Manuela Breitung had just returned home from doing errands one recent Saturday afternoon, when she encountered a dark cloud of bees at the top of her driveway on Webb Circle.
"I pulled in and the tornado was here," she recalled. "They go up to the trees and hum."
Breitung had witnessed a swarm of honeybees, which was confirmed by a Monroe Animal Control officer. "It was pretty impressive and a little scary when I first pulled in," she said. "And it was very loud."
Breitung was afraid of being stung when she got out of her car, but said, "They had no interest in me. I walked and got the mail, I put my dogs on a leash and went inside."
When she came back out, the bees had settled at the edge of a wooded area just beyond her driveway. Through an Internet search, Breitung found The Backyard Beekeepers Association website and Jeff Shwartz, a beekeeper in Newtown with a honeybee, wasp and hornet removal business. The next morning, she gave him a call.
To the rescue
Jeff Shwartz woke up one morning about six years ago, and asked his wife to pick up a couple of books on beekeeping while she was out at the library. The two books she picked up (Beekeeping for Dummies and The Queen and I) set Shwartz off on a journey he never would have imagined.
"The bees changed me," he said. "They are so gentle. I, and most of the people I know, became a better person for having worked with them."
These many years later, Shwartz has had a lot of experience with swarms, and doesn’t see bees as any threat at all. When he received a call from Breitung, he hopped in his bee-colored Smart car, and drove right over.
"I expected a guy in a big truck with full gear," Breitung said. "He arrived in a little yellow and black Smart Car with the license plate: Bad Bee. He wore a yellow T-shirt, jeans and hiking sandals."
Safer than you'd think
Shwartz explained that when it gets too crowded in a hive, many of the bees will leave. He said, however, that there is nothing to fear with a swarm of bees.
“Bees in a swarm are as docile as bees get,” Shwartz said. “They prepare for the trip so they fill up with honey. They know they need the nutrition to start a new hive. Also, when they are swarming, they have no hive, no babies, no honey, to protect.”
Just then, the bees swarmed again with one swath landing high up in a tree. Breitung watched in amazement as Shwartz walked up to the pile of bees still on the ground, exposed without protective clothing, as bees buzzed all around him.
Shwartz said that when bees leave a hive, they will hang from the branches, from fences, the sides of the houses. “They pile on top of each other, hanging out, looking for a place to live.”
He explained the process by which bees search for a new home. “Several workers act as scouts and will leave the swarm and go off in search of a place, then they will all come back to the swarm. They actually decide which place will be best, then they all go there.”
Shwartz gets upset when people overreact to bees. “Whatever you do, don’t swat them. I don’t understand why people fear them so much. I can pet them.”
Asked if he had ever been stung, Shwartz admitted, “More times than I can count. But that’s okay, because it keeps the arthritis away.”
Give 'em what they want: a home
Shwartz approached the bees in a gentle manner. “All we want to do is give them what they want,” he explained in an interview several days later. “They want a big hollow space with a small opening, and if that is in the side of the house, you will see them go in all at once. It looks like they are being sucked into the side of the house.”
As he approached Breitung’s bees, she said, "He looked through the bees very gently and said, 'We're lucky, the queen bee is still down here.’ He put her in a tube. Then transferred her to another container."
Breitung said the queen was all yellow and had a bigger body than the other bees. Shwartz placed the queen into an empty copier paper box in hopes she would attract the rest of the bees. He put on the lid, leaving a small opening, and gathered up bees from the ground.
Eyeing the tree, Shwartz retrieved a tall ladder from his car.
"He climbed up the tree twice," Breitung said. "He's crazy. He removed the branch with the bees and shook it over the box. He climbed back up, and shook the remaining bees down."
Breitung said Shwartz put his hand in the box and was very gentle with the bees. When asked if he was stung, Breitung said, "Not once."
Collecting swarms is one of Shwartz’s favorite things to do because it increases his hives. “Swarms are free bees,” he said.
Shwartz put the box of approximately 10,000 bees into his Smart Car and was soon on his way back to tend to his many hives in Newtown.
According to Shwartz, 99 percent of exterminators will refer a homeowner to a beekeeper, because the problem isn’t just the bees. The cavity must be cleaned out and filled or the honey will eventually ferment and run down the side of the house.
If you see a swarm, you can contact Jeff Shwartz at 203-426-8620. If you are interested in learning more about bees, contact the The Backyard Beekeepers Association website http://www.backyardbeekeepers.com