Written & Photographed by Felicia Friesema
Regardless of fear, we’ve harnessed and domesticated that body for centuries, similar to what we’ve done with livestock and gardens. The reason is two-fold: The bees pollinate local gardens which produce food for us, and they make honey.
“I got these bees called ‘Midnight,'” recalls Anderson. “They were black and bred to be calm and easygoing. And they were. Shitty producers. But they were nice to work with.” Shortly after his Midnights arrived, he caught his second hive without any of the education his current group of beekeeping students have. “I used a potato sack and just brushed them in,” he says. “Back then if you wanted to learn about bees there was one book, The ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture [originally by Amos Root and since edited and rereleased by Roger Morse and Kim Flottum]. So then I had two hives.”
And here Anderson pauses. At this point in his story he’s still a fairly new hobbyist. A few weeks after he caught the second hive, Anderson won a lottery at a local Catholic church. While he was deciding what to do with the money, a woman that his wife cared for passed away. He ended up buying her 100 beehives for $10 a hive.
“So I went from two to 102,” he chuckles. “I ended up finding another book by Walter T. Kelly: How to Keep Bees and Sell Honey. One hundred and twenty pages of which maybe 60 had to do with beekeeping. There was enough in there that I figured out what to do.”
This is where things start to get interesting. Anderson started looking into commercial beekeeping practices and what was considered mandatory for making a honey business successful: corn syrup for bee feed, using Terramycin to treat foul brood diseases, feeding the bees pollen substitutes made from soy flour, forcing larger brood cells with preformed comb foundations made from contaminated wax, artificial insemination of the queen which reduced natural selection and diversity. And then he noticed people started complaining that their hives were dying off. His wild-caught swarms were doing just fine. When they did succumb, he noticed it was because of an inherent weakness within the hive body.
“I figure natural lovemaking is better anyway,” he says, smiling. “In nature, the queen mates with multiple partners. That diversity is key. Otherwise, you end up with a bunch of weak inbred queens. And then that’s the foundation of the hive.” He adds, “Nature works it out. If the queen makes a mistake, she succumbs.”
And therein lies a core concept of the Backwards Beekeepers philosophy: Nature makes a tougher hive; don’t interfere too much with a weak hive and allow nature to select the strongest bees for survival. The result is the overall bee population becomes healthier and more resilient with each generation. This flies in the face of the commercial paradigm of bees as a commodity. Losing a hive in a commercial operation equals losing money. Saving the hives regardless of long-term outcome becomes paramount, which Anderson feels has been a key component of Colony Collapse Disorder and why commercial bee populations are declining each year.
“I’m into nature working it out,” he says with a shrug. “It’s about symbiosis and understanding that disease and mites will always be there. You have to let the bees work it out. Plus everything you do to the bees ends up in the honey and the comb. Pesticide for mites, inorganic soy-based pollens, antibiotics, corn syrup. It’s not filtered out. It can’t be.”
Fast forward to 2008. Anderson had been living in Los Angeles for about 19 years and had tried and failed to keep bees at a few local community gardens. “A couple people got stung and then the garden lost the lease on the property,” says Anderson. “Another garden belonged to Parks and Rec, and they didn’t want the bees either.” “Some people are dumb around bees,” he muses. Amy Seidenwurm, a marketing employee for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, sent Anderson an email asking to meet with him and talk bees. And when they did, Anderson and Seidenwurm joined forces to create Backwards Beekeepers.
“Within a week we had a blog and a Yahoo newsgroup,” he said. Along with this, the newly coined Backwards Beekeepers set up a bee rescue hotline and were receiving upwards of 600 calls per month, asking their volunteers to come and safely remove swarms from wherever they ended up. “There’s a neat video of us removing a swarm from a Shop-Vac,” says Anderson. “You should go look it up.” They haven’t been without their growing pains. Membership to the Yahoo group wasn’t moderated at first. Local exterminators eventually found it and would respond to bee rescue requests with price estimates for hive extermination.
“We purged the entire membership then,” he said, shaking his head. “Started fresh and now we monitor everyone who comes in.”
Even with the purging, Backwards Beekeeper membership currently stands at about 900. Anderson’s goal is to have two million new beekeepers throughout the country. “Only 1,999,100 to go,” he chuckles. Back at the Griffith Park hives, Anderson is working sans gloves while the rest of us are intrigued (and fully protected), but still a little wary. One particularly loud hive surrounds me with the scent of bananas from the bees’ alarm pheromone. But after applying some light smoking—it quiets them and focuses their attention on the honey—the hives are all opened and inspected and, in one case, relocated from a temporary cardboard hive box to a more permanent wood hive. The participants hail from all over Los Angeles—Sherman Oaks, Santa Monica, Echo Park—and all either keep hives at the Griffith Park location (because they can’t keep bees on their own property) or have hives at home and are trying to glean from Anderson’s 30-plus years of experience.
He drops little gems throughout the inspection: “Each hive has a different sound,”; “ And you can tell when a hive is queenless. They act funny,”; “It’s good that we have so many hives to work with. That way you can see how each one’s personality develops.” He gets one sting on his hand but it only interrupts him for a few seconds while he applies smoke to it to null the pheromone that signals other bees where to sting. On the walk back down the hillside, no one is pensive or silent anymore. The conversation is animated and one woman, Annie Zamora, who had voiced her concerns before we went to the hives, was happily talking about her plans for honey and asking about how to prevent ant infestations.
Anderson relates a story about one beekeeper who was shaking when they worked the hives. “I asked him if he was cold and he said, ‘No I’m terrified,'” said Anderson. “And he was absolutely terrified each time. So I said, you know, maybe beekeeping is not for you. Maybe if you do it a few times you’ll stop shaking. And he said, ‘No, I shake every time. I’ve been doing this for five years.’” “He eventually gave it up,” he said. “For contrast, there’s this guy out in New York who runs Anarchy Apiaries. Never wears any equipment. Doesn’t use smoke very often. He just has a thing about it.”
In addition to teaching as many people as he can about natural beekeeping, Anderson sells honey from hives located throughout Los Angeles. You can find his urban honey at Lindy and Grundy, Atwater Village Farm, Two Bits Market in Downtown L.A. and the Cheese Shop in Silver Lake, or you can buy directly from him at kirkslocalhoney.com. His co-founders, Amy Seidenwurm and Russell Bates, also have an urban honey business called Feral Honey. Interested beekeepers can attend Backwards Beekeepers meetings at Atwater Village Crossing (3265-3191 Casitas Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90039) on the last Sunday of each month. There are no membership dues or prerequisites for attending. Swarm got you holed up in your house? You can call the Bee Rescue Hotline at 213.373.1104. Leave your name, a phone number that you will answer, your specific city and neighborhood and a description of the bees: Are they in a tree? How high? Do you know how long they've been there? Volunteers may ask to be reimbursed for the cost of travel to your location at a rate of $1/mile. No other charges are allowed. There is also a list on the Backwards Beekeepers website of approved for-hire bee removal specialists if your swarm or hive is too difficult for a volunteer to remove. Find more information on Backwards Beekeepers at backwardsbeekeepers.com, and Kirk’s urban honey, available at kirkslocalhoney.com.Co-founders Amy Seidenwurm and Russell Bates’ honey is available at feralhoney.com