Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed a photo, of work done on a Nokesville home to remove bees, to Jonathan Hunley. The photo was taken by Jim Gehlsen. The story has been updated.
It was midday on a Tuesday last month, and contractor Jim Gehlsen was ready for the carpentry the job on a house in Nokesville would require, including the removal of a gutter downspout and a piece of siding to reach the problem.
Gehlsen drives a blue 1996 Ford pickup stocked with any equipment he might need, including protective clothing, when he’s responding to calls. But on that day a honeybee, stirred up by his work, stung him on the hand before he had suited up for safety.
The 63-year-old knew a sting was possible. Eventually, another bee got him on the other hand. He ended up having to deal with the buzzing insects for about four hours.
There was a time when Gehlsen wouldn’t have tolerated such working conditions, but the bees were actually the reason he was chosen for this task.
A few months earlier, he combined his construction experience with his love of beekeeping to begin rescuing the insects. Many people are familiar with dog rescue, or even horse rescue, but Gehlsen and a handful of other beekeepers in Northern Virginia remove unwanted bees from tricky spots, and then cart them to a new home.
The job in Nokesville was Gehlsen’s most recent removal. He was called in because about 100 dead bees were found in a room during a rental walk-through on the property, said Brittney Copeland, real estate agent for Platinum Property Management.
At the same time, workers renovating the home next door noticed bees outside. Platinum had never dealt with such an issue, Copeland said, but it seemed as though some bees must be living in a hive in the rental house, while others had gotten trapped inside the structure and died.
So Gehlsen was called in to relocate the remaining bees without harming them, per the property owner’s request.
Gehlsen didn’t want the insects to perish, either, but removing the hive from the side of the house did startle them, especially at first.
“They were rather aggressive to me because, see, I’m disturbing their home place,” he said.
Gehlsen discovered honeycomb, which he removed and placed in a box used to store hives. Then he reinstalled the siding and gutter.
He left the hive box outside and returned that night. By then, all the bees had gathered in the box with the honeycomb, so Gehlsen could seal it and take it back to the apiary on his 97-acre farm, Evergreen Acres in Nokesville.
This kind of job is called a “cutout” because of the carpentry that is required. Gehlsen also has done “trapouts,” in which he lures bees out of a space and into a hive box. That was the approach he used this year when Prince William’s Public Works Department hired him to get bees out of the historic Bennett School next to the county courthouse in Manassas.
Gehlsen, who has lived in Prince William since 1980, charges about $500 for a removal project. And, of course, he gets to keep the bees.
Getting paid for removing the insects is nice, “but the bees certainly are an added bonus,” said Richard Fell, professor emeritus of entomology at Virginia Tech.
Depending on the job, a beekeeper could walk away from a removal with more than $100 worth of bees, Fell said.
But Gehlsen said he doesn’t do rescues just for the financial benefit. He’s fascinated by bees and mindful of preserving the pollinators.
“I could make more money doing easier work and not getting stung,” he joked.
Gehlsen is in his third year of beekeeping, and he learned about rescue as a member of the Prince William Regional Beekeepers Association. That group gave him the leads on the six jobs he has done so far, which have included sites in the Prince William area and as far away as Marshall and Warrenton.
Rescues can be complex, said Diana Graves, president of the association.
She said she and other beekeepers can collect swarms of bees for homeowners when the insects are outside and easy to reach. But Gehlsen has the skills and equipment to get bees out of walls or down from heights, and then also ensure that any structure involved is put back together.
“Very few people will do the rescue from buildings,” Graves said.