By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
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Yrarrázaval finds that mentality outdated.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 It’s outdated to keep this philosophy that we need to kill everything.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.”
* * *
An hour into the Super Bowl Sunday bee rescue, the bees still haven’t left Foothill Feed’s storage garage. The store’s owner is losing patience. “There’s customers coming in, and they’ll get scared,” she tells the Backyard Beekeepers. They nod.
Andrews cuts through the plywood and two layers of drywall every 6 inches, handing chunks to Martha, who uses a brush to gently scrape any bees into a box transformed into a makeshift hive. Martha creates them by grabbing honeycomb pieces that Andrews just ripped out of the wall and placing them inside frames crisscrossed by rubber bands so that each looks like a tic-tac-toe board. Some bees stick to the honeycomb; others flit out of the wall and quickly settle in their new home.
Still, thousands of bees fill the garage, flying outside. Andrews isn’t worried.
“Bees don’t care for humans,” she says. “They just want to gather pollen.”
Yrarrázaval has prepared the smoker but decides not to use it; these bees are cooperating. Instead, her suit-free 6-year-old son Sebastian begins amusing himself with the smoker, oblivious to the bees swarming around him. “Hey, bees, leave me alone,” he says at one point with a giggle. “Stop tickling me! My head is my most ticklish spot!”
Many of the bees are white with drywall dust. “Poor guys,” Andrews whispers, as she yanks out bigger and bigger combs, breaking them in half and handing them to Martha. She places the beeswax in a separate container; that’ll go for their cosmetics.
Finally, they fill all their makeshift hives. Thousands of bees are inside the hives, but thousands more are still outside. Andrews and Martha place the boxes next to the original hole. Next to that opening is a huge mass of bees, one so big that Yrarrázaval easily scoops them with her hands and stuffs them inside the box.
“Okay, we’re done,” Andrews announces, as the Backyard Beekeepers take off their suits. The owner seems incredulous. Thousands of bees still haven’t entered the boxes.
“They’re going to go away,” Andrews explains. “The queen is inside the box. Those bees want to be next to their queen. They might be flying right now, but they’ll be back and inside the box in a couple of hours.”