May 2 2012 10:38 AM

My afternoon at a suddenly legal urban bee farm

Hillary Kearney prepares to enter a hive.
Photo by Derrik Chinn

It's a gray afternoon in North Clairemont at the childhood home of Hilary Kearney, a fair-skinned dishwater blond who answers the door barefoot, wearing a duct-tape patch on the seat of her Carhartt bibs. Her dad's tarped VW Beetle sits in the front yard; it's been there as long as Kearney, 25, can remember. On the ground, squash and cucumbers are sprouting inside a terrarium fashioned out of an old deli-cuts tray she found in the trash. A buffalo skull hangs where the wind chime would be. On this Sunday in April, she's making goat cheese.

If it weren't for the dozen or so Mason jars full of honey in various states of filtration that cover the dining-room table, or the random pieces of comb on end tables and on top of the TV, you'd never suspect she and boyfriend-roommate Tim O'Neil currently have some 30,000 bees in the backyard. But they do, and come summer's peak, their two hives will be home to as many as 100,000.

Kearney has been keeping bees for two years, which makes her operation all the more renegade; for the majority of its existence, it's technically been illegal. Only in January did San Diego City Council vote to ease restrictions on urban bee keeping, along with chickens and goats, allowing backyard beekeepers like Kearney to come out of the closet with their contraband honeymakers. The revision, the first regarding bees since 1977, allows two hives per single-family home if kept at least 15 feet from off-site residential structures and surrounded by 6-foot screens.

Kearney, a UC Santa Cruz art graduate, knew bees were mysteriously dying but didn't think that by giving a few thousand of them room and board she'd be helping. Nor did she really care to be bothered about staying a step ahead of the slow-food boom. No, this is your classic case of: girl knows nothing about bees, girl starts reading and watching everything she can find about bees, girl adopts multiple swarms of wild bees, girl spreads new-found knowledge to other interested community members, girl becomes local Mother Theresa of bees, with slight urban-Amazon-woman tendencies.

"Having wild bees is like adopting a child: They're out there. They need a home," she says. "And besides, why pay for bees when you can just catch them?"

Along with the two wild hives that she acquired by offering free bee-removal services on craigslist, her personal bee empire includes two European-bred colonies that she has stashed at friends' homes, plus another that she keeps on the roof of her mom's house.

Even before the City Council revised the ordinance, Kearney began teaching monthly classes in her living room, three-hour doses of basic beekeeping followed by a quick field trip into her yard to view the hives. She caps the head count at 10, keeping the setting informal so her students are comfortable enough to ask questions, share their own experiences and build bonds they'll turn to when attempting feats like rescuing their own wild swarms. Although she's held only five classes, their popularity has already caught the attention of the San Diego Sustainable Living Institute, a new organization that compiles courses and workshops on various sustainability topics like rainwater harvesting, gray-water landscape irrigation and permaculture design, taught by other local experts like Kearney. In June, her bee school officially joins the institute's growing lineup of programming.

Today, I'm receiving an intensive one-on-one take on Kearney's 101, but it still takes a good 90 minutes.

We delve into the bee caste system, which is governed by intricate technicalities and a harsh, almost ridiculously melodramatic plot that falls somewhere in between Hamlet and a TV Azteca telenovela. Female workers serve as housecleaners, security guards, wax makers and nurses, while a male drone's sole purpose is to mate with the queen. Once he accomplishes his mission, he dies. And if he fails, the workers banish him come autumn, forcibly removing him from the hive. The queen mates only once, storing the semen of 30 to 50 male drones that she'll use to repeatedly impregnate herself over the course of her life, laying up to 2,000 eggs a day. She'll do that for up to eight years before finally dying, eons compared with an average bee's lifespan of 42 days.

We go over the visual differences in honey comb versus brood comb and look at photos of queens laying eggs, which resemble miniature Tic-Tacs. Kearney points out how to recognize a queen cell, a large, abnormal growth that bulges out of the comb. She mentions that in the case of multiple queen cells, the first to hatch will sting her rivals to death while they're still princess brood. She tells me about the magic goo that a colony feeds a worker bee to transform her into a queen when the throne is empty and no successor eggs have been laid.

We talk Africanization, a genetic condition that causes revved-up aggression and, judging by the way Kearney describes it, isn't necessarily easy to define, but, much like pornography, you know it when you see it. Reversing it involves offing the rabid ruler in a vicious coup and installing a new monarch, a process called requeening.

We move on to housing. Kearney breaks down the pros and cons of standard bee compounds, top bar hives and Langstroth hives. The former resembles a waist-level wooden trough, preferable because it allows the bees to build comb more naturally and can be inspected with minimal disturbance to the colony. The latter involves a series of wooden boxes stacked atop each other, looks like an over-sized nightstand and is easier to maintain but involves heavy lifting. Then she runs through necessary beekeeping tools and suggests cheaper alternatives—a $2 craft-store feather instead of a $15 brush to nudge bees off the comb, or an old fork in lieu of a $10 uncapping tool to open the comb cells.

