It was an unsettling sight. Thousands upon thousands of bees were huddled together and clinging to a tree branch in a D.C. park on a recent spring day.
Beekeeper Sherry Cohen wasn’t expecting to see the swarm during her short trip to the garden. Her plan was to go to her bee hives, check on them, show them to a reporter and be on her way home.
But the bees had other plans.
While talking to me, the reporter, Cohen spotted the swarm in a tree just outside of where she keeps her two honey bee hives at Friendship Park in Northwest D.C.
“There’s a swarm!” she gasped.
It was time to suit up.
Who You Gonna Call? The Swarm Squad
Cohen zipped up her beekeeper jacket and veil and got to work.
“If we get the queen in the box, all the other...ones are going to follow because they want to follow mom,” she said while clipping away tree branches.
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Cohen is part of the DC Beekeepers Alliance Swarm Squad.
Dozens of beekeepers throughout the city are in the Swarm Squad. When the weather begins to warm up, honey bee colonies that have outgrown their hives start swarming and beekeepers in every ward are ready to come to their rescue.
“It is an absolutely fun adventure. You don’t know how it’s going to end,” Jan Day, another member of the swarm squad, said in a phone interview. “It’s the thrill of the chase and it’s always nice when we get to catch the swarm and give a swarm a new home.”
The majority of swarms that aren’t captured don’t survive, according to Day.
Rescuing a swarm is like winning the lottery for these beekeepers. Some are ready to drop everything when they get the call and it’s even become a competition of sorts to see who can gets dibs on a swarm first.
“Many of us are very eager. So we’re carrying our phone around,” beekeeper Del Voss said.
Voss said he also keeps a kit in his car at all times with a box, a bucket and a beekeeper suit. He and Day had to break out the kit last Saturday to save a swarm in Dupont.
Voss said he's keen on catching swarms because he lost 80 percent of his hive over the winter. This is the only way he says he can get more bees.
Day relies on the bees for her small business selling honey and mead.
What Is a Swarm?
Typically, about 50,000 to 70,000 bees live in a hive and as it continues to grow, the colony decides to split up.
About half of the worker bees, which are all female, and the queen bee leave the hive in search of a new home.
“So you’re figuring about 20 to 30 thousand bees on the go with the queen,” Cohen said.
They usually form into a massive ball on a tree branch, a fence or another temporary spot.
“They’re just biding their time until they find a new place,” Day said.
It’s completely normal to freak out at the sight of a swarm.
“It looks almost biblical,” Voss said. “That could be 30,000 bees up in the air and all those bees would’ve poured out of that beehive in about a five minute period. It can look menacing.”
But there’s no reason to panic.
Cohen said before they leave the hive, the bees fill up on a lot of honey to prepare for the journey ahead, which makes them docile.
“They’re literally fat and happy. They’re well fed. They have no home to protect. They have no babies to protect. They’re just out looking for their home,” she said.
If you see a swarm, don’t be afraid -- and definitely don’t spray any pesticides or try to harm the bees.
The swarm squad says to stay calm, snap a picture and call them at 202-255-4318.
If you’re not in D.C., every jurisdiction typically has a squad so try finding their information online by searching “Montgomery County beekeepers,” for example.
Once a beekeeper arrives, it can take about 30 minutes to an hour to catch the swarm.
For more information about the DC Swarm Squad click here.
The squad said buying honey at a local farmer's market, using little or no pesticides and planting flowers are all ways that you can help the bees.