hive: “a box or other shelter for a colony of domesticated bees”
apiary: “a place where bees are kept for their honey, generally consisting of a number of hives”
—per Webster’s trusty dictionary
In recent years, as urban farming has become more prevalent throughout Pasadena and the San Gabriel Valley, backyard beekeeping has become more commonly accepted. Awareness was heightened by the Los Angeles City Council’s October 2015 decision to overturn an 1879 ban and legalize urban beekeeping, while ongoing global news coverage of colony collapse disorder (CCD) and bees’ vulnerability to neonicotinoids continues to focus attention on the plight of Earth’s busiest pollinators. An estimated one out of every three mouthfuls of food is pollinated at some point by bees, so maintaining healthy colonies and habitat is essential to Earth’s ecosystem.
Motivations for keeping bees are varied, as are the bees themselves. California is home to approximately 1,600 species of native bees; 400 or more varieties reside in Los Angeles County, although that’s only an estimate. Only the European honeybee — not a native species — has colonies and makes and accumulates enough honey that humans care about. “All bees feed on pollen and nectar; that’s their food source for their young,” notes Brian V. Brown, curator of the entomology section at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. “But honeybees are colonial so they have many workers in a single nest and make vast amounts of honey for the whole colony. Native bees don’t do that.”
Calls to City Hall inquiring approximately how many beehives are kept within Pasadena city limits and whether they are inspected were not returned. Surrounding towns, which have different zoning rules, are also home to backyard beekeepers.
A World of Backyard Farms
Levi Brewster, who teaches gardening and ecology at New Horizon School in Pasadena, has been keeping honeybees for a year and a half on his family’s half-acre property in Altadena where they grow fruit trees, annual and native gardens, and 10 chickens. Before moving there four years ago, they kept chickens in Echo Park. Brewster, who says he’s always gardened “in some way,” grew up working for farmers in Indiana at a time when bees and chickens were already “fairly industrialized” but “cows, pigs, and sheep still had pasture land.” Interestingly, when he visits Indiana now, “most of those animals are in CAFOs [Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations] and barns and you don’t see them anymore. But you’re starting to see backyard chickens and bees. It’s funny how these cycles happen.”
His own beekeeping happened through a friend who captures unwanted hives — bee boxes that have been neglected or found in walls or trees. “It seemed like an obvious thing to do because we have space and it’s fairly low maintenance,” he says. “Also, learning about the health benefits of local honey that are really specific. Some of my family has pollen allergies and they started experimenting with very local honey.”
They maintain two colonies — two boxes in one, three in the other — plus a “wild colony that we don’t do anything with” that lives in an avocado tree. “That one’s more mysterious, the way those colonies come and go,” he says. “We’ve often wondered if the bees that we brought in have actually replaced the bees in that wild hive.” Brewster speaks thoughtfully about the lessons his children are learning, and patiently takes time to explain the set-up process and recommend instructional videos.
There have been learning curves. He went through a “whole weird process of understanding the ways of bees” when he moved his hives about 30 feet so their flight path wouldn’t intersect with the human path to the chicken coop and garden. “We had some problems with the bees being too aggressive and our kids getting stung,” he says. “There’s this funny traditional rule of thumb where you’re supposed to move the boxes either less than three feet or more than three miles because otherwise they get lost and they want to go back to the same place.” After researching the matter, he tried a workaround: closing up hive holes as the bees slept and moving them in the night, then leaving them for three days. Midway through the first day, the bees got past the hole blocks, and Brewster found “a big ol’ swarm” in his pathway worse than the problem he’d been trying to solve, but ultimately the bees relocated successfully.
“They’re funny creatures,” he says, chuckling. “They’re honeybees. My understanding is that these particular bees are actually native to Europe originally, but they’ve been naturalized. There are wild colonies of these bees now all over North America. Essentially these bees have had lots of interaction with local bees, so they’re fairly well naturalized at this point.”
Most of us think of bees abstractly, sometimes sentimentalizing or demonizing them, but their reality is complex. (Do even minimal research into bees and beekeeping and you’ll likely be amazed at how fast you get sucked into a time-consuming world of frames, pollen trapping, and “bearding,” or the bee version of sweating — clinging to the outside of their hive because they need more air.) It’s not like they have personalities as distinctly individual as a dog’s, but within their colonies they do function as family units, with individual bees performing varied jobs at different stages in their lives and engaging in behaviors that can be surprising to clueless humans.
