HOUSTON – Most folks probably think Texans would have a simple way to handle a major insect infestation: Kill them varmints.
But officials at the University of Houston are bucking the stereotype when it comes to a colony of up to 100,000 bees that have taken up residence inside a classroom building.
They hired a beekeeper and on Wednesday he gently and humanely removed the beehive so it can be relocated to a better home on a wooded part of campus.
Although no one has reported being stung yet, school officials said they couldn't take any chances.
"You can imagine — you're trying to take your exam and for whatever reason the bees decide they're going to swarm," said Alex Alexander, the university's director of custodial and grounds. "That kind of disruption we couldn't allow."
The bees appeared to have been building the hive for about a year and a half, said the beekeeper, Mike Knuckey, on Wednesday.
Workers first noticed a cluster of bees buzzing near the top back corner of the three-story engineering building about six months ago, Alexander said. Officials had tried spraying the mass with water, and soon enough the bees disappeared.
But when honey started drizzling out the brick wall, it became abundantly clear the bees hadn't gone far.
"The first thing we said was this is not something where we're going to go in there and shoot a lot of chemicals and kill them," Alexander said.
After all, the bees pollinate many of the flowers and trees his workers plant throughout the lush 550-acre campus south of downtown. And the university didn't want to contribute to the declining bee population that's puzzled bee experts across the country.
Knuckey, who specializes in removing bees from homes and businesses, used a sensor to find the hive and then drilled holes into the wall and inserted a camera to measure its shape and size.
After removing the bricks surrounding the hive, he pumped in smoke to disorient the bees and used a vacuum system to suck them into a mesh-walled box so they can be carried to their new home. He cut out the layers of honeycomb with a long, thin knife, trying especially hard to preserve the cells containing eggs.
The bees and honeycomb will spend some time off campus with Knuckey so he can set them up in a beehive box, feeding the insects sugar water so they can start rebuilding their hive right away.
Knuckey hopes to install the beehive box on campus later this week.
None of the half dozen students studying in the engineering building's main lobby on Tuesday had seen any bees or heard of the problem.
"I've never seen one bee and I walk around there all the time," senior mechanical engineering major Aaron Risinger said.
Knuckey said it isn't unusual for homeowners and businesses to go months — or even years — without noticing a growing hive behind their walls. He removes large hives five to seven times a week.
"You can walk right by their entry way a lot of times and if you don't disturb them you'll never know they're there," he said. "They're interested in taking care of their own business."