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Anderson's dad, who then was dying from emphysema, was sitting in the garage clutching his oxygen mask and drinking beer when his son got home. "You're crazy! You're crazy!" his father said. "They're bees! They're bees!"
Anderson next bought 100 hives from an old lady for $10 apiece. They'd been neglected in her backyard for 15 years, "And boy, those bees were mean." The day after he moved them to his home in Utah, a neighbor called to complain: "Your bees are chasing the dog."
Going from one hive, to two, to 100 was a bit overwhelming, but still he held onto the belief that anyone could be a beekeeper. Then his wife left him with three kids to care for on his own, so Anderson got out of bees for a while and sold his hives. In the late '90s, he moved to Los Angeles. Here, the itch came back, even more fierce than before.
But things in the bee world had changed. Talk in apiary circles, then as now, was about the parasitic mite Varroa destructor. Varroa, the "vampire mite," clamps onto a bee and sucks its blood. On a human scale, it would be like having a rat stuck to your neck.
Anderson heard bees were dying right and left from Varroa. Yet oddly, he noticed feral bees everywhere in Los Angeles. They were thriving.
"There was one big difference," he says. "The feral bees did not have a human helping them." They picked their own spots and collected their own nectar and pollen, while commercial bees were given medicine and treatments for mites. They were fed corn syrup and pollen substitute. And they were failing.
Rob and Chelsea McFarland learned the organic method of beekeeping from Anderson. Anderson learned from apiarist Charles Martin Simon, who invented the concept of "beekeeping backwards." Simon's approach was stupidly simple: Give the bees a clean box, put them in it and leave them alone. If they get sick? Don't medicate them. Let them die. Then get some more bees.
Bees in South Africa had actually played out that very scenario. The results were ideal. In 1997, Varroa finally made it to South Africa, where the original Africanized bees came from. The majority of beekeepers there decided not to do anything. Just leave the bees alone. Half the bee population died off. "But guess who was left?" Anderson asks. "The toughest, strongest, healthiest bees probably on the planet."
The U.S. commercial beekeeping community, he concluded, is raising inferior bees. "The way nature works, the weak and the sickly of the species die. And the strong survive," he says now.
If the South African bees represent the virtuous cycle, California's almond groves demonstrate the vicious one. Every February, the U.S. beekeeping industry packs up its honeybees and trucks them to California's Central Valley to pollinate the 780,000 acres of almond trees there. This year's pilgrimage, however, was particularly grim. More than 40 percent of the country's commercial honeybees died, and there weren't enough left to do the job.
Nature, Anderson points out, probably didn't intend for most of the world's almonds to be grown in a single spot — thus requiring way more bees (1.6 million hives, more than half the nation's total population) than would ever normally exist there.
"They're destroying their bees," he says. "Because they poison them. They expose them to chemicals. They put pesticides in the hives to kill the mites. Take them to monocrops, and places where they've sprayed with neonicotinoids."
Neonicotinoids, the world's most widely used class of pesticides, are nerve agents that cause bee confusion and were recently linked with colony collapse disorder. The European Union voted to ban them. The United States has yet to follow suit.
But if the city — with no overhead spraying, and hundreds of diverse sources of nectar — is the last refuge for the honeybee, the Grim Reaper comes calling in the form of public policy. If a swarm shows up on Los Angeles public property and someone complains, the city dispatches an exterminator.
So in 2008, Anderson and two friends founded the Backwards Beekeepers, a group devoted to rescuing feral bees. In five years, the Backwards Beekeepers has grown to more than 1,000 members.
Bee people often speak of a "gateway drug" to bees. The reason someone gets into bees differs from person to person — perhaps it is composting, or aquaponic gardening, or chickens. But the reason people stay into bees is always the same: Eventually, everybody senses in them his or her own version of perfection.
An architect sees the efficient geometry of the hive. Chelsea McFarland, a dancer, sees a cooperative, all-female, vegetarian society communicating through dance. Rob realized that bees are a "superorganism." An individual bee is incapable of sustaining life on its own. It is inconsequential. Only within the context of the hive does everyone survive.
How extraordinary that you could, theoretically, keep these things as pets. "There's nothing like telling people you have 50,000 pets," one Backwards Beekeeper says.
But — and with bees there is always a "but" — they are more than pets. You are always a bit in awe of them: of their sheer volume, of their potential to hurt you.
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.