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Tinsley identifies backyard beekeeping trend

by Morgan Tinsley

Editor-in-Chief

After hearing complaints from her daughter about bugs outside, Bev Christensen was mortified to discover a large colony of honey bees living in her attic in April 2018. 

Initially mistaking the bees for wasps, Christensen said she called an exterminator in horror. 

“It was really creepy,” she said. “There was a scene in Amityville Horror where there’s a bunch of flies. It was like that.”

After learning the guests in her attic were actually honey bees, however, Christensen instead called a swarm rescue specialist to remove the bees. She said she did so because she knew how important bees are to humans and other species.

After her Los Gatos home was free of bees, Christensen decided that she wanted to keep the rescued hive in her yard, following the trend of backyard beekeeping in the Bay Area. Christensen differs from other urban beehive owners, though, as her neighbor manages the hives for her.

“I wanted them in the yard because I wanted to do our part,” she said. “I wanted to make sure we saved them and hopefully could give them a good home where they could thrive. I’ve learned a lot about bees. They’re very intelligent. It’s amazing how they’re able to do what they do.”

Although Christensen does not wish to become a beekeeper, she said she was inspired by the bees in her home and the ability of a swarm rescuer to calmly extract the honey bees without full protective gear. Similar to Christensen, many Bay Area citizens value the importance of bees and proper swarm rescue. Many of these citizens are backyard beekeepers and swarm rescuers. 

President of the Santa Clara Valley Beekeepers Guild, Elizabeth Victor greets about one third of the Guild’s 350 and counting active members on the first Monday of each month for Bee Guild meetings. 

Victor said that the majority of the members of the Santa Clara Guild were backyard beekeepers. Backyard beekeeping has become popular among Bay Area residents in recent years as more communities, including San Jose, San Francisco and Monte Sereno, began to allow the practice. Large bee guilds like Santa Clara’s can be found in almost all other Bay Area counties.

With more beehives, however, comes more swarms. Beehives naturally swarm, the process by which a new colony is formed. Thus, as the number of beekeepers in the Bay Area increases, the amount of swarms reasonably increases. Swarms occur when a bee colony runs out of space and a large portion of the hive’s bees leave with the old queen to find a new home as the remaining bees produce a new queen. Though many people are intimidated by swarms of bees, Bay Area residents have more rescuers than ever available to safely remove swarms. 

Victor said swarm rescue is an important aspect of the Santa Clara Bee Guild. The Guild offers hands-on swarm rescue classes to its members. 

“We train up to 40 to 50 beekeepers every year to go out and capture the bees,” she said. “We have to teach them how to do it in a safe manner that protects the homeowner, protects the public and protects the beekeeper. We show them all sorts of different techniques and how to gather them into a hive or a swarm box.”

The Santa Clara Bee Guild includes a list of 53 local swarm rescuers who have taken the swarm removal class. Many are volunteer rescuers who remove swarms for free. Other Bay Area county bee guilds, like those of Santa Cruz, San Mateo and Sonoma, also have large lists of swarm rescuers on their websites.

Art Hall, one of the instructors of the two-hour Bee Guild swarm rescue class, said there only used to be about 10 active swarm rescuers to cover all of Santa Clara county when he started swarm removal roughly 15 years ago. 

Hall said he appreciates the additions of fellow swarm rescuers because he does not want Bay Area citizens to fear swarms.

“Bees are the scariest looking in a swarm,” he said. “There are thousands and thousands of bees, and they’re all flying in what appears to be random directions, and you’re sure they’re actually looking for you to sting you. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Even though swarms may now be seen more frequently in the Bay Area due to the higher numbers of amateur beekeepers, Hall said swarms are nothing to be scared of, and bees are in their least defensive state while at a rest stop in a swarm. 

Swarm rescuer Mike Stang teaches the Bee Guild’s swarm removal class alongside Hall. He said he became interested in swarm removal because many people are scared of bees. 

“People do strange things when they see a swarm,” Stang said. “They spray them with water, or they’ll try to poison them to make them go away. My job is to not let that happen and to get them as soon as possible.”

Stang said swarm rescuers help educate the public on the nature of bees and what to do when there is a swarm nearby. Victor and Hall said they think people are beginning to recognize the importance of bees as pollinators and the need to protect the endangered species, leading to more swarm removal calls and fewer attempts to poison swarms. 

Stang rescued 93 swarms in 2017 and 103 swarms in 2018, his biggest year. He said beekeepers are eager to rescue swarms, in part, because many Bay Area cities have changed their backyard beekeeping policies to be more lenient, and they do not want these laws reversed to the strict, old ways. 

Steve Demkowski, 72, works at Happy Hollow Park & Zoo and teaches beekeeping to kids in a 4-H class. Demkowski said that swarm rescuers are important because there are few hollow trees, and rescuers need to capture swarms while they are still out in the open before they go into a building and become more difficult to remove. 

Demkowski additionally said beekeepers should protect swarms, which are usually made by colonies that have survived the winter, and since beekeepers are losing over 40 percent of their bees during the winter season, the genetics in swarms should be preserved. 

“One swarm that I got in the fall was about the size of a softball, really small,” Demkowski said. “I nursed it all through the winter because there was no way it would have survived. But the following year, that little swarm produced 400 pounds of honey. It was one of my best hives.”

Both Stang and Hall noted a financial motive for swarm removal which could also explain the recent increase in Bay Area swarm rescuers. Hall said he was initially drawn to swarm rescue for financial reasons.

“It’s free bees for people that lost their bees during the winter,” Stang said. “Most beekeepers will retrieve a swarm for free, and they’ll take them home and keep them for themselves.”

Stang said he rescues many swarms and donates many of them to 4-H children and beekeepers who may have difficulty retrieving swarms. He also sells certain swarms.

Stang said swarm rescue provides financial benefits to amateur beekeepers looking to adopt a hive as well. 

“Beekeeping can be expensive to get started,” he said. “That swarm is a good way to get them going, because it’s cheap. If you buy a box of bees, it can be anywhere from $150 to $250 easy.”

Stang said swarm removal provides benefits to the public, beginning beekeepers and the swarm rescuer. He enjoys teaching new beekeepers and swarm rescuers because of their potential to educate Bay Area citizens about honey bees, in addition to a more personal reason.

“I like to try to help people because I want them to experience the passion and the love for honey bees that I have,” he said. “It’s really a spiritual thing to work with honey bees.”

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1 reply »

  1. Great article! Thanks for drawing attention to the importance of preserving the bees and how accessible it is to find someone to help retrieve them and for educating us all.

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