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Swarm Chasers — Honey of a Hobby for Gallatin Grad
Posted By Janna On February 26, 2013 @ 10:10 am In Headline News | No Comments
Shannon Holcomb, GHS graduate of 1973, remembers answering one of his first calls with the Swarm Chasers last year. He found himself standing atop scaffolding at the Leah Spratt Mansion in St. Joseph. A woodpecker had nailed one of the front porch columns in the 165 year old house, making easy access for a colony of bees. A nest of perhaps 30,000 bees had taken up residence inside the hollow wood.
The human tenant of the 1854 old mansion was allergic to bees and the owner wanted the nest removed. Extracting bees from the setting without destroying the columns required a specialized capture and a slow and deliberate bee handler.
“Most of the time I don’t get any stings at all,” Shannon said. “It’s just common sense. Think of huge people lifting the roof off of your house and staring at you. Sure, they get upset. But if you’re patient and calm and not aggressive they won’t bother you. They might bother you if you get jerky and fast.”
Once the hive was exposed, Shannon used a bee vacuum to remove the bees from the columns. This was a small wet vac which sucked the bees through a pool hose into a specially designed box.
“We suck them out gently,” he said. “We don’t want to make bee soup.”
He found three nine foot long cones inside the columns at Spratt Mansion, about the longest he has seen so far. Combs that have honey are placed in one container. Combs that have eggs are placed in a separate container. At the Spratt Mansion, 10-15 pounds of honey was removed and two to three pounds of eggs.
The bees will be placed in different hives owned by the beekeepers in various locations.
“We will rehive and claim them and babysit them,” he said. “We’re like the habitat for bees. We take bees that are homeless to a new house. Hopefully, they’ll like their new home and stay and reproduce and go forth and multiply.”
Shannon, who moved to St. Joseph in 1999, became a member of the Missouri Master Naturalist Loess Hills Group in 2011. One of the goals of the Naturalists is to educate the public. He was teaching young people about the importance of bees. He began meeting other bee gurus. From there he became one of 16 members of the Swarm Chasers, which formed in March of last year. The bee rescue group is composed of a psychiatrist, a surgeon’s wife, a disabled war veteran, and college students, among others. They rehived about 30 swarms last year from the counties of Daviess, Buchanan, Andrew and DeKalb in Missouri and Doniphan, Kan.
Dan McCann is Daviess County’s contact for the Master Naturalist group. And it’s not unusual for the Swarm Chasers to seek advice from local bee keeper Raymond Heldenbrand of Winston, who had been a bee keeper for several decades.
They are doing their best to save the honey bee from further decimation. Honeybees pollinate billions of dollars’ worth of crops, trees and bushes each year. They are essential to about one-third of everything we eat. But pesticides and a mysterious colony collapse disorder have done untold damage to the hives.
“We’re losing our bees,” he said. “They’re the best pollinators of them all and without them we’ll lose our crops. There’s nothing more green than the little yellow bee. People have started to realize how vital they are.”
Swarm Chasers generally rescue rogue bees that have broken loose from a hive. Sometimes over the winter the hive will wake up to a cramped house, he explained. A few of the eggs will be queens and a new queen will emerge to take over.
“If there is more than one new queen, then the strongest queen will sting her competitors,” he said. “It’s an old wives’ tale that bees die once they’ve stung. Bees do sting other insects. The only reason they die when they sting a human is because of our thick hide. Once the stinger pierces our skin, it holds it. It pulls out the bee’s insides yanking free.”
Instead of fighting the new queen, the old queen will leave with half the hive. This is when you will see swarms — clusters of bees hanging on branches and fences. They are waiting on the scout bees to find them a new home. Hopefully it will be someplace dark and enclosed and cozy. That may turn out to be a garage or a house.
“They’ll stay for 74 hours or so, until they decide where to go,” he said. “They are hanging there with no honey, no brooder, and an older queen.”
Their little tummies are stuffed full of nectar at this time and they’re quite docile.
“Catching them is real simple,” he said. “All you need is a cardboard box and scissors. You cut the branch off and put it in the box. And add a lot of duct tape.”
Nothing else is required, he said, except nerves. About half the Swarm Chasers wear protective gear, the other half don’t.
“I like to walk up to them and grab the branch with my bare hands, especially if I’m demonstrating for kids,” he said. “You don’t need protection. Honey bees have never been aggressive. You’re not on their radar as long as you don’t try to hurt them.”
Once the bees are rehived, the beekeepers will collect honey off the swarm after a year or two. Shannon said the captured bees are more productive than ones that you buy.
“If you have to purchase a queen it could cost you $25 dollars,” he said.
Bees love to nest in tree hollows. Swarm Chasers rescued a hive from a tree hit by lightning that fell over a walking trail at Sunbridge Hills Conservation Area. They cut the log off shorter and taped the ends of the log shut. They moved the log manually to Elwood, Kan. They tried to bait the bees to new boxes but it wasn’t working. When they split the log open to move them by hand they discovered the log was full of hive beetles and varroa mites. These parasites kill bees.
“The bees hung around for about four days and then flew the coop,” he said. “But that was fun.”
Sometimes bees find new dwellings in man-made structures.
A well-known home improvement store in St. Joseph is a favorite refuge. The bees nest in a support column on an overhang on the west side of the building near the construction entrance.
“They build a hive there every spring,” he said. “When a swarm starts hanging over a picnic table or a swing set, we get a call. We’re usually done in 10 minutes.”
The hive is left where it is, which he said is often the best policy.
“The first thing we recommend is to leave the nest alone,” he said. “If you’re not allergic and the bees are not obtrusive, why would you want to get rid of it?”
Daviess County has a hive of bees in the courthouse that have been there for many years.
“They’re not going to destroy concrete,” he said. “And they insulate the property.”
Bees cluster in the winter around their brood, he explained. In the summer they fan their wings to air condition the hive.
“So why bother them?” he said.
Beeswax and honey, everything about bees is useful to humans — even their stingers. Shannon said he has no clue how many times he has been stung. If he moved 10 hives in one day, he might be stung three or four times that day. More, if he’s lucky.
“The venom from the bee sting makes me feel better,” he said. He has arthritis in his hands and feet.
“Many people are turning to bee venom therapy in place of acupuncture. The stinger is a little pulsating sac. The bee pushes the venom through a three-part stinger into the skin. If you don’t want to squeeze the venom in, you should scrape the stinger out with a sharp edge, like a knife or a card. I squeeze the venom in.”
The Swarm Chasers are hobbyists who are not paid for their service.
“If you want to give us some gas money, that would be cool,” he said.
Swarm chasers are all-around advocates and ambassadors for bees. You may call the group directly if you are concerned about a swarm or need a nest removed. They will be holding their first meeting of the year at 6:30 p.m. on March 6 at the Conservation Department building in St. Joseph.
“Bees are very intelligent and have an amazing work ethic and spirit of cooperation,” he said. “They work for the good of the hive. Humans could learn a lot from bees.”
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