On April 29, Iraida Pisano noticed she had around 15,000 unwelcome visitors—a swarm of bees that collected in a tree in her front yard in San Juan Bautista. It was one of several clusters that have recently been spotted locally as bees break off from existing hives and seek out new homes.
“One of my neighbors had some bees in their tree,” Pisano said. “I was watching out my front window as a man was trying to remove them,” Pisano said. “All of the sudden, they went from his tree to mine. It was a huge swarm, like a black cloud of bees. I was very worried about them because I am really allergic to bees. So I just stayed in the house.”
The next morning, the bees were still in her tree.
“I ran out and took a picture,” she said. “By now the swarm of bees had become this huge cluster—it was scary. And a lot of people walk in our area and children play here so I was worried about them maybe attacking someone. I posted the picture on Facebook and asked if anyone knew what I should do about it.”
While concerned for her own health, Pisano was more concerned for the bees.
“I did not want the bees in my front yard,” she said, “but I know they are important and did want to save them. I asked some other people on Facebook what they did and they recommended someone who could come and take them.”
And that is how Pisano met Dan the Beekeeper.
“Dan the Beekeeper came over and told me he would set up boxes for the bees to swarm to,” she said. “He started off with one box. Then he had two boxes. Then three. He told me he would be back in the morning to pick them up. The word got out and that night I got calls from four or five other beekeepers who also wanted my bees.”
When Pisano looked out of her window in the morning, the boxes were overflowing with bees. When Dan the Beekeeper, aka Dan Kerbs, came to get them, there were enough bees still in the tree to almost completely fill two more boxes. All in all, the job took three days to gather all five boxes.
“I watched Dan working,” said neighbor Wanda Guibert. “He did a great job, working out there for hours. Somehow or another he got all the bees to go into the boxes. Then he took them away and that was it.”
Five boxes of bees are a lot of bees. Each box holds about a pound of bees. A pound can be anywhere from 3,000-4,000 bees. As one online retailer says, “Honestly, no one really counts the bees.”
Neighborhood social media pages have been filled with similar sightings over the last few weeks and bee swarms such as Pisano’s are a common springtime event.
A single beehive can only support one queen bee. According to Kerbs, the queen secretes a pheromone that signals to drone bees not to create new queen larvae, eliminating her competition. However, the distribution of the pheromone becomes weaker as it reaches the edges of the hive.
When this happens, the worker bees may create new queens by feeding larvae royal jelly. Once a new queen has matured, the hive will split, with one of the queens taking some of the drone bees and worker bees with her to search for a new place to create a hive.
Pisano’s tree was serving as a temporary bee hotel, allowing the insects to rest for the evening before continuing the search for a new home.
Kerbs is beginning his third year as an amateur beekeeper and has been collecting swarms of bees as an affordable and easy way to increase the size of his hives. Commercial bee sources charge around $100 a pound for bees and getting bees locally means less time spent acclimatizing bees to their new environment.
“I started off just trying to get some honey out of it,” Kerbs said. “At the beginning, you are trying to build the population up until they get to a point where they start producing. I have about 10 hives right now and am right at the point of getting some honey from them.”
Kerbs, who is from Aromas, had posted on Facebook that he was looking to collect local bee swarms.
“I started getting phone calls right away,” Kerbs said. “I took care of five swarms in three weeks. I go out and lay down a tarp and put down the bee box under the swarm. I shake the swarm and most of the bees will pour into the box. I close up the box, leaving just the entrance open, then come back in the evening to see if the remaining bees made it into the box. Then I seal it up and take them to their new home.”
Swarms of bees, for the most part, are not particularly dangerous if left alone. Normally, bees attack when their hive is threatened, as a way of protecting their honey. But swarming bees like the one in Pisano’s yard have no home, therefore they have no honey to protect. Given space and left alone, a swarm will leave in a day or two as they continue to search for a place to make their hive.
Still, Kerbs must be careful when he is trying to gather them.
“The most difficult part is to not get stung,” Kerbs said. “I wear coveralls, a hat, and a veil. But you still have to be careful not to squish any of the bees. That releases an odor that really upsets them and it will bring on more aggressive behavior.”
The boxes are baited to make them more attractive to the bees, mimicking the kinds of things bees look for in the wild.
“You can use a little bit of lemongrass oil, for example,” Kerbs said. “They like it and it encourages them to stay in the box.”
The most critical part of the process is being sure that the queen is captured as well. The size of Pisano’s swarm was a bit daunting, requiring more time to be sure she had joined the rest of the bees in the boxes. The easiest way to find out is to let the boxes sit for a while. If the bees do not swarm out of the box again, the queen is almost guaranteed to be inside.
Kerbs is hoping that homeowners will follow Pisano’s lead and call a beekeeper rather than an exterminator when faced with a swarm in their trees or shrubs.
“I am hoping by now people are aware of how important bees are,” Kerbs said. “Particularly in an agricultural area like ours, we need every one of them.”
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