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G & M Honey owner Mike Harrel, of Concord, examines a frame covered with bees in Antioch, Calif. on Thursday, March 21, 2013. Homeowner John Lambert called Harrel after a swarm bees landed in his backyard on Monday. Harrel transferred the bees from the fence to a nuc box making it easier to transport them . (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Staff)

ANTIOCH -- There was something vaguely Hitchcockian about the scene in John Lambert's backyard.

The bees had appeared one fine spring day without warning. Not an annoying handful of them. Not dozens. Not even hundreds. They had arrived by the thousands.

"There was this cloud -- they were swarming," said Lambert, who's never seen anything like it in the 26 years he's lived in his Antioch home.

The insects landed in a cluster on a latticed fence, and after waiting several days for the 3- to 4-pound mass to move on, Lambert brought in a professional beekeeper to stage an intervention.

'Tis the season for swarms as bees get busy doing the wild thing, an annual ritual that can keep beekeepers hopping as well.

As the weather warms and trees blossom, nectar starts to flow -- a trigger for queen bees to shift into overdrive. Once in full swing, these egg-laying machines can produce 1,500-plus eggs a day. More bees means more honey, which a colony must stockpile to survive the winter.

But hives have only so much room, and if they become too full of insects and food, part of the colony will split off in a mass exodus to search for a new home where it can continue reproducing.

Engorged with honey to sustain them on their trip, they typically stop off at least once during the house-hunting mission to rest. They will collect on a spot within minutes and the layovers can occur anywhere: Brentwood beekeeper Kelly Knapp has received requests to remove colonies not only from the usual trees and bushes, but from fences, the ground, under the eaves of houses and even car mirrors.


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Bees also have congregated inside chimneys, under manhole covers and on heavy construction equipment.

Mike Harrel, the beekeeper who received Lambert's S.O.S., once had to scale a crane to retrieve a colony that had collected on the top of it. He also recalls the time a Concord police dispatcher contacted him asking if he could rescue an officer who had locked himself in his patrol car after a swarm landed on the vehicle.

"He wouldn't open his window," he said.

Oakland beekeeper Jonathan Zamick understands the apprehension.

"The sky turns dark, and they'll be flying all around ... and if you don't know bees, that's going to be scary," he said.

The record-breaker for Knapp was a colony that had gathered inside a home under construction on the outskirts of Oakley.

"It was like something out of the Bible. I've never seen anything like it," she said, noting that she needed about nine 5-gallon buckets to contain all the bees she sucked up with a shop vacuum.

But swarming bees are docile, said Zamick, a member of the Alameda County Beekeepers Association who volunteers to remove clusters where they're not welcome.

Wearing only a T-shirt and shorts, he once extricated an enormous colony that stretched several feet along a tree branch and hung down about 2 feet. When he's stung, it's nearly always because he's accidentally crushed a bee, Zamick said.

This time of year the buzzing insects can keep beekeepers hopping: The swarm season has barely begun, but at its height, Knapp can get up to 10 calls a day from all over the county. She estimates she removed 25 colonies last year; Harrel says his count was around 120.

Colonies usually stay only a few days before moving on, but if the spot provides protection from inclement weather and a food supply they're looking for, property owners had best act quickly to prevent the bees from building a hive in their home.

"They don't waste a moment -- their life depends on them setting up a colony," Harrel said.

If bees settle into a wall, it's costly to extricate them, said Harrel, who charges $400 for the two hours the job usually takes.

What beekeepers remove they almost invariably use to expand their own colonies.

Even though Harrel also operates a pest control business and it's typically less expensive for a customer to have a colony exterminated than moved, he prefers saving bees when possible.

So do an increasing number of environmentally conscious types who aren't hobbyists but call those who are when they encounter a swarm because they're dimly aware that the number of hives in the United States has plummeted over the past six years.

"Their comment is, 'I know there's something wrong with the bees,' " said Mark Paterson, a Campbell resident and vice president of the Santa Clara Valley Beekeepers Guild who collects upward of 15 swarms a season.

It's because there's so much that's right about the creatures that Brentwood area beekeeper Sterling Hogan gladly comes to the rescue when swarms show up in an inconvenient spot.

The pollinating these industrious little insects do is responsible for about one-third of the food we eat, he says.

"I hate to see people kill bees with a can of Raid," he said. "It's amazing to watch them work."

Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Follow her on Twitter.com/RowenaCoetsee.

HELP! I HAVE BEES!
Consider these pointers if you discover a bee colony in your yard:
  • Don't panic. Swarms of bees aren't in the mood to sting because they're not defending a hive -- they're looking to build one. And why die without a cause? The process of stinging rips a bee's guts out. Literally.
  • Keep your distance and leave them alone. Even though bees aren't looking for a fight, when they find a temporary landing place, they'll sting to protect themselves if they're being bothered.
  • Have them removed as soon as possible. Although the colony probably will move on by itself, the bees could decide to make your house theirs if they find a way into the protected confines of a wall.
  • Contact a volunteer for Mount Diablo Beekeepers Association's "Swarm Patrol" by going to www.diablobees.org. For a $50 donation to the nonprofit, one of the beekeepers on the patrol will relocate the colony as long as the job doesn't require cutting into a wall or working around power lines.
  • South Bay, people can contact the Santa Clara Valley Beekeepers Guild at www.beeguild.org.
  • On the Peninsula, contact the Beekeepers' Guild of San Mateo county at www.sanmateobeeguild.org.