Urban Beekeeping Has Come to LA
Facing my fears of bees, I joined urban beekeeper David Bock of Buzzed Honeys on an inspection of his hives in the unlikely city of Los Angeles.
All photos by the author.
For something that looks like a cross between a fencing suit and a spacesuit, a beekeeper's outfit is actually pretty comfortable.
It's a warm Saturday morning in the Mount Washington neighborhood of Los Angeles, and David Bock and his son Simon are watching me awkwardly try to maneuver myself into a beekeeper suit without falling on my face.
"I guess I never though I would end up wearing a beekeeper suit in my life—outside of Halloween," I tell the father-son duo. They, along with Bock's other son Leo—who isn't available to join us when I visit—are the family behind Buzzed Honeys.
"See, Simon," Bock tells his son, "you never really know what life has in store. Who knows what you will end up doing that you never though you would?"
The ten-year-old, clad in his own miniature beekeeper suit, nods his wild head of hair at his dad.
After making sure that there are no bits of exposed skin hiding anywhere between the bottom of my pants and my shoes, or my shirtsleeves and my gloves, Bock hands me a hat. "If the netting touches the skin, the bees have a permeable surface to sting through. So you have to wear a hat with a brim to keep the netting off your face," he explains. Suddenly, my quietly creeping anxiety becomes full-blown panic as I realize I am about to make contact with many, many bees.
For many residents of LA—or any big city, for that matter—the presence of bees seems largely removed from our lives. At best, they're confined to places like dog parks and hiking trails, where their foreignness brings out the screaming sissy or stone-faced stoic in all of us.
This goes double for their hives. In my mind, beehives have always belonged outside country homes filled with brightly colored gardens, where bees bounce from blossom to bud in tableaux that are as impossibly effortless and idyllic as a Martha Stewart gardening spread. They belong in almond farms and orange orchards, where the bees are brought in for pollination. The live in places with an abundance of land, plants, and general greenness, removed from the populace.
But that's not actually the case for a growing number of big cities—especially LA, where you can find hives scattered throughout backyards and atop roofs, from Mar Vista to Echo Park and beyond. Bock leads me to the backyard hive he keeps, down a narrow path and through an unkempt garden of succulents, shade, and eucalyptus trees. The ground is brown with decomposing eucalyptus leaves that Simon begins to collect while he tells me about Clan Apis, a graphic novel about honeybees that he likes. At the end of the path, we reach the hives, sitting on a slab of cement against a chain-link fence. On the other side, the neighbor's dogs intermittently bark at us weird, white-suited aliens. These are definitely not the hives of my imagination—these are the hives of an urban beekeeper.
Urban beekeeping was banned within Los Angeles city limits in 1879, and it remained that way until the laws were changed this past October. The ban was hardly enforced, however. "[It was] kind of like having a bunch of pet rats in your house," Bock tells me. "You can kind of do whatever and have a hoard of rats that you live with, but if those rats start drawing attention to your house, or running into other people's houses, or getting out of control and making the neighborhood unsanitary, someone is going to call the authorities, and they're going to be like 'Yeah, you can't really have all these pet rats here.'" It was more or less the same with the bees; as long as they were kept under control, most people didn't make a fuss.
Either way, the lifting of the ban is long overdue. Several large metropolitan cities, including Washington, D.C., New York, and Paris have allowed urban beekeeping for some time, and essentially proven that having hives in urban areas doesn't create a significant safety hazard.
After all, bees already live in urban areas, whether we notice them or not. That hole in your garage roof? It's quite possible that you have some bee roommates in there, or any other place they can reasonably squeeze into. Hardly our enemies, bees are essential to the ecosystem, but they've been steadily dying off due to a number of factors, from pesticides to habitat destruction. Globally, we're in dire need of more bees.
Bock lights the kindling in the smoker and Simon pumps the fan, squeezing smoke out the nozzle and around the hive's entrance and top. "You want the smoke to be cool and dense," Bock tells me. "It's supposed to calm them, but these are pretty docile bees." The subtle buzzing of the hives sounds like the final moment of an orchestra's tuning—one swelling note before the big act.
Having a bunch of bees crawl all over you, even with a beekeeper suit on, is a pretty mentally trying experience for first-timers. I can bluff my way out of one bee, but once we start getting into the tens, I go into panic mode. I recall bad horror movies in which people are left dead and swollen, with hollowed-out eye sockets after being mowed down by a group of human-hating bees. I could be next!
Bock tries to reassure me that I'll be fine, but it's only when I see the young, fearless Simon looking at me that I decide to buck up.
Simon and Bock inspect the first hive together. "We want to be looking for a healthy worker brood and bee population, pollen, capped and uncapped honey, and [to] locate the queen," Bock explains. He pulls out each frame, inspecting the larvae and the comb, which is crawling with a writhing mass of bees. He finds that this hive is only drone brood or male brood, characterized by large cells within the comb. "That's bad," he explains. "That means there isn't any worker brood." The bee jargon takes a unexpected, fantasy-genre turn when he explains that this might be because of a "virgin queen."
Within the following hive, we find a worker brood and bees with bright, fuzzy pollen attached to their legs like yellow saddlebags. We can see the golden honey locked within the comb, and we're able to find the queen. She's larger than the rest and constantly surrounded by a group of her adoring bee subjects—her court, if you will. Bock tells me that the bees can sometimes "adore" their queen to death, literally surrounding her so completely that they raise her body temperature and cook her within her own exoskeleton. Today, however, she walks around the frame, marked with a deep royal blue dot on her back so she's easy to locate within the hive—something that the breeders did when they shipped her to Bock from Hawaii.
Bock and Simon decide to take the drone brood hive and make it "queen right," or combining a healthy hive with a struggling hive in order to try to fix it. They blend the two hives slowly, leaving some golden brown-looking putty that they tell me is a pollen substitute for the bees to help them get through the winter months (whatever that means in LA).
The honey will be ready to harvest again in the upcoming season. For Bock and Simon, that means harvesting from a number of their hives, which range from Ventura County and Pasadena to Manhattan Beach and here in Mount Washington. This season, they hope to bring a few hives to an almond farm, which provides some lucrative extra work for beekeepers as the bees will help to pollinate the farmers' groves. They harvest their honey with a laborious hand crank-powered extractor, but the result is worth it. Their raw, urban honeys are as unique in flavor as they are in color, and as complex as the multitude of unique pollen sources an urban environment provides.
"If you're interested in beekeeping," Bock suggests, "go beekeeping a few times first. Volunteer to help take care of a hive, go to a beekeepers meeting, or take a class—all things that you can easily find out about from the Los Angeles County Bee Keepers Association."
Back at the car, I peel off my beekeeper suit. While initially fear-inducing, the morning had proven to be shockingly meditative, even calming. I ask Bock how he knew he wanted to start beekeeping.
"I work all day at an office on the computer, working with videos of other people out there and other people doing stuff and having adventures," he says of his day job as a freelance TV writer and producer. "And I thought, This is my chance to actually do that, and I'm going to do it."
Looking over at Simon, he adds, "And it's something we get to do together."
Before parting ways, Bock and his son point out a wild hive in a tree down the street at a neighbor's house. The three of us stand in the front yard and stare from a distance at the small opening in the base of the tree, with bees flying in and out as they please. "I'd love to cut into it and see the hive, or trap the bees out for a hive," Bock says.
As I leave with my fear of bees behind me, I wonder how difficult it will be to convince my mother to make use of some of her backyard for a hive.