Playing Hive and Seek With the Backyard Beekeepers

Hive and Seek
Saving OC’s bees—and possibly breaking the odd city code and state law in the process—with the Backyard Beekeepers

Super Bowl Sunday morning, and while about a third of America prepares to watch the Pittsburgh Steelers play the Arizona Cardinals, Janet Andrews is concerned about her outfits. “We don’t like putting these things on in public,” she says, as her friends Kelly Yrarrázaval and Martha (no last name given) march into Foothill Feed in Orange holding neatly folded white coveralls, sun hats covered with mesh nets and gloves—the standard garb of beekeepers. “People might think we’re going to start pumping chemicals, and that’s the farthest thing from the truth. We don’t want to scare them.”

The store’s owner leads the ladies toward the back to a garage, and a small hole in its exterior stucco wall—a hole about the size of a bee. Dozens of them bunch up against this opening, frantically trying to enter or shooting out like spitballs. Foothill Feed’s owner explains that the bees have scared off customers and neighbors and that her workers tried to plug the hole or stop the bees with poison—yet the bees stuck around. A yellow blob juts out near the hole as proof; dozens of bees stick to it, dead.

Bee careful
Jennie Warren
Bee careful
A hole lot of fun
Jennie Warren
A hole lot of fun

Andrews, Martha and Yrarrázaval listen intently. They’ve heard this story before. “You’re going to like it much better where we’re going to put you,” Andrews says out loud to the bees. She and her pals put on the beekeeper suits, making small talk: children, family, typical topics of women with homes to keep. Time to save bees.

They enter the garage and pull out a ladder so that Andrews can reach the section of the wall opposite the hole. She stands on the rickety ladder’s upper rungs. The grandmother pulls out a stethoscope and glides it around the wall, listening for a telltale buzz, while also feeling for the heat that bees produce. “I think I hear them, but this wall might be double-layered,” Andrews tells the owner. Yrarrázaval prepares a billow smoker a couple of feet away that will drive the bees out of their hive but not harm them. Martha stacks boxes at the base of the ladder. “This is going to be a tricky one.”

From a toolbox, Andrews grabs a power saw and begins cutting through the wood to reach the drywall. She uses the stethoscope again. “I hear them,” she says with a smile. A hive is inside the garage’s wall. “They’re loud.” Andrews cuts through the first layer of drywall. On the other side of the wall, the bees now begin evacuating from that tiny hole. They don’t seem happy. Their hum is now so loud through the last remaining layer of drywall that you can almost see the wall vibrate.

Andrews discovers the hive in a difficult spot: at the very back of the garage, about 8 feet up, lit only by the weak glare of the morning sun, in an empty corner amid stacks of feed. Andrews saws through the last drywall layer with the aplomb of a construction worker. She rips out a square, and there it is: a hive oozing with honey, its colony of bees now pouring out in an angry thrum.

“This is a huge hive,” Andrews tells Martha and Yrarrázaval, as she continues to listen through her stethoscope. “It keeps going down. It’s been around a long time.” She grips a crowbar and pries open another chunk of drywall. More bees come out—a couple of dozen, then hundreds, soon thousands. They cloud the enclosed space like some cheap exploitation movie. The Foothill Feed owner stands behind her pickup, fearful. Andrews, Martha and Yrarrázaval act as if they’re out for Sunday tea.

“Oh, my gosh, these guys are so nice. It’s wonderful. It’s beautiful,” Martha gasps. “These guys are so nice. So calm. So sweet.” She sits 4 feet up, on top of oat-pellet bags, supported by a single piece of plywood that’s beginning to bend.

These women call themselves the Backyard Beekeepers, and they want to change the way you think of bees. None of the three is a licensed exterminator, nor do any of them ever want to learn how to handle pesticides or even crush a critter. Got a problem with bees? Call them, and they’ll take out your nasty hive free of charge, and donate the bees to any Orange County household that wants a hive to pollinate the plants in their neighborhood. Of course, keeping bees is technically against the law in almost every city in OC. And yet, there is a weeks-long waiting list of people who want bees, or who have a hive to be rescued. And, on the side, the Backyard Beekeepers sell honey and lip balm derived from their rescued wards; small boutiques across Orange County can barely keep the stuff in stock.

The Backyard Beekeepers are members of a renegade beekeeper movement in Orange County, one that’s attracting nationwide adherents. As bees die off in record numbers across the United States and the Great Recession inspires millions to think local for their food and products, the bee-rescue movement is a cause célèbre among progressives, a hobby that not only makes practitioners feel good about themselves, but also helps plants bloom and produces food. But saving wild honeybees and gifting them to others has created controversy in Orange County’s small but zealous beekeeping community. In some circles, the Backyard Beekeepers are seen as the vanguard of a new age; in others, they’re derided as misguided, uninformed, dangerous amateurs.

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