Last fall I went out to help an old man who had once kept bees. “Don’t you listen to what other people tell you,” he said, “Experience is the best teacher.” When it came time to leave he handed me something - a oval disk I now know is a "Porter Bee Escape". It looked brand new, despite his insistence that he bought it in the early fifties. "POTER" it said around the center hole. I thanked him and filed it away in my menagerie of bee things. If I had only known, I’d have put it on top of my car and driven fast on the way home. Instead I took it home tried it.
The theory of bee escapes is that bees go out but can't go back in. That's the theory, and in theory reality is just like theory. "They can be a bit tricky to adjust," said a friend. I ignored him. I fine tuned the porter bee escape until it was precisely a bee's size and locked it into the (up until now) empty inner cover slot. Take that, bees. It's like those revolving gates at the football game where you can only go in one way but there's always some drunk doing it wrong. In the morning I'd come grab the emptied supers. That was the theory.
The next morning I discovered that not only had the bees not left the super they wanted me to know that they were not amused. Dance language might still be a theory but head-butt and sting language is a fact. After examination I determined the escape was too small and carefully widened it. No rush - I'd come back the next morning to claim my spoils. The next morning there were more bees in the supers than the day before. I looked at the inner cover and there-a bee came in. I saw it - the gate was a little too wide. I adjust it again. The next morning there were trapped bees in a pile. They were having poetry readings and "save the drones" conventions and just waiting for me to show up. I adjusted the escape. The next morning the bees had set up a toll booth with rest stop by the bee escape. My escape route was a superhighway for the bees. I made one more adjustment and left. That evening I found the plans for a triangle escape board. Some of these are supposed to be simple but this looked like one of those brain teaser puzzles. I sat in the living room floor adjusting the pieces and trying over and over to get fit them together. My wife watched for a bit and finally said "I think you should just put it on the hive like that. Then all the bees get together, try to assemble it, get frustrated, give up and go sulk in the hive body."
On the dawn of the fifth day I walked down to the hive already sauced on Benadryl. I cracked the lid...and saw nothing! A few bees crawl on the tops of the frames but this was an absolute success. I seize the stack of supers and slapped a bottom board on them. Half way up to the house I felt the crawling. Then came the stinging. My arms were covered in bees poured out of the supers. I quickly sprinted back to the hives and put the stack back on. Involuntary api-therapy isn’t all it's cracked up to be.
On The sixth day I finally understood how bee escapes work. You see, the fine gates are adjusted so that the bees can neither enter nor exit at will and in fact grow angrier by the minute. The bee escape does nothing to the bees. Instead the keeper grows more and more desperate until finally he believes there are fewer bees in the super. I broke down and hit the bottle (bee quick).
On the seventh day I rested.
My research showed me little about who this man "Porter" was or what he did for a living. My suspicion is that Porter was a psychiatrist who made a living off of treating beekeepers driven mad by his demonic invention. A few days later I got a call from a friend. “Hey – you aren’t still mad at me about breaking your bee vacuum are you? I forgot to pull a super from one of my hives and it’s too cold to use a fume board.” I twiddled the escape between my fingers, a smile slowly spreading. “Come on over. I’ve got just the thing.” Experience really is the best teacher.
Disclaimer – Several of my friends insist that escapes are both pre-calibrated and do not require any sort of adjustment. One of these prefers to move his bees at night when they are most defensive and the other is registered with the green party. You make the call.