The city of Charleston's removal of a huge, historic tree near Hampton Park a few weeks ago caused quite an unexpected buzz.
When workers took a chainsaw to its canopy, they soon discovered a colony of 10,000 bees living in one of its hollowed-out limbs about 25 feet up.
The red oak, believed to be hundreds of years old, was splitting and decaying, prompting the city to take it down before it fell and injured anyone in that busy urban neighborhood on the Upper Peninsula.
Disrupting the bees, however, wasn't part of the plan.
"We called a local beekeeper to get him out as soon as possible because we don't want to threaten the bee colony," said Jason Kronsberg, director of the city's Parks and Capital Projects Department.
They called Russell Jewell, a Wadmalaw Island beekeeper who's made a hobby out of rescuing threatened hives over the past six years.
When he arrived, Jewell realized this particular rescue mission would be a challenging one. The part of the tree the bees inhabited was about 8 feet tall, so dismantling it from the top of the canopy would take gentle precision.
First, Jewell had to be lifted up to help seal off the hive openings to keep the colony contained. The city then called in a crane to come lift it down, and after that, it had to be relocated to a nearby site so Jewell could work on extracting the bees using a special vacuuming device.
This was all very traumatizing for the bees, Jewell said, and for good reason. When the hive had to be turned on its side in the brief transport, part of the honey comb inside collapsed on itself, which could have drowned the bees — and more importantly, their queen — in honey.
Jewell spent the next six hours methodically relocating the bees from the hive to the holding tank, eventually filling it up with 8 pounds of them. He had to make another trip first thing the next morning to collect the rest.
In all those hours, the beekeeper was holding out hope that the queen was among those he'd saved. A hive's queen is the only female who can lay eggs, and the colony is centered around her survival. If she suddenly dies, the highly organized community can descend into chaos and ultimately die off if a new queen isn't raised quickly enough.
Once all the rescues were reunited in a beehive box back at Jewell's home on Wadmalaw, all he could do was wait.
That afternoon, while he was out doing some yard work, the bees sent an unmistakable signal that the queen was alive. A cloud of about 10,000 plumed into a vibrant cloud above the box they had been held in and funneled neatly into another hive-like container nearby. Bees won't swarm without a queen, Jewell said.
"That made me so happy because that told me that the queen was there," he said.
Much of the honeycomb had been destroyed in the tree's dismantling, so the bees will be tasked with expeditiously replacing it in the coming weeks to prepare for winter. Fortunately, Jewell lives near the Charleston Tea Plantation, where they can feast on the tea leaves' nectar.
While Jewell ended up with about 5 gallons of leftover honey from the extraction and about $200 for his help, he said the real reward was preserving the colony.
"I’m not in it for the honey. I’m in it for bees. I want more bees everywhere," he said.
He monitors about 12 hives around town to keep predators and other threats at bay. While it's tedious work, he wants to help protect the rapidly declining bee population.
Bees, critical pollinators for food production, have been dying off globally for about a decade. The trend is believed to be related to agricultural pesticides.
The Charleston Area Beekeepers Association, which Jewell is member of, believes caring for bees and saving them when possible will help them repopulate.
The group will meet about their latest efforts at 9 a.m. Saturday at the Medical University of South Carolina campus at 114 Doughty St. For more information, visit charlestonbees.org.