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In the process, their small social circle has become a massive one; the bees opened up a community for them in a way that nothing had before. "You'd be amazed at how many people have a particular interest in bees for one reason or another," Rob says.
How does someone get into bees? For the McFarlands, the more salient question is, how did they manage so long without bees?
The couple is well versed in the art of taking up causes. Previously they championed orangutans. But orangutans were an abstraction, thousands of miles away in the forests of Borneo. Bees were literally right in their backyard.
Chelsea, a video editor and something of a natural-born cheerleader, wanted to fix their bad rep. "You see a swarm coming, and it's, like, 'Killer bees! Run for the hills!' " she says. "But actually it's the least aggressive a bee will ever be. Because they have nothing to defend. They're all homeless. They have no honey. They have no babies."
Rob, who is quiet and thoughtful, with a mind prone to drawing connections, saw the intrinsic fascination of the insect itself. There were infinite, engrossing facts to learn. Did you know that bees see in ultraviolet light, so flowers look like neon signs to them? Did you know that bees are essentially plants' way of having sex?
Collecting signatures at the Mar Vista Farmers Market one morning, they meet Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who is there picking up greens for his turkeys and chickens and finches and cockatiels; he doesn't need to be lobbied about bees. He doesn't need to be told that bees are critical to human survival. Or that they have been disappearing at an alarming rate since 2006. He already knows.
"No offense to them," he tells the Weekly. "But I was already there."
"You got me, babe," he tells the McFarlands. "We're with ya!"
He puts forth a motion asking the City Planning Department to amend the zoning code to allow beekeeping in residential zones.
But if Rosendahl was kismet, neighborhoods are a bitch. One day in May, Chelsea is at yet another neighborhood council, telling the same genesis story she's told eight times before at eight other councils — Mar Vista, Del Mar, Greater Griffith Park, Silver Lake, South Robertson, Hollywood United, Atwater Village and West L.A. Which is it on this balmy summer night? Oh yes, Boyle Heights. There are 95 neighborhood councils in Los Angeles, corresponding to 95 disparate communities. Taking a cue from their favorite insect, the McFarlands decide to be meticulous. They will win over all of them if necessary.
"To have a beehive, I mean, I can do that?" one council member asks.
"We have extra suits," Chelsea says. "We'll teach you."
Next, a skeptic: "If my neighbors to the west are keeping bees, I'm calling the cops. What if they kill my dog?"
"Well," Chelsea says, "right now, Los Angeles County Vector Control estimates there are nine to 11 feral colonies living on every square mile of Los Angeles. So your dog is definitely having to deal with unmanaged hives. They're a much greater threat to your dog."
The council votes in favor. Slumped on a bench outside the meeting room as stakeholders file out, Chelsea is exhausted but glad. "That wasn't too bad," she says.
"You did cheer everyone up," a woman calls out.
Chelsea shrugs. "Tried," she says. "Bees. They're very popular."
"It's the adrenaline and a smile," offers someone else.
"The Griffith Park people said 'You are the most delightful agenda item we've ever had,' " Chelsea recalls. "We try to rock that."
For HoneyLove's National Honeybee Day Festival, the West L.A. Civic Center band shell is a sea of yellow and black. Chelsea McFarland is wearing a yellow tutu, and her short, curly, brown hair is tucked under a bright yellow wig. A bead of perspiration trickles down her cheek. It is hot as hell.
Onstage, a man is preaching to the converted. He has scruffy gray hair, Coke-bottle glasses and a bit of a limp. He looks as if he's just rolled out of bed. But he is charming, in an affable-scoundrel sort of way. His name is Kirk Anderson. He is Rob and Chelsea's mentor and HoneyLove's beekeeping instructor and unofficial guru.
"Have any of you ever thought about keeping bees?" Anderson asks. "Do you notice how that thought keeps at you every day? You got, like, this itch? And the more you scratch it, the more it itches? Well, believe me, that itch ain't going away until you get some bees!"
Attendees are nodding fervently and a tad guiltily, like it's a 12-step meeting. Which, in a way, it is.
Bee fever is a chronic condition. As one ardent beekeeper points out, unlike chicken fever — which may be assuaged with the acquisition of more chickens — you don't get over bee fever. Getting bees only makes you want to keep getting bees. You become obsessed. The itch only gets more intense. Though it may lay dormant for a while, as it did with Anderson.
Anderson, who is 65, caught the fever when he was 23. He ordered his first bees from Montgomery Ward. They came in a package in the mail. His second set of bees came from Sears. Well, technically, from the Sears parking lot. Walking through it one day, he noticed a swarm of bees clinging to a car's side-view mirror. He begged a potato sack from a Sears employee, draped it over the mirror, knocked the bees in and tied it in a knot. He drove home holding the sack of bees out the window.
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.