Victorian families are locking themselves in sealed rooms and cars while waiting to be saved from swarms of squatter bees.
It’s swarming season, when bee colonies produce more than one queen, and half of the hive leaves in search of a new home – wall cavities and chimneys being favoured locations.
What starts out as a football-sized swarm can grow over a year into the size of a small car in your roof cavity.
The previous two years, swarming season – when the weather turns warm and bees get ready for pollination orgies – were almost non-events.
“At best they were a fifth of what we’re seeing this year,” says Frankie Spranger, who heads a Melbourne-based family business called Bee Rescue. “This season is extreme.”
The comments follow the death of a groundsman after he was stung by a swarm of bees at a regional Victorian farm on Wednesday.
Mr Spranger, who was driving between jobs before pulling over to speak to The New Daily, says he’s getting 25 to 30 calls a day from people wanting hives removed from their homes. And some are armchair bee-keepers who caught the recent home-grown honey buzz and are now out of their depth.
“Some people are a mess when they call me,” he says. “It’s the fear factor. They can’t do anything. They’re locked up and paralysed in their own house … but it’s confronting, there could be 60,000 bees that have moved in.”
Some of Mr Spranger’s customers were people who’d bought bees off him to get started as hobby honey farmers.
“The problem is, there are these bee seminars and books that make it sound romantic. But there’s a lot you need to know.”
As of May, there were reportedly 6000 bee-keepers registered in Victoria – four times the number 15 years ago. At the time of the report, Victorian Apiarists Association president Kevin MacGibbon predicted beekeeper numbers could grow to 7000 by the end of the year.
Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources senior apiary inspector Joe Riordan told The Weekly Times: “There is no other (form of) agriculture, farming or hobby that has grown like bee-keeping — nothing at all.”
Ben Moore, beekeeper and rescuer, is working 15-hour days pulling hives out of buildings.
“It is absolutely crazy,” he says. “A classic story is the family in Bentleigh [in bayside Melbourne] hiding inside the car, inside the garage, waiting for me to get there. It’s not unusual behaviour in my business.”
Mr Moore’s voicemail advises that he’s booked out for the next week, and gives the number of another rescue business. He’d just been attending a bee emergency at a school.
Posted by Bee Rescue Melbourne on Tuesday, November 7, 2017
The reason why bee people talk about rescuing bees, is because people previously tended to try and kill the invaders.
“It’s better that we get to rescue them,” he says. “But people are in fact motivated by the wrong information. They read about bees suffering Colony Collapse Disorder in Europe or the United States … they hear bees are disappearing, but that’s not actually happening in Australia. We have the healthiest bees in the world.”
John Powell calls himself The Bee Wrangler. He says that from Monday to Wednesday this week, with the hot weather, “demand has been overwhelming”.
He says that bees can set up home in a wall cavity or chimney without the human occupants being aware of it — until the bees get curious about what else is happening in the house. “Suddenly you might have a few dozen in your loungeroom. They’re a scout party conducting an investigation.’’
Dr Ronelle Welton is a public health expert with the Australian Venom Research Unit at the University of Melbourne’s Department of Pharmacology. She says that about 900 people are hospitalised each year with bees stings, including 25 deaths from bee stings between 2000 and 2013.
“Bees are the most common cause venomous animal bite,” she says. “But it’s not the sting that kills someone. It’s their body’s allergic reaction to the sting.”
Bee rescuer Frankie Stranger says the best way to get bitten is to try and kill the hive. Kill one bee, and the hive is alerted to the threat by pheromones. Kill a few dozen and you set off bee bomb.
“I’ve seen people end up in hospital from so many stings because they tried killing the bees … or their faces are so puffed up they can barely see me.’’