By Cassie McClure
Published in the Las Cruces Sun-News 10/25/20.
A Las Cruces Utilities (LCU) water meter is sometimes the perfect home for a hive of bees – until an LCU field technician needs to access it. That’s when Anita Feil gets a call. Feil is the official LCU volunteer bee wrangler. She re-homes bees and makes sure that homeowners or businesses stay safe from a disturbed hive in their meters box.
“There are two reasons that we want to have Anita work with beehives in water meter boxes or vaults,” Eli Duran, LCU building services and metering infrastructure supervisor said. “She’s an expert at the process and we want to keep our customers and associates safe.”
Duran explained that sometimes the calls come from the residents themselves, who notice the flurry of activity around their meter. Sometimes it comes from the LCU field technicians who come to service the water meter or during an emergency that requires water being shut off. With the complex devices of the Advanced Metering Infrastructure in water meter boxes and vaults, homeowners tampering with a bee-filled meter box can be costly in stings and in repairs to any damaged equipment.
“Since water meters belong to the City of Las Cruces (City), the hives and bees are its responsibility too,” Feil said. “They’re little citizens that need to be kept safe and found a better home.”
Recently, out by Doolittle Drive, Feil was called into service. The water meter, in a bumpy, dried mud alleyway, was a little harder to get to than usual, but worth it – the hive was big.
“And the girls are friendly,” Feil said as she collected the honeycomb to place in the box and grabbing handfuls of bees to guide them to their new home’s location. Most bees are female workers, with only a few drones that mate with the queen. The sound of thousands of bees is not for the faint of heart; it’s a droning that touches the internal fear factor, but one that Feil has learned to embrace.
The re-homing is a multi-step process. Feil needs to get a sense of how big the hive is, suit up, and then set up her painted hive boxes. Once she’s scouted the location, she starts a small fire in her smoker, wafting the smoke over the hive to subdue the bees. Feil uses the top-bar hive system, where the honeycomb grows down from wooden bars hung simply at the top of the box, which is then covered by a lid. A small entrance prevents other inquisitive animals, like rodents, to sneak in.
She tried to find the prize – the queen whose scent all the worker girls would recognize and follow. When she couldn’t, she simply waited to see behaviors that would let her know that the transfer would be a success. She pointed, “There – do you see the dance?” Bees stood at the entrance of their new home and bounced their behinds up and down. “They’re signaling with pheromones that others should follow,” she said.
Slowly, more bees climbed up from the water meter box in a pulsing road of bodies. Feil set up a cardboard shade against the freshly hand-painted box and would come back in the night when all the bees had made the journey and it was the best time to transport them.
If residents find bees crawling out of their water meter box, they are urged to call Customer Central at 541-2111 to arrange a time for Feil to come by and find “her girls” a safer home.
LCU can be reached at 575-528-3500 from 8 a.m. - 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. LCU provides services to approximately 100,000 Las Cruces residents and businesses.
PHOTO 1: LCU Volunteer Anita Feil, who prefers the title Bee Wrangler, works with the City to remove bees from City water meter boxes and makes sure they end up in a safe place.