20 August 2021

Meet the member: To bee or not to bee


Ian Fuller (B.Eng) at Swarmcatcher has been removing and relocating live honey bees for more than a decade.

In this article, BPCA’s Comms Officer Kat Shaw talks to him about his bee removal business, qualifications and the increasing interest in bee preservation.

To bee of not to bee wmeet the BPCA member Swarmcatcher

Having kept bees himself for many years and being around bees as a youngster, it seemed like the perfect choice to go into the bee removal business.

“It began as a general interest thing and has grown organically over the years. I thought it would be nice to encourage my son to help, so we attended a winter WBKA (Welsh Beekeepers Association) course together,” says Ian.

He explained, “It was a basic beekeeping course, to provide novices some experience in dealing with well-mannered bees in hives.

“That should probably be the bare minimum qualification you need to even think about doing before removing an easily accessible swarm.”

“Initially as a business we started out collecting swarms locally, from difficult-to-access locations, as part of our local pest control service.

“As time passed we started carrying out removals from buildings, usually soffits, flat roofs and other relatively easy access locations.

“As our knowledge grew we increased the variety and the type of work that we were doing, bringing in professional assistance from other trades to ensure we could carry out the removals effectively and professionally.”

Mistaken identities

During this time Ian says they found many pest controllers were misidentifying honey bees as being wasp nests. “We found this a lot when it came to nests in chimneys and places like that,” comments Ian.

“Many of the more unskilled operators will treat these, with no thought for things like proofing against foraging bees or removing the comb. This can be quite hazardous to local bee populations in many ways and detrimental to the building for several reasons.”

When a honey bee colony within a hard-to-access space is treated, that large comb structure stays in the building. If your treatment actually reaches the comb, the larvae will die but they will rot in that space, as will the comb. You might also invite secondary infestations, like wax moths.

Live bee removal really is the best option, but it’s one that requires a lot of effort and knowledge when it’s not just a swarm on a tree branch.

Ian Fuller, Swarmcatcher

Ian says, “Removing the combs with the bee nest having been pumped with pesticide adds the additional problem of what to do with the material.

“It is now toxic and needs to be treated as toxic waste – this does not include burning in the backyard or fireplace (as one of the chimney associations has suggested!) nor does it include being thrown into general waste.

“It requires a special waste carrier’s license and to be disposed of at extra cost.”

He continues, “Live bee removal really is the best option, but it’s one that requires a lot of effort and knowledge when it’s not just a swarm on a tree branch.

“When carrying out a removal of a bee colony from a building there is more at stake than just the removal of the bee nest. You need to think about possible damage that may be caused by the removal process, reinstatement, secondary infestations, proofing and re-infestation by future bee swarms.”

Ian says that Swarmcatcher’s aim since the start has been to limit the impact of their work on a property. “Only once have we removed a section of chimney stack and that was at the request of the customer, as they wanted the stack gone so it could be slated over.

“Over time we have increased the number of removals that we carry out year on year, gaining more knowledge and increasing our experience. Each time learning something new, improving our techniques and working in different scenarios.”

Boom in bees

As the business has grown, Swarmcatcher has seen an exponential increase in the need for their service.

Early on they were carrying out the removals for like-minded people, who did not want to see bee colonies killed, and who could see the benefit of removing the complete colony and proofing against re-infestation.

However, in the last two to three years, pest controllers have seen a steady reduction in the number of insecticides that they can use to terminate a honey bee colony, often with a reduced level of success.

As insecticide products have come to the end of their Control of Pesticide Regulations (COPR) registration they have either not been reauthorised or granted registration that is very restrictive under new Biocidal Product Regulations (BPR), and this is likely to continue.

...we are seeing an increase in swarm numbers, and combined with the loss of natural habitat for the bees, buildings become a very attractive prospect for swarms to occupy, particularly chimneys.

Ian Fuller, Swarmcatcher

Alongside this, ownership of a bee colony or two has become very trendy, says Ian.

