CAPE CORAL — In a county with one of the nation's highest foreclosure rates, empty houses have attracted a new type of nonpaying tenant: bees.
Tens of thousands of honeybees, building nests in garages, rafters, even furniture left behind.
When a swarm came to a foreclosed ranch house in Cape Coral, town officials called B. Keith Councell, a fourth-generation beekeeper and licensed bee remover.
On a recent evening, Councell stood at the light blue house's open garage door as hundreds of honeybees buzzed over his head and past his ears, disappearing into a hole behind the water meter. The house has been without a human occupant since December.
Then he did what he does at most foreclosed homes: nothing.
"If it's in the yard, I just take care of it," Councell said. "But if it's in the structure, usually I can't get permission to go in. And it's a problem, because somebody's going to get stung. It creates a risk for everybody around."
Foreclosed houses around the country have been colonized by squatters, collegiate revelers, methamphetamine cooks, stray dogs, rats and other uninvited guests. Councell, 35, has eyes only for bees.
Last year, he said, he answered calls about bees in more than 100 vacant houses, and the volume was higher this year.
Lee County, on Florida's southwest coast, was until recently a boom area. But like other fast-growth regions, the county is now a focal point in the foreclosure meltdown. By one measure it had the highest foreclosure rate in the country earlier this year.
But for area bees, the real estate boom is just beginning. "Abandoned buildings attract bees," said Roy Beckford, the University of Florida agricultural and natural resources agent in Lee County, who said he had received "quite a few calls" about bees in empty properties.
"Bees anywhere in the world will make homes in any building that is not occupied," Beckford said. "They send scouts out, and find a place where they will not be disturbed. They're looking for a sheltered place to build colonies and make honey." Bees also live in occupied homes.
Most hives have 15,000 to 60,000 bees, said professor Jamie Ellis, a bee specialist at the University of Florida.
At a time when honeybee populations are dropping nationwide, Councell sees himself in competition with exterminators. Because Africanized honeybees, sometimes called killer bees for their aggressiveness, have appeared in Florida, the current trend is toward exterminating rather than removing them, Ellis said.
When Councell removes a colony, he kills the queen and replaces it with a European queen. "If I can remove a box of bees and put them to use, so they're pollinating fields, instead of that guy spraying, it makes more sense," he said.