The dark mass spreading from the boarded-up, second-story window of an old plumbing supply building caught the attention of David Mueller as he was driving by.
Mueller, a part-time beekeeper who lived nearby in Arlington’s Nauck neighborhood, knew what he was seeing.
Bees, perhaps 70,000 of them, builders of an enormous hive that had grown around the window in the three months since the building had been vacant.
“It was six or seven inches deep and 48 inches long, at its longest point,” Mueller said Monday. “But walking by, if not paying attention, you wouldn’t notice it.... There’s no smell, no sound and it was very high up on the roofline.”
The building at 2400 Shirlington Road was purchased last year by Arlington County, which intends to demolish it as part of the construction of a long-planned town square in Nauck, a historically African American neighborhood in Arlington.
That meant the beehive was in serious danger.
Mueller called Chikwe Njoku, one of the county’s neighborhood revitalization program coordinators, and got the go-ahead to relocate the hive. On a scorching July 1, he and his wife Emily, both members of the Northern Virginia Beekeepers Association, donned full protective attire and approached the brick structure. They found tens of thousands of bees who did not want to move, and about 100 pounds of their honey.
“The biggest issue was the heat,” Mueller said, describing the hive as the largest he and his wife have ever moved. “At 95 degrees, the wax is very, very soft and the honey is very, very heavy.”
Getting to the hive required the couple to shatter a windowpane and remove the window. For six hours, they worked either on a ladder propped outside the building or inside the darkened, sweltering second floor. The electricity had been turned off.
The couple took the hive down by hand, trying to keep it as intact as possible, and carried the pieces down in plastic bins before transferring them into traditional wooden beehive boxes.
They were almost finished when they spotted the queen bee walking on the plywood that had boarded up the window. They plucked her up and put her on the hive with as many of the other bees as they could capture.
The bees, who appear to had moved in after the building closed in March, “weren’t happy,” Mueller said. They made their vexation known by stinging him a few times through his old gloves, he said, and working their way beneath his wife’s pants, which were tucked into her boots.
Honeybees can build “a very large hive in a very short time,” Mueller said, especially when the honey-making season of summer is approaching.
The couple harvested armloads of honey, which Mueller said is not fit for human consumption because the building windows contained lead paint and unsanitary surroundings.
They plan to strain it and return it to the hive, which they have moved to a community garden at 10th and Barton streets, for the bees to consume as they continue their work.
“The bees will need it to get through the winter,” Mueller said.
He warned residents not to attempt to feed beehives with honey they acquire from stores or farmers’ markets — each hive makes its own honey, and foreign honey can contain pathogens that can kill the bees.
Mueller said he would like the hive to be on display at the neighborhood’s Drew Model Elementary School, where students could observe it.
If the county likes the idea, he said, he’d be happy to move the hive again.