“Unfortunately many of these supposed beekeepers don’t understand the need for proper management of these colonies and how to prevent them from creating swarms.

"As a result we are seeing an increase in swarm numbers, and combined with the loss of natural habitat for the bees, buildings become a very attractive prospect for swarms to occupy, particularly chimneys.

“So with a reduction of usable insecticides and the increased number of bee colonies swarming, there is a growing need for specialist bee removal services.”

Ian doesn’t necessarily think that this is always a good thing, however.

“This growing need for removal has been recognised by some of the more unscrupulous operators out there, who have realised that the cost for removal of an established colony can be very high and see it as a lucrative opportunity to offer a bee removal service.

“Unfortunately some of these individuals don’t have a proper understanding of building construction, Building Regulations, bee behaviour, removal techniques or anything else really. Only that they see the professional businesses charging a lot for their service and think they can cash in too.

“These individuals are very happy to dismantle a property, leaving someone else to deal with extensive repairs because they have little knowledge on how to carry out a removal with minimum impact.”

Ian Fuller at Swarmcatcher on the live removal of bees

Show us your credentials

Ian thinks the current standard of training and qualifications for any business carrying out live bee removal is too low.

“I occasionally get asked a very good question by customers,” he says. “‘Can you provide evidence that you are qualified to work with and remove live bees?’

“Let’s start off with the basics: in the UK there is no legal requirement to have any certification or training for working with or for keeping bees.

“I don’t know if any of the UK’s Beekeeping Associations have introduced a module on swarm removal yet – it would be a sensible thing if they haven’t.

“But to be qualified for live bee removals – well, that’s difficult. You need to know so much yet there are no manuals or extensive courses.

“There are a few introductory courses that are a day or two long, that cover a very broad spectrum but certainly not sufficient in time to cover anything in great detail. These courses are definitely the bare minimum, but I don’t feel they provide sufficient knowledge and skill required to carry out honey bee removals safely.”

A clean sweep

From the start of his venture, Ian, as a degree-level qualified engineer, was well aware that chimneys are defined as controlled devices within Building Regulations.

“So before we started to carry out removals from chimneys I went on a week-long chimney sweep course (now referred to as a chimney engineer course, though I don’t recall seeing much on flue dynamics or any other engineering topic).

“This gave us some confidence in regard to what to expect to find on a chimney stack and helped identify what we could and couldn’t do legally.”

He continued, “We were also introduced to, and are still in contact with, some very experienced chimney builders who work on Heritage properties throughout the UK & Europe.

They’ve been kind enough to advise us on reinstatement methods and, should we have any problems, they are just at the end of the phone to give us good advice.”

Ian thinks that it’s a surprisingly under legislated area in regards to required qualifications for working on chimneys, considering the consequences of poor workmanship.

“There was a case recently where a pest controller took a terminal off a flue liner, then accidentally dropped the flue liner, removed the bees and failed to reinstate the flue liner because he was not aware of the importance of it.

“Their poor workmanship was eventually found out about because thankfully the occupier’s CO monitor alarm rang out.”

Think before you leap

Have you seen a fire consisting of a large amount of beeswax comb and wax filled with honey stores? It’s ferocious and very hot, sufficiently so to burn through a steel drum.

Ian Fuller, Swarmcatcher

Ian poses a list of questions that he says are just some of the things you need to think about before attempting bee removal.

How do you prevent wax dropping further down a flue and being caught between the liner and the flue, at a change in direction? How far from the heat source is this? What will the gas temperatures in the flue be at this point? What’s the temperature at which wax will instantaneously combust?

Ian asks, “Have you seen a fire consisting of a large amount of beeswax comb and wax filled with honey stores? It’s ferocious and very hot, sufficiently so to burn through a steel drum.

“These are amongst the many questions that we have spent considerable time investigating so that we can provide our clients the best advice and service that we can.

“My advice would be: if you don’t know what you’re doing, just don’t do it without looking into additional training. Bee removal might seem lucrative, but the consequences if you’re untrained and unskilled can be dire.”

Source: PPC104

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