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Even during pandemic beekeeping remains an essential service

WASHINGTON – “Excuse me, can I ask what you’re doing here?” a resident in a southeast Washington neighborhood asks as Sean Kennedy and Erin Gleeson get out of their truck and scour the streets.

The sign on their back windshield, “Bees Onboard,” gives them away.

Kennedy, 58, and Gleeson, 36, are beekeepers. They and their colleagues have been deemed essential workers by the District of Columbia government in the middle of a pandemic.

On this day April, the pair is responding to a phone call about a swarm of honeybees. At first glance it appears as if it might be a bad tip. Kennedy looks down a fence line while Gleeson walks across the street and past a few houses.

“Let’s check the alley,” Kennedy says, and quickly they’re back in their truck. The truck moves slowly as they scan fences, trees, and rooflines — all places where bee swarms might stop.

As they reach the end of the alley, they find what they were looking for: a dark mass about 2 feet long that most casual observers would walk by without noticing. Upon closer inspection, this brown mass moves with quiet activity, thousands of bees huddling with no nest to protect them.

Within two hours, this cluster of bees will be collected, driven across town and given a new home on some of the most desirable real estate in the city.

If a hive is thriving and becomes too large for its own space, the queen will take half the hive and set off to find a new location to start a new hive. If this swarm isn’t collected up by a beekeeper, the new hive can settle into backyards, attics, crawlspaces, office buildings, or high traffic public spaces, creating a nuisance that can alarm some people.

“Bees are not aggressive unless you invade their home or step on them,” Kennedy says. “But they do put people off. Some people are just innately afraid of things that sting and maybe that’s primal and necessary, but if you have them in your office building or you have them in your tourist spots, they become a problem. So, it’s good to catch them in that middle step when we can just put them somewhere where they are welcome.”

For the past five years, the D.C. Beekeepers Alliance has responded to calls from residents about bee swarms. These beekeepers call themselves the “Swarm Squad” and will come to all areas of the region to take away unwanted bees and give them a home, with the added benefit of collecting honey.

Last year the group responded to just 12 calls; this year has been especially busy.

“We had on the first swarm call day of this year, as many calls as we had in all of last year,” says Toni Burnham, the group's president, who estimates receiving calls so far about 60 to 75 swarms.

The coronavirus outbreak coincided with the start of warmer weather, when bees naturally begin separating from their hives. When district officials began looking at the possibility of shutting down the city due to the outbreak, Burnham reached out to her contact at the D.C. Department of Energy & Environment.

“When I saw the lockdown happening and really scary quarantining things, I called up our regulators and said essentially, 'If we’re going to catch swarms we need to not be arrested.' They took care of it, she said.

“Beekeepers needed to be essential because often the hives that they keep are not on their property,” says Tommy Wells, the department's director and a former member of the City Council. “So, they need to be able to travel and get to their bee colonies.”

Wells and his team at the agency also are looking at the broader picture and whether there are enough bee colonies in the region. He said if there are colony collapses elsewhere, D.C. bees can be moved where necessary.

Over the past year, beekeepers in the U.S. lost 43.7% of their honeybee colonies, according to the Bee Informed Partnership.

Back out on the street, Kennedy and Gleeson collected their swarm in a specially designed white cardboard box. The box hums and vibrates as they load it into the back of their truck next to their bee suits and tools. They make their way across town though light traffic in record time.

Jacques Pitteloud, the Swiss ambassador to the U.S., opens the gate to the embassy grounds. They exchange pleasantries as Kennedy and Gleeson don their bee suits.

Pitteloud, wearing a gray sweatshirt with “Washington, D.C” in big block letters across the front, says he was working with the Audubon Society of America to turn parts of the property into a biodiversity reserve when he was approached about beekeeping. “I said, ‘Of course.’”

“Because you know these beautiful gardens that embassies usually have are ecological deserts,” he says. “They are beautiful to look at, but they do not offer the kind of environment that’s conducive to wildlife.

Collecting swarms of bees is challenging at any time, even more so during a pandemic.

“Erin and I are both very careful in our day-to-day personal lives,” says Kennedy. “So when we work together we don’t worry about having masks on.”

He adds, “Being around a swarm of bees deters a crowd. You don’t want a lot of people gathering and it sort of creates a dynamic that encourages social distancing no matter what’s going on with pandemics in the world. So, it’s a perfect activity to encourage social distancing.”

Even with the virus, seeing someone out on the street in a bee suit can cause people to stop and look. “We do look pretty funny and we are doing some pretty strange things,” says Gleeson.

“Pre-corona, people would have hurried past,” she says. “And now they say, ‘Whoa, what are you doing, can I have a look?’ They stick their heads in the bee box and go, ‘Oh my God.’ It’s great to be able to show them, ’Hey here’s a queen or a drone or a worker.”

Kennedy says beekeeping has helped him combat boredom during the pandemic. “There were a lot of swarms this year and it gave life for the last few months some purpose,” he says.

He calls saving bees “a fairly noble endeavor” that people are enthused about. “It’s a way in difficult times to make a small difference. It’s probably, in the time of social distancing, the best way I could have spent the past few months.”