A Florida couple recently bade farewell to some uninvited house guests: a colony of as many as 80,000 honey bees that had invaded their shower wall.
The colony’s size astounded even Elisha Bixler, the professional beekeeper whom the couple, Stefanie and Dan Graham of St. Petersburg, Florida, had enlisted to get them out of the sticky situation.
“There was honey everywhere: walls, floor, on my shoes, doorknobs,” Bixler recounted in an interview Wednesday. “I had to pull the wall down to the studs to get all of the comb out.”
She estimated there were about 80,000 bees and 100 pounds of honey when she removed the 7-foot-tall hive in early November after prying away the bathroom tiles. The discovery was reported earlier by the Tampa Bay television station FOX 13.
Bixler, 38, the owner of How’s Your Day Honey, said she had to put down plastic coverings to try to contain the mess.
Knowing something was amiss, the Grahams contacted Bixler in October. It was not the family’s first bee episode at their three-story wood-frame beach house, which sits on stilts.
Two to three years ago, Stefanie Graham said on Wednesday, her husband ripped open the wall in the same bathroom and removed a giant hive. Since then, they had work done on their roof, which Graham said left some holes — an entranceway for the bees to return.
The couple, their two children and two Great Danes had learned to coexist with their houseguests, despite occasional bee stings.
“We both really love nature and we love bees,” Graham said. “We’re like, ‘We’ll leave you alone. You leave us alone.’ They were nice bees. So we were like, ‘Sure, go ahead, live in our shower.’”
But the cohabitation had to end when the family decided to renovate the bathroom, said Graham, 41, a high school English teacher who works part time in real estate.
Bixler said she was more accustomed to removing hives from roofs, sheds or trees.
“This is my first shower removal,” Bixler said Wednesday.
When Bixler arrived at the family’s home on Nov. 2, she said, she pulled out her trusty thermal detector gun that measures heat and pointed it at the shower wall. It showed that the temperature was around 96 degrees, which she said was typical for a hive.
“As soon as I saw where they were, I started breaking away the tile and unveiling this massive 7-foot hive,” she said. “Most of it was honey.”
Bixler warned the Grahams that they might want to make themselves scarce while she removed the bees, a process that she said took more than five hours at a cost of $800 that was not covered by insurance.
“She did come into the bathroom about halfway through and take a peek,” Bixler said of Graham.
Graham said her family wasn’t afraid. “I know a lot of people would be freaked out,” she said.
At first, Bixler, who has been a professional beekeeper for three years, said she wore just a veil to protect herself from the bees. But after several stung her, she donned extra protective gear that included gloves and boots.
Sifting through the bees, she eventually discovered the queen bee, whose abdomen was twice the size of regular bees’. She put the queen in a protective cage and placed it inside a box with the other bees.
“That makes all the bees go into the box with her,” Bixler said. “She wants to be back in her wall. She thinks that’s her home.”
She used a special vacuum to remove some of the stragglers from the hive.
Robert Page Jr., a professor emeritus of entomology at the University of California at Davis, said on Wednesday that the odors from the previous bee colony probably would have attracted new bees to the shower wall.
Waiting to call someone to remove bees from a colony has major drawbacks, said Page, author of “The Art of the Bee: Shaping the Environment from Landscapes to Societies.” He said that bees can damage drywall and that the honey can ferment, causing odors that can attract ants.
“We love honey bees, but not when they’re in your wall,” said the professor, who has also taught at Arizona State University.
Bixler saved a lot of the honey, which she said she fed to the bees that she has rescued and keeps at her small urban farm in St. Petersburg. The Grahams held on to some of the honey for themselves.
“I told them they had an option of just biting into that comb, or you can put it into a colander and just squeeze out the honey,” Bixler said.
Bixler said that she nurses the bees that she rescues back to health and relocates them to apiaries.
Graham said that she had read many historical accounts about people speaking to bees about milestones in their lives, a ritual known as telling the bees. She, too, had become a bee whisperer, she said, including when her houseguests departed.
“I did tell the bees goodbye,” she said, “and that they were getting a new house.”