Bee ‘Guardian’ Works to Relocate Unwanted Hives and Their Tenants
By Matthew S. Bajko : The Noe Valley Voice November 2020
With two decades of experience under his protective helmet, Philip Gerrie has become a go-to herder of Apis mellifera, or western honey bees, for people across the Bay Area dealing with swarming hives on their property. He will show up with his beehive boxes and specially designed vacuum to collect the buzzing homesteaders.
Within hours he can extract a colony of 5,000-plus bees. He estimates he has now overseen 250 extractions from people’s back yards or homes.
Call him a pied piper for the pollinators.
“I have always liked bees,” said Philip, 68, now retired from his career as a postal worker.
In the back yard of his own 26th Street home near the Upper Douglass Dog Play Area, where he has lived since 1981, Gerrie tends to six hives he maintains in his apiary. He also has six hives hosted by other residents of Noe Valley. All the hives contribute to the honey he collects and sells in local stores under the brand Noe Valley Apiaries.
“This season, I harvested 60 gallons of honey,” Philip said during a phone inter- view in early October.
Kinder and Gentler
Much has changed since the Voice first profiled the apiarist in its November 2005 issue. Apart from being able to focus fulltime on his bee business, Philip has grown increasingly more comfortable around his insect charges.
“I used to put on a full-size bee suit when I first started. Now I just use a hood to cover my face,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for them and have come to enjoy them more over the years. I understand them.”
He rarely gets stung these days and is comfortable enough to wear shorts around his bees.
“When I first started out, I could not imagine beekeepers wearing shorts,” said Philip. “I thought to myself, what if they fly up inside my shorts and sting my leg. I am now out there in shorts because they don’t do that.”
Real Drama Queens
Between April and August is prime bee-swarming season. When a beehive becomes too crowded, half of the group will leave en masse, along with an elderly queen bee, to start its own colony, usually within a 50-foot radius. It could be in a hole in the trunk of a tree, a window on the side of a house, or even an abandoned bird feeder.
“Usually, it is the kids who move out of the house. But in the bee world, it is the queen who moves out and leaves the house to her kids,” said Philip. “When bees swarm, they are looking for the best nest location.”
A past president of the San Francisco Beekeepers Association, on whose board he still serves, Philip charges anywhere from $300 to $1,000 for his bee-extraction services. The price depends on the size of the swarm.
“If the hive has been there for a while, it can be a huge nest,” he noted.
Key to the job is collecting the queen. Otherwise the hive will die out, as bees tend to live no longer than seven weeks and need to replenish themselves to maintain a hive.
“A queen bee lays 500 to 1,000 eggs a day in season. Slows down in the winter,”said Philip.
When he fields calls from people wanting a swarm removed from their yard, Philip can sense over the phone their trepidation at dealing with the creatures.
“People almost always have a lot of fear about them. I don’t because I do it all the time,” he said. “The bees, they can sense if you are nervous or afraid.”
Tending to his hives, Philip said he develops an almost intimate relationship with his bees. Humans have domesticated honey bees to the point where they are very gentle, he said.
“Bees are considered livestock,” Philip explained.
He doesn’t consider his bees to be his pets, and under city guidelines, he is classified as a rancher. He prefers the term guardian.
“I like the opportunity to show other people this little wonder of nature,” said Philip.
He harvests his hives’ honey between May and September. During the colder months, the bees are less active and tend to remain in their hives to stay warm.
Giant Hornets? Mites Mightier
Earlier this year, the national press swarmed around reports of giant hornets, dubbed “murder hornets,” being found in the Pacific Northwest. Media stories buzzed about the Japanese insects decimating America’s domestic bee population. But Philip swatted away such hypothesizing.
“They are using science in locating the giant hornets’ nests and destroying them,” he noted. “What they should have done with coronavirus they are doing with the Japanese hornets. They are contact tracing them and burning them in their nests.” What most concerns him is another import from Asia, the Varroa destructor or Varroa mite, which feeds on honey bees. The parasitic pest can cause a honeybee colony to collapse, and the honey bees have yet to develop a natural resistance to the mites.
“They are the biggest problem for bees in San Francisco,” said Philip. “The mites can travel by latching onto bees and then go from one hive to another.”
Bumper Year for Honey
He has not noticed any decline in the local honeybee population. But Philip told the Voice that for some unknown reason, his hives produced more honey this year than they had done over the previous three.
“This year, my hives have been very productive. I have no idea why,” he said. Asked if he planned to retire from the beekeeping business, Philip replied, not in the foreseeable future. As long as he remains healthy and able to physically care for his hives, he sees no reason to find new homes for them. It takes less than two hours a day to maintain them and keep his bees happy.
“Beekeeping gives me satisfaction in being able to produce a food, honey, directly from the local flora,” said Philip. “It is a lot of work but worth the effort. And, in the process of capturing bees, I am able to share the wonder I feel with working with honey bees.”