The 40-pound swarm: Beekeepers recount an intimidating job in Va.

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WASHINGTON — When the 911 call came in last week, a panicked Stafford County, Virginia, resident said the swarm of bees was “as big as a small child,” somewhere between 3 and 4 feet tall.

The massive, heaving colony was swarming in her Fredericksburg neighborhood on a crepe myrtle branch roughly 6 feet off the ground.

That’s when the Stafford County animal control officer assigned to the case contacted Nathan Thompson, a part-time beekeeper who happens to be the interim police chief in Aquia Harbour.

Thompson said that when the animal control officer, Anthony McCall, told him how big the swarm was, he thought somebody was overdramatizing the size.

But when Thompson and his dad, Earl — who also keeps bees — arrived on the scene, Thompson said there was a moment when they were both awe-struck.

“It was almost surreal — it was really that big!” he said, laughing.

Both father and son agreed: It was the biggest swarm they’d ever come across.

The first thing that beekeepers do when dealing with swarms, Thompson said, is find the queen. Where she goes, the swarm follows. But in a swarm that big (an estimated 40,000 bees), you don’t just reach in and feel around for the queen.

So instead, he and his dad decided to cut the limb. Once the limb was cut from the tree, it would be Thompson’s job to place the branch, swarm and all, gently into a box hive sitting on a drop cloth on the ground below. One thing Thompson wondered as his dad was cutting that branch: How much did the swarm weigh?

“I was holding it above my head, and I was worried that it would slip out of my hands,” he said.

If Thompson dropped the whole branch, he could harm the queen. And while honeybees tend to be docile, Thompson said, being jarred could irritate the swarm.

“That could aggravate them to the point where they might take a little bit of aggression out on me. So yeah, there was a little bit of concern there,” he said.

He estimates the swarm weighed about 40 pounds. He was able to place the branch into the box on the ground, but only half the bees went into the box hive. So he and his dad decided they’d try to give the branch a quick shake to encourage the rest of the bees to release.

At that point, he told McCall to go sit in his truck. Thompson said McCall, who is admittedly not comfortable near large swarms of bees, asked him why. Thompson simply told McCall, “Trust me.” So McCall went to his truck and watched as Thompson shook loose the rest of the bees.

Things went just as Thompson had hoped: The bees that were outside the hive were picking up pheromones from the first half of the swarm, which was making itself at home in the box Thompson provided. “And the rest of them came walking right inside, almost like herding cattle right through a gate.”

Later, McCall came out to take a look and thanked Thompson for telling him to wait in his truck. The two joked about it a bit, but Thompson said when it comes to handling dogs running at large, McCall will hear from him.

“I’ll call him for any kind of loose dog,” Thompson said. “He’s definitely the man for that.”

While he and his dad were wrangling the swarm, Thompson said, one resident who was terrified of the horde of bees came a bit closer to watch. That made Thompson happy. He’s eager to educate the public about honeybees. They really are fairly docile, he said, and if he can get people to resist the urge to find a can of pesticide when they spot honeybees, that’s gratifying.

“Please don’t spray honeybees,” he said. “They’re not the same thing as hornets or wasps or anything like that.”

If you spot a swarm of bees and need help, try calling your local animal control agency, Thompson said. Most have contacts in the beekeeping community; there are lots of clubs in the region, and their members are eager to help.

And where’s that massive swarm from Fredericksburg now? Making itself at home on Thompson’s property. “They’re already starting to put away a little bit of honey,” he said.

The post The 40-pound swarm: Beekeepers recount an intimidating job in Va. appeared first on WTOP.


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