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Could L.A. Become a Honeybee Mecca? The Backwards Beekeepers Are on It 

Thursday, Jun 13 2013
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Chelsea and Rob McFarland raise their bees organically.

PHOTO BY ANNE FISHBEIN

Chelsea and Rob McFarland raise their bees organically.

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.

click to flip through (4) PHOTO BY ANNE FISHBEIN - Kirk Anderson, bee guru
  • PHOTO BY ANNE FISHBEIN
  • Kirk Anderson, bee guru
     
 

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.

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.

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.

Ceebs Bailey, who is a stalwart member of the Backwards Beekeepers and a HoneyLove staffer, was stung 30 times on the face the first time she inspected a hive. She was new to beekeeping and cavalier about it. Without even smoking it, wearing only a straw hat, she popped open the box.

"Bees have facial recognition," she says wryly. "So they know to go for your eyes." She ran to the garage, shut the door, shucked off her clothes. The bees were waiting outside.

"But it was good!" she insists. "It was a good lesson. I went out the next day and bought a full suit."

A week after that, she fought the fear and was back out doing rescues. For a while, she experienced phantom pains. "Every time my phone vibrated, I was up on the ceiling."

The experience didn't make her hate bees. "God love 'em," she says, laughing heartily. "You can't blame 'em. If I came into your house, tore the roof off, stole your children, raided your fridge, rearranged your furniture and killed a couple cousins while I was at it? You'd be mad at me, too. That's what we do to them every single time."

Bees die when they sting you. Bailey once watched a bee sting her glove. The stinger remained embedded in the leather. But as the creature flew away, a thin, silvery thread unfurled behind it like a kite string: It was the bee's intestines.

"It's a sacrifice," she says. "They're not just doing it to be shitty."

Anderson hasn't gotten rich off of bees. He paints houses for a living.

But in his time as a Backwards Beekeeper, he has taken bees out of attics, walls, barbecue grills and worm bins. He's taken them out of roofs, vacuum cleaners, speaker boxes, cat litter boxes, squirrel boxes, owl boxes and mailboxes. He's taken them out of beer coolers, and file cabinets, and chests of drawers and empty paint cans. He recently took a hive out of the old aviary at the L.A. Zoo. It had been there for four years by itself. "Totally unmanipulated by man. It was 4 feet across, 6 feet long. I bet there was 50,000 bees in there."

Conversely, he has put bees into the homes of doctors, lawyers, producers and Hollywood directors. For a while, Anderson put bees into the Chinatown community garden. When the board of directors wanted the bees out, retired California State Supreme Court justice Carlos Moreno, who happened to be on the board and whose house Anderson had happened to paint, said, "Put them in my backyard, Kirk."

Anderson now takes care of 25 hives all over the city, from Altadena to Bel Air and Van Nuys to Studio City. These days, when Anderson visits Moreno's bees, he and the judge chat about the law.

Anderson drums his fingers on the steering wheel of his truck as he talks. The truck is battered, crammed with crap and, at the moment, parked illegally in front of a fire hydrant near the Los Feliz house of an ACLU lawyer. Anderson put bees in the attorney's house not long ago. He feels no urgent need to see them; knowing they are around is enough.

He starts the engine. In a minute, he will head out to the corner of Highland and Melrose avenues, where he has bees on the roof of the Italian restaurant Mozza2Go.

"You know Batali?" he asks. Celebrity chef Mario Batali co-owns the restaurant. "They sell comb honey with a little cheese and a glass of wine. Probably costs a million dollars." He laughs at the irony: The Mozza bees came from a water meter in La Crescenta.

Despite its humble provenance (or maybe because of it), foodies swear by Anderson's local honey. Last year, he sold most of it — some 500 bottles — to gourmet butchers Lindy and Grundy.

Anderson, who counts himself among the working poor, has never eaten at Mozza or anywhere like it, though they have offered to buy him pizza.

"A lot of times when those type of people call you, there's something in it for them." What's in it for him? "It's just another place to have bees. And I can tell people they're on the restaurant and they can go, 'Oh wow.' "

City beekeeping is not without its challenges — neighbors foremost among them. Most urban beekeepers quickly learn to butter up their neighbors with honey.

"Neighbors are key to everything we do," Rosendahl says. "Educating them is critical. Letting them know the bees will leave you alone. The bee isn't running after you unless you're running after it."

Anderson is slightly less politic. A lady who was keeping bees received a letter of complaint from the city. What should I do about it, she asked him?

