Roberta Kato looks at her bees in fascination. As they buzz around her, she examines the honeycomb for new signs of life.
“There’s the little baby bees,” Kato blurts out with excitement.
With her bee suit as her shield, Kato pulls out each portion of the manmade hive she is examining. She waits until the bees seem fairly agitated to move on to the next hive of the day.
While Kato’s passion for bees is characteristic of an avid beekeeper, her location is not. She’s on a roof in the heart of Los Angeles, far away from the flowery meadows many bees call home.
And Kato isn’t alone in her urban beekeeping endeavor. She’s a member of Backwards Beekeepers, a group dedicated to caring for bees in the city of L.A.
In just three years the group has grown from four members to 140. Kirk Anderson, the founder and leader of the group, gives advice to members through email and monthly meetings.
“I get maybe 5 or 10 emails a week, or a day, depending on the season,” Anderson said.
William Mills joined the group three months ago. Mills originally wanted to move to the countryside, but decided instead on turning his backyard into an urban garden complete with chickens and a bee hive.
Mills said he thinks the bees will help pollenate his garden and others in the neighborhood. He also sees the honey as an added perk that he will eventually be able to enjoy.
Instead of purchasing his bees, Mills got them for free from a series of rescue missions performed by the Backwards Beekeepers.
“We’ve given a home to four groups of displaced bees instead of having them exterminated,” Mills said.
The beekeepers regularly rescue unwanted hives and find new homes for them. They even have a “Bee Rescue Hotline,” which receives 200 to 300 calls a week during the spring and summer, according to Anderson.
Some beekeepers will remove bees at little to no cost, while extermination can cost up to $200. However, the beekeepers warn that they cannot remove bees from chimneys and other difficult-to-reach locations.
The beekeepers consider their style to be “backwards” because they don’t use pesticides, which they say are a staple of modern-day beekeeping. They follow this “natural” model during their bee rescues, using only smoke, sugar water, a knife, string, wood, and a cardboard box to relocate the bees.
When Tom Fassbender helped rescue bees “naturally” for the first time, he called the experience “pretty intense.”
“I didn’t want to make any sudden movements,” Fassbender said. “It’s a little overwhelming when they are buzzing all over your face.”
While staying natural can leave the bee rescuers with a few undesired bee stings, Kato and others feel the pain is only a small price to pay for the end result.
“After things calm down and we finish up, it feels really good to have them all in a new spot,” Kato said.
When the bees are situated in a new spot, another set of challenges can arise. Along with learning how to tend to their new hive, urban beekeepers may have to compromise with neighbors who aren’t thrilled about the increase in the local bee population.
“We have to live in harmony, so if a neighbor doesn’t want them there, it’s their right to mention that and then hopefully we can find a better spot for them,” Kato said.
Kato said she encourages using honey as a bargaining tool and hopes the “sticky gold” will help show critics of urban beekeeping that hives can benefit the entire community.