For instance, bees “hold hands” in chains as they build their combs; backyard beekeepers generally set out wooden frames, taking care that they’re level, and bees create a line from the top and build their wax combs downward from there. Once their home is established and foragers are flying in and out during the day (they can’t fly in the dark; they crawl), bees often wiggle their hind ends at the entrance in a kind of dance to point their brethren toward food. They sting when intruders get too close to their home; they swarm when they don’t have a home or are preparing to move to a new one.
In centuries past, Egyptian, Greek and Mayan cultures celebrated bees and their central role in sustaining food systems. Eagle Rock resident Marvin Jordana seeks to honor that lineage and its spiritual component in weekly classes that have made him a popular Airbnb “experience” (airbnb.com/experiences/20316). Jordana says he never expected to keep bees and that it took about two years for him to get the hang of it.
“They chose me to keep them,” he says. “It’s not like I went looking for it.
“In ancient Egypt and Minoa, in Greece, they erected temples in honor of this animal. They thought that bees brought human souls back to the earth. These are ancient mysteries that have been going on for thousands of years. I started delving into it a little bit more; I practice meditation and I chant, so something resonated with me … like a soul connection with this animal. I didn’t even know that there were all sorts of rituals and temples and priestesses called the Melissae in Greece that would do ceremonies to honor the bee. I found that fascinating. Why wouldn’t we honor a creature that feeds our population?”
Jordana, who grew up on his grandfather’s farm in the Philippines, conducts breathing exercises with jittery guests and other visitors (including the Zooey Deschanel-hosted web series “Your Food’s Roots,” which recently shot a still-unaired episode in his backyard). He doesn’t want anyone to be stung, nor does he want to “stress out” his bees, about which he’s quite protective.
“You have to move slow around them,” he says. “You can’t be afraid. This goes back again to the spiritual practice. You have to be very present. All these are tenets of meditation and mindfulness. You’re kind of forced to do it [laughs] when you’re around bees.”
Jordana maintains 10 hives within a five- to eight-mile radius at his home, a community garden and friends’ backyards. He trades honey for pomegranates and figs, and habitat.
“I’ve never done it for sale — I’m not pimping out my girls like that,” he says with a laugh. “If I do take some honey, I take very little — just enough for me, my friends and family. It’s cool because there’s a sense of community in it. I trade to be able to put my beehives in people’s backyard for honey. There’s something very ancient about it; it’s a commodity that’s shared that’s not monetary.”
The beekeepers who spoke (on and off the record) for this article are mindful of not taking too much honey. As Brewster points out, the more you take, the harder and longer bees need to work. That’s particularly problematic if they’re dealing with other environmental stressors. But the conscientious bartering that occurs around urban farming fosters deeper ties of community as well as greater awareness of food’s production and provenance.
Honey in the Hive
In May the nonprofit Bee Informed Partnership (beeinformed.org), which conducts annual surveys of US honeybee colony loss, released its preliminary analysis of that loss between April 2017 and April 2018. With 69 percent of backyard, sideline and commercial beekeepers declaring that they “lost more of their colonies than deemed to be acceptable,” Bee Informed estimated that US beekeepers lost 40.1 percent of their managed honeybee colonies — more than the previous year (33 percent). Such continuing high percentages of lost colonies are, according to beekeepers as well as a June 2014 Obama administration Fact Sheet, unsustainable.
That same Fact Sheet called insect pollination “integral to food security in the United States,” and credited pollinators with contributing upwards of $24 billion to the US economy; honeybees accounted for more than $15 billion of that, and the contributions of “native wild pollinators, such as bumble bees and alfalfa leafcutter bees” reached more than $9 billion.
The chief threats confronting domestic and wild bees are climate change, habitat loss, and pesticides — particularly the neuro-active class of chemicals known as neonicotinoids, which make bees vulnerable to their primary predator, the parasitic varroa mite. Yet earlier this summer, the Trump administration reversed a two-year-old ban on neonicotinoid usage on wildlife refuges instituted during Barack Obama’s presidency.
Against that backdrop, commercial beekeepers find their bees more in demand than ever as they rotate “hives for hire” from berry farms to cantaloupe fields. There are strong anecdotal signs that bees are being stressed and consequently weakened by such moves. According to July’s National Honey Report from the US Department of Agriculture, bees were being fed protein patties and sugar syrup as nectar sources remained scarce in June (“another disappointing month” due to winter drought). The overall honey crop was improving, but keepers voiced hope that pesticide exposure will be minimal so their bees can survive winter.