"Put it in your smoker," Anderson said.

He explains, "It was against the law when Rosa Parks sat in the front of the bus. Someone had to do it. Backwards Beekeepers, we're kind of like in the front of the bus."

No one had really tried to legalize bees in Los Angeles before Rob and Chelsea McFarland. Probably no one wanted to slog through the minutiae of it. Besides, people were doing what they wanted to anyway on the premise that it is easier to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission. It's not like there was a whole lot of punishment going on. Jan Selder, director of operations at the city's Department of Animal Services, can't remember enforcing a single beekeeping violation in her 18 years of fieldwork. Neither can anyone at code enforcement. "No one really goes out on bee calls," Selder says.

Still, it took Anderson and local beekeepers Max Wong and Daniel Salisbury a year to make it legal in Santa Monica. When Salisbury discovered the city was exterminating 40 to 80 swarms each week on public property, he pushed for a community bee yard where volunteers could keep hives until they could be adopted out to nearby farms.

Exterminators, keen to protect their pocketbooks, testified that the bees should be killed instead of relocated, because city bees wouldn't enjoy living on a farm. To which Wong replied, "Why, because they'd miss their soy lattes and Wi-Fi?"

"Good lord!" Anderson says. "Then they had a guy from Vector Control that says we shouldn't legalize beekeeping, it'll spread the Varroa mite." To which Anderson replied, "I don't know what planet you are on, but the Varroa mites are worldwide now. There's no way you're gonna keep them from spreading."

He sighs. "All we're saying is we wanna go collect the bees that are in public spots and put them in someone's backyard in a box so they can be managed."

Santa Monica voted unanimously to legalize. A year later, so did the city of Redondo Beach.

Despite the absence of laws, people have been keeping bees in the city of L.A. for forever. The city's oldest apiary club, the Los Angeles County Beekeepers Association, is 140 years old.

Anderson blames that group for existing under the radar rather than fighting for change. He sent them an email to that effect: "Have you guys been asleep for 140 years? What have you been doing?"

The natural allies, it seems, aren't really allies at all. Feral bees make some folks in the apiary community uneasy. They question not whether it should be legal to keep feral bees but whether they ought to even exist.

A person who wants to get started in beekeeping has two options: Catch a feral swarm in the wild for free or, for around $100 a hive, buy them from a breeder. Commercial breeders mass-produce bees. Queens are artificially inseminated to produce offspring that are good honey makers, say, or winter-hardy. The Los Angeles County Beekeepers Association favors these purchased, selectively bred bees because their genetics are known. Ferals, they believe, are unpredictable. (Even some organic beekeepers kill the feral queen as a matter of protocol when they first catch a swarm, replacing her with a selectively bred queen.)

Anderson claims that members of the beekeepers association have called him a "terrorist" and "the Taliban." "They actually said that. I don't know if we're not friends or we're not enemies, but I've read some of the minutes from their bee club meetings, and some people up there consider me the Taliban. They consider us terrorists because we promote feral bees."

Anderson asked them to recant. By way of response, he says, they told him "to F.O." Fuck. Off.

The Los Angeles County Beekeepers Association meets one Monday night a month at a Lutheran church in the sleepy, foothills town of La Crescenta. The LACBA is a venerable club, steeped in tradition. Members recite the pledge of allegiance, hand out ID badges and take attendance. Its roster includes commercial apiarists who make big money off hundreds of colonies in rural areas and individual members with upward of 80 hives who consider themselves "sideline" beekeepers. The Backwards Beekeepers, who are primarily hobbyists, seem ragtag by comparison.

More than anything, the two groups are divided on the use of chemical treatments: The Beekeepers Association encourages it, the Backwards Beekeepers abhor it.

To Rob McFarland, this difference is "minute." To Kirk Anderson, it is massive. It is philosophy bordering on theology. The Beekeepers Association has invited Anderson to speak at their meetings, but he refuses to go. "To me it'd be like joining the Kennel Club and talking about my dog's fleas," he says.

Association president James Lindsay doesn't remember anyone calling anyone else a terrorist. Though, he says of Anderson, "I think he is dangerous."

Lindsay has a deep distrust of feral bees. Four years ago, a friend in rural Agua Dulce asked Lindsay to remove a feral colony that had gotten into an outbuilding on his property. Lindsay smoked it and cracked open the windowsill beneath it.

