Were honeybees occupying Hollis Town Hall?
Friday, October 18, 2013
HOLLIS – Honey dripping down an interior wall on the second floor of Hollis Town Hall at 7 Monument Square was not a welcome sight.
Fears mounted that honeybees, masterful producers of the sweet, sticky substance, were at work in a wall near the chimney. How much honey might there be hidden behind vintage panels of stamped tin, pine boards, plaster and lath?
Were the intruders building waxy cascades of honeycomb, dripping with a golden supply destined to feed thousands and the queen bee? How many bees were occupying Town Hall? An average colony in a traditional, wooden bee hive can number up to 40,000 or more.
The questions were answered with the help of Ellen Walker, of Hollis, owner of Blue Sky Massage Therapy, and Alan Lyscars, of Manchester, an employee of Southwest Airlines. Both are avid beekeepers and members of the Merrimack Valley Beekeeping Association, a regional club for hobbyists and professionals. The pair, who together manage two hives, heard about the situation and offered their help.
Each is a graduate of the MVBA’s Bee School, an annual forum comprised of six weeks of education in once-a-week evening sessions of three-hour each. The classes focus on all aspects of raising honeybees for pleasure, for their pollination of gardens and farms or for profit.
Walker said Assistant Town Administrator Kim Dogherty took her to see the “honey wall.” Walker also said Town Administrator Troy Brown mentioned seeing what looked like flying bees last spring but not since then.
“The leakage was indoors on the second floor, inside the exterior chimney on the south side of the building, facing the little courtyard,” Walker said. “Later, I looked at the outer walls and saw some wasps nests on the exterior of the building. I didn’t see any flying bees.”
A construction crew already involved in ongoing restoration of the building opened the wall and gave the beekeepers access to an area that might shelter a large hive, a small hive or, perhaps, no bees at all. The honey dripping down the wall and a scattering of dead bees nearby was the only evidence of the honeybees’ presence.
The opening of the interior wall began at the level of the wainscoting on the second floor, an area where there is a stage for public gatherings. The honey flow had appeared just above the wainscoting, between sheets of antique tin panels resembling metal wallpaper. The panels were about two-feet wide and at least 10-feet high.
The tin was secured with what Walker said were “a zillion tiny nails,” painstakingly removed by craftsmen from D.L. King & Associates, of Nashua. The firm is adept at historic renovations, including many ongoing at Hollis Town Hall.
Some time ago, Walker said, an abundance of wasps was observed when the Town Hall’s tower was restored. Wasps, she and Lyscars concurred, can sting multiple times. Honeybees, unlike wasps, sting once and die. The honeybee has a barb on the end of its stinger that resists withdrawal. The bee flies off and leaves its stinger behind, along with enough of its abdomen to cause its death.
A possibility that the honeybees in residence might have succumbed to pest sprays was recognized by everyone involved.
“Alan and I wanted to do the comb removal,” Walker said. “Whether or not there is a live colony, residual comb, especially in a public building, needs to go. It can attract moths and mice. The wax we remove may be good for something but the honey is no doubt a lost cause if wasps were being sprayed.”
It was late September when Walker and Lyscars received the nod to do the job. The construction crew had removed the lower wall boards in the upstairs assembly room, between two windows flanking the exterior chimney. Several panels of the stamped-tin wall coverings were also peeled back. The crew exercised extreme care to preserve the unusual wall covering that had adorned the walls of the assembly room since the 19th century.
“Looking up through the opening exposed by the construction crew, Alan could see some combs hanging way above the opening, another eight feet or so higher,” Walker said. “More wall covering had to be removed, so we came back the next day.”
Lyscars gallantly offered to do the ladder climbing, as well as the high-altitude wall cutting. He and Walker brought buckets, clean-up tools and their bee suits. Alas, there were no live bees.
Art King, CEO of D.L. King, soon after credited Hollis town officials for their effort. He said Brown went “the extra step” to have the needed work done in a fashion that would preserve the historic site, while ensuring the survival of the honey bees, had there been some to relocate elsewhere.
Most of what remained was the empty shells of old beeswax comb ravaged by wax moths intent on scavenging the last particulates. Some of the comb was several inches thick, and up to one foot long. The drip on the wall that ran beneath the wainscoting and onto the floor, the beekeepers agreed, was probably caused by a chunk of newer comb that dropped off a beam and landed, perhaps during the hot spell this summer, about eight-feet down to the area just above the wainscoting.
“The end result was pretty clean,” Walker said. “The construction guys had the task of restoring the tin wall to its traditional appearance.”
For more information on the restorations at Hollis Town Hall call, 465-2209. For information about Bee School, hosted by the Merrimack Valley Beekeepers Association, visit mvbee.org.