Having the “Trees and the Bees” Talk

A Dallas homeowner calls a local tree-service company to have a broken hanger removed and to get a pruning estimate for their backyard pecan tree. When the sales arborist arrives, the homeowner points out honey-bee activity around a cavity in the tree. The homeowner is told they will need to have the bees exterminated before any work can be scheduled. After calling a few other tree services, the same response is repeated again and again.

Bees are essential for the pollination of our food supply and trees. Some homeowners may appreciate an alternative to exterminating bees. Knowing how to safely work around bees, where to find local resources on bee education and management and how to have a “trees and the bees” talk with a customer communicates a genuine concern for the wildlife that depend on urban trees for survival.

My very first TCI Magazine article, published in October 2010 and reprinted in August 2022, was “Beekeeping Is a Sweet Hobby for an Arborist.” Over the past 12 years, I have managed apiaries, removed bees from trees and structures, educated the public about the importance of honey-bee pollinators and received countless stings along the way. Let me share some of what I’ve learned.


Local bee clubs are tremendous resources for connecting with beekeepers, increasing your knowledge of bees, finding beekeepers who can relocate swarms and obtaining protective suits for working around angry bees. Bees that have had their homes threatened tend to respond aggressively. Beekeepers who do cutouts – the term used for removing a bee colony from a structure – can provide valuable knowledge on the best type of bee suit, when to use smoke and even the possibility of using a trap out.

A trap out is a method of placing an exit-only cone over the entrance to the hive and placing a bait box with frames of brood and honey that will attract the bees. This method requires time to work and is not always successful in getting the queen to relocate to the bait hive.

author works on bee tree that has fallen down in the street.
The author works on a bee tree that is down in the street. His PPE is under the bee suit. All photos courtesy of the author.

Climbing with bees

Paul, a Dallas beekeeper, contacted me about the aforementioned homeowner’s desire to save the bee colony and still get their tree serviced. I called the homeowner and scheduled an appointment to look at the tree. On site, I observed bee activity around a cavity in a limb approximately 25 to 30 feet off the ground. The homeowner said the bees had never stung them or acted aggressively by bumping or buzzing their heads. The broken hanger was perched over the house’s electric-service drop, and if it came loose would, most likely, damage the electrical connection. The removal of the broken limb was the homeowner’s most urgent concern, and if the bees could be saved, that would be the ideal outcome.

I no longer do production tree work. However, I stay active through rec climbing, training and taking a few “cat in a tree” rescue calls every year. The limb was 15 to 20 feet from the hive entrance, so a bee jacket would be needed for added protection. I would be working in close proximity to the service drop, and my EHAP training was current. The ANSI Z133 “Table 2: Approach distances for incidental line clearance” would need to be followed. My wife, Lisa, and Paul, the Dallas beekeeper, would serve as the ground crew. I scheduled the job for a future date.

The day of the job, I arrived early in the morning and placed a few drops of lemongrass oil on my wrists before getting started. Lemongrass oil attracts honey bees and is used in swarm traps. The idea with the lemongrass is that the bees would see me as friendly and not a threat. The job briefing pointed out the electrical hazards, broken hanger and the bees. No one present had any known bee allergies, and there were extra bee jackets if needed. The first-aid kit was stocked with a tube of “Stops The Sting” ointment, and emergency contact instructions were assigned to Lisa.

With clear instructions assigned to everyone, I launched a throw line high in the tree using the Notch Big Shot. With every eye on me, I hit my tie-in point on the first try. I nonchalantly said, “That happens all the time.” I pulled an access line through the branch union and secured a canopy anchor.

I ascended my rope to where the hanging limb was lodged, tied off a rigging line and had the ground crew take out the slack. I had a battery-powered chain saw, but I did not need to make any cuts while in the tree. Bees have been known to attack operators of gas-powered engines like chain saws, weed eaters and lawn mowers. The limb was easily dislodged and lowered to the ground, avoiding contact with the service drop.

I was never stung nor bothered by the bees during the removal of the hanger. However, this is not always the case, and safety precautions must be taken to protect your crew in the tree and on the ground. The pre-job briefing, required by ANSI Z133, “shall” communicate to all affected workers any hazards associated with the job, work procedures, special precautions, electrical hazards, job assignments and personal protective equipment (PPE) required.

Limbwalking toward the hive.

Stings and allergies

On May 20, 2022, Franco Galvan Martinez was working for a landscape and lighting business in Austin, Texas, when he disturbed a beehive in the cavity of a tree he was prepping for lighting.

According to the kxan.com news report, Mr. Martinez was “suspended by a harness when he inadvertently disturbed a hive and the bees swarmed. ‘I guess in Franco’s panic trying to swat away the bees from himself, he kicked away the ladder,’ said Joe Maldonado, a family friend and pastor.”

My heartfelt sympathy goes out to his family for their tragic loss. Mr. Martinez went into cardiac arrest while suspended in the tree, and co-workers were unable to reach him to provide medical attention.

Someone who has a severe allergic reaction to bee stings could have a 25-65% chance of anaphylactic shock, a life-threatening situation. Anaphylaxis usually occurs from five to 30 minutes after being stung, but can occur even longer after exposure. This highlights the importance of knowing if anyone on your crew has an allergic reaction to stings and keeping your CPR/first-aid certifications current. Over the years of being stung by honey bees, I’ve noticed that the sting location swells a little more and itches for longer than it did when I first started beekeeping.

