Photo: Andy Duback/AP Photo

Who you gonna call when a swarm shows up on the streets of San Francisco?

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I was wasting time online a few months ago, when I came across this unusual anecdote:

A neighbor was walking along Guerrero Street in San Francisco’s Mission District, when she noticed a swarm of bees absent any visible hive or jumpsuit-clad beekeeper. Concerned for the insects and any humans they might encounter, she called the city and, to her delight and surprise, a specially trained swarm catcher was dispatched to the scene.

“There’s a department of lost bees!” the woman reported.

Well, almost.

“They aren’t lost whatsoever,” corrects Marc Johnson, beekeeper, swarm catcher and board member for the San Francisco Beekeeper’s Association.

Johnson, it turns out, was the person deployed to address the Guerrero bees, a domestic bunch that had outgrown their home in a local hive and were striking out in search of new digs.

“We fool the bees to live in a place that’s not natural,” he explained. “We basically give them refurbished condos.”

Each swarm is actually a protective knot around the queen, ranging in size from football (5,000 bees) to basketball (10,000 bees) to even larger pieces of sporting equipment.

When a queen lays many eggs and the colony outgrows its urban abode, the queen and about half of the clan will embark on a quest to find a new home. They provision themselves for about four days, and venture out into the world to look for a hive. But there’s a housing crisis in San Francisco. Fewer trees with inviting hollows. Scarce apartments within a journalist’s modest budget. It’s tough out there—for bees as for people.

When I first moved to the Bay Area three years ago, I spent three months searching for a dog-friendly apartment with reasonable access to public transportation. I began hurling my application and credit report at virtually any place where the bathroom didn’t open directly onto the refrigerator or the kitchen wasn’t wedged into a walk-in closet. Or maybe I applied to that one, too. Desperate times and all.

Twenty-five showings later, my fiancé and I landed in a small one bedroom where all the standard apartment trappings had been shrunken to fit the unit’s petite frame. “I didn’t know they made them that small,” one friend said when she saw our oven, which required new miniature baking pans, reached a max temp of 375 and was capable of cooking only one dish at a time, as we learned the hard way one Thanksgiving.

If the house-hunting bees don’t find a suitable nest, the queen—who’s larger than her minions and “not a particularly good flyer”—will land wherever she runs out of gas. That’s how a swarm ends up 25 feet high in a tree on Guerrero or globbed onto the side of a car in the Outer Sunset, Johnson said. Each swarm is actually a protective knot around the queen, ranging in size from football (5,000 bees) to basketball (10,000 bees) to even larger pieces of sporting equipment and their corresponding insect counts.

As a swarm catcher, Johnson is one of 12 volunteers in San Francisco who usher the wandering pollinators to safe harbor. When a call comes in to the city, a text goes out, and whoever’s close by heads to the streets with a box of cardboard bee comb. They track down the swarm, locate the queen and coax her into the temporary lodging.

“It’s all about the queen. She is the heart of that little bee nation. When you put her in there, the rest of the bees will march into the box.”

Johnson performs his duties in street clothes, sans white jumpsuit or mesh mask. If he can determine where the honeybees came from, he may return them to an owner. Otherwise they’ll go to a community garden or some other public land that can accommodate a new colony. He speaks of his charges with genuine tenderness and cares for 17 hives of his own, roughly three quarters of a million flying workers who live in gardens, teaching landscapes and at schools.

San Francisco can be a hard place to make a home right now, but the swarm catchers—the department of wandering (but not lost!) bees—act as shepherds for those searching for the right place to land.

“The more you know, the more you want to help these creatures,” Johnson says.

Indeed, on a recent weekend, the retiree beekeeper and his girlfriend were vacationing in California’s Central Valley when they noticed some honeybees drowning in the pool. They scooped up the tiny insects carefully, rescuing them from the threatening waters.

Johnson got stung in the process. But it was by a wasp.