Featured Stories

Other Pamplin Media Group sites

Swarms of gold

Protect pollinators by calling beekeepers, not exterminators, when bees are on the move

Some people collect coins. Others opt to accumulate baseball cards, butterflies or gravy boats.

Alisa Faulk collects bees.

'The whole issue with colony collapse disorder - beekeepers are typically losing about a third of their hives each year - is really scary when you think about how essential bees are to producing food,' she said. 'They're interesting to watch. And who wouldn't like honey? We get lots of it.'

Faulk, who lives on the outskirts of Lake Oswego in Southwest Portland, is one of about a dozen beekeepers who catch honeybee swarms in the area.

May is a busy month for swarm collectors, as warm weather ramps up hive activity. As a hive fills up, its queen might lay eggs for new queens, and, when those are ready to hatch, the old queen will depart, taking with her a big chunk of the old hive. They'll all cluster somewhere close to the first hive as scouts look for a good empty cavity somewhere to establish their colony.

A swarm can stay in one spot for just a couple of hours or a couple of days. Swarms often gather on trees, but they've been spotted in other, less common places: on a bench, a car or a building or even under a bicycle seat.

Beekeepers urge residents to not panic if they see a giant ball of bees hanging around in their vicinity.

According to the Oregon State Beekeepers Association, ominous as they may look, swarms are generally the most gentle of honeybees.

'A swarm is really nothing to worry about. It's not dangerous,' said Faulk, who receives a lot of phone calls from parents worried swarms will attack their children. 'Before the bees leave, they drink up all of the honey their bellies can hold. They're not defensive like they are with the hive; they don't have that honey store to defend.'

The bees are typically so gentle Faulk doesn't 'suit up' entirely to catch them. Instead, she dons a jacket with a facemask and gloves and then simply shakes the bees from a tree branch into a box and covers the box with a screen. Sometimes, whether beneath a tree or elsewhere, she will entice the bees by putting a hunk of old honeycomb in the box or spraying it with a scent they're drawn to.

The Oregon State Beekeepers Association and Ruhl Bee Supply in Gladstone offer lists of beekeepers who rescue swarms. No one seems to charge for the service, possibly because the swarms represent something different to a beekeeper than they do to the general public: free bees.

Faulk's path into beekeeping began with what had been a swarm, although at the point she found it, the colony had established a hive in an old house her parents bought in the Sherwood area.

'I don't know why, but I looked at it and was like, 'We could take those out and keep those bees,'' she said. She now has nine hives at her parents' place in Sherwood and takes calls from people who need help handling swarms in Lake Oswego, Tigard, Tualatin and West Linn.

'Most beekeepers are happy to pick them up,' said Bob Ervin of Lake Oswego, a beekeeper of about three years. 'It's a good source of bees, and it keeps the bees alive and taken care of, versus going into a place where they aren't welcome and therefore are killed.'

Ervin collects swarms in the Lake Oswego area. Last summer, he helped contractors working on Our Lady of the Lake Parish downtown get rid of a swarm gathered in a tree. He estimates he rescued a few thousand bees that had gathered on a tree limb, which he shook off into a box.

He has two active hives at his home in the Uplands neighborhood and keeps an extra one available for any swarms he might rescue.

An avid enthusiast of sustainable gardening and food production - in addition to keeping bees, he grows a quarter-acre of grapes, recently installed a hydroponics system and keeps chickens and ducks - Ervin said caring for bees is just 'a responsible thing to do.'

'Many bee colonies are dying off,' he said. 'Without bees, we wouldn't have any of the fruit of their labors. It's a good thing to do from an environmental perspective. And I get to eat the honey.'