The Accidental Beekeeper

How a self-described city slicker, who used to swat at anything buzzy, learned to love and appreciate the honeybee.

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As the mild San Francisco morning sun fills the back of my station wagon, I wrestle with two stacked boxes buzzing with a low hum. I can’t afford to slip or drop them: Inside is a colony of honeybees.

Until recently I was a helpless city slicker, prone to startling and swatting at anything buzzy. I couldn’t even tell a bright yellowjacket from a striped honeybee. Yet here I am, veiled and covered up, hugging two supers — wooden boxes making up a hive — full of bees, wax, and honey. I’m now one of many amateur beekeepers fostering the winged creatures in urban and suburban communities around the country.

Numbers vary widely from study to study, some citing upwards of 120,000 Americans looking after honeybees on rooftops and in backyards. There may be no way to compute an accurate number, according to Dr. Dewey M. Caron, a University of Delaware entomologist, but nonprofessional beekeepers are thought to own up to 10 percent of all bee colonies. “Now, that may not sound significant,” he says, “but backyard beekeepers are some of the most active individuals in influencing legislators and policymakers. They serve a crucial part in maintaining bee populations.”

A closeup of a beehive, covered in honeybees!
(Photo courtesy of Chaney Kwak)

I had no eureka moment or activist manifesto. Over the years I read about the bee’s crucial role in pollination — and therefore human survival — and slowly began daydreaming about lending them a spot to live: my idea of low-commitment community service, perhaps. I read a few beekeeper blog posts, fell into a YouTube rabbit hole, and took a weekend class. Once I was reasonably confident, I answered a call to adopt a hive.

My bees were rescued in Silicon Valley, 50 miles south of where I live, the last block before the foggy city gives way to the Pacific Ocean. Having stealthily nested behind a boarded-­up window in an abandoned house in Palo Alto, this colony was about to become homeless when developers decided to fix up the building. (If ever there was a place for a joke about the Bay Area’s ever-worsening housing shortage, this would be the punchline.) Just in the nick of time, three volunteers went in to take apart the stalactite-like mass into sheets of waxy comb, full of honey, bees, and soon-to-hatch babies, placing them into a Langstroth hive, a commonly used box to keep bees.

“My beehives are like pets,” she says as she helps me install the hive in my yard. “They’re a part of my family.”

My friend Cheryl Chang was one of the rescuers. Though master beekeepers spend their lifetime honing their skills, picking up the basics is less intimidating than most people might think. Cheryl has gone from a complete novice to being capable of capturing wayward swarms by dedicating a few hours a week over two short years to this hobby.

In Mountain View, better known for tech giants like Google than bucolic pursuits, the philanthropic service professional keeps a tidy garden of avocados and pear trees, lemon verbena and pineapple guava bushes. Tucked in the corner by the fence, her two hives whir with activity year-round, producing gallons of honey more fragrant than anything I’ve bought from a store. As a matter of fact, some studies claim bees, who forage for miles each day, are healthier and plumper in cities and suburbs, where they have access to diverse ecosystems offering a wider array of diet than monocultural farmland where there are only, say, bitter almond blossoms. In turn this can lead to higher honey yields.

But Cheryl’s not in it for the sweet nectar.

“My beehives are like pets,” she says as she helps me install the hive in my yard. “They’re part of my family.”

Quite a statement for creatures you can’t teach to roll over on command. And forget stroking them or snuggling up with them on the couch. I couldn’t have understood her comment until now.

As soon as we remove the netting that kept the hive sealed for the car ride, dozens of bees spill out and hover around the hive’s entrance, trying to take in their new environs. A few bees form a line on the landing strip of the entrance and start what could only be described as twerking.

“They’re fanning out the hive’s scent,” Cheryl tells me. “So the other bees from the colony can find their way back.”

Right away I’m smitten. Then everything clicks in my head. I’m less a landlord or an amused dilettante than a guardian. The responsibility for these lives suddenly weighs down on me. To stave off an imminent anxiety attack, I concentrate on what I’ve learned about bees.

