Zen and the Art of Beekeeping Backwards: LA's Urban Beekeeping Movement

"This is something I just discovered," Joan Stevens tells me excitedly as we stand in the backyard of her Eagle Rock, Los Angeles home. "You've heard of making a beeline, right? Well, it's a real thing! This is the beeline right here." She points to a narrow opening in the compact rectangular hive box where the bees emerge before zipping upward into the cloudless sunshine in what appears to be a completely vertical line.

Joan belongs to a group of small-scale, organic beekeepers in Los Angeles who call themselves the Backwards Beekeepers. The group's name, inspired by Charles Martin Simon's article "Principles of Beekeeping Backwards," refers to their philosophy of relying on observation, trial and error, and natural, chemical-free treatments to keep their bees healthy and productive. Though they come from various backgrounds, the Backwards Beekeepers are united by a shared fascination with the complex social insects and an appreciation of their important role in a sustainable ecosystem. "People have a passion for these insects and for what they do," explains Kirk Anderson, the group's leader and revered bee guru, who dates his own bee obsession to 1970, when he purchased his first hive from a Montgomery Ward catalog.

Anderson and his devotees are part of a larger trend of urban beekeeping that has been growing in cities across the country the past few years. In March, amidst pressure from local beekeepers, New York City's board of health voted to lift a ban against beekeeping within the city limits -- a major victory for bee enthusiasts on either coast that indicated that long-held public fears about the perceived dangers of bees may finally be changing.

In Los Angeles, however, urban beekeeping remains de facto illegal due to a city ordinance that prohibits residents from keeping hives within 300 feet of any dwelling -- a parameter that precludes most space-starved Angelenos from lawfully tending their backyard hives. But despite this outlaw status, the urban beekeeping movement in Los Angeles has been gathering momentum and members since the formation of the Backwards Beekeepers in September of 2007. When Anderson founded the club, it consisted of only four members, a number that has since surged to over 400 members.

This burgeoning interest in honey bees comes on the heels of increased media coverage of their uncertain fate. In late 2006, honey bees across the country began mysteriously vanishing, often abandoning the queen bee and entire colonies full of brood, an extremely uncharacteristic behavior that left scientists and beekeepers both puzzled and alarmed. Theories on the causes of the disappearances, dubbed "Colony Collapse Disorder" (CCD), initially ranged from an epidemic of new insect disease, to the damaging effects of systemic pesticides used in large-scale agricultural operations, to environmental stresses caused by global warming, and even radiation from cell phone towers (though the last has since been discounted as a possible cause). Recently, a team of Army scientists and researchers from the University of Montana shed some light on the CCD mystery in a paper published in the online science journal PLoS One. Their research indicated that a particular combination of fungus and virus was found to be present in every hive affected by CCD. But how and why the combination kills the bees or whether any other co-factors contribute to their demise has still yet to be determined.

Hive losses during the winter months have always been a problem for commercial beekeepers, explains Eric Mussen, an apiculturist and researcher at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at the University of California, Davis. But while 15-20 percent losses were considered typical ten years ago, CCD has knocked the winter survival rate down to unprecedented lows, with record losses of up to 35 percent. In some cases, beekeepers have lost 80-90 percent or even 100 percent of their hives. "Many of these beekeepers have said that if they have one more year like this, they're out. They're keeping their fingers crossed, but losses like that just aren't sustainable," Mussen says.

This is grim news for, well, pretty much everybody. Honey bees pollinate a third of the nation's food supply - that's one out every three forkfuls you consume. The vast majority of food crops grown in the U.S. are dependent on honey bees for pollination, which means that without bees, there's no domestic agriculture industry.

Many experts and environmental advocates consider the bees a leading indicator of the poor health of the country's industrial agriculture industry. Most industrial farming operations are dedicated to producing a single type of crop grown on vast swaths of farmland -- monocultures. The practice of growing crops in monocultures was originally implemented because it allowed for more efficient harvesting. But the production of a single crop in a large area also has many hazardous environmental repercussions, including increased susceptibility to diseases and pests. To combat these very serious threats to their crop yields, farmers have upped the use of pesticides and chemical treatments in recent years.

And how does this affect the honey bees, whose job it is to pollinate and feed on these heavily treated and pesticide-laden plants? Commercial beekeepers make their living by leasing their hives to industrial monoculture-practicing farms to pollinate crops in the springtime. Every year, over a million bees are shipped on the backs of semi-trucks from as far as New England to pollinate thousands of acres of almond orchards in California. Because the almond blossoms don't contain enough nectar, the bees' diet is supplemented with processed sugars, corn syrup, and "pollen patties" -- concoctions that contain protein and other pollen substitutes. The long cross-country treks combined with poor nutrition and increased exposure to pests, pesticides, and toxic chemicals has amounted to a very stressful lifestyle for the average commercial bee.

Given these taxing circumstances, it's no surprise to Eric Mussen that the urban bees have fared much better in the face of CCD than their commercial counterparts. "The bees in these settings are less stressed and therefore have stronger immune systems and are able to better fight off the mites," he explains.

Joan Steven's experience corresponds with this assessment. She knows of few Backwards Beekeepers who have lost entire hives, and none who attribute the losses to CCD. Sometimes, feral bees fall prey to "robber bees" that steal the honey from a weak hive if they encounter it. Or occasionally, an entire hive will be taken out by wax worm, a common natural pest. But nothing like the wide-scale devastation experienced by commercial beekeepers across the country. "They're thriving in the cities. I mean, they're thriving," she says. "We have an entire city of irrigated gardens. We have diversity that has been lost from our rural areas significantly."

For Kirk Anderson, the health differences between commercial and chemical-free bees amount to basic common sense. "It's not a mystery. The chemicals they use on the crops, the mono-crops, the chemicals they use to treat the mites in the hives -- they're all contributing to the bees' demise."

But while everyone agrees that natural bees are healthier and more resilient than commercial bees, no one is ready to suggest that the growing interest in local, organic beekeeping will be the answer to repopulating the lost bees. Experts and Backwards Beekeepers admit that keeping hives in urban settings will do little to slow the devastation wrought by CCD or to save the agricultural industry. "One or two colonies in someone's backyard is not going to make much of a difference in the overall bee population," explains Mussen. "But what it could do is help with local pollinations like vegetable gardens and flowers."

These small-scale, local results are enough for urban beekeepers like Stevens, who remains optimistic about the future of feral, locally caught hives like her own. "We're not in danger of losing honey bees," she says confidently. "If we lost the honey bee, our agricultural system would collapse. But it wouldn't be the end of nature. It wouldn't be the end of pollination by any means."

As commercial honey bee populations continue to dwindle nationwide, organic beekeepers increasingly view their efforts as part of a larger movement for sustainable living. "It's as though urban is the new country," Anderson suggests. "The urban environment's gotten bigger, and the rural environment's gotten smaller. People are interested in natural things, in moving backwards."