09.26.2010 Beekeeping Article
My friend Max Wong wrote an interesting article on her first year experience of beekeeping and its importance to us. Max and Backwards Beekeepers are trying to legalize beekeeping in Los Angeles.
I’ve wanted to become a beekeeper since the first grade. Roberta, the mother of Andrea, my childhood best friend, rented out the family backyard to a beekeeper who gave Roberta honey in exchange for keeping four hives on her small, city property.
I remember walking into Andrea’s backyard for the first time and being stunned by the thousands of bees swirling over the lawn and the thick scent of honey in the air. “Don’t be afraid of our pets,” Roberta said. “These bees are tame. “ Roberta was telling the truth. In the six years that I played in the backyard in front of the hives, Andrea and I were never stung.
When I was seven, our second grade class took a field trip to visit to an urban beekeeper. The beekeeper explained that he enjoyed beekeeping as a hobby because it was so relaxing. This comment really resonated with me. As a spazzy child with attention issues, I knew even then that what my hopped-up, messy brain really needed was a relaxing hobby. So even though I was the one child out of thirty who was stung that day (on the ring figure of my right hand), from that moment I was hooked.
Unfortunately, most beekeeping manuals make the entire operation look daunting. Most bee books recommend that the new beekeeper buy their bees from a reputable breeder. Unfortunately, none of the books explain what a reputable bee breeder looks like, never mind the fact that anything having to do with disreputable livestock is probably not something you want in your backyard. Also, even if you find a bee breeder in good standing, the second step in keeping bee breeder sending you a box of 3000 angry bees in the mail which you are then supposed to dump into your already constructed hive. What? What?
For the next two decades I never made it past the second step. I wasn’t worried about getting stung. I was worried that I would screw something up and kill all my bees. Or somehow the mail would be late and I’d open living creatures on my hands was too much bad karma to consider.
I stuck beekeeping on the list of things I’d save for retirement-a list that included living in Venice like Peggy Guggenheim and joining the lawn bowling team-and stopped obsessing about it. Until last year.
About this time last year I discovered that my friends, Russell and Amy, had started keeping bees in their backyard in Silver Lake with the help of Kirk Anderson, a master beekeeper, who has been keeping bees in the city of thirty years. I immediately started pestering them for help, and they invited me to join Kirk’s organic bee club. The Backwards Beekeepers, which at the time, had six members (and now has over 300 members).
On September 2nd, a month after attending our first bee club meeting, my boyfriend and I adopted the Hot Tub Bees, our first hive of feral honeybees that Kirk had rescued from a Jacuzzi in Santa Monica.
In the last year I’ve discovered that keeping bees is even more amazing than I’d ever imagined. I can’t think of a hobby that has more benefits than beekeeping. Here’s a list of the perks we received in our first year as beekeepers.
HONEY. Well, duh. In June was harvested FORTY POUNDS of honey out of just one hive. In addition to being a beautiful greenish yellow color, the flavor of our raw, Millefiore. “thousand flower” summer honey was a complex mixture of citrus, herbs, and wildflowers. Wild, homegrown honey is like the homegrown tomato. Once you’ve had the real stuff, the commercially produced honey at the store just tastes like dirt.
In addition to superior flavor, raw Millefiore honey also has more antioxidants than commercially produced honey. Many of our neighbors now swear by our local honey as a treatment for their seasonal allergies, as eating locally produced honey exposes you to the plant pollens in your area. So it’s like the yummy version of allergy shots.
A SUSTAINABLE LOCAL JOB IN THE GREEN SECTOR. We sold all forty gallons of honey, in four ounce jar increments, in just one week, making $300. This almost covered all of our start up costs. Since the waiting list for our honey is as long as my arm, I know that we’ll be operating in the black as soon as January.
In addition to making money from the sale of honey and beeswax from our backyard bees, I’ve been hired by a variety of clients-including many of my neighbors, the City of Beverly Hills, a reality television show, and a local graveyard-to remove bee swarms and colonies on other people’s property.
Although I treat beekeeping as my hobby job, several Backwards Beekeeping members have started doing bee rescue as their full time profession.
At a time when the economy is so shaky, I feel lucky that I’ve created a valuable service job for myself that cannot be outsourced beyond the community, doesn’t have to be subsidized by the government next to no trash, doesn’t rely on the exploitation of animals or people, and has such a positive impact on the government.
A BUMPER CROP. Honeybees are such good pollinators that they improve crop yield by 30% to 60%. Our loquat tree produced fruit that was twice as big as last year’s crop; our pineapple guava, that I had never set fruit before this year, gave us two separate harvests. Obviously, in a small garden, a 30% increase in crop yield can mean the difference between feeding your family and not feeding your family. And, since honeybees forage for nectar in a three mile radius of their hive, you are spreading the love to the entire neighborhood. Even trees in the parks stay healthier because of bee activity.
THE NICEST NEIGHBORS. One of the first things that everyone asks about urban beekeeping is, “What do your neighbors think?” Well,, if you live in Mount Washington, chances are your neighbors think that your bees are awesome and are working you for honey in the most extraordinary ways. Last month, when I removed a beehive from the roof line of a three story building, my next door neighbor, who does mountain search and rescue, rigged the safety harness that he uses to rescue stranded climbers for me so that I wouldn’t fall to my death if I slid off the roof. Honey is an excellent currency.
MORE FOOD SECURITY. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about one-third of the human diet is derived directly or indrectly from honeybee pollinated plants. Many food plants, such as nuts and stone fruit, are exclusively pollinated by honeybees. Did you know that it takes half the honeybee population in all North America just to pollinate the almond crop in California? Honeybees are responsible for nearly half of our state’s $18 billion agricultural industry, pollinating 47 different nut, fruit vegetable and forage seed crops!
With the crisis of Colony Collapse Disorder, it’s never been so important for all communities-urban and rural-to promote beekeeping, and preserve those survivor stocks of our own honeybees. Legal in cities throughout the country including Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Minneapolis, Portland, San Francisco, Cleveland, Detroit, Tulsa and Seattle, beekeeping promotes the natural pollination of plant installations by both citizens and governments. Cities all over the world have recognized that honey bees are not only essential to a thriving natural environment that includes farmland, orchards, urban vegetable gardens and city parks, but play a key role in providing food security to all citizens.
GREATER BIDOVERSITY. When I first became a beekeeper, I was all about the honey. Now, a year later, I’m all about the bees. Honeybees are dying off at an alarming rate-6% a year globally. Contrary to most stories in the media, most of this die-off stems from unsustainable farming and animal husbandry practices, not from cell phones or killer viruses. By keeping feral bees that have adapted to our local ecosystem, and refusing to dose my bees with chemicals or medications, I’m helping maintain a healthy, disease resistant gene pool that will help ensure the survival of an entire species. It’s profoundly satisfying to participate in an activity that has such a huge impact on the future of food and our world.
CHEAP ENTERTAINMENT. If I thought it wouldn’t completely destroy my ability to manage my schedule, I would totally install hive cameras so I could spy on my bees all day. With bees, there is always something to look at, whether it’s undertaker bees removing the dead from the hive, young bees lining up like a miniature squadron on the hive porch to take their first practice flight, or forager bees crash landing because the pollen pockets on their back ankles are are overflowing with yellow, white, red and purple pollens.
STREET CRED. Telling people that I have 35,000 pets never gets old Really. It doesn’t.
Source: Published in The Mount Washington Association, Sept. 2010 Issue