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Look inside a plain wood box, in a truck, in the driveway of Rob and Chelsea McFarland's house on certain spring nights, and you will see them. Bees.
How did they get there? Turn back the clock two years, to another season, another swarm. This one arrived in the afternoon while Rob was working in the backyard — one bee at first, then thousands, clustered into a ball the size of two footballs. It landed in a tree.
Instead of killing the bees, Rob called a group he'd read about online, which "rescues" them: the Backwards Beekeepers. That evening, wearing only a T-shirt and jeans and no protective suit, a volunteer from the group clipped the branch of bees, dropped it into a cardboard box and sealed it up. Rob, now 33, and wife Chelsea, 31, were astounded. "It revealed to me the gentle nature of bees," Rob says.
Soon he started going on rescues, too — as many as three a day. He climbed a tangerine tree in the middle of the night and brought down the biggest open-air hive Chelsea had ever seen. With a frenzied smile, Rob gripped the severed branch with massive honeycombs dangling off it — a 60-pound lollipop of bees. Chelsea snapped a picture.
Then the dawning realization: "Where the hell do we put them?" It is a recurring question that will consume their next few days, then months, then years.
The tangerine tree hive sat on their roof for a spell. The McFarlands live in a modest house in the Del Rey neighborhood, a narrow, two-mile strip that cleaves Culver City from Mar Vista. They don't exactly have a lot of space. And what kind of neighbor welcomes a swarm?
By some miracle, after weeks of shlepping hives across the city — after the crazy logistics of matching up people who had bees but didn't want them with people who want bees but didn't have them — Chelsea secured a spot: a small, scrubby hilltop in agrarian Moorpark, overlooking an organic farm owned by a friend of a friend. The McFarlands christened the hilltop the HoneyLove Sanctuary.
Today it hosts 16 hives in colorful wood boxes, each from somewhere around L.A., rescued from water meters and birdhouses and compost bins, places Rob can't recall anymore.
"Each one of these is a family," Chelsea says. "We're usually rushing to beat the exterminator out there."
For the past two years, the McFarlands' house has been a halfway home for rescued bees. Rob, a YouTube channel manager, rescues them after work in the evenings, and the bees spend the night in his truck on the driveway until he can shuttle them up to the hilltop in the morning.
You do not choose to become obsessed. As anyone who has ever fallen in love with this insect says, "The bees choose you."
"We always kind of have bees at our place," Chelsea admits, with a sheepish grin.
Commercial bees — the ones used to pollinate crops in the agriculture industry — are dying off in record numbers, presenting a serious crisis to global food production. Yet in urban areas, bees thrive. No pesticides or monocrops mean healthy living conditions. As improbable as it sounds, cities like Los Angeles may be the bees' best hope for survival.
But there's a catch.
Urban beekeeping is legal in New York, Seattle, Portland, Ore., Denver, Atlanta, San Francisco, Paris, London, Tokyo and Vancouver. In New York and San Francisco, people keep hives on the roofs of luxury hotels and apartment buildings.
In Los Angeles, however, bees exist in a legal gray area. The county allows them. But the city has no laws specifically pertaining to urban beekeeping. Currently, if bees are found on public property, the city's only option is to exterminate them. As a result, the past few years have seen the emergence of groups like the Backwards Beekeepers, which are devoted to rescuing and keeping these wild swarms of so-called "feral" hives within city limits.
The Backwards Beekeepers represent a whole new kind of thinking about bees. While older, established groups frown on feral hives, the Backwards Beekeepers see them as the way of the future. Where traditional bee clubs use pesticides and antibiotics to help struggling bee populations, the Backwards Beekeepers favor organic, "natural" methods. The city, in a Backwards Beekeeper's eyes, is a bee's ideal stomping ground.
Yet as long as the rules about keeping hives on private property are anyone's guess, beekeepers live in fear. No one has been prosecuted, but that doesn't seem like security enough. And so Rob and Chelsea McFarland have been working to change the city's codes one neighborhood group at a time.
When the McFarlands consulted beekeepers in Seattle, they were advised to build support from the ground up. So the McFarlands formed a nonprofit foundation, HoneyLove, and they do endless events and outreach: wax symposiums, honey tastings, mead workshops, pollen parties, art shows, festivals, concerts, garden tours, grocery consortiums, school visits, equipment demonstrations, film screenings, radio shows, television appearances, guest lectures and video blogging. They organized a four-month feasibility study with the Mar Vista Neighborhood Council, which includes surveys with residents, testimony from a pediatric pulmonologist on the effects of bee stings and, for a little bedtime reading, 75 scholarly articles on beekeeping.
Very well written. Domestic vs wild bees reminds us of helpless domestic pigs compared to tough healthy wild pigs.
Cool more people need to do this and cut out the scumbag middlemen. Scumbag Guerrilla beekeepers "rescue" in OC wanted to put their hives on MY yard to harvest MY nectar from MY flowers and only give me 3% of the honey and sell the rest at farmer's market to dimbulbs for $10 a pound. I'm learning all i can on my own and will harvest my own honey soon enough. IRS needs to investigate them if they have non-profit status.
@bigpapapump nothing wrong with it per se. I mean, people want to be self sustainable...why not bee keeping?
@-paulc- @bigpapapump Absolutely nothing wrong with bee keeping. How else would I get the sweet delicious nectar I put on my bran flakes every morning? However, those two in the picture, are not bee keepers. They're A & F automatons sent by the marketing dept to boost sales of "farmer chic" clothing to young adults with lots of discretionary income to blow on authentic vintage bee keep gear.Bleep bloop, I am bee keeper, bloop bloop, Kombucha bleeep, backyard chicken coop, bloop, bleep, grow tomatoes and rhubarb, bleeeeeeep, bee tattoo on my neck, bleep.
@-paulc- @bigpapapump Absolutely nothing wrong with bee keeping. How else would I get the sweet delicious nectar I put on my bran flakes every morning? However, those two in the picture, are not bee keepers. They're A & F automatons sent by the marketing dept to boost sales of "farmer chic" clothing to young adults with lots of discretionary income to blow on authentic vintage bee keep gear.
Bleep bloop, I am bee keeper, bloop bloop, Kombucha bleeep, backyard chicken coop, bloop, bleep, grow tomatoes and rhubarb, bleeeeeeep, bee tattoo on my neck, bleep.
Great article! As a future beekeeper and current member of the Beekeepers' Association of Southern California (BASC), I appreciate any article that helps to promote the welfare of bees. While I don't have a hive yet, I'm learning all I can about them.
One of the simple ways the average person can help the bees is to plant bee-friendly plants. They LOVE oregano and borage, lavender, and agapanthus; in the fall--zinnia, asters. If you don't have flowering plants of various types, you can set up a bee trough -- a shallow dish with water and rocks or sticks for the bees to land on. Bees need a lot of water, and if you keep the dish filled with fresh water, they'll learn to use it.
Don't be afraid -- bees communicate via pheremones, and when you get anxious or scared around bees, you exude the same pheremone that is the alarm for them -- then they sting, because it's how they react to that scent. Stay calm, move slowly, and think good thoughts about how the bee is only out foraging and not at war with you--in the field, they've got no queen or hive to protect, and they react only if they think they themselves are in danger. You'll find that the bees stay calm, as well.