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.
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.
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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.
* * *
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.
* * *
Honeybees aren’t actually native to North America. The earliest English settlers brought them to the New World to pollinate other introduced crops and for their honey and wax. Thus, any bees living in the wild aren’t really wild but rather feral—domesticated bees that have escaped. They’ve adapted pretty well over the centuries to the American landscape, yet media reports on found hives almost always swing toward the sensationalist. “The public has a very skewed idea of bees,” Martha says. “It’s all the fault of hysterical movies and the media.”
Public perception is changing, though. Last summer, TheOrange County Register ran an article about how Cox Communications saved a swarm of approximately 50,000 bees from one of its cable-equipment boxes in an Irvine neighborhood by enlisting a bee rescuer. The comments for the online version of the story were congratulatory and positive. Actually, only one commentator had a problem with the piece: David Marder. His company, Bee Busters, is based in Laguna Beach and has as its logo a knock-off of the iconic Ghostbusters logo: a screaming bee crossed out with the obvious slogan “Who You Gonna Call?”
Without having once visited the Cox Communications cable box in question, Marder sparred with bee enthusiasts on the Register website, arguing the Cox colony should’ve been exterminated because they were probably Africanized—in other words, they were the “killer bees” of so much late-’80s media hype. But Marder didn’t stop there. An employee of his wrote a letter to the Register in his name that wasn’t published by the paper, but appeared on the employee’s blog. It read, in part, that the paper’s “continuing encouragement of live removals is misleading and unwarranted. Overhype of CCD by reporting extreme cases as if they were the norm actually does the Register’s readers a disservice and leaves them less informed than they started.”
Bee Busters also issued a press release ridiculing bee rescuers. “’You should never allow someone to work with bees on your property who is not properly licensed and insured. It’s just too much of a liability,’” the press release quoted Marder as saying. “Recently, a swarm rescued by Orange County Beekeepers Association members and given to a hobbyist beekeeper resulted in the death of a pet dog. . . . Bee Busters technicians have had a number of calls to clean up removal attempts that had been botched by volunteers.”
Marder still can’t get over the Cox Communications bee rescue. Last month, he fired off a letter to Bee Culture, one of the two major beekeeping journals in America. Marder criticized the magazine for running a positive piece on Cox, asserting that the bees spared from exterminators were “almost entirely Africanized” and that moving them to “hobbyist beekeepers’ yards in residential areas poses much more serious risks to nearby families” than pesticides. Marder also claimed that many county agricultural commissioners and university entomologists “have publicly stated that any feral honeybees in areas of Africanization should be treated as Africanized and dealt with by pest-control professionals.
“In conclusion,” Marder wrote, “Cox’s ‘safe and humane’ idea does not benefit the honeybee population and may put families in danger.”
* * *
Cox actually had consulted before their rescue with UC Davis bee experts. In a July e-mail obtained by the Weekly, one researcher dismissed Marder’s doomsday scenario. Although stating that any colony that threatened the public needed extermination, professor emeritus Robbin Thorp quickly added, “I am not a fan of blanket extermination of all feral colonies based on the supposition that they may be Africanized. If feral colonies are not a threat to public health and can be removed and managed by a competent beekeeper to where they pose no threat to the public, I do not consider this ‘a backwards idea,’” as Marder had insisted about the Cox matter. Such bees, Thorp added, might be hardier than the commercial bees that farmers increasingly use to pollinate their crops and that seem to die off in greater numbers than those kept by amateur apiarists. “Preservation of such stock,” Thorp wrote, “may indeed be of value in the future to honeybee-breeding programs.”
Marder is a controversial figure in local beekeeping circles, but an influential one. He’s the former president of the Orange County Beekeepers Association and currently serves as vice president; his employee, Amy Cripps, is the group’s secretary. He’s the type of guy who name-drops scientist friends and previous trips around the world in the name of bees, and he dismisses the idea of colony collapse disorder as “nonsense.” Although he still keeps hundreds of hives, his main money-maker is exterminating bees.
“I don’t like eradicating the bees,” Marder insists. “It makes me physically ill.” But when dealing with “a volatile, flying insect like [Africanized bees], you have to keep the public safe.”
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.”
* * *
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.”
Yrarrázaval knows why they’re scared. “If they had any African traits, they’d be swarming all over us,” Yrarrázaval says. “We’re ripping apart their nests. But they’re not. They’re not African bees; they’re the good guys.”
The hive at Foothill Feed was a foot wide and 4 feet tall. After going out for lunch, the Backyard Beekeepers returned to find all the bees had slipped into their boxes, just like they predicted. They loaded up the boxes in their SUVs, packed away their tools and headed off to enjoy the beautiful afternoon.
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