The day began like any other, with FiberLight receiving a call from the company’s Atlanta-based Network Operations Center (NOC). Dispatch reported that signals had degraded at a cell tower that FiberLight serviced in Bastrop, TX. The tower, which had been converted to interim microwave service and was on schedule to be converted to fiber in preparation for a network shift to 5G, likely just needed some routine upkeep. However, the team’s task took a strange and unexpected turn when it was revealed that the antenna’s protective cover was abuzz with an unlikely resident: honey bees.a
When it comes to delicate issues of environmental consciousness and sustainability, even something as small as a bee can have big implications. However, while the safety of both human and insect personnel was of the utmost importance, the situation was complicated by the fact that the hive in question was not only interfering with network performance; it was also suspended 130 feet off the ground. To avoid damaging the hive or risking some nasty stings, onsite technicians promptly halted all troubleshooting activities, returned to the safety of their vehicles and got on the phone with Ron Holt, vice president of field operations for FiberLight.
Calling in the Experts
“This being my first encounter of this nature in over 30 years of telecom work, I contacted some local beekeepers for advice,” Holt said. “The antenna was more than 100 feet above the ground, so the list of interested beekeepers up for the challenge was quickly whittled down to one.”
Brandon Fehrenkamp of AustinBees.com has been performing bee rescues since 2006, and is quick to admit that the knowledge on how to do a bee rescue of this variety is not readily found even among experienced beekeepers. Nevertheless, there is a lot of prep work involved in getting a truck ready to efficiently relocate a colony of potentially aggressive bees without causing undue stress on the insects (or the workmen), especially from such a height. Brandon approached the process with an emphasis on safety.
Creating a Strategy for Success
“In challenges like this, it’s important to realize that you’re not dealing with individual bees. They function as one organism,” Brandon noted. “In spring and fall, bee colonies split, and one of the groups from the hive inevitably looks for a new place to set up. They typically colonize high elevations like electric towers, live oaks or sycamore trees, eaves and even subfloors. They’re looking for a pre-existing cavity the approximate size of 2 bee boxes (which are usually 19 inches long, 16 inches wide and 9 inches tall), so they can inhabit and defend it from one end.”
“The initial plan,” said Ron, “Was to simply swap out antennas and our problem would be solved, but upon discussion with Brandon, we learned that there could be 70,000 bees coming back from their daily business to the new antenna and swarming it. After more discussion and uncertainty over what might be inside the antenna cover, everyone agreed the best course of action was to completely remove the antenna and bring it to the ground without replacing it.”
Thus, to protect every man and bee involved, FiberLight opted to more or less donate the whole microwave antenna to the bees’ cause. Luckily for FiberLight, this particular site was on schedule to get converted over to fiber anyway, so the company accelerated that process and, along with the permission of their customers, was able to roll all traffic to the fiber solution. This left only the bees to deal with.
The next day, FiberLight came back with a 130-foot manlift to send the beekeeper and a tower climber up to remove the antenna. Brandon and the FiberLight tower technician strapped into the bucket wearing protective gear and sting-proof safety suits. Upon their initial inspection of the antenna, they were able to confirm that there was in fact a hole in the cover — most likely caused by falling ice from the tower — and that it was filled to the brim with bees.
The technician unbolted the antenna and used wire mesh and duct tape to cover the hole. Then, with the buzzing bundle of bees in tow, the group began a nerve-wracking three-minute ride to the ground. Once the colony had made it safely to the bottom, the men opened the cover and behold, for the first time, the staggering sight of 100,000 bees and the hoard of honey that they had lovingly produced, all situated comfortably in their unlikely residence. The beekeeper successfully collected all the honeycomb and bees, which were then safely relocated to Brandon’s farm where they could recolonize without further risk of interruption.
Navigating Adversity the Right Way
FiberLight’s choice to relocate the bees is what experts recommend for a number of reasons. In 2007, Texas passed legislation that allowed beekeepers to relocate hives instead of performing pest control. This was due to the fact that extermination often causes greater harm to the ecosystem of surrounding bees. Essentially, if an extermination is performed, the leftover honey becomes poisoned by chemicals. This then leads to local honey bees coming by the vacated hive, gathering the tainted honey and bringing it back to their hives, where it then contaminates their own honey supply. This side effect of extermination can affect bee populations for miles. Additionally, the leftover honey attracts larvae, which then infest the deserted hive and encourage rot.
Extermination is costly, and while FiberLight spent thousands to relocate the Bastrop hive, the team agrees that it was well worth it to be able to give the honey bees a second shot at success, all while avoiding the damaging environmental impacts of extermination.
Dispelling Some Myths
FiberLight had one more question for Brandon before they parted ways. When asked about the narrative that radio frequency hurts honey bees, he shared some surprising information. Brandon had actually performed a rescue back in 2006 on a bee hive at the base of a cell tower and had later performed multiple rescues 80 feet above the ground on electric transmission towers. In every case, the bee communities he encountered were healthy, normal hives, just like the bees in Bastrop.
When he had the chance to research this theory and investigate the buzz surrounding an experiment done at a university that showed bees had been disturbed by radio frequencies, Brandon discovered that the methodology was poor in that controlled environment. The students had put a cordless phone inside the hive that was constantly ringing, which disturbed the activity in the hive. The results from this study were later discredited. This means that although the Bastrop bees had picked a less-than-ideal location for their honey home, they were all living happily and were undisturbed by the antenna’s day-to-day operation.
The Moral of the Story
The tale of FiberLight and the Bastrop bees underpins the importance of working in harmony with nature — not in conflict with it — as networks grow, densify and become a ubiquitous facet of the Earth’s ecosystems. When taking what appears to be the easy or quick way out of unique situations like this one, every person (and animal) involved is put at risk.
“This was an interesting problem that could have turned deadly had we just climbed the tower and sprayed the swarm on the outside of the antenna,” said Ron. “The beekeeper estimated there were at least 100,000 bees in that cover and informed us that had we sprayed the outside of the dish, every bee inside the cover would have come out and swarmed anything in sight.”
FiberLight is delighted with the safe relocation of the Bastrop bees, and thanks both the onsite team and Brandon the beekeeper for their important work, compassion and dedication to preserving the wellbeing of both the bees and the tower.
For more information about FiberLight, please visit: www.FiberLight.com. For more information about Brandon Fehrenkamp, please visit www.austinbees.com. Don’t forget to celebrate National Bee Day on Aug. 17!