Bee Careful: A Buzzword for Landfill Safety
Ease it to the right...bring up the blade...a quick glance behind...into reverse and get lined up for the next push.
Bud, an experienced dozer operator, was pioneering a new haul road, and these moves had become routine. They were also a welcome break from pushing trash or working on the county’s road maintenance crew. No people, No trucks, no rush, and no problems. Just another perfect spring day in the rolling hills of California’s coast range.
Suddenly a tiny missile streaks through the tractor’s ROPS. Then another, and another ...too many to count. Fiery darts assault Bud’s neck, face, and hands. They’re everywhere. He’s under attack—by bees.
Slamming the machine into park, Bud leaps to the ground and runs into a large culvert. No good. They go right after him, still attacking. He thinks, "This is it." Then he remembers the truck.
Leaving the confinement of the culvert, he races 300 ft. to his pickup, but they don’t let up. Even in the truck, they continue their assault. But now Bud has hope. Finally, with the windows rolled up, he begins to fight back. Using his hands and arms, he drives them away from his head and neck. Showing no mercy, he starts killing them, crushing them wherever they are. In his shirt, his pants, everywhere.
The fight continues, but the battle has turned. Over the next few minutes, the enemy weakens. Finally, as suddenly as it began, the fight is over. Alive but hurt, Bud turns his attention to his injuries. He quickly realizes he needs help.
Later that day, after a comprehensive exam, the doctor tells him, "It’s a wonder you’re alive. You were stung more than 100 times." Apparently immune to their sting, Bud is back to work in a few days.
I was 11 years old when that happened, yet I’ll always remember listening to Bud—my grandfather—tell the story of the bees.
At 6 ft., 6 in. tall, my grandfather was a big man by anyone’s standards. But to an 11-year-old, he seemed invincible. Nonetheless, the seriousness of his warning—"Don’t mess with bees"—has stuck with me for 30 years.
In the years since, I’ve had many of my own encounters with bees. Though none was as dramatic as my grandfather’s, I’ve learned a few things the hard way.
The goal of this month’s column is to alert you to the potential risks associated with bees. If you’re a bug expert, please note that I’m using the term "bees" in a broad sense. It’s meant to include bees, wasps, hornets, or any other flying, stinging insect that nests in the ground or hollow trees.
During the warm season (spring through fall), bees will build nests, reproduce, gather food, and prepare for winter. In my experience, they will sometimes nest in hollow trees. But more often than not, they’ll be under ground, in abandoned gopher or squirrel holes.
When Are You at Risk?
Bees are most active during warm, dry weather. Typically, when temperatures are cool or when it’s raining, bees aren’t active. But remember that they don’t disappear; they’re just not as active. You can still be at risk if you disturb their nest. The most common conflict arises when a machine disturbs or uncovers the bees’ underground nest or, in the case of a hollow tree nest, knocks down the tree while clearing and grubbing. Simply driving (or walking) too close can also stir up the hornet’s nest, so to speak. In this regard, even laborers (e.g., the litter-picking crew) can be at risk.
How Will You Know?
Don’t worry, you’ll know. Bees have very effective communication skills.
If you see a bee buzzing around—checking out flowers and just wandering—no problem. But if a bee flies into you like a kamikaze (usually hitting you in the head or neck), if it begins to harass you, or if you get stung, there’s a good chance that you’re very close (about 12 ft.) to the nest.
What Should You Do?
If that happens, get away—fast. If you’re on the ground, turn around and run. If you’re on a machine, back up fast and close the door(s). If you’ve ripped open a nest, they’ll be swarming everywhere. If you’re just getting too close, however, they’ll often send out a few scouts to check out the intruder (that’s you) before sending in the troops. In any event, get the heck out of there.
If you suspect that you’ve found a bee nest, you can drive back to the vicinity in a pickup, a tractor, or any machine that is enclosed. If there isn’t too much brush or tall grass, there’s a good chance that you’ll be able to see the nest. Look for nearby trees or logs. Pay close attention to dead limbs or knotholes. If it’s a ground nest, look for an entrance hole that’s 2-4 in. in diameter. Move your eyes slowly, using your peripheral vision to check for movement. If you’re close, there’ll be plenty of (bee) traffic, helping to pinpoint the nest.
How Do You Get Rid of Them?
There are several ways to get rid of the bees, depending on the location of the nest, the ambient air temperature, and your level of caution.
If you have an enclosed tractor, the best solution is to simply cover the entrance with a couple feet of dirt or, if the nest is in the way, just dig it out and scatter it. If the nest is in a tree, and it’s a small enough tree, you can knock it down and break it open to expose the nest. Caution: Be sure the doors and windows are closed!
If it’s a ground nest that you can’t get to with a machine or if it’s in a tree that can’t be knocked down, you’ll need a somewhat different tactic. First off, don’t be in a hurry. Wait for nightfall or, better yet, just before dawn. When it’s cold the bees will be much less active, and you can (usually) safely walk right up to the nest. Again, pay attention. If there’s bee activity, stay back.
If you dig out the nest and scatter the contents, the bees will leave the vicinity in a day or so. Very often you’ll find that, overnight, some animal (a raccoon, skunk, or opossum) has helped by eating the larvae and further scattering the nest. In any event, give the bees a day or so to clear out.
I’ve successfully dug nests out with a shovel. Usually less they’re less than a foot deep. Even at night, however, unless it’s quite cold, bees can be active, and it’s certain they’ll be mad. I usually build a small fire over the entrance and let it burn and smoke for a while before I start digging. A second person armed with a large propane torch also offers great backup. Be careful you don’t let the fire spread.
In some cases, if you can’t risk a fire because of dry conditions, you can try a few squirts of wasp spray, or a cup or so of chlorine bleach poured into the entrance will also do the trick. Be sure to immediately cover the entrance with soil.
Play It Safe
If you know or suspect that you are allergic to bee stings, don’t take chances. Even if you aren’t overly sensitive, nobody wants to get stung. To play it safe, you could simply call an exterminator or a local beekeeper and have them deal with the problem. It all depends on your time, budget, and quest for adventure.
Note: Before using any chemical, be sure that you’ve got approval of your site engineer, manager, or local regulator.
Despite what Winnie-the-Pooh says, finding a nest full of bees might mean more than a potful of honey and a smile on your face. For landfill operators, bee nests are serious business.
Author's Bio: Neal Bolton is a consultant specializing in landfill operations and management.