Somebody shouted out a warning, and Viking Gustafson and her coworkers at the Marine Railways shipyard in Gloucester dived for cover as the swarm came buzzing out of a sheet of rain.
Gustafson, epinephrine pen in hand, watched from a safe distance as 25,000 honeybees, moving as one, took over the shipyard Wednesday afternoon. The 50-foot long, 25-foot wide swarm covered a corner of the yard before coagulating on a piece of scaffolding into a single, basketball-sized mass.
“When they were swarming it looked like a plague of locusts,” said Gustafson, general manager of Marine Railways. “It was definitely biologically amazing to see it happen.”
Gloucester and the surrounding communities of Essex County are scattered with professional and amateur beekeepers, but Marine Railways had never before been the subject of a summer swarm.
Gustafson called the fire department and was soon joined at the shipyard by Deputy Fire Chief Miles Schlichte. The pair discussed their options: Could they freeze the bees, burn them away with a cutting torch, or drown them in a jet of water from a fire engine?
“All of these options were deemed not to be in the best interest of all involved, especially the bees,” Schlichte wrote in his report.
Gloucester’s animal control officer arrived, and after a conference with Gustafson and Schlichte, he advised that the bees be left alone until they flew away.
The shipyard workers went about their business, cutting a wide swath around the patch of territory the bees had annexed. But as the rain kept coming down, the swarm seemed to settle in and concern grew that they might make a new home in a nearby electrical box.
Schlichte and his crew began making calls to city officials, looking for somebody who knew what to do with five pounds of stubborn bees. Try Greg Morrow, the beekeeper who lives on Briarwood Street, suggested somebody at the Department of Public Works.
Morrow, a technical manager for multimedia projects at Harvard University, got the call from Schlichte while he was at work and promised to head to the shipyard as soon as he got off.
Morrow said swarming “is a very natural phenomenon, it’s how the bees reproduce.” He added, “Once the impulse is in the hive, it’s pretty hard to get it out.”
Most hives swarm around the summer solstice, when the pollen is heavy and the nectar is flowing, he said.
Gustafson knew the situation was under control when Morrow pulled into the shipyard in his shiny white truck, with a beautifully painted bee emblazoned on each door.
The bees had moved onto the electric box by the time Morrow arrived, and were plastered across a piece of plywood, using their wings to shelter their bodies while they waited in comatose state for the rain to stop.
Morrow set up a box, loaded with honeycomb, below the swarm and used a piece of cardboard to shovel the bees into it.
“They fell sort of like one mass, or a tumble of wet clothes,” he said.
The hive likely escaped from a local beekeeper and got caught in the rain, Morrow said, but he’s taken them in and provided a home.
“The only injury during this event was to the deputy chief who got too close to the hive ... and was stung,” Schlichte wrote in his report. “The only fatality was to the bee doing the stinging.”