HAMPDEN, Maine — Peter Cowin, covered from head to toe in white fabric with mesh netting draped over his face, surveyed a screen that swarmed with thousands of honeybees.
“I found the queen,” he announced after what seemed like an agonizing period of silence.
Cowin set the screen down and slowly backed away from the buzzing insects. As he walked further from his man-made hive, the bees began to dissipate.
“The queen is the one that matters,” he explained once it was safe to remove the netting from his head.
And with that confirmation early Sunday afternoon, Cowin had successfully relocated a swarm of 25,000 bees to his home on Town Farm Road in Hampden.
Just 24 hours earlier, those same bees were huddled together in a basketball-sized clump hidden inside the walls of Shanna Wheelock’s home more than 100 miles away.
Wheelock, who has a lifelong phobia of bees and whose husband is allergic, made the apiary discovery early last week at her home in Lubec. Her husband, thankfully, was out of town.
Whenever a hive gets too crowded, the queen will branch off with thousands of followers and search for a new home. In most cases, the swarm lands harmlessly on a tree. In some cases, a swarm ends up where it’s not welcome.
At first, Wheelock noticed a few bees outside her window. A few grew to hundreds and hundreds to thousands. They were entering though an opening on a recent studio addition to her home.
“It was like a scene from a horror movie,” she said.
Wheelock, who teaches art and also is a weaver and potter, didn’t know what to do. She called local beekeepers. She called exterminators.
A Facebook friend referred her to Cowin, a 52-year-old small-business owner and beekeeper from Hampden who Wheelock now calls the “bee whisperer.”
Cowin and Wheelock talked on the phone late last week. Wheelock asked for help, not hiding the urgency in her voice.
Cowin, who has corralled more than a dozen swarms during his years as a beekeeper, said he could be there by Saturday.
When Cowin arrived at Wheelock’s home that morning, the incessant buzzing that the homeowner heard for days had quieted. Were the bees gone?
“She was worried that we wouldn’t find them and I’d think she was making the whole thing up,” he said.
Cowin produced a stethoscope and placed the diaphragm against the ceiling. He moved it along the surface until he found what he was looking for. With the homeowner’s permission, Cowin cut a small section from the ceiling. Sure enough, between the Sheetrock and the rafters of the roof, nestled next to pink insulation, was the massive swarm.
First, Cowin sealed off the room. He didn’t want to give the bees a chance to migrate again.
Then, he used a specialized vacuum cleaner to slowly and methodically suck up the insects without killing them.
Some of the bees began to fly away toward the natural light of a window. They didn’t get far, though, and were not aggressive, Cowin said.
“Bees are dangerous when they are defending their home, but not when they’re searching for a new home,” he explained.
The bees were placed into a 5-gallon bucket secured with a screen over the top. They already had started to manufacture honeycomb just in the few days they had taken up residence in Wheelock’s ceiling.
Cowin took some of the comb, too. He would need it later.
Wheelock, who wore a white suit that matched Cowin’s and watched during the entire process, even got to vacuum some of the bees. She later blogged the entire experience.
“I was suited up, determined to face my phobia head on,” she wrote. “My heart began to race a bit as some bees began to swoop down from the hive and into the sectioned-off space of the room. But all in all, I felt okay. I had been reassured over and over that I would not be stung. I trusted Peter’s confidence.”
As quickly as he had arrived, Cowin was gone, driving along Route 1 and then Route 9 from Washington County back to Hampden. The bees didn’t mind the ride. He used pieces of the comb to keep the bees nourished during the trip.
“It really could not have gone any easier,” said Cowin, who grew up in Massachusetts but spent much of his life in England and still has a slight British accent.
Once he was home, Cowin devised a strategy.
He already had a hive on his property that recently had lost its queen. His plan was to merge the swarm he retrieved from Wheelock’s home with his queen-less hive.
That is, of course, if the queen survived the trip.
Cowin transferred the bees to a man-made hive late Saturday but didn’t search for the leader until the next day. If the queen had not survived, the hive would have suffered the same fate.
Inside his home, Cowin was asked how he learned so much about bees.
The passion started when he was just a boy, he said, and just carried on into adulthood. By day, Cowin runs a business in Carmel, BioEdge, that produces fish-attracting scents used for bait. His business has national and international customers, but on Sunday, Cowin was content talking about bees.
As comfortable as he is around the insects, Cowin still takes precautions. He never approaches a hive without wearing a protective suit.
His wife, Anne, who read a book in a nearby room, was asked if she indulges her husband’s hobby.
“I’m an enthusiastic observer,” she said.
As for Wheelock, she has no plans to take up beekeeping any time soon, but she is a little more comfortable around the honey-producing insects now.
She can’t help think of the coincidences surrounding the whole ordeal. She said her husband’s pet name for her is “Shanna Bee,” and when she was 2 years old, her grandfather gave her the nickname “bumblebee.”
Also, she has recently been reading “The Secret Life of Bees”.
Wheelock said she’s glad the bees could be saved and glad also that she wasn’t forced to bring toxic pesticides into her home.
The entire ordeal even provided her some artistic inspiration in the form of the intricate comb that the bees had created in only a matter of days.
Wheelock even got to keep the remainder of the honeycomb that Cowin didn’t need.
She plans to somehow use it in her next sculpture.
Anyone who suspects they have a honeybee swarm may contact the Maine State Beekeepers Association at 619-4BEE. Cowin can be reached at 862-2080 or 299-6948.