”

The BEE Team shares Wagenblast's appreciation for honeybees, and helps to familiarize students and other campus community members with their importance through hive visits and by hosting related events on campus.

"I'm actually glad that the queen is still on campus, with what I'm sure is still a large portion of her worker and nurse bee colony. And I am so deeply impressed with Drew and John. Their care for these bees, and their effort to give them every chance they could, was one of the highlights of my 10 years here at Princeton. I'll never forget that day we admired the gorgeous comb and ate outrageously delicious honey together with deep appreciation," said Weber. 

Keywords: bee, BEE team, bee hive, bees, honey