In our splendid climate bees often take up residence in attics and behind cornices as our genial winters and moderate summers permit it.
Anybody with any sense approves of bees, and at the Octagon (known to everybody as Octagon House, so of course the name had to be changed) two ancient colonies of bees are about to be removed but not exterminated.
"We would love to keep the bees," said Lonnie Hovey, preservation coordinator for the $3.5 million restoration now afoot (and continuing into 1993) on this landmark gentleman's town house.
"Our first priority is to save the bees," he went on. The work of bee resettlement will begin soon, probably next week, and Bee Busters Inc. of Richmond is entrusted with the work.
If you didn't know any better and never had the responsibility of a major landmark and were moreover brutal and stupid, you might think getting rid of the bees is simple. Just smoke 'em out and run.
It is far otherwise. The bees have been there the past eight years, possibly much longer (bee records are often shamefully casual), and they'd stay forever except for two things:
First, the restoration involves some work on the cornice; and, second, the 120,000 bees in two colonies have great stores of wax and honey.
"As long as the colonies flourish, there is no danger," Hovey observed, "but if disease strikes and the bees die the honey will ferment and eventually drip out of the combs through the ceiling, doing great damage."
At first it was thought some local beekeepers could handle the job, but efforts in that direction didn't work out. For one thing, the bees have lodged themselves just back of the cornice. As everybody knows, a new roof was put on the 1799 house in 1818 and there is a certain uneasiness where the roof meets the cornice. It will not do to rip out the cornice and soffit just to get at the bees, for in museum-quality buildings every scrap of original fabric is, in a word, sacred.
Tidewater Restorations Inc., a Virginia firm, is doing the restoration, and it was decided that another Virginia firm, Bee Busters, would work well with them.
"You're not secretly plotting to murder the poor bees, are you?" I asked Hovey.
Oh, my God, no.
One reason BB was chosen, Hovey said, was the company's virtual reverence for bees. And unlike some other bee removal folk, it will not harm the cornice or any of the old carpentry but will use a vacuum to suck the bees onto frames that will then be put in hives and trucked off to new homes, Hovey said.
Already the bee firm has spent some hours casing the joint. The president of Bee Busters, John Adams, has been in Belize studying killer bees, otherwise bee removal would have begun before now.
The only thing that can go wrong, Hovey speculates, is for the bees to become enraged. It might then be necessary to kill them, but this is considered a remote hazard.
It will cost between $2,000 and $6,000 to clear out the bees and their wax and to proof the site against their return, Hovey estimated.
Restoration of the house at 1799 New York Ave. NW, now owned by the American Institute of Architects and operated as a museum free to the public, does not mean the walls are about to fall down.
Structurally the house is sound, thank you, but some of the colors on the walls are wrong. Correct original colors will be used. Also, for example, the servants' hall in the basement was converted into a mechanics' room. It will be restored to its original use.
As in the case of the White House, it would no doubt be cheaper to tear the thing down and rebuild it, but then it would lose the historic value that makes it worth restoring in the first place.
The house I grew up in in Tennessee had a pedimented roof over the driveway and bees got in through a quite small hole and flourished for many years. One summer they all died, possibly because their ventilation system failed. How much better if we had foreseen this sad development and removed them years earlier, but then you usually pay a price for ignorance.
I can see that a fellow might charge something to crawl back of a cornice and bit by bit remove the honey chambers. It must be much like painting the Sistine Chapel.
Anyway, now you know why you won't see so many bees around Octagon House. Price of progress.