Honey bees are reluctant to sting and do so only as a last resort. Honey-bee stingers are made of two barbed lancets, and when the bee tries to pull it out, the stinger, along with the bee’s digestive tract, is left behind. This massive abdominal rupture is what kills the bee, if you haven’t already crushed it with your hand. The sting also releases an alarm pheromone that instructs any other bee in the area to sting you. Distancing yourself from the hive and getting into a vehicle or house is the best course of action.

A hive entrance.

What if the bees can’t be saved?

Eliminating or killing bees in a tree cavity is rarely successful, because it is difficult to get pesticide deep into the cavity. Applying pesticides typically requires a pesticide applicator’s license. (Check your state laws and regulations.) Vinegar and water or a soapy solution in a pump sprayer are non-pesticide alternatives to controlling bees when there are no other options. These “natural alternatives” also will kill honey bees, depending on the concentration of vinegar, or the soapy solution will coat the bees’ wings and make them unable to fly, and they will eventually die.

Not every hive can be saved, and the safety of your crew and the public must be a priority. Bee trees that fail in parks and on streets must be addressed immediately, and in these instances, a bee suit and a pump sprayer with soapy water may be the best choice when time is of the essence and public safety is at risk. However, when time is available, there are non-lethal alternatives.

Smoker and beehive.

Relocating bees

Bee colonies can successfully be relocated by removing the entire section of tree that contains the hive. After dark, most bees have returned to the hive, and under the cover of darkness, all entrances to the tree cavity can be sealed using wire mesh and roofing nails. Caution! Even though they do not normally fly at night, once you start hammering nails around the entrance to their hive they tend to go on the offensive, so wearing a bee jacket is recommended.

Once the hive entrances are sealed, you must proceed with the removal or open the hive back up within 24 hours. The following morning, using an aerial lift and a grapple loader or crane is the best way to handle this type of removal. The tree crew should have bee-suit protection and hold a job briefing that covers what to do if the cavity is cut into and angry bees emerge.

If all goes according to plan, the tree parts above the cavity are removed, the body of the tree that contains the cavity is rigged and the tree is cut below the cavity and lowered onto a trailer, then removed from the job site as soon as possible.

Note: It is important to keep the body of the tree containing the hive in the same orientation on the trailer as it was in the tree. If the orientation is altered, the uncapped honey will run out, coating the bees trapped inside the cavity as well as attracting forager bees from other bee colonies. Also, forager bees that didn’t make it back before dark and later returned to the hive, or bees that escaped from the tree during the relocation efforts, may become agitated, and anyone in the vicinity of the hive can be at risk of being stung.

The bees in the removed portion of the tree can be taken to an apiary or another location and left in the tree to continue their life cycle.

Another option is that the beekeeper may try to cut into the tree, locate the queen and place her in a Langstroth hive. In this case, the worker bees would follow her.

Langstroth hive body.

Getting a closer look

At the completion of the job, I wanted to get a closer look at the hive, so I set another line and ascended to the entrance. With my bee jacket on, I hung suspended in front of the hive entrance for a few minutes to get some photos and, again, not one bee paid any attention to me.

Humans have been foraging honey for thousands of years. In Valencia, Spain, a cave painting dating to 9,000 BCE clearly depicts a man climbing a tree to stick his hand directly into a beehive. Tree beekeeping can trace its roots back more than 1,000 years, to Eastern European monks who provided the first written accounts of tree beekeeping.

A honey-bee colony is called a superorganism, because the survival of the entire colony depends on the coordinated actions of individuals. Working together, colonies build and maintain hives, regulate the hive temperature, reproduce and raise young and collect and store food in the form of honey and pollen. Before the advent of the modern bee box – the Langstroth hive – bee-tree locations were kept secret. The tree beekeeper could harvest honey once a season, hoping not to kill the queen in the process and leaving the colony with enough resources to rebuild before winter.

Beehive on a limb that is ready for removal.

Bee swarms

In Texas, honey bees normally swarm in the spring months of April and May. In a natural cavity, they may outgrow the space and swarm. The current queen will take half of the colony and look for another residence. This could be another tree cavity or a crack in a structure, or, if the queen stays still for too long, the bees may start drawing out honeycomb on the branch of a tree. Swarms are not typically aggressive, because they don’t have honey or brood to protect. Finding a new home so the queen can start laying eggs is their primary goal.

Beehive removed and ready for transport.

“Trees and the Bees” talk

A “Trees and the Bees” talk is much easier with a customer than a “Birds and the Bees” talk with your children. Having a company policy that outlines whether your crews can work on trees identified as bee trees is a good first step. This policy can be added to the terms and conditions of the work proposal, so if bees are identified before or after the work begins, the customer has been made aware of the company’s policy. A company may decline work if bees are observed during the proposal visit or stop work if bees are encountered by the crew.

In temperatures below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, bees will cluster around their queen to keep her and themselves warm. Tree work can be performed when temperatures are below 50 degrees with relatively low risk to tree crews. If a colony vacates the tree cavity, whether it was naturally or by use of chemicals, it is recommended to close up the cavity entrance so another swarm won’t stumble onto this empty abode. Another good practice is to caulk any and all cracks around the home. Honey bees are masters at finding small cracks in the siding, bricks and facia that lead into open wall and ceiling cavities.

Identifying the hazards, having the proper PPE and knowing what to do in an emergency are musts for any tree job. Bee colonies, whether they are aggressive or docile, should always be treated with respect and planning.

Kristoffer Rasmussen is urban forestry manager for the city of Dallas, Texas, a TCIA Accreditation/loss-control auditor and a member of TCI Magazine’s Editorial Advisory Committee.

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