Last modified: Wednesday, April 03, 2013

NORTHAMPTON — Last October, beekeeper Adam Novitt was high on the roof of four-story Seelye Hall at Smith College, trying to trick a colony of approximately 40,000 bees flying in and out of a chimney into leaving their hive hidden somewhere in the building. It didn’t work.

Last week, armed with an infrared camera, standing on top of a ladder with his head and shoulders disappearing into the space above the suspended ceiling, Novitt initiated phase two of the project. Instead of waiting for the bees to come out on their own, he would go in and get them out. First order of business, though, is finding them.

“They could be anywhere,” Novitt admitted last Wednesday during the search in a first floor meeting room of Seelye Hall. “It will be unbelievable when we find them.”

As if to illustrate the necessity of his work, the historic fireplace in the room had been sealed off with plastic shrink wrap. A board of trustees meeting will be held there Thursday and Friday. Novitt said college officials realized they needed to take steps to ensure no bees to start flying out of it during the meeting.

Novitt, 45, of Northampton, is the director of the Sunderland Public Library. But when he’s not at work, he tends his backyard apiary and assists homeowners or businesses who need colonies of honey bees removed. Usually, the hives are easy to find under eaves or buzzing audibly in the thin walls of a house. Novitt cuts out a piece of wall to access the hive, puts the comb into a nearby bait hive, and the bees usually move into the new hive within 24 hours.

He has undertaken similar projects at Smith College dorms. But last fall, when college officials hired him to rid Seelye Hall of bees last fall, he realized it would be the most difficult bee removal project he’d tackled.

It’s hard for a number of reasons, he said. First, the location of the hive is unknown. The bees access it through a chimney on the roof, but within two feet of the mouth of the chimney, they dart into holes in the masonry and disappear. That means they could be anywhere in the sealed off areas of the 1899 building, whether in a wall, ceiling, or an unused air vent.

Second, the hive is huge. When he encountered the colony in October, he estimated that at the rate bees were flying in and out of the chimney — 100 to 150 per minute — that it was about 40,000 bees, the largest “feral colony” he’d ever seen. He said it is probably between 15,000 and 20,000 bees now because honey bee colonies reduce their size in the winter.

Because he did not know the hive’s location, last fall Novitt opted to try a “trap out” by sealing off the chimney so that the bees could get out, but not in. He placed a bait hive on top of the chimney, but the bees kept squeezing into the chimney to access their original hive through cracks in the masonry.

As the weather got colder, Novitt decided to give up on the trap out. If the bees had moved out, they would not have enough honey to survive the winter, and in general, trap outs are a riskier way to move a colony, he said. As a bee enthusiast, he couldn’t stand the idea of losing such a hardy colony that had survived in the building, by one professor’s account, over 18 years. The college told Novitt that employees have been aware of the bees for at least a decade.

Round two

Wednesday, Novitt was back at Seelye Hall, trying a new tactic. This time, he used high-tech equipment to try to locate the bees in the walls so he could cut out the hive.

The first thing he and his team of helpers tried was a powerful contact microphone which senses sound vibrations through solid objects. It was on loan from the city’s water division and Division Superintendant David Sparks operated it. He said the division uses it to listen for leaks in water pipes five or six feet below the ground.

Novitt thought the shaft that is directly below the chimney the bees use was the best place to look, so Sparks listened to the walls around the shaft in six different rooms, but heard nothing.

“If you got me in the room with them, I could hear them,” he told Novitt. “But there’s too much noise.” Although there were no students because it is winter break, some professors and administrators were in the building, along with workers hammering loudly as they replaced flooring in the hall.

Sparks said the building’s heating and ventilation system would also need to be turned off, and they decided to try again during spring break in March.

Novitt’s next plan of attack was to use an infrared camera to see if the hive was located anywhere along the chimney shaft that runs to the basement of the building.

The camera looks like some sort of handheld reader from a sci-fi movie; it shows the temperature of whatever you aim it at in shades of yellow, orange and red. He borrowed it from the college, which he said uses it for energy audits.

He scaled a tall ladder and removed a few tiles of the suspended ceiling over the section of wall containing the fireplace. A mix of broken plaster and dead bees showered down in the room. He said the dead bees can be found in the ceilings and on the windowsills of nearly every room in the building.

“There’s evidence of them on every single floor,” he said. “They seem to be more concentrated on the second floor, but then they’re also coming out in the basement.”

With the ceiling panels removed, he could see right into the shaft in the wall, which is made of brick and contains the flue for the fireplace, air vents and other cavities. There was a gaping hole in the side of it where workers punched a hole to run electrical wires and later internet cables through the walls.

“There are perforations like this on every floor,” he said of the hole. “It’s like a superhighway for insects in there.”

Because the bees get into the building via the chimney, Novitt said he thought the shaft would be the most logical place to look for them. But after a few attempts to aim the camera down the shaft, he climbed down the ladder disappointed.

“There are no bees there, not that I can see,” he said of the camera reading. Honey bees cluster around the queen to keep her warm in the winter, so a hive would probably be about 90 degrees, he said.

“I’m beginning to feel like I might be beaten,” he said.

Never say never

But he’s not done trying. Next, he will try to get the building’s blueprints, although he’s not sure that will help much. In the spring, he plans to come back and listen more with the contact microphone and also try a push camera, borrowed from the DPW, that allows city workers to push a camera up to 50 feet up a pipe using a stiff cable.

Novitt said he could hopefully get the camera through the chimney masonry and then see where all the bees are headed. They prefer about a five-gallon cavity, he said.

He joked with his friend, Andy Kuether of the DPW, about finding someone to count and map out the whereabouts of the dead bees as a way to figure out where the most bees are located in the building. “I’d say it’s an excellent research project for an undergraduate student,” he said, laughing.

If he is able to locate the bees and cut their hive out, they could be moved to a new home at Smith College’s MacLeish Field Station, a 240-acre property in rural West Whately used for environmental research and recreation.

The hive will start to grow again in the early spring, he said, and will likely get too big to move by summer.

“Ideally, it’d be late March or early April,” he said. “That’s when there will be strong growth, and that means they’re more likely to be strong after” the move.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at


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