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If a bee swarm descends, wranglers can find it a safer home. Toni Burnham uses a cardboard box to corral honeybees that had swarmed in a potted tree outside the Ritz-Carlton in Washington. Illustrates BEES-SWARM (category l), by Whitney Blair Wyckoff, special to The Washington Post. Moved Tuesday, June 24, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Whitney Blair Wyckoff)

If a bee swarm descends, wranglers can find it a safer home

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Amateur beekeeper David Ferguson grabs a potted tree on the sidewalk outside the Ritz-Carlton in Washington's Foggy Bottom area.

"1, 2, 3!"

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As he shakes the tree, hundreds of honeybees cascade into a cardboard box held by fellow amateur Toni Burnham.

The swarm had descended on the high-end hotel in search of a new home. And they'll get that new home — but probably not in the way they expected. Later in the day, Ferguson will deliver the 10,000 or so captured bees to a hive owned by an experienced Virginia beekeeper.

Ferguson and Burnham are members of the DC Beekeepers Alliance, which responds to calls about swarms that end up in inconvenient places. Their services are especially timely: About 30 percent of honeybees in managed colonies have died each winter for the past eight years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a group called the Bee Informed Partnership. Large beekeepers mostly replace losses by splitting colonies and buying additional queens for the spinoffs. Moving honeybee swarms to places where they will be cared for by a beekeeper could give them a better shot at success, experts say.

Bees are critical, not only for the honey they produce but also for the plants they help pollinate.

"Every third bite on our plate comes from honeybees," said Burnham, wearing a beekeeping veil, white canvas jacket and leather gloves to protect herself from stings. She added, "If you talk about the network of life, bees are a critical link."

Organizations across the country respond to calls about swarms. It's not a new phenomenon. In fact, years ago, the only way a bee enthusiast could start a colony was to catch a swarm, said Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an entomologist with the University of Maryland and a director of the Bee Informed Partnership. (Now, bees can be ordered online.)

"It's a very long, rich tradition of catching bee swarms," vanEngelsdorp said.

The growth of the local food movement and the news coverage of colony collapse disorder have sparked interest in bees.

Honeybees were brought to North America by European colonists 250 years ago, and are key pollinators for fruits, vegetables and nuts.

"We can't just be separated from the ecosystem or from our agriculture supply. Bees are sort of a keystone species in both of those systems," vanEngelsdorp said. "Having them close by, I think, makes us better stewards of the greater environment."

That's perhaps what kept Ritz sommelier Michael Kennedy riveted as he watched the beekeepers work. Just the day before the swarm's arrival, he said, the staff joked that the hotel needed its own beehive after it debuted a honey-flavored cocktail.

"I think you have to be careful what you wish for!" he laughed. "I'm going to watch what I say from now on."

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