Down East home swarmed by about 30,000 bees

Posted June 24, 2011, at 1:14 p.m.
Last modified June 25, 2011, at 2:32 p.m.

LUBEC, Maine — It first started on a cool night earlier this week when Shanna Wheelock noticed a few bees hovering for warmth around an outside light. But the next morning, Wheelock heard a banging at her living room window.

“I looked up to see approximately 100-200 bees,” she said.

Upon closer inspection, Wheelock, a school music teacher, weaver and potter, found that a small board on a new addition to her house was not secured tightly. Within minutes, as she watched, the number of bees swarming outside the house increased tenfold. By late afternoon, local beekeepers estimated that 30,000 bees had swarmed and moved inside the walls of Wheelock’s home, entering where the board created an opening.

“It all happened quickly and was like a scene from a horror movie. I can hear the buzzing in the walls,” Wheelock said. To add insult to injury, Wheelock has a lifelong phobia of bees and her husband is allergic to them. She hired Peter Cowin of Hampden, a swarmer that she has nicknamed “The Bee Whisperer,” to remove the bees. He is scheduled to capture the swarm this weekend.

Cowin, interviewed this week before Wheelock had contacted him, said this year is a perfect one for swarms.

“Last year, blooming plants that feed the bees were gone before the bees wintered in their hives. They starved,” Cowin said. There was also a lot of overwinter mortality from other issues, such as a protozoa called nosema, which is an organism similar to algae that weakens hives.

But this spring, he said, Maine’s bee colonies are rebounding and have been growing rapidly — so rapidly that they are outgrowing their hives.

“When the hive gets too crowded, the bees will swarm, particularly after several rainy days,” Cowin said.

The old queen will take thousands of honeybees with her in a quest for a new hive. Many times the swarm will land on the branch of a tree and send out scouts to find a permanent home — such as inside the walls of Wheelock’s home.

“A swarm looks like a big basketball. It is an amazing sight but the bees aren’t very aggressive,” he said. The bees often swarm within a half-mile of their original hive.

“If they swarm and settle into a hollow tree, that is no problem. But if they are in your walls, don’t grab for the can of Raid — call a beekeeper.”

Cowin said time is of the essence when dealing with a swarm.

“The queen honeybee can lay 3,000 eggs a day and the hive can go from 20,000 bees to more than 65,000 in a very, very short time.”

When Cowin arrives at Wheelock’s home, he will seal off the affected room, remove the sheetrock and vacuum up the bees. If any honeycomb has been created, it will also be removed. The bees will then be relocated into man-made hive boxes at Cowin’s bee farm.

“I never thought anything like this would happen to us,” Wheelock said. “It is scary, expensive, and time consuming to deal with.”

Anyone who suspects they have a honeybee swarm may contact the Maine State Beekeepers Association at 619-4BEE.

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