20,000 honey bees took over a tech company’s empty office during lockdown

A bee is seen on the frame of a hive in a village of Ripanj near Belgrade, Serbia, April 9, 2019.
A bee is seen on the frame of a hive in a village of Ripanj near Belgrade, Serbia, April 9, 2019.
Image: Reuters/Marko Djurica
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On the main drag of sunny Santa Barbara, California, four blocks from the Pacific Ocean, sits the three-story headquarters of Invoca, an artificial-intelligence software company. Like many offices, the building has been empty since March, when Invoca sent employees home to shelter from Covid-19.

Well, not quite empty.

For amidst the building’s abandoned desks and silent phones, 20,000 honey bees were hard at work, building a hive filled with 10 gallons’ worth of honey, beeswax, and pollen, as Invoca’s leadership learned in January, much to their surprise.

“We were talking a lot as an executive team about how and when to bring people back to the office and how to make sure it’s safe,” says Dee Anna McPherson, Invoca’s chief marketing officer. “It never occurred to me to think of bees.”

It never does.

honeycomb covered in bees
The discovery.
Image: Super Bee Rescue & Removal

Looking back, though, there were clues. Invoca’s workplace experience manager had noticed a few dead bees in the entrance hall when she first stopped by the office in April to get the mail. “She didn’t think a whole lot of it,” says McPherson, “just, Oh, they must have somehow blown in.”

The next month, the office manager saw a few more dead bees. And then more and more. Finally, Invoca decided it was time to investigate, calling in Santa Barbara’s local Super Bee Rescue & Removal squad, which, true to its name, specializes in safely re-homing honey bees that have chosen impractical places to set up shop. “We consider ourselves bee-vangilists,” says owner Nick Wigle, who doubles as a beekeeper.

Using a thermal imaging camera, Super Bee’s technician located the bee colony nested between the building’s second and third floors. “So they cut a hole in the ceiling and she had to shimmy up between the floors,” McPherson says. It took the better part of a day for Super Bee to attract the bees into a box, using the scent of a queen bee to lure them in.

bee hive built into wall
The bees set up an office of their own.
Image: Super Bee Rescue & Removal

A crucial part of the rescue process, Wigle notes, is spotting and capturing the queen bee, upon whom the survival of the other bees depends. “Without her, there will be no future baby bees—and if not replaced, the colony will be dead in a few weeks,” he says. Luckily, the queen bee has a few distinctive traits; she’s about 10% to 15% bigger than the other bees, and has a fully developed abdomen for laying eggs.

Initially, McPherson says, Invoca had hoped to process the bees’ honey and give jars of it to employees. But Super Bee explained that it tries to preserve the honeycomb, so that the bees can rebuild their hive when they’re relocated to a natural habitat. Invoca did get a plate-sized piece of the honeycomb as a souvenir, which a couple of employees divvied up to sample.

The bees are a reminder of just how long we’ve been away from our offices—long enough that nature may have more surprises in store for companies as they begin to reopen their workspaces. Their legacy lives on in Invoca’s Slack channel, where employees have been abuzz with puns.

“Everyone’s like, Oh, they’re our new employ-bees,” says McPherson. “Or, Our office has become an AirBeeandBee.”

But the removal itself was a serious matter.

“Our CEO actually is allergic to bee stings,” McPherson notes. “He has to carry an Epipen. So it’s kind of a fun thing to think about the bees, but it’s really important that we get them out of there.”