LEXINGTON — Alexandra “Alix” Bartsch has an interesting title. She’s the swarm coordinator for the Middlesex County Beekeepers Association.
If you ever spot a large mass of honeybees hanging from a tree limb, or swarming upon your house or garage, she’s the person to call.
After confirming the location of the swarm (and making sure they’re honeybees), Bartsch will dispatch the nearest beekeeper to the scene to remove the insects safely.
“There are beekeepers who will be there within minutes,” said Bartsch, a 53-year-old lawyer who lives in Lexington.
It’s a line of volunteer work that Bartsch takes pride in, one she likens to animal rescue. Some folks enjoy finding homes for stray dogs; she specializes in securing homes for honeybees.
Seeing thousands of insects crawling all over each other may give some folks the heebie-jeebies, but to beekeepers, every cluster — or swarm — of honeybees is a treasured prize. This holds especially true today, as the honeybee population in the United States has been declining for decades, making them an even more precious commodity.
Swarms can be “a scary sight,” said Bartsch, but they’re nothing to be afraid of.
“Bees don’t sting when they’re swarming,” she said. “They’re very gentle.”
Swarms play an important role in the life cycle of the honeybee. Colonies reproduce by swarming. When it’s time to establish a new colony, approximately one-third of the bees will leave the hive with a queen to create a new home elsewhere.
The bees fly to a new area and then land in one spot, all clumped together, while “scout” bees search nearby for a suitable site for the new colony. Once a site is chosen, the swarm will fly to it and build a nest where the bees can settle down. They can stay in a clump anywhere from a few hours to a few days, depending on how long the house-hunting process takes.
Tree limbs are the most common place where swarms are found, but honeybees have also been known to swarm on other surfaces, such as mailboxes and car bumpers. Swarms can range from the size of a softball to bigger than a basketball; typically they’re football-sized, said Bartsch.
Bartsch has been working with bees since 1978. She took up the hobby after taking a class at the Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary, a Massachusetts Aududon property in Lincoln. She maintains three hives at her Lexington home, and jars her own honey. She became the Middlesex group’s swarm coordinator almost six years ago.
Most beekeeping clubs have designated volunteers who make themselves available to remove swarms, said Dan Conlon, past president of the Massachusetts Beekeepers Association.
“It’s kind of a common thing,” said Conlon, who runs Warm Colors Apiary in South Deerfield. “A lot have our names with the local police and fire departments as well, because they’ll often get those kind of calls first.”
Today, most people find Bartsch’s phone number on the Internet; her contact information is posted on the Winchester Police Department’s website.
The prime time for swarms is May and June. “A swarm in May is worth a bale of hay, and a swarm in June is worth a silver spoon,” said Bartsch, reciting part of an old beekeeping proverb.
Bartsch was concerned that there would not be many swarms this year. “We had a very hard winter. A lot of the honeybee colonies died,” she said. But the number of calls has picked up lately. “We’re getting more than I thought we would.”
She was alerted to four swarms over Memorial Day weekend — “Swarmorial Weekend,” she calls it.
The first appeared in Acton. For one in Bedford, Bartsch dispatched Carlisle beekeeper Nicole White. White put on a beekeeper veil (“You don’t want bees in your hair,’’ said Bartsch), then transferred the bees to a box, put the box in her car’s trunk, and drove to her home apiary, where they were last reported to be “happy and healthy and enjoying life.’’
Another swarm appeared in Winchester, on a tree branch 15 feet above the home of Dennis and Sally Dale. Bartsch helped guide them through the process of removing it. Their 24-year-old son, Christopher, cut the branch down with shears and the bees were moved into a hive box.
The fourth report that long weekend came from Cottage Street in Cambridge, where the swarm was high up in an elm tree. Bartsch sent out an e-mail and text blast to several beekeepers. “Swarm in Cambridge right now,’’ she wrote. “Want it?”
The bees were 25 to 30 feet up in the tree, making them difficult to remove without a bucket truck. She contacted the city’s Department of Public Works to see whether one was available, but no dice. The swarm, happily, soon removed itself.
Inevitably, some callers will contact her about wasps or hornets, insects that she does not handle.
Honeybees in the wild typically live in hollow trees. If a caller describes a papery nest hanging from an eave, then Bartsch knows it’s not her specialty. The homeowner would be better off calling an exterminator.
People often mistake yellow jackets for honeybees. “I get those calls all the time,” she said. “I always ask people to send me a picture.”
Bartsch says she enjoys her role. Every time a swarm is picked up, it’s a win-win: The homeowner gets rid of a problem (for free), and the beekeeper gets to take the swarm home (also for free) and adopt the bees.
“It’s good for the beekeeper,’’ she said, “and good for the bees.”