Amateur beekeeper David Ferguson grabs a potted tree on the sidewalk outside the Ritz-Carlton in Washington’s Foggy Bottom area.
“1, 2, 3!”
As he shakes the tree, hundreds of honeybees cascade into a cardboard box held by fellow amateur Toni Burnham.
The swarm had descended on the high-end hotel in search of a new home. And they’ll get that new home — but probably not in the way they expected. Later in the day, Ferguson will deliver the 10,000 or so captured bees to a hive owned by an experienced Virginia beekeeper.
Ferguson and Burnham are members of the DC Beekeepers Alliance, which responds to calls about swarms that end up in inconvenient places. Their services are especially timely: About 30 percent of honeybees in managed colonies have died each winter for the past eight years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a group called the Bee Informed Partnership. Large beekeepers mostly replace losses by splitting colonies and buying additional queens for the spinoffs. Moving honeybee swarms to places where they will be cared for by a beekeeper could give them a better shot at success, experts say.
Bees are critical, not only for the honey they produce but also for the plants they help pollinate.
“Every third bite on our plate comes from honeybees,” said Burnham, wearing a beekeeping veil, white canvas jacket and leather gloves to protect herself from stings. She added, “If you talk about the network of life, bees are a critical link.”
Last month Ritz sommelier Michael Kennedy saw the horde of bees roar down 22nd Street at lunchtime, making a sound Burnham likens to a flying air conditioner.
“The swarm just came down the street like a tornado and just came to the tree,” Kennedy recalled.
Burnham, founder of the beekeepers group, arrived to corral the swarm soon after receiving a tip e-mailed by a passerby. She has received 200 swarm reports this year, though nearly all are false alarms, mostly involving not honeybees but carpenter bees, which don’t form colonies and which use their powerful jaws to drill their nests in wood. Once she determines that there is, indeed, a swarm of honeybees, she contacts fellow beekeepers to help. Of the dozen or so honeybee swarms they confirmed, they snagged 10.
Swarming is a natural part of honeybee reproduction, said Jeff Pettis, research leader of the USDA Agriculture Research Service’s Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, Md. In successful colonies, the bee population splits in two, and the old queen takes off with as much as 60 percent of the worker population to find a new home. The remaining bees stay on with a new, young queen.
“When bees swarm, it’s good news,” Pettis said, because it indicates the colony is healthy.
This spring, swarming in the Washington area lasted about three weeks, Burnham said. Colonies can swarm in the fall, too, but her group receives far fewer calls then.
The Ritz swarm was in one of the city’s toniest neighborhoods, but honeybees aren’t fussy about where they live. Kim Flottum, editor of the beekeeping magazine Bee Culture, said they primarily look for a place that offers space and protection from the elements. So colonies might find themselves anywhere from the side of a house to a wheelbarrow.
Burnham said the buzzing insects that harass you at your picnic are typically yellow jackets, not honeybees. The average person is most likely to come across honeybees in his or her garden. “For the most part, if you want to encounter a honeybee, you’re going to have to work at it,” she said. At the gardens adjacent to the Smithsonian’s museums, there might be one or two dozen species of bees pollinating plants in the summer, she said. Only a handful might be honeybees.
Honeybees living in the wild face challenges that their counterparts attended by beekeepers might avoid: They risk getting killed by parasites called varroa mites (and the viruses these bugs transmit), running short of food and having disruptive encounters with humans.
“The bees that Toni catches are lucky,” Flottum said. “The bees that aren’t caught have a struggle.”
Organizations across the country respond to calls about swarms. It’s not a new phenomenon. In fact, years ago, the only way a bee enthusiast could start a colony was to catch a swarm, said Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an entomologist with the University of Maryland and a director of the Bee Informed Partnership. (Now, bees can be ordered online.)
“It’s a very long, rich tradition of catching bee swarms,” vanEngelsdorp said.
The growth of the local food movement and the news coverage of colony collapse disorder have sparked interest in bees. And the District has become fertile ground for beekeeping in recent years, Burnham said. Last year, Mayor Vincent Gray signed a law making it legal to keep bees in the District. Also, the University of the District of Columbia, with the help of partners including DC Beekeepers Alliance, recently began offering a beekeeping certificate course.
Burnham said beekeeping has flourished among urban hipsters and rural enthusiasts alike. The White House keeps bees, as does the chief of staff to Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), who lives in the District.
Honeybees were brought to North America by European colonists 250 years ago, and are key pollinators for fruits, vegetables and nuts.
“We can’t just be separated from the ecosystem or from our agriculture supply. Bees are sort of a keystone species in both of those systems,” vanEngelsdorp said. “Having them close by, I think, makes us better stewards of the greater environment.”
That’s perhaps what kept Ritz sommelier Kennedy riveted as he watched the beekeepers work. Just the day before the swarm’s arrival, he said, the staff joked that the hotel needed its own beehive after it debuted a honey-flavored cocktail.
“I think you have to be careful what you wish for!” he laughed. “I’m going to watch what I say from now on.”
Wyckoff is a science writer based in Washington.