Honeybees flitted and spun around a bucket truck as a beekeeper tried to vacuum up the buzzing insects to save their lives.

The bees had built their hive in the core of a twisted, dead cedar tree in the middle of the historic Lutheran Benevolent Society Cemetery, where many notable Baton Rouge residents are laid to rest, such as the founder of the local NAACP chapter. The tree threatened to topple over and smash the tombs underneath so it had to go, but cemetery caretakers wanted to save the tens of thousands of bees that lived inside.

After searching for about two years, volunteers found a tree company and a local beekeeper willing to donate their time to tackle the and its flying residents. On Friday morning they set to work at the cemetery on Eddie Robinson Sr. Drive next to Brooks Park.

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A previous beekeeper removed some of the bark from the tree, exposing the hive. Friday’s beekeeper, who asked not to be identified, used a homemade vacuum rig to suck the bees into a wooden box she used to transport them to farmland around the Fordoche area of Pointe Coupee Parish.

The hive was massive — several feet tall — and not entirely visible. Bayou Tree Service technician Jacob Saizan cut disks of the trunk, while the beekeeper sucked the bees out of the hollow cores. An occasional puff from a bee smoker disoriented the insects, allowing them to be captured more easily.

The beekeeper also tore out pieces of honeycomb to bring with the bees to help them restart their hive. One bit of the hive showed signs of the queen’s chamber. By the time it was out of the tree, the queen’s residence was empty, but based on some loud buzzing inside the box, the experts were hopeful the queen had been safely transferred. The beekeeper wasn’t counting bees by the number of individuals, but by weight, and after about two hours of work she’d vacuumed out a couple pounds.

That’s good news for the bees, since they huddle for warmth. In fact, the ones that didn’t make it into the box will likely die quickly without their tree and the rest of their hive.

Cemetery keepers had considered just killing the bees so they could remove the tree, but neighbors on the online site Next Door were eager to relocate, rather than eradicate, the hive, said Matt Thomas, president of The University Lakes Improvement and Preservation Association. Knowing that bees are important as pollinators and that the species’ populations are down, volunteers bid their time until they were able to move the hive somewhere less volatile, he said.

It was important to bring down the tree so no tombs would be disturbed if it fell. The Lutheran Benevolent Society, formed in 1858, purchased the land for the cemetery in 1899, said Lillie Gallagher of Friends of City Park. The land was on or near the old Richland Plantation, and since it was chosen as a resting place, it’s possible it had been a burial ground for slaves before it became the official Lutheran Benevolent Society Cemetery, she said.

At least one former slave, Green Cross, is interred at the site. He was born in what is now Zachary in 1855 and died in 1952 at the age of 97.

Other notable burials include several World War I veterans and Benjamin Stanley, an organizer of the Baton Rouge bus boycott during the civil rights era who also organized the city’s NAACP chapter, Gallagher said.

The roughly 3,000 plots are nearly all full, though the cemetery hosts the rare burial, such as one a few months ago when longtime custodian Edgar Thomas was interred.

As a benevolent society cemetery, the site relies on volunteers to keep it clean. Gallagher especially likes seeing young people pitch in, whether juveniles performing court-ordered community service or one of the groups from nearby LSU. It teaches respect for older generations, eases fear of death and gives the living a place to ponder the whole spectrum of life, she said.

Making the cemetery beautiful and comfortable is a way to “keep that sacred space alive … in people’s minds,” Gallagher said.

Editor's note: This article was changed on Saturday, April 6, 2019 to note that the tree the bees had their hive in was a cedar tree.

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.