For beekeeper Christine Robin Combs, being a beekeeper means no day is exactly the same. Sure, most days she’ll spend some time collecting honey, beeswax and royal jelly (used for the development and nurturing of queen bees… it’s like gold to beekeepers with sick, unhappy or jealous queens) from her various hives and colonies. She’ll probably also be involved in the business end of things (especially if she runs her own company) such as dealing with farmers, other beekeepers and maybe even giving presentations to school or holding workshops for wannabe beekeepers.
Taking care of the bees themselves is also a big job. These little creatures come and go as they please; they’re not pets (even though they’re so cute and furry with those five luminous, black eyes…). Combs simply provided a home for them to do whatever it is they do naturally. A sort of…guest/host relationship where they get a place to live and she gets the spoils of what they don‘t need after they make it.
But what she does do is make sure the bees’ hives (and the bees, themselves) are clear of insects, parasites, mice and other sorts of ne’er-do-wells whose main purpose in life is to interrupt the bees’ natural work and lives.
Maybe one day a week Combs will spend her time building hives or destroying old ones that present a problem to the rest of the hives—if they’re diseased, rotting, mite-infested or whatnot. She may spend a day potting the honey and hauling it to market, and the next day be called about going to gather up a swarm—a gathering of 5,000 to 30,0000 bees in a tree or bush trying to find a home. Maybe she’s been anointed—without her knowledge or maybe even consent—the city’s “Swarm Swami.”
Which brings us to the topic of swarms. If you want to have bees…you’ve got to capture them, and the best way to do that is catch them when they're swarming. All that means is that they gather together, wondering what to do next. They’ll normally attach themselves to a tree branch that’s close to their old hive and wait patiently while scout bees go searching for a bigger, better homestead. Sometimes people are thrilled to see a big, black buzzing bunch 30,000 bees on a branch outside their toddler’s window; some, eh…not so much. That’s where you can come in.
People who do want bees add their names to a “swarm list” through a bee supply or pest control company. See, it’s illegal for pest control companies to kill swarms of bees, so if you’re not into beekeeping, have never considered beekeeping, and the thought of more than one bee at a time makes you think of the movie Killer Bees, you (the one with the swarm near the toddler’s bedroom) are going to make the people on the top of the company’s swarm list very happy, for they shall have 30,000 new members of their family delivered pronto. Consider yourself a surrogate of sorts.
But how does one go about catching a swarm if one is a beekeeper (or even if one is not, if one is on his or her way to calling him/herself a beekeeper)? Because it’s normally the experienced beekeepers who are the ones to go get the swarms. It’s not recommended for amateurs (who’ve never seen it done before) to attempt to wrangle a flash mob of buzzing, all-a-quiver bees waiting for the word from their queen to take off to their next home.
Who wants to break the news to them that they’ve just alighted on a really dirty screen door?
That being said, we know of an amateur beekeeper who did just that…and survived (all blissed-out, apparently—see the Stress section). But he had witnessed it before and had taken a workshop from a friend.
Now, let’s imagine a day of going to get a swarm.
Christine Robin Combs closes her eyes—she’s asleep. She feels herself flying smoothly above a field of delicious, plump flowers just waiting to have their nectar sucked out and their pollen attached to her fuzzy little feet and carried off to the next awaiting flower.
God, it’s good to be alive. And being able to fly ain’t bad, either.
It’s 5:06 a.m. The phone startles Christine Robin Combs awake. Her husband grabs her pillow from under her and stuffs it over his own face and ears. (Apparently this isn’t the first 5 a.m. call in their married life.) The swelling from last night’s sting on Combs’ neck has just subsided. The voice on the phone seemingly doesn’t hear the garble in her throat.
“Hi… I was told by animal control that you’re the gal who can come remove this…this…big, black, buzzing bunch of bees from a branch on my silver maple?”
30,000's a crowd
“Well, yes, I suppose that’s me. Are you a beekeeper? Did you want that swarm for a hive of your own? Is it too big a job for one person or something?”
“What? One person? Look hon (Combs ignores this), I’m a wedding planner and I was out for my morning run… great for the stress I deal with—you’ve no idea, bridezillas and all… and I don’t know how many people it will take, but I don’t want these things hanging around my daughter’s bedroom. What would I want with a gazillion bees?”
“All right, all right, I’ll take them off your hands. Give me your address and I’ll be there pronto.”
The very next thing Christine Robin Combs does (after kissing and apologizing to her husband) is to get her swarm box (a cardboard box, the kind one puts files in works pretty well, one with a big, round hole cut out of one end with some metal mesh covering it), grabs her ladder (most swarms are between 1 to 20 feet off the ground on a tree branch), snatches her beekeeping suit (see the Tools of the Trade section), and heads on over to the wedding planner’s silver maple.
Of course, there’s more to catching a swarm than what’s written in the above paragraph. You can read more about this here.
A call is next, to Combs’ local pest control company (if it’s worth its salt, the company is open at this hour) or favorite beekeeper (whom Combs knows is up), to find out who’s first on the “swarm list.” Then Combs calls that person (and lets his or her wife or husband steal the pillow) and tells him/her she’ll be on her way with their new babies very soon, courtesy of the wedding planner.