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By SIM RISSO
Business Journal writer
MODESTO — Usually pest control services aren’t known for saving insects. But that’s not the case with Cornerstone Pest Management, which specializes in safely relocating honeybees.
Prior to opening Cornerstone Pest Management in Modesto, owner Stephen Rys was a beekeeper. So, when he opened his outfit in 2011, he decided to use that experience to try to relocate swarms. It couldn’t have come at a better time with the colony collapse disorder wreaking havoc on the bee population.
“One of the things that excited me when I became a business owner was I had the privilege to go out and rescue these bees and basically the power to stop whatever I’m doing and go do it before the bees fly off,” said Rys. “It just became my niche. Whether it’s through the internet or some advertising I’ve done in the past recently, people end up with my number.”
It’s not just customers who get Rys’ number. He’s the only exterminator in the area that provides the service, so other pest control companies call him to rescue bees as well. In recent years, he’s been subcontracted by Orkin and Terminix to rescue bees on occasion.
The importance of bees is felt everywhere, but their ability to pollinate in the agriculture-rich Central Valley makes rescuing them even more important. Rys is in a unique position to do so because of his experience as a beekeeper.
Almonds are the top crop in Stanislaus County but are unable to self-pollinate, the county agriculture commissioner’s office approves of Rys’ methods.
“We do think it’s beneficial to the industry because he’s a beekeeper himself, so we do believe it can help the population,” said Chris de Nijs, Deputy Agricultural Commissioner for Stanislaus County. “A dead bee cannot pollinate an almond, and almond is the No. 1 commodity in our county.”
Rys is an associate entomologist and is used to being around bees, so he is not afraid of being stung by them.
Often when he gets a call about a swarm of bees in Stanislaus, San Joaquin or Merced counties, he goes to the location and collects the bees in a bee box. If they are in a tree, Rys cuts off the limb or shakes the branch to corral the bees.
Bees are sensitive to pesticides so Rys has to be careful how he transports them in his service vehicle.
“Part of the adventure is I don’t mind bees flying around in my truck,” said Rys. “I’m not going to lose my mind or speed. I guess the average person wouldn’t be like that, but that’s not that big of a deal.”
Rys said he believes rescuing bees is his way of giving back. So, if a customer calls him to a location to rescue bees and all that’s required is shaking them into a box or cutting a limb, he doesn’t charge them a fee.
However, he charges in cases where more is required, such as cutting bees out of a structure and having to repair it or needing to destroy them with pesticides.
The number of swarms he rescues has varied during the six years he has owned Cornerstone Pest Management. Rys usually rescues 15-20 swarms per year, but he’s had years with as many as 30 swarms and as few as five.
While Rys doesn’t think the numbers of bees he rescues has a big impact on the population, but he’s encouraged by the chance to change people’s outlook on them.
“Thirty swarms a year is a drop in the bucket,” said Rys. “But the great thing I like about it is talking more about it and seeing friends, families, people at my church, customers — even people I’ve rescued bees from at their house — change their mind and now that same swarm is in a box in their backyard.”
Elisha Holloway of Modesto is one of those people. Holloway called Cornerstone for some help with pest management at his home a few years ago. Holloway has some experience with beekeeping himself, and after talking with Rys has begun helping him rescue bees. Over the years, Holloway estimates Rys has given him five to 10 swarms.
“I have friends who are pest control guys, and they’ll tell me they just spray bees down with chemicals,” said Holloway. “We’ll try to remove and actually keep the hive and keep the bees themselves.”
While Cornerstone Pest Control is the only company in the area providing the service, Rys would welcome competition if it meant saving more bees.
“I’m grateful that I have this opportunity, and that I can save bees because of the position I’m in as far as owning the company,” said Rys. “I almost wish there were more companies like me and then we’d be fighting over this, but this is my niche.”