A black Hummer with dark windows pulls up to the potential crime scene.
It is the FBI—but probably not the agency you expect. This unit is dedicated to fighting the chemical eradication of bees.
Kelly Estill and her son, Aleks, founded Florida Bee Investigator in August 2016. Their mission: to humanely remove and relocate wayward bees that find their way into undesired places in southwest Florida.
The need was an unexpected calling.
Kelly found her services in critical demand after a hurricane decimated the area. Manatee County and Florida Power & Light officials called “the bee lady,” as Kelly is known, desperate for help. Bees blanketed utility equipment, preventing crews from restoring electrical service.
“I was swamped helping everyone around here,” says Kelly, who already was busy working her apiaries. “They wanted me to get a license and be on call 24/7 to remove bees. I wasn’t expecting this to grow as big and as fast as it did. I wasn’t planning to dedicate staff to this. Now, we have seven crews—13 people—doing nothing but relocation.”
The business name, FBI, started out as a joke, Kelly says, because of the stealth appearance of her team. Most of the company’s work trucks are Hummers. Kelly says the high clearance and small axle of that model work well for quick maneuvering while hauling 16- to 24-foot trailers filled with bees. The rigs are black and the windows are tinted dark to try to keep the bees cool—not to disguise her.
“Bees get inside the truck and cover the windows,” Kelly says. “It freaks people out when they see that.”
Kelly and her FBI agents remove swarms of bees that have taken up residence in homes and businesses, relocating them to a more suitable home. Typically, relocation starts at one of Kelly’s four bee sanctuaries in Manatee County, where she has 200 to 250 hives each. For five weeks, Kelly quarantines the collected bees, testing and treating them for internal and external parasites, nursing as many of the sick ones as possible back to health with antibiotics, vitamins and minerals.
While the relocation work doesn’t pay financially, Kelly is committed to the bees.
“Bees are amazing for the environment,” she says. “There’s no reason to harm them.”
In addition to her sanctuaries, Kelly manages hundreds more hives, including many through her host-a-hive program. Major companies and government organizations in the area buy bees from Kelly. She looks after the hives, and the sponsor gets the honey.
The host-a-hive program not only helps the ecosystem. It helps Kelly educate people about the importance of bees.
“No honeybees, no humans,” she says bluntly, referring to the critical pollination role bees play. “Ninety-four percent of our food supply depends on bees.
“Without bees, many of the crops we enjoy today simply wouldn’t exist. At the very least, we wouldn’t enjoy them as abundantly as we do now. That’s why we aim to save as many bees as possible.”
For Kelly, being surrounded by bees is second nature. She says everyone in Europe has bees. Her apiary business and FBI were born out of her lifelong love of, and appreciation for, bees.
“I grew up on a farm,” Kelly says. “When I was 4 or 5 years old at my grandmother’s in Switzerland, she would send me out to play with the bees so I didn’t get hurt by the cows or sheep that stomped or kicked.
“You never knew what you would find in a hive. It was exciting. At 5 or 6 years old, I already was in charge of 30 to 40 hives.”
Regardless of the acreage, the perimeter of virtually every field in Europe is seeded with wildflowers to provide habitat for bees.
“Here, we don’t have that,” she says. “That’s why we have to move our bees around for pollination.”
Through her apiary business, Kelly’s hives are trucked around the country, moving from almond orchards in California to blueberry fields in Maine, and everything in between, season by season.
It is stressful for the bees and the keepers, who face a catch-22 between providing a critical service and subjecting their bees to potentially fatal travel, temperature extremes, pesticides and diseases picked up from interactions with other bees.
Kelly treats her bees with antibiotics when they return from a trip.
“We’re losing more bees now and working harder,” she says. “Even though something is always blooming, we need to feed our bees—and they are finicky about their food. Seven of my hives are starving. They don’t care for orange blossom. When I see that happening, I have to move them out. It’s not genetics. It’s not environmental.
“I’m always keeping an eye on the weather. Bees don’t get up until the blooms dry. Bees are starving after the rain.”
Kelly has honed her observation skills through years of experience.
“I’m forever manipulating hives.” she says. “I can smell mold and bacteria in a hive. I hear the noise they make. I see things in the way they fly. I’m still learning and exploring why bees are doing what they are doing.”
That’s part of the reason 50-year-old Kelly still works with bees. She says few other older commercial beekeepers remain.
Educating the public is increasingly important to Kelly. She lectures, offers classes and works with her host-a-hive partners on events that draw attention to bees and honey-related products—although she concedes that honey is a byproduct, not her goal.
“It’s a nuisance,” she says. “I want to see bees in my hives—eggs and larvae.”
Kelly’s educational efforts are paying off.
“People are becoming much more aware,” she says, noting that even some pest control companies are refusing to kill bees.
Kelly subcontracts with local businesses, including Rentokil Pest Control.
“Part of our motto is protecting people,” says Jess Turner, manager of the company’s central Florida district. “It is important that we be good stewards. Thanks to Kelly, we have rehomed more than 2 million bees.”
The relocation work is challenging. Dressed in protective suits, vision and hearing are restricted.
Bee removal always happens at night, when bees are less active.
Every job is different. Kelly and her team have watched planes be taken apart so they could get to bees, crawled through ductwork to track bees in hospital air-conditioning units, rescued utility crews trapped by bees near an alligator-infested swamp and survived being stampeded by an aggressive cow during calving season while checking hives in a pasture.
“I’m one of the lucky ones,” Kelly says of her longevity in beekeeping. “I don’t feel burned out. I never take a vacation, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love what I’m doing. Not everyone can be a Mozart or a Picasso, but we all have our gifts. This is one of my callings.”