Apr 2, 2024 - News

D.C.'s "Swarm Squad" rescues huge hives of bees

Two women in bee bonnets with "Swarm Squad" professional Del Voss (right)

Beekeeper Del Voss (right) with two crowd volunteers at Union Market. Photo: courtesy Del Voss

A huge honey bee swarm at Union Market captivated D.C. internet on Sunday as urban beekeeper Del Voss removed thousands of insects with (eek!) bare hands.

Why it matters: Voss is part of the DC Beekeepers Alliance's "Swarm Squad" task force, who rush to swarm scenes — rampant in spring — and safely collect the pollinators, which can run in the tens of thousands.

How it works: When someone reports a swarm to DCBA, the message is vetted to make sure it's not, say, a misidentified wasp nest. Details are then shared on a WhatsApp channel of 75-odd experienced beekeepers.

  • The first to buzz back gets the bees—a big score for an apiary, given swarms typically involve tens of thousands of (free) bees.

What they're saying: "We're very competitive. We want to get those bees," Voss tells Axios.

The big picture: Contrary to popular belief, swarms aren't "angry" or prone to attack. They're healthy, docile — albeit temporarily homeless — bees. Queens lay thousands of eggs in winter, and by spring, hives get overcrowded. Bee populations will naturally split, guided by a queen to search for a new home.

  • Temporary resting places, called bivouacs, allow the queen and her colony to regroup while others search for a permanent pad within a mile radius — ideally something hollow and protected, like a tree trunk.
  • Trained beekeepers can also detect when hives are ready to split and control the process within their apiaries.
The swarm of bees at Union Market
The Union Market swarm (left). Bees converge on a bonnet. Photo: courtesy of Del Voss

Zoom in: Voss says the Union Market swarm originated from a friend's hive on a nearby rooftop. Their bivouac: a "No Parking" sign.

Threat level: High. Voss says, "People were oblivious and walking right underneath [the swarm]. If someone bumped that sign, 20,000 bees would fall off."

  • Still, it was easy to collect the calm bees. Voss dusted them with smoke — a soothing agent — and scooped them into a box. No humans were harmed.

Between the lines: Voss is a highly experienced beekeeper with 50 hives and millions of bees between his Lincoln Park home, Beltsville farm, and a public park in D.C. that's part of the city's Urban Beekeeping Program.

  • He retrieved the bees with bare hands because gloves can harm and agitate them. Plus, he gets stung all the time. It's like "getting allergy shots," he says.
  • Voss sells his D.C. honey — fragrant from a terroir of tree blossoms — at pop-up markets on Capitol Hill and with friends at Second Story Honey & Candles.

By the numbers: Over 500 bee hives are registered in D.C., though Voss guesses there are hundreds more.

The bottom line: "We do a lot of public education this time of year," says Voss, who used the Union Market swarm as an hours-long session for onlookers.

  • "We want people in the community not to be afraid of honey bee swarms because they can be terrifying if you don't know what you're looking at."

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