Urban beekeepers helping corral springtime bee swarms

There are hundreds of people in the Bay Area ready to scoop up the swarm and give them a new home.

Shoppers at a grocery store on Grand Avenue in Oakland watched in awe and took cell phone video as Piedmont resident and backyard beekeeper Jeff Retherford salvaged a swarm of bees from a shopping cart.

The store manager, who was concerned about his customers' safety, was reluctant to call an exterminator. One of his customers happened to be Retherford's neighbor, who gave him a call.

"I just reached out, with my suit on, pulled them down into the box," Retherford said about his bee harvest from the shopping cart, "It was several pounds of bees. It was bigger than a football."

He put them in his trunk and drove them home. It was the second time in a week he's corralled a colony of bees.

"It's the season. My neighbor's gotten two or three as well," Retherford said of the recent swarms.

Bees swarm when the colony gets too big. Part of the colony will break off to find a new home.

Membership at some Bay Area beekeeping organizations has increased in the past five years. The Mt. Diablo Beekeepers Association's membership has doubled to close to 400 members in Contra Costa County since 2010.

Alameda County Beekeepers Association reports a 30 percent growth to about 160 members in the past two years. Membership in the San Francisco Beekeepers Association has increased as well.

The exact number of urban beekeepers is difficult to track, because some cities do not require beekeepers to have a permit. In cities where a permit is required, not everyone complies with the regulation, and there is little to no enforcement of permit violators.

With more urban bees buzzing around, swarms have become more noticeable. Advocates want them to be rescued, not exterminated.

Some beekeepers said they noticed swarming season started early their area this year, possibly because of the warm winter we had. Bees typically swarm in April-May.

Oakland, Piedmont and San Francisco residents can call their police department's non-emergency line to report a swarm.

The police will refer callers to a list of local beekeepers, standing by to save the swarm.

The Alameda County Beekeeping Association (http://alamedabees.org/) has a swarm-reporting hotline (510-898-6696), Santa Clara Valley Beekeepers Guild (http://www.beeguild.org/), the Mt. Diablo Beekeepers Association (http://www.diablobees.org/), San Francisco Beekeepers (http://www.sfbee.org/) and San Mateo County Beekeepers' Guild, (http://www.sanmateobeeguild.org/) all have links on their webpages to connect people reporting swarms to volunteers ready to scoop up the bees.

"There's a lot of awareness that the bees aren't our enemy. We need them," said Retherford.

He said the three gallons of honey he gets from his hive every spring are a nice added perk.