Meanwhile, two percent of wild bee species are responsible for pollinating approximately 80 percent of the world’s bee-pollinated crops, per a 2015 study published in the Nature Communications journal. The value of wild pollinators transcends economics; they are crucial to biodiversity. And according to both Brian Brown and horticulturalist Carol Bornstein, director of the Nature Gardens at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles, native bees are in more trouble than honeybees, due to habitat loss and indiscriminate pesticide usage. (A survey is being conducted now, at the height of the bee season, of all the native bee species the Nature Garden is attracting via its native plants. Sampling is still taking place but Brown anticipates results within a couple of weeks.)
While logic (if not scientific data) dictates that backyard beekeeping boosts bee population numbers, those are honeybees, which are great for pollinating fruit trees and other edible plants.
“I think it’s important to mention that native bees are excellent pollinators as well, in some cases far more efficient than European honeybees,” Bornstein says. “And I think it’s preferable to plant native plants because those are some of their food sources from an evolutionary standpoint; that helps local populations of bees whose historically used plants have definitely shrunk in population size and numbers. You don’t need to create a hive, you just need to plant the plants — in the sunflower family, the mint family, the carrot family, native buckwheats.”
To Hive or Not to Hive
Brewster credits a friend with helping his family start their hives. Jordana says he “lured feral hives” to his yard. (Per Brown, feral honeybee hives exist across LA County in places like abandoned chimneys or hollow trees — and by “feral,” he means “escaped from human care.”)
Many wannabe beekeepers first contact the nonprofit HoneyLove. Founded in Los Angeles in 2011 to advocate for urban beekeeping, HoneyLove offers starter kits, swarm box plans, workshops, mentoring, community, and abundant information. In celebration of National Honey Bee Day, founded in 2009 and celebrated the third Saturday of August, HoneyLove is hosting an event Saturday morning in Venice; go to honeylove.org for details.
If you can’t or don’t want to host a hive but still want to help bees, numerous alternatives exist. If you spot a swarm of bees in your yard, don’t call an exterminator; call a beekeeper to relocate them to a more appropriate space. When buying plants, make sure they have not been treated with pesticides. Keep your garden pesticide free — what Bornstein calls “beekeeping or habitat gardening 101.”
Also, bees get thirsty. During July’s oppressive heatwave, popular online memes advised leaving spoonfuls of sugared water outside to refresh tired bees. However, Altadena resident Leigh Adams, horticultural interpreter at the Arboretum’s Crescent Farm in Arcadia, warns that sugar can attract ants and standing water is a danger with West Nile virus and “our new (un)friend the tiger mosquito” now resident in the neighborhood. She recommends putting out “plant trays filled with sand and water, not enough that there is standing water. Butterflies and bees like that. Mostly, just keep growing native plants that are good bloomers and have a weeping boulder or a water source for them.”
Bornstein and Brown also emphasize the value of native gardens. As Bornstein points out, “the majority of flowering plants need a pollinator.” If you create a pesticide-free environment that organically supports bees — especially native bees — they will come. For instance, organic mulch is healthy for gardens because it conserves moisture and controls weeds — but certain native bees burrow in soil and nest underground, so to support a wider range of species Bornstein recommends keeping open, mulch-free patches of ground: “Some of our native bees and other insects need open ground in order to fulfill their life cycle. Some of them make their nests in wood. Not running out and pruning every little dead piece of material on your plant as soon as a flower dies or a branch is broken will contribute to the habitat value of the plants in your garden. It’s a two-way street: the bees need the plants to get their pollen and nectar, and the plants need bees and other pollinating insects in order to reproduce.”
While Brown believes honeybees are “vital for high-intensity agriculture,” he thinks it’s best to promote native species in urban areas. He suggests putting out bee blocks — blocks of wood drilled with holes that solitary native bees use as nesting sites — as well as “plants that are attractive to native bees that are not necessarily as attractive to the honeybees.
“Native bees are the ones that evolved with our ecosystems here and they’re the ones that make up the vast majority of the species,” he continues. “They’re the ones that are endangered by the development of natural ecosystems, by human paving and building and so on. Those are the bees that are really threatened.”