Beehive at Smith College a 'colossal' challenge

Last modified: Tuesday, November 27, 2012

NORTHAMPTON — High above the Smith College campus, Northampton resident Adam Novitt leaned over the top of a brick chimney on the roof of the four-story Seelye Hall. He’s not a chimney sweep, a roofer or even a photographer trying to capture the breathtaking view over the treetops of the Pioneer Valley.

He’s here to outsmart bees. Approximately 40,000 of them are living somewhere in the building’s walls or heating system, and it is his job to get them out.

Novitt, 45, is a beekeeper who sometimes helps property owners get unwanted swarms of honeybees out of their walls, ceilings or roofs.

Smith College hired him to remove a massive colony of honeybees that moved into the building at least 10 years ago, he said. The bees enter and exit the building via the chimney, but the hive could be anywhere in the building’s heating system, or even in a wall cavity they can access through the system.

He knew the project was going to be difficult because it was on the roof and the exact location of the hive was unknown. But he was shocked when he observed the chimney and saw between 100 and 150 bees flying in and out of it per minute. He calls the beehive a feral colony.

“It’s colossal,” he said. “It’s as big a colony as I’ve ever seen and far and away the biggest removal project I’ve ever done.”

His plan to remove the bees from the building is called a “trap-out.” It involves tricking the insects into moving into a “bait hive” installed on the top of the chimney. “I’ve done trap-outs before, but this is just crazy because it’s so big and it’s on top of a building,” he said.

A side business

Novitt, the director of the Sunderland Public Library, has been keeping bees for six years. People started calling him for help ridding their homes of honeybee swarms about two years ago, and he began doing the removals when he could find the time.

In most cases, the solution is a cutout, a process that involves locating the bees in the wall, floor or other space by listening with a stethoscope or using an infrared heat detector, and then cutting into the wall to access the colony. Ideally, the part of the hive containing the eggs is cut out and placed in a man-made hive near the original nest, and when he blocks up the entrance to the old nest, the bees move into the new hive and can be taken away.

Because most cutouts involve working inside a home, they don’t use smoke to calm the bees. “We just put on bee veils and gloves and tuck our jeans into our socks,” he said. “We try and seal the affected room off from the rest of the house.”

He said most removal jobs involve colonies of about 8,000 or 9,000 bees that moved into a home a month or two before. But at Seelye Hall, the college has been monitoring the situation for the past decade and the colony was very well established by the time officials decided it was time to do something about it, he said.

“The old heating system is connected to all the rooms, so a bee could come down a blocked up fireplace and show up in a classroom and disrupt a class,” he said.

In the hall, which holds classrooms and faculty offices, a cutout won’t work because the building’s brick walls are too thick for him to locate the hive.

So three weeks ago, Novitt and Smith College maintenance workers began the trap-out by installing a bait hive on top of the chimney, which they sealed up with a sheet of plywood and spray foam.

The bees can leave the chimney through a 11∕2-inch wide check valve, but they cannot get back in. “When they return, they’re confused and they wind up joining the colony in the bait hive,” he said. The bait hive is “alive” with honey and a brood of its own, he said, which entices the bees to stay.

Novitt climbed to the roof of the building Tuesday to check that the trap-out was working. He watched the bees flying to and from the chimney for only a few seconds before he realized the problem.

“We’ve been outfoxed,” he said, pointing to the far corner of the chimney, where bees were going in and out of a tiny space between the plywood and the cracked concrete. “We’ll have to reseal those holes and force them to use the check valve,” he said.

He said the buzzing bees going in and out of the bait hive means that some of the colony has moved in, but not enough.

“The idea is we’re preventing the foragers from bringing resources back to the hive, so the bees below will run out of resources, come out, and move up here,” he said. Because there is no way of knowing how much honey they have to live off, he cannot estimate when they will run out; it could be weeks or months.

Novitt leaned over the hive, his torso resting on its top, to get another look at the far side of the chimney, ignoring the bees swarming around him. His bee-handling suit, with gloves and a hat with a mesh veil, sat unused in a bucket behind him.

He said he has been stung thousands of times in the six years he has been keeping bees. “You get used to it,” he said with a shrug.

He will remove the bait hive by November at the latest, he said, because the bees will stop flying then due to the cold. He will take it home so the bees can become working members of the apiary he runs with his wife, Priscilla.

They keep most of their bees at their home on Hooker Avenue and near the Northampton Community Garden on Burts Pit Road. They sell the sweet product, labeled Northampton Honey, to River Valley Market in Northampton and Enterprise Farm in Whately.

He said they have a total of about 30 hives, with anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000 bees in each, depending on the hive and the time of year. “I’ve figured that on a sunny day in June, a million and a half of our bees are flying over Northampton,” he said.

He operates his bee removal side business mostly because it is interesting, he said.

“They’re never, ever straightforward,” he said, explaining that the bees seem to settle in a home’s most complicated nooks and crannies. “Every time I do a cutout, it’s like a game to figure it out.”

He does home visits for $50 to determine what the cutout will involve, or, in many cases, to confirm that the insects are actually honeybees. “People will say they’re definitely bees and I’ll get there and they’ll be paper wasps,” he said. He only deals with honeybees, and directs people with other stinging insects to call an exterminator.

The cost of the removal varies depending on how much time it takes and what the job entails, he said. He won’t know how much to charge Smith College until the project is finished, as it may even go into next year, but said it will be over $400.

Novitt said he is pleased the college called him to do the removal job, even though it is far from over. “To Smith’s credit, they’re definitely doing the best thing for the bees,” he said, explaining that the easy way out would be to cap off the chimney so the bees would die when their food ran out. “They’re really going out of their way, and this allows us to save as many of the bees as possible.”

And since he’s not afraid of heights, being up on the soaring roof has its benefits.

“It’s one of the most beautiful views of the Valley,” he said. “I’m hoping this goes on through foliage season.”

Rebecca Everett can be reached at


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