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Persistent Bees Make Mills Their Home

Mills College Weekly

Last November, English professor Ruth Saxton felt a chilly
winter breeze blow into her office in Mills Hall, so she got up
from her desk and went to the window to shut it. When it wouldn’t
budge, she called Campus Facilities to fix the stubborn window.
Little did she know, there was a 75-pound beehive pinning the
window open and a massive colony of bees living in her wall.

The invasion in Saxton’s office was just the latest dilemma
pertaining to the persistent honeybees who have found Mills College
to be an ideal environment to build their hives. Although this may
have been a dreadful experience for some, Saxton saw it as a
learning experience. Not only did she learn about the nature of
bees but her unique relationship with them taught her something
about herself. “I’d always been afraid of bees in the past, but
when you live with them for a year, you adapt.”

When Saxton filed a work order to fix the stuck window, Campus
Facilities quickly discovered the honeycomb, although the magnitude
of the beehive was greatly underestimated. To correct the problem,
an unsuspecting worker sprayed around the window. But once the
spraying began, the unfortunate worker was stung several times by
the irate bees. Fortunately the spraying was not completely in vain
and Saxton could finally close her window. However, not only did
spraying clog the gutter with dead bees, it provided only a short
term remedy to the massive colony living inside the wall.

The winter months were quiet but by springtime, the bees were
back with a vengeance. The once-jammed window in Saxton’s office
had to remain shut at all times along with another window for fear
of infiltration, yet “her office was always buzzing with bees,”
said Tonianne Nemeth of the Letters Division, who is Saxton’s
neighbor. Saxton said she generally had two to a half a dozen bees
in her office at all times but could never figure out where they
were coming from. Despite the intrusion, Saxton called a truce with
the bees that would occasionally land on her keyboard or a piece of
paper. “The bees really liked it on the third floor,” she said.
There’s a great view…no predators.”

Although Saxton had adapted, many of her students were afraid to
meet in an office buzzing with bees, so Saxton held meetings with
the fearful students on the bench outside.

By August, the problem had become unbearable and Paul Richards,
director of Campus Facilities, realized extreme measures needed to
be taken after having dealt with this problem many times before. He
said that Campus Facilities is constantly dealing with bees that
systematically move around in the Olney dormitory after each time
the hive is found and removed. Richards said immediate action
needed to be taken to prevent the hive from growing to the size of
the one found in the attic of Alderwood Hall in 2001, which he
estimated weighed several hundred pounds.

As it turned out, the original spraying done in the winter only
removed the hive in the track of the window, which proved to be the
tip of the iceberg. So Saxton took eight straight hours out of a
day to pack up all of her books, remove pictures hanging on her
wall and tarp the objects she couldn’t move so that Campus
Facilities could effectively exterminate the bees. It wasn’t until
they demolished a fraction of Saxton’s office wall and removed the
window, that they discovered the enormity of the problem.

Richards took a picture of the hive and consulted Mills’ bee
expert, commonly known as “Larry-The-Bee-Keeper” who maintains
several beehives for collecting honey on Pinetop Hill, a remote
part of campus. Richards hoped Larry’s experience in beekeeping
would be helpful in devising a plan to remove the hive.

At first, Larry tried himself to remove the hive, the second
largest he has seen in his life, but instead became covered in
honey from head to toe, thus making himself a magnet for bees, as
well as the wasps and yellowjackets commonly found on campus.

After this failed attempt, he placed a call to Stan Umlauft from
A and B Swarm Removal and Honey Farm to handle the job.

Finally, a promising plan was in order. A large blue man lift,
identical to the one used to fix the bell tower, was rented to gain
access to the outside of the third floor window. Once part of the
roof above the window was removed, workers could see the dimension
of the hive which was three feet across and filled in the entire
alcove above the window.

Once the hive was effectively removed and placed on a tarp in
Saxton’s office, Nemeth said that Larry explained the dynamics of
the beehive.

He pointed out the baby bees who hadn’t yet developed their
stingers that were emerging from the hole in the wall. He also
pointed out the queen chamber which was empty and the new chambers
full of larvae and white royal jelly. In fact, Saxton said multiple
jars of honey were taken from her office.

“Honey was dripping from the ceiling,” said Nemeth. “I tasted
some of the honey. It was fantastic.” The carpet was also thick
with honey and beeswax.

The tale of the giant beehive attracted quite a number of
curious visitors who stopped by to get a glimpse, although some
were reticent to venture too far into the room. Visitors included
professors from several different departments, students, and even a
visit from Public Safety. Saxton credits a significant number of
people- from Campus Facilities, to supportive colleagues, to the
cleaning people, for helping to put her office back together

With the bees eradicated, Saxton was finally able to use her
office again just in time for the first week of school. She admits,
“I am quite happy to have them gone.” Still, dead bees collect
outside her window occasionally that she scoops up and into the
garbage. “When I look outside I see about a half a dozen bees, but
that’s nothing,” said Saxton.

Kimball House is a different story. Busy bees are currently
working on expanding their hive as this story goes to print.
Meanwhile, Richards is planning his next extermination. Although
removing problem beehives is part of Richard’s job description, he
takes no pleasure in killing bees. “The long life of bees on this
campus may make it seem like the number is excessive, but it’s
actually a virtue,” said Richards. “They pollinate flowers and are
part of a healthy ecosystem.”

Although the bees are gone for now in Saxton’s office, the wall
repaired. and the window replaced, one subtle reminder remains. Her
office still has the sweet aroma of honey.

Vanessa Marlin contributed to this article.