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

Thursday, Jun 13 2013
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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.

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

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."

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