Then the nightmare scenario happened. Within seconds his veil was thick with bees. He couldn't see. It was pitch-black. The attack pheromone the bees emitted — which smells, weirdly, like bananas — was so strong that he thought he would asphyxiate.

Lindsay's wife was with him, 60 feet away, by his truck. She too was stung. "We're leaving," he told her. "I'm gonna walk down the street a ways, brush some of these bees away."

Still brushing bees off his suit, he hopped into the back of the truck. They drove down the dirt road at 30 mph, tailed for half a mile by a cloud of bees. Afterward, he couldn't count the number of stingers embedded in his leather gloves. There were thousands, he estimates.

"That was probably an extreme," Lindsay says now. "Not all feral colonies are like that. There's different degrees." Just last month he caught one that was sweet and docile as could be. When he lifted the lid of their box, the bees didn't even come out.

Despite their differences, the L.A. County Beekeepers Association and the Backwards Beekeepers agree on one matter: Both would love to see a beehive on every corner of every street in the city. "We are for urbanized beekeeping," LACBA's Lindsay says. "But we want to make sure it's done with the proper training."

What constitutes proper training, however, is the kicker. Do you chemically treat your bees and otherwise deploy the full range of technology available? Or do you do it "backwards," trust in nature's wisdom and, as Anderson and the McFarlands believe, "let the bees be bees"?

"It's hard to tell a commercial beekeeper not to treat his or her bees," says Keith Roberts, vice president of the Beekeepers Association. Going organic on a couple of hives is one thing. "But if you have 200, all valued at $250 each, you can't afford to replace your bees every year. If your mortgage depends on so many pounds of honey and so much pollination? It's hard to tell somebody to accept a 50 percent loss."

One year after Bill Rosendahl first moved for the L.A. City Planning Commission to change zoning to allow beekeeping in residential areas, the motion is stuck in the Planning and Land Use Management committee. Bees are still a legal gray area.

"I don't care if laws exist or don't exist," Rosendahl says, sitting in his office, feet propped up on the desk. "A bee is a critical element in the survival of the planet, period. Anybody who doesn't support this is crazy."

He calls out to his assistant "Where is my cellphone?" He dials the Council president pro tempore. "Ed Reyes, Bill Rosendahl, brother! You know I did that motion ... it has to do with the beekeeping in single-family residences and I'm trying to make a law out of it. ... I'd like to ask you to get it out of committee and get it before the full council."

Rosendahl, who has cancer, leaves office on June 30. He wants the motion voted on before he goes.

"You know, I have three beehives in my property. One is already in a box creating honey," he tells Reyes. "Great. Great. Thank you, babe. Appreciate it. Bye bye." He is looking forward to a healthy discussion among his colleagues but does not expect anyone to push back on something as important as the survival of humanity. "I would say I will be shocked if we don't have a new law coming out of this."

Rosendahl's successor, his current chief of staff, Mike Bonin, has agreed to take up the cause following his boss's departure.

Late one afternoon, Rob McFarland is poking at the eaves of the house of a guy named Bill, a retiree from IBM. Rob has quit his YouTube job to focus on bees full-time. He now splits his time rescuing ferals and organizing HoneyLove awareness events.

When the bees chose him, they chose wisely.

A swarm has made itself cozy in the attic, and Bill is ready for his 10,000 house­guests to depart. Wobbling atop a ladder, Rob wedges off a board. The bees stream out of the resultant hole in a swirling, humming mass. Rob scoops them up in a plastic cup and pours them into a wood box. Scoop. Pour. Scoop. Pour. It is a surreal pantomime.

Bill asks, "If these were Africanized, how would I be able to tell?"

"The African bee has kind of been maligned," Rob answers, after a small pause. "I sort of hesitate to say this, but virtually all the local bees have hybridized DNA."

The Africanized genetics, he continues, have been very successful. They're more mite-resistant. They're more able to survive in the modern world. The subtle differences in their behavior wouldn't really manifest in a swarm like this.

"Africanized bees can be slightly more defensive. Some people say they dance around more excitedly on the comb. But really you'd have to get measurements of their wings to the micrometer," he says. "We really don't bother with it because our experience is they're just honeybees. And honeybees aren't to be trifled with."

The bees are fanning their wings now at the entrance of the box, letting their sisters know the queen has gone inside. There will be a swarm of bees on Rob's driveway again tonight.

"Well," Bill says, "I don't like killing them."

"I appreciate that," Rob says.

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