A beekeeper, Gigi Trabant, opens a hive to inspect the insects inside.
Perfect swam? Gigi Trabant, president of the San Francisco Beekeepers Association, opens a hive to inspect population and honey flow. The city is one of the few to allow beekeeping without a permit. (Photo courtesy of Chaney Kwak)

A few months back, I sat with about 30 people, mostly under 35, around a long table in a warehouse doubling as the classroom for San ­Francisco Honey & Pollen. We were attending an introductory beekeeping class, and for most of us, the translucent comb being passed around was the first we’d touched of this marvelously geometric structure that bees build with their secretions.

By trade, John McDonald retrofits homes for earthquakes, but he’s also what the honey industry calls a sideliner, a part-time enthusiast who derives some income from keeping bees. He began keeping a few hives in the back of his lumber workshop as a hobby, and by 2006 he was selling honey and sharing the knowhow he’d picked up. Now he teaches upwards of 1,200 students a year.

The surging popularity arrives at a critical juncture, as honeybees today have it harder than ever. Coming into public prominence in 2006, the massive disappearance of bees known as Colony Collapse Disorder kills up to half of all hives in some areas, with some beekeepers reporting 90 percent of their stock perishing. But despite the urgency — and the subsequent popularity of amateur beekeeping — only a select few actually pursue the hobby.

“I’d say only about 1 percent of the attendees go on to start beekeeping,” John said.

Right away I’m smitten. Then everything clicks in my head. I’m less a landlord or an amused dilettante than a guardian.

Who were these curious onlookers spending their hard-earned day off in beekeeping suits? A couple next to me revealed that they were on a second date. A dyed-in-the-wool Berkeley baby boomer declared, “We all should help bees save the world.” Another woman confided that she was really just there for the honey tasting. Many had come, from the sight of it, to snap selfies in white overalls and black veils.

For the next few hours we got a crash course, part biology, part veterinary medicine, and part petting zoo. A colony, we learned, is led by one queen who takes to the sky only for a few days in her first spring in order to collect sperm, and spends the rest of her years continuously laying eggs. Some of these eggs become drones, or male bees whose sole purpose is to mate with a queen from a different hive (and, oh cruel nature, immediately die). But most become female worker bees who devote their lives to labor, from feeding hatchlings to pampering the queen. Their tasks evolve as they mature, not unlike human workers who get promoted, and they learn to guard the hive from intruders before they take to the skies to forage for nectar, pollen, and water. They will work themselves to death in as little as six weeks, perpetually replaced by the next generations that they raised.

As with any other animals, it’s tempting to anthropomorphize these critters. Some hives are genial, others downright mean — as broad as the spectrum of human personalities. Among the dozen hives in the yard, we were steered away from one containing aggressive members while McDonald, in only shorts and a veil, cracked open others that were so docile that his hands were left ungloved. The queen’s genetics and pheromones determine her colony’s personality, and it’s not unheard of for a seasoned beekeeper to commit regicide and set up a new royal if the subjects are deemed too violent.

Callous as it may sound, few things shatter the myth of benevolent Mother Nature like witnessing bees’ Machiavellian tendencies. In the yard behind the warehouse, I watched in horror as one bee struggled to cling on to another that was hauling it out of the hive and dropping it on the ground. Sick or dying bees, we learned, get cleared for the common good.

 

Beekeeper holding up a hive covered with honeybees.
Bee list: Among the many tasks of a beekeeper is frequently checking the health of the hive. (Photo courtesy of Chaney Kwak)

Lucky for me, the hive that comes to my yard turns out to be very mellow. I fret about everything — whether to keep feeding them sugar syrup to ease their transition, whether they’re hovering around the hive too much, and whether I should actively fight ant intruders with cinnamon — prompting my friends to say that I sound just like the nervous first-time moms that they used to be. Stop worrying you might kill them, they advised me, and just enjoy.

In the weeks following their arrival, they learn to soar high above the house to head toward the Golden Gate Park, a veritable buffet of prime forage. I worry less and less about these gentle newcomers attacking neighbors: A relief because, although cities from New York to Los Angeles have been changing laws to allow beekeeping, many urban dwellers understandably fear any creatures equipped with stingers. By law San ­Francisco explicitly allows its residents to keep bees without permits, while other municipalities require written permission from the neighbors. In many cases, beekeepers crawl into the don’t-ask-don’t-tell closet to keep things under wraps.

