By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
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.
* * *
It started innocently enough. Andrews discovered bees in the roof of her house in Orange Park Acres four years ago. A lover of nature, she asked her daughter to call exterminators and find one who wouldn’t kill them. Most laughed. After dozens of calls, Andrews’ daughter discovered a man who vowed he wouldn’t hurt the bees. He sucked them out of the roof with a special vacuum and kept his word. The man was about to leave with them when Janet had a vision. “I have my own garden, so I know the importance of bees,” Andrews says. “But I thought then, ‘If I had bees, I could get honey.’”
The bee man sold the colony to Andrews, helping her construct a box to create a new hive for the rescued insects. “That year, I had the best crops I’d ever grown,” she says. “Especially the blackberries—they were just so big and tasteful.”
But her new colony wouldn’t behave. “I had no idea what I was in for,” she says with a chuckle. In that first year, Andrews’ bees swarmed seven times (in beekeeping terms, “swarming” doesn’t just describe thousands of gathered bees, but also refers to a specific process in which a colony becomes so big that it splits in half, and the seceding bees create their own hive). “They would leave, fill the sky, then swarm on a tree branch before settling somewhere close. I just hoped that my neighbors didn’t notice.”
Beekeeping is legal in Orange Park Acres, as it is in the rest of unincorporated Orange County and a couple of other cities. But after learning (the hard way) that her grandson was allergic to bees, Andrews moved her colony. Instead of keeping bees, she began to apprentice under other renegade beekeepers to learn how to rescue hives. After a couple of months, Andrews began lecturing to groups, whether they were gardening clubs, college classes or science conferences.
It was at a conference that she met Kelly’s husband. The Yrarrázaval family had just discovered a hole in their fence that bees had claimed. “We were thrilled because that meant our garden would have its own pollinators!” Yrarrázaval says. But their neighbors in Santa Ana’s ritzy Floral Park neighborhood didn’t agree. City ordinances prohibit households from keeping bees. (While Santa Ana’s code treats the illegal keeping of bees as a misdemeanor, it says nothing about removing bees without an exterminator’s permit.) Kelly’s husband asked Andrews to remove the small hive. Andrews showed up one morning, and Yrarrázaval was smitten.
“I was amazed,” Yrarrázaval says nearly a year after the experience, her eyes wide. “I can’t say I wasn’t afraid. But Janet was so calm, so nurturing the way she handled the bees. It was a clean process, and it didn’t take more than an hour. If we had called exterminators, it could’ve harmed my kids and killed our plants.”
Yrarrázaval began shadowing Andrews on her rescue missions. She suggested they start a new group independent of the Orange County Beekeepers Association, which Andrews had quit after finding their meetings too filled with infighting. The Backyard Beekeepers organize meetings once a month, and they talk about—what else?—bees.
Around this time, the national and local media were beginning to report on colony collapse disorder (CCD), a mysterious ailment that results in mass die-offs of bees, thus putting much of the nation’s agricultural industry at risk. About 37 percent of commercial bees (those kept by professional beekeepers who truck them around the country) died off last year alone, according to Eric Mussen, a professor of apiculture based at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at UC Davis, one of the world’s premier institutes dedicated to studying bees. Researchers have only theories to explain such mass deaths.
Soon, the Backyard Beekeepers became more than just an opportunity to gather honey; they saw themselves as protectors.
“I hate to see [bees] killed. And they’re so endangered. The more bees we keep alive, the better it is for everyone,” Yrarrázaval says. “To kill a random hive is just ridiculous.” The women insist that their hives are healthier, and thus invaluable to replenishing commercial stock. But not everyone agrees.