By Gustavo Arellano
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He was once like the Backyard Beekeepers. “When the threat of Africanized bees first came about, I was adamant about the government not destroying [feral] bees,” Marder says. “I was passionate about keeping the bees. My belief was that if you had a huge gene pool, you’d be able to dilute the ‘mean’ gene. But science proved it not to be the fact.” He claims Mussen himself told Marder to stop rescuing feral colonies and giving them to other people.
Then there was the lawsuit. In 2000, Marder was called by the Freedom Village retirement community in Lake Forest to rid it of bees. Bee Busters set up a trap in a tree; it fell, and the unleashed swarm stung 77-year-old Jackie Wright more than 500 times. She sued Marder for negligence. The case was eventually dismissed, though Marder accepted full responsibility for the attack.
“God bless people who want to do live removal—they think they’re doing a good thing, and maybe they are, but they have to do it the right way,” Marder says. He points to the California Structural Pest Control Act, which allows live removals without a license but requires $25,000 of insurance to cover any accidents. Violating this can result in fines starting at $1,000 and even jail time. Marder claims he was once arrested for such a violation.
“When you have bee hobbyists engaged in structural pest control, which is my bailiwick, I have a problem. They’re breaking the law, and that’s the way it is,” he says. “I would love nothing more than [feral] bees to be workable and manageable in a working environment, but when you are in a region declared Africanized, that’s it. Placing such bees without trying to requeen them [the process of introducing a new queen into a hive] in order to tame them is the equivalent of placing a rattlesnake in your neighbor’s back yard. A flying rattlesnake.”
The Backyard Beekeepers claim they’ve never come across an Africanized colony and would call a professional exterminator if they did. “When you save the good ones, there’ll be less Africanized bees,” Andrews says. “By raising good ones, you squeeze out the bad ones.”
Mussen takes a neutral approach about bee rescuers. “I would be more cautious,” he says. “I don’t know if I’d put [rescued bees] in a residential back yard and be fine with it,” especially given that Africanized bees have had a firm presence in Southern California since the mid-1990s.
“The thing about Africanized bees is that they’re not totally predictable. They can behave well for a while, but, other times, become intolerant for reasons we’ve never been totally sure of. It’s not a good thing to keep a feral colony unless you place them in no-man’s land. You certainly don’t want to keep them in someone’s back yard.”
But Mussen also lends credence to the Backyard Beekeepers’ assertion that saving such bees can help stave off CCD. “As a generality, it’s likely that honeybee colonies kept in isolation from the commercial beekeeping practice are having less of a problem with CCD than commercial bees,” he says. “If it’s a contagious disease, their bees may not be coming into contact with whatever it is. But I’ve talked with hobby beekeeping groups that thought things were going surprisingly well for their bees, and then they just disappeared.”
He also cautions against just anyone keeping a colony. “I guess if all beekeepers knew what they were doing and went out of their way to manage their bees in the manner that would be least bothersome to their neighbors, there wouldn’t be a need for city codes,” he says. “I wish they didn’t have to have them. Unfortunately, I understand those rules.”
Yrarrázaval finds that mentality outdated. “[Bees are] here anyway, so why not have them in a box to keep them monitored? It’s outdated to keep this philosophy that we need to kill everything. Cities need to lighten up.”
It’s still an upward battle toward full acceptance, the Backyard Beekeepers acknowledge.
“A school once asked us to teach kindergartners about what we do,” Yrarrázaval says. “We wanted the kids to visit some bees that friends of ours keep. The principal said no. It hadn’t even dawned on me that some people might think the bees were dangerous! But how great would it’ve been?
“I don’t remember as a kid learning that bees are good,” she adds. “But they’re so essential. Now, people want to go back to a local economy, one where everyone grows their own food and buys from local markets. And they hear about colony collapse, and they’re even more interested.”