New Mexico VA Health Care System
Beekeeper Veteran Removes Hive and Saves Bees
A growing bee colony at the Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center in Albuquerque was causing a safety hazard last summer for campus visitors, patients and employees. The bees had formed a honeycomb within the walls of an overhead walkway near the campus’ Education Building. There were so many bees swarming around the hive that VA workers had to block off the sidewalk below to protect pedestrians from bee stings.
Michelle Ratliff, M.D., was one employee who saw the potential for a win-win situation for both humans and the bees. Ratliff serves as medical director for the Cardiac Catheterization Laboratories on the campus. She also understands the importance of keeping bees alive and healthy.
“As most people are aware, the bees are having tough times trying to survive in our world of pesticides and herbicides,” Ratliff said. “What is good for the bees is good for our community.”
After reaching out to a local beekeepers’ website, Ratliff was able to recruit Steven Murphy, an experienced beekeeper who also receives VA health care.
“Dr. Ratliff's significant other called me from the swarm/cutout list on the abqbeeks website (http://abqbeeks.org/page/bee-homes) that I am listed on to see if I was interested in attempting to relocate the bees,” Murphy said.
Murphy, a retired U.S. Marine Corps gunnery sergeant, had taken up beekeeping as a form of therapy a few years ago. He accepted the challenge and began working on the VA’s problem with Michael Simpson, the medical center’s pest controller. Simpson also enlisted the help of Matthew Misko, Internal Projects Supervisor, and Darrin Chacon, an equipment mechanic from the medical center’s Engineering Service. Misko and Chacon were able to cut into the side of the wall in the overhead walkway to reveal the bees’ honey comb.
“We brought my bee vacuum, smoke and gear up topside and the engineers cut through the wall as I kept it smoked,” Murphy said. “I had to vacuum for a long time as they kept trying to move under the large vigas, where they were hard to reach. I removed all the comb and it is fun to catch and sort it while there might still be bees on it. It had a 90-degree corner in it, which added some difficulty compared to straight comb as you don't want to drop it when you take it out.”
Working around a large number of bees would make most people nervous, but Murphy often works without protective gear.
“Without the gear I am much more cautious and in tune with the bees,” he said. “They don't get angry and seem to accept me working with them. Of course, I always want to use smoke. It generates a honey-loading response so they are busy loading up with honey in case they have to fly to a new home due to a fire. It also masks the pheromones that they use to communicate. A bee veil is something I will wear if they are persistent, but the jacket is rarely used by me anymore.”
In the end, removing the hive from the medical center not only helped the bees and the people on campus, it also was a therapeutic event for Murphy.
“It allows me to unwind at the end of the day, calm down and do things more slowly and methodically. I can spend hours watching bees,” Murphy added.