“I was told to paint the hives green, tuck them between greenery in the corner, and never tell the neighbors,” says Gigi Trabant, who is president of the San Francisco Beekeepers Association and another hobbyist I meet along the way. She began taking beekeeping classes the month after she retired from a career in nursing in 2011. But her attempts at stealth ended when one half of a colony decided to pack up and leave.

“Swarming is a sign of too much success,” she says. “A new beekeeper may not keep track of how fast a colony is growing. When the bees run out of space, the hive splits.”

One warm spring day, thousands of Gigi’s bees whipped themselves into a frenzy and moved en masse across the block in the foggy San Francisco borough of the Richmond.

“And my neighbors actually loved it!” Gigi says, laughing. Today her neighbors count as some of her bees’ biggest champions, inquiring after their well­being. But she still takes care to schedule regular hive inspections, which involve opening up the boxes to check for the colony’s health, only on weekdays when her neighbors’ children are at school. And she passes around jars of honey at holidays.

I’ve discovered that few things calm me like having hundreds of bees buzz about me.

For every happy ending like Gigi’s, you’ll hear a nightmare story of miffed neighbors threatening to sue. To avoid such potential conflicts, father and son Anton and Andrzej Krukowski set up their hives away from their home on a dense residential street and used a family friend’s property without neighbors.

Finding the installation site was just the beginning. Andrzej, then only 8, wanted to get over his fear of getting stung by choosing beekeeping as his independent learning project at school. “I was reluctant going in,” says Anton. “I thought it was overambitious for a fourth-grader.”

But Andrzej has the articulate maturity befitting a son of two teachers and approached the project with ­seriousness.

“Being around bees can be unnerving at first,” says Andrzej, now 12. “When they fly around you and even sting you through the suit, it really does something to your ­confidence.”

Tending to their hives has become a bonding experience for the duo over the past three years. Lately, though, Andrzej has been feeling a bit unmotivated: “I still enjoy it once we go there, but now it feels more like a responsibility than a privilege. Video games are much easier.”

If his son’s enthusiasm has fluctuated, Anton has grown all the more interested. “There’s something very hypnotic about opening up a hive and seeing them,” he said. “When they’re not overwhelming us, it becomes a meditative activity.”

And I know exactly what he means. Sure, it hasn’t been smooth sailing: I’ve gotten stung, including once on the forehead that ended up growing a tumor-like swelling. Battling ants is a constant struggle, and during one routine check, I dropped a frame full of honey, destroying months’ worth of bees’ labor in one smash. Late in the season, my hive came down with an epidemic of varroa mites, the common parasites that feed on the young, destroying colonies when untreated.

But to my surprise, once I got over my initial anxiety, I’ve discovered that few things calm me like having hundreds of bees buzz about me. Ever the reluctant Californian, I’ve never been one to use words like mindfulness, but beekeeping gives me a taste of the serenity that meditation enthusiasts extol. The bees’ murmur drowns out all the competing thoughts in my head — about the home renovation that’s going all wrong, loved ones’ recent health diagnoses, and work deadlines crashing down on me at once. Even at the end of the worst day, I calm down when I sit by the hive and watch the bees at work, gracefully taking off and soaring along the paths only decipherable to them. When I need comic relief, I look out for the ones returning home, heavy with nectar or pollen. They collide with others or miss the landing by an inch, comically traipsing down before floating again.

In a few short months the bees have provided more solace than any electronic gadget or self-help book. They let me feel at one with nature and time, as I watch them sustain the world, one flight at a time. I breathe without thinking about anything at all, and soon I realize I can simply be. It’s a cliché, I know, but by adopting these rescued creatures, I was saved.

Chaney Kwak is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times, among others.

To learn more about keeping bees, contact your local beekeepers association. You’ll find a directory at beeculture.com/directory.

Featured image: Shutterstock.com.

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