It’s a little after 6 p.m. on a recent weeknight, but work is just beginning for the men with the ladders, tools and buckets standing outside an apartment building off Archdale Drive.
Charles Stewart, 72, and Richard Flanagan, 50, are hobby beekeepers. But besides tending hives of their own bees, Stewart and Flanagan regularly team up to remove swarms of honeybees from homes, churches, businesses and other buildings in and around Charlotte. A typical removal may cost $200 to $300. They save as many of the bees as they can.
“We’ve had million-dollar homes, and we’ve had shacks,” Flanagan says. “The bees don’t care.”
The bees at The Highlands Apartment Homes building off Archdale Drive built their hive between pieces of wood separating the floors. To get to the hive, the men will have to strip off siding and saw through wood.
Bees are flying in and out of a gap where the exterior wall and siding meet as the two men lean their metal ladder against the building.
The duo has been removing unwanted bees for more than eight years, and demand for services has grown since their first removal.
“It just took off to the point where we were working so much, that like every other day we were going out after work to get bees,” says Flanagan, who works at Carolinas Medical Center. “It was too much.”
To ease their workload, Flanagan and Stewart trained other beekeepers to remove swarms. They don’t mind that they’ve created job competition.
“I’d rather have a lot of people out there saving the bees, rescuing them, getting them out of the house and taking them back to their hives,” Flanagan says, “as opposed to people just spraying and killing them.”
The sweet part of the job
They begin by lighting a smoker that’s used to slow the bees down. Then Stewart, a retired carpenter, removes the siding and other parts of a building that stand between the men and the bees.
Before the men get too far into the job, it’s tradition to predict how many five-gallon buckets of honey, honeycomb and bees they will fill. For this building, Flanagan predicts two buckets.
After he finishes sawing, Stewart removes a piece of wood from the side of the house and there they are: the honeybees.
Some begin to fly around Stewart’s unprotected head, but he isn’t stung as he calmly retreats down the ladder. Most stay with their honeycomb.
“They’re peaceful, as long as you don’t disturb them,” Stewart says. But as an assistant rips the waxy, sticky, bee-covered honeycomb from the side of the apartment building and places it into buckets, disturbing appears to be just what the men are doing.
“That’s some pretty honeycomb,” says Flanagan as he dips his finger into the honey, tastes it and declares that it’s tulip poplar honey. “The best honey in the whole wide world.”
Vacuum lets bees live
Most of the bees at the apartment will not be killed. Those that didn’t stay with the honeycomb are sucked into a bucket with a specially outfitted vacuum that Stewart created. It doesn’t hurt the bees.
“He built it in like 10 minutes,” Flanagan said. “It’s so good that other beekeepers come and want to take pictures of it.”
The harvest at the apartment building reaps about two buckets of bees, honey and honeycomb. Stewart estimates about 40,000 bees were removed in all. They went home with Flanagan, who has introduced them to his hives.
The men are already buzzing about their next removal job – a house off Randolph Road – as they pack up their bees and tools.
“We do it for the love of it,” Flanagan says.