Photo: Karen Kiyo
The bee swarm that made its home in a tree on the Berkeley High campus on Friday May 13 was roughly the size of a football, and may have included 15,000 bees. Photo: Karen Lowhurst

Many Berkeley High students had their heads down concentrating on end-of-term exams when an intercom announcement from Principal Sam Pasarow broke the silence Friday afternoon. A swarm of bees had come onto the campus, he said. He asked that teachers close windows and students stay calm.

For BIHS freshman Cole Huster, the news held particular interest. Huster has been a beekeeper since he was in the 7th grade. Not only do he and his mother, Karen Lowhurst, maintain several hives in Lowhurst’s backyard, they also run an informal business, Locole North Berkeley Honey, selling the honey they harvest to friends and neighbors.

When he heard about the swarm, which had many students nervous, Huster said he thought, “Uh, I’m a beekeeper, I wonder if I can help out with this situation.”

After classes had ended, Huster made contact with BUSD maintenance engineer Akbar Shakoui who told him the district has a beekeeper on contract, and they were expecting him to deal with the situation once he could get to the campus. It turned out it wasn’t the first time a bee swarm had chosen to make Berkeley High its temporary home. Caution tape was placed around the swarm, which had settled in the branches of a tree about seven feet off the ground, according to Huster.

Cole Huster shakes the bee swarm in order to have them drop in a bee box. Photo: Karen Lowhurst

Two years of learning the ropes

Huster and Lowhurst set up their first hive while Huster was in 7th grade after a family friend who had a beehive showed them the ropes. “It was super interesting,” Huster said. The pair also took a beekeeping class with BioFuel Oasis Berkeley.

Still, “We were rookies, monitoring the hive all the time,” he said.

But, the next year, Huster did a research project on bees at King Middle School. “I chose to look at bees as I thought it was really interesting that humans are so dependent on them for our survival. It also helped me to see where our food comes from,” he said.

Before he learned about honey bees, Huster admits he “was worried about the backyard being a toxic environment.” But he now knows — and is quick to reassure neighbors and friends — that, unlike hornets or yellow-jackets (which are, of course, Berkeley High’s mascot), bees are relatively benign and not scary.

“They are relaxed and peaceful,” Huster said, “and they keep to themselves, not like hornets and wasps who can be very aggressive.” (But even they pale in comparison to Africanized killer bees of the type that struck in Concord over the weekend, killing two dogs.)

Huster said he has only been stung once in the several years he has been keeping bees, and that wasn’t even when he was tending to his hives.

Even in the first year, Huster said he was surprised by how much honey the bees produced. “We had planned to eat it ourselves but we started giving it out as gifts to family and friends. There was too much on our hands,” he said.

Locole has produced 100 lbs of honey in an annual harvest, and Huster predicts that could increase to 200 lbs this fall.

Locole sell jars of its honey at $8 and $10, and receives orders from neighbors and friends, according to Huster —”people who are interested in local, fresh produce.”

Karen Lowhurst with honeycomb and honey. Photo: Cole Huster
Locole honey: Huster and Lowhurst harvest about 100 lbs of honey a year. Photo: Karen Lowhurst

At Berkeley High, a first run at trapping a swarm

Back at Berkeley High, a couple of hours had gone by and the contracted beekeeper had not shown up. It was clear they wanted the swarm off their hands, said Huster. “I think it would be best if I did this myself,” he thought to himself. So, with the school’s agreement, he went home to fetch his “partner in crime” — i.e., his mother — and to get his beekeeping equipment.

It was actually the first time Huster had seen a bee swarm, and certainly the first time he had attempted to trap one, although he felt he had read enough to know how to proceed.

“I thought it was a great opportunity to help the school, and to get practice,” he said

The swarm had formed into a football-shaped cluster in a tree. Huster estimated there were about 15-16,000 bees in the swarm, slightly under the average swarm size of 20,000.

Cole Huster carries the bee box to the car after successfully trapping the bee swarm. Photo: Karen Lowhurst

A delicate procedure done well

The first step was to spread a bed-sheet on the ground under the tree, after which Huster put a ladder onto the sheet and placed an empty bee box next to the ladder. He climbed up and cut the branch holding the swarm.

The next part involved shaking the branch so that the bees fell into the box. “If the queen bee goes in they all go in,” explained Huster. At first it was not clear what had happened, he said. He had to wait to see if they would all stay in the box, or if they would fly away, and reform a swarm, in which case you have to start the process again. But Huster was successful. He closed up the box, draped a bed-sheet over it and packed it into the car to take home.

Berkeley High will benefit from those bees, however. Huster said that since the new bees came from the school, “it would only be right” to donate any proceeds made from their honey to the school.

“I love Berkeley — it’s my favorite place in the world — and I want to support Berkeley schools,” he said.

Meanwhile, Huster is working on his next project. Lip balm made with the extra bees’ wax from his hives. He said he and his mother are currently perfecting the recipe and working on reviews before offering it on the market.

Cole Huster places the bee box into the car to take home. Photo: Karen Lowhurst
Cole Huster and BUSD maintenance engineer Akbar Shakoui after ‘mission accomplished.’ Photo: Karen Lowhurst

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Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...