By Aaron Blevins, 4/18/2013
Local couple is among those lobbying for urban beekeeping
A local couple is among a group of urban beekeepers striving for relaxed regulations on their trade, an effort that provides a sanctuary for bees, which pollinate 80 percent of the world’s plants.
In recent years, honeybees have been impacted by a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a problem that results in adult honeybees disappearing from their hives. The cause remains unknown, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“There’s so much adding to the problem that it can’t be any one thing,” Hancock Park resident Sean Austin said.
Austin, along with his fiancée Anne Marie Host, tends to bees at the HoneyLove sanctuary in Simi Valley, where Austin’s sister, Chelsea McFarland, runs the nonprofit conservation organization with her husband, Rob.
The McFarlands had been interested in honeybees, but it wasn’t until a swarm landed in their yard that they jumped into beekeeping, antennas first. Rob had learned of a Los Angeles beekeeping organization, Backwards Beekeepers, so he knew who to call to have the swarm removed.
“Rob was kind of overwhelmed and fascinated by how gentle the bees actually were and how easy and seamless the process was,” Chelsea said.
From there, the effort snowballed, Austin said. An avid outdoorsman, he was eventually invited by Rob to help with a 30,000-bee swarm in Mar Vista, and the beekeeping initiative stuck.
“The honeybee is a really interesting insect. They are way smarter than I thought they would be,” Austin said, adding that honeybees generally leave people alone unless they are agitated. He said it was “pretty surreal” to be disregarded by 30,000 honeybees. “It’s pretty interesting. The first time, I was definitely caught off guard.”
Austin said beekeeping suits are quite safe, so he’s only been stung about 15 times in more than two years, usually by a bee that sneaks into his shoe and stings him on the ankle.
“It’s so few and far between that I don’t even keep track,” he said. “[The stings don’t] really even swell.”
After a swarm is collected in a capture box, they are taken to HoneyLove in Simi Valley, which Austin described as a big, organic farm. Several HoneyLove employees, as well as volunteers like Austin and Host, tend to the bees.
“They like being up there,” he said. “That organic farm is Rodeo Drive for them.”
Contrary to popular opinion, honeybees thrive in urban environments, as long as it is a private space, Chelsea said. She said larger farming operations truck bees in, use pesticides and feed them high-fructose corn syrup, all of which is stressful to bees.
Such pesticides are rarely used in private gardens, and certainly not in the same quantities as large agricultural operations, Chelsea said. And without bees, many backyard gardens would be worthless, she said.
“The bees is our city are kind of our last hope, at least that’s what we think at HoneyLove,” Chelsea added. “We call it the last refuge of the honeybee.”
As far as Los Angeles law is concerned, there is no real place for the bees to exist, Chelsea said. She said the city’s only policy on bees calls for exterminators to destroy them if a swarm shows up.
Soon after becoming enveloped in their new trade, the McFarlands began a campaign to raise awareness and officially legalize urban beekeeping. Chelsea said several major cities allow it, as do local communities such as Santa Monica and Redondo Beach.
She said the effort is important to honeybees, which are being adversely affected by CCD. Agricultural officials have projected that as many as 50 percent of the world’s population of bees will die off as a result, Chelsea said.
“It’s not actually getting better, it’s getting worse,” she added.
So far, several municipalities have been supportive. In May, Councilman Bill Rosendahl drafted a motion to have the city formally support beekeeping initiatives in the city and decrease the inhumane removal of the insects. Chelsea said the motion is now in the city’s Planning and Land Use Committee.
Although some people may be concerned about living near a beehive, there are likely nine to 11 colonies of bees living in Los Angeles right now, she said.
“We’re actually cohabitating with bees right now,” Chelsea said. “The bees are really thriving in Los Angeles.”
Austin said he and his fiancée would keep bees at their home near Larchmont Boulevard if they could.
“It’s actually a really cool pest,” he said.
While people continue to sign HoneyLove’s petition on change.org and vie for legalized beekeeping, HoneyLove goes to schools and educates children about the necessity of honeybees.
“A lot of fear around bees comes from early childhood experiences,” Chelsea said, adding that her nephew was recently stung by a wasp, and he now has an aversion to bees. “We need kids to grow to like bees.”
Next, HoneyLove and its supporters will undergo a pesticide-free movement. Chelsea said that once a person thinks about the smallest common denominator — the honeybee — their concern for the environment increases substantially.
“Bees are the gateway drug to a sustainable lifestyle,” she added.
For information, visit www.honeylove.org. To report a swarm, contact the Backwards Beekeepers bee rescue hotline at (213)373-1104.