Mark Gawne has been an arborist for the city of Madison more than 20 years, but until Thursday morning he’d never worn a bee suit.
Clad in baggy white armor and perched high up in a cherry picker, Gawne carefully wrapped plastic wrap around the hollow branch of a red oak tree at Hudson Park, sealing off the opening to a honeybee hive inside.
As bees loaded down with nectar buzzed around him, trying to get back into their home, he carefully sawed the branch off and lowered it to the ground. The tender extraction was all part of an effort to save the hive before the tree on Madison’s East Side was cut down.
“Local honey is a big deal in Madison,” Gawne said. “So we don’t want to lose these resources.”
Also on the scene was Marty VanHaren, a Middleton beekeeper asked by the Dane County Beekeeping Association to take the hive. The group was contacted by the city.
VanHaren said he planned to introduce the hive to his existing hives in the hope that the new Queen would mate with some of his drones. The bees retrieved Thursday are particularly desirable because they’re wild and likely have stronger genetic qualities, he said.
“They have been surviving here for several years, just doing their own thing,” VanHaren said. “Clearly they’ve developed a resistance to Wisconsin winters and natural bee diseases.”
Around the country, honeybees are being decimated by colony collapse disorder — an umbrella term for the array of challenges facing the species from pesticides and mites to the increasingly common practice of trucking bees around the country to pollinate crops, which also aids in spreading bee-killing diseases.
“These feral bees have acclimated and now possess really positive characteristics,” VanHaren said. “Plus, they’re not near a farm field, so they probably have not been affected as much by agricultural inhabitants.”
It’s not just the honey that takes a hit when bee levels are low.
“So many plants — apples, cranberries, almonds — depend on bees to pollinate them,” VanHaren said. “Without a strong bee population, we lose that food.”
For now, VanHaren is planning to let the bees stay in their branch — as long as the Queen stays, so will the rest of the hive — which he’s set up on his property near his other bees.
If that doesn’t work, VanHaren will cut the branch open and remove the honeycombs and insert them into his beekeeper boxes until something takes.
“It’s similar to breeding dogs for specific traits — like you breed black labs so they hunt and swim well,” VanHaren said. “It’s the same with bees. We want to cross breed them to share their strengths so that they can survive.”