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

Thursday, Jun 13 2013
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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.

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

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!"

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