A plain-clothed beekeeper was stung about a dozen times while removing nearly 100,000 bees from the second floor of a dilapidated South Jersey home Sunday.
That’s a scene from Swazey Farm’s annual charity bee colony removal, where swarms of workers and one queen were removed and preserved to raise awareness for the plight of honeybees, which have been dying at record rates in Pennsylvania, South Jersey, and beyond for decades.
“Nature has a dependence on us to do the right thing,” said Randy Pearce, a cofounder of Swayze Farms. “But with how the suburbs are expanding, we’re taking resources away from the bees.”
Urban sprawl is one part of the bee population decline puzzle. There’s also the Varroa destructor, a parasite known for deforming and killing bees en masse, pesticides, and the impacts of climate change, where temperature shifts can damage the life cycles of plants and their relationship with pollinators.
Things aren’t as dire as when scientists first discovered colony collapse disorder in the early 2000s — but Pennsylvania and New Jersey beekeepers have been losing about half of their bee colonies annually since 2017, even though honeybee populations overall are on the up and up.
That’s where Swazey Farms, based a half-hour outside of Philly in Sicklerville, Gloucester County, comes in. Founded in 2018 by Pearce and Josue Feliciano, the mission of Swazey is to teach suburban residents sustainability practices that can work in their backyards, like composting and small-time beekeeping.
This year’s charity bee removal occurred at an ailing duplex on Cooper Street in Deptford on Sunday before its owner Bob Gill demolishes it.
Gill, 65, lives next door and purchased the property — which he lovingly calls “the mansion” — in 2000 as a long-term retirement project. But by the time the former union bricklayer got around to retiring, Gill said the duplex was beyond repair. Post-bee removal and demolition, he plans to leave the land vacant.
Gill learned of Swazey Farms through an old coworker, and though Pearce and Feliciano remove bee colonies regularly, this was the first they conducted on a property set for demolition.
Removals can take up to 10 to 12 hours, according to Feliciano, and it’s generally best to go into one without expectations.
“It’s like an iceberg — what you see during a diagnostic is just the tip of it,” said Pearce, 35.
Swazey’s largest colony removal also came from another turn-of-the-century home in Deptford, which unearthed a 9-foot wall of honeycomb and bees. That ended up amounting to three layers of honeycomb and 200 pounds of honey, which was then taken back to Swazey Farms to be recycled by the bees in traditional managed hives.
During this colony removal, Gill said the beekeepers told him the property’s bees were important to Deptford. They had a hunch that some of the town’s other colonies originated from bees born here, and the colony itself produced around seven feet of honeycomb and 125 pounds of honey.
How do you remove a bee colony?
Per Pearce and Feliciano, bee colony removals are equal parts construction, science, and patience.
Feliciano and Pearce start by using a thermal imager to read the heat signal emanating from the bees, which helps them find the center of the colony. From there, they drill a hole in the wall (or floor, or roof) and insert a camera to locate the top and bottom of the bees’ honeycomb.
After scoping out the cavity, Pearce and Feliciano start with removing the main colony — the bees who swirl around the queen — and work outward. Feliciano said they typically try to remove the queen first and put her in a queen clip, which is a special pouch designed to contain her.
Since worker bees are attracted to the pheromones of their queen, this helps Feliciano and Pearce direct the bees into the direction they need to go in and not further into the wall.
Up next: vacuuming the remainder of the worker bees. This might sound kind of grotesque, but Feliciano said these vacuums are designed to move the bees without injuring or killing them.
The last step is participatory. Feliciano and Pearce let customers sample some of the honey forged in their walls (“That’s the least we can do,” Pearce said.) and study the honeycomb to learn more about the infestation.
“It tasted like spring, even though it’s been trapped in the house for so long,” said Pearce, who described the honey produced in walls of Gill’s property as floral and sweet.
Feliciano said you can tell the age of a bee colony from the color of its honeycomb. The darker the comb, the older the colony, since a comb browns from overuse.
For this removal, the comb ranged from light brown to black, setting the age of the colony between seven and 10 years old.
“They can’t teach you this in school,” Gill said to his 10-year-old grandson, Braydyn, who came over to watch the extraction.
So you want to be a beekeeper …
The end-of-times conversations surrounding bee deaths has understandably encouraged people to take up beekeeping, which the duo behind Swazey Farms called a dual-edged sword.
Thanks to the long-viral “Save The Bees” hashtag, beekeeping has become the do-gooder hobby of choice involving celebrities from Beyoncé to Angelina Jolie, contributing to a rise in urban beekeeping that is crowding out other bee species.
Feliciano said “uninformed beekeepers” are one of the most pressing threats to the Philadelphia region’s bee population.
“It’s not as simple as keeping bees in a box in your backyard and hoping they survive on their own,” said Feliciano, 29.
Pearce said the start-up costs for becoming a good beekeeper could run into the thousands, and include the materials and initial set of bees, but also the things you don’t think about — like an online or in-person beekeeping course, plus treatments and medications for the bees in your hives.
Feliciano’s advice to aspiring beekeepers: Get a mentor.
“When you start, you don’t know what you don’t know,” Feliciano said. “Learn from someone who has done it before. There’s so much change and newness you won’t be able to anticipate.”
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