Kearney runs through all this from memory before finally announcing that it's time to harvest honey. O'Neil tosses a wad of loaner gear my way, and that's when it hits me that I'm actually about to cannonball into a mess of tens of thousands of highly intelligent, armed, wild and easily irritable creatures that are quite possibly already pissed off.

Kearney had instructed me beforehand to wear loose clothing, so I show up wearing several layers of it, including a button-down shirt, a T-shirt, baggy jeans and fur-lined moccasin boots. Following O'Neil's lead, I shove my pants into my socks as deep as they'll go. Then I step into not one but two white plastic painter suits, tucking the legs of the bottom into my socks and yanking the top down over my boots.

"Looks good," he says. "But we'll duct tape your ankles just to be sure."

Over my hands go leather gloves that run halfway up my forearms, with nylon mesh around the wrists for ventilation and rimmed with elastic to seal off my limbs. Then comes the helmet, a construction hat attached to a mesh veil that drapes down to my chest. In the middle, a foot or so below my chin, is a plastic ring attached to two 6-foot strings that I'm told to wrap under my arms and around my midsection several times before tying them in front, sealing off my face and neck. Suddenly I'm the Village People's missing member.

Kearney exits the bedroom wearing her white Ultra-Breeze jacket atop her T-shirt and bibs, a sort of bee-proof mesh hoodie that protects her bare skin from the bees. It was well worth the $175, she says, because she couldn't stand all the sweating.

I'm already sweating. It's as if I'm in one of those silver plastic exercise suits you find in dollar stores. It gets worse when you open the hives and the adrenaline kicks in, Kearney says.

"You'd better call the neighbors to let them know we're opening the bees," Kearney says to O'Neil. When I ask about any mishaps with the neighbors, Kearney admits one accidental stinging has happened, but regular gifts of fresh eggs and honey have kept any hard feelings at bay.

Outside, we head down three flights of wooden stairs that connect the deck to the couple's backyard, a sustainable Shangri-La that's separated from the 52, 805 and 5 freeways by just a couple miles of open space. We pass through the garden, thick with borage, a natural flavor enhancer for tomatoes and cucumbers that Kearney calls the silver bullet of companion planting, not to mention a favorite among bees. Past the chicken coop and a pair of barrels filled with drinking water that the bees share with the chickens, next to a patch of parched corn stalks, there they are: three hives, two of which are currently active.

Kearney lights the smoker, filled with dried brush she'd grabbed off the ground, and fans it around the hive to preoccupy the bees, keeping them busy while we assess their urban planning.

O'Neil opens the first hive, a top bar capped with 10 or so wooden slats, each about three inches in width. He removes each as if browsing a box of records, checking for growth on the underside. Three weeks' worth of work has resulted in about a foot's length of comb on a few. Kearney points out bee larvae and capped drone brood that resemble pencil erasers. Now with space to escape, the bees begin to roam. Unaware that carbon dioxide functions as a warning of the presence of a predator like a bear, I accidentally exhale too close for their comfort, causing the bees to scatter at me. The mesh veil stops them from a launching a full-blown raid on my face.

A creepy-crawly sensation sets in, not unlike what happens after learning someone has recently won their battle against scabies just after you've spent the night on their couch. Are they on me? Yes. Have they snuck through my duct-tape anklets? I hope not. The immediate urge to run kicks in but I eventually suppress it, remembering what I'd been told inside: Bees sting only to protect their hive and their honey.

We move on to the second hive, the Langstroth, the larger and more established of the two. Unstacking the boxes almost immediately causes a bee typhoon. A banana aroma fills the air, something O'Neil says he's smelled before and always figured it's some sort of alarm pheromone. He removes frames while Kearney pulls off slabs of comb heavy with honey, setting them aside in a baking pan. By this point I've almost forgotten about being covered in the bees, which were now even making laps around my camera's viewfinder. All of a sudden, it feels normal to have what I'd estimate to be at least 100 on me at any given time.

Tim O'Neil shows three weeks' worth of comb from
one of the hives.
Photo by Derrik Chinn


And then it happens—what I suppose I should have expected as inevitable from the moment duct tape was being wrapped around my ankles before heading out to greet 30,000 bees. I'm being stung.

The attack comes on my left wrist where the flesh is exposed beneath the glove's nylon mesh. The pain is slight at first. I wonder if it's even happening at all. But within seconds, the doubt smarts ever so poignantly. 

Kearney coaches me in removing the stinger, which she tells me to scrape out with my fingernail rather than pinching it. This prevents me from squeezing more of the bug's venom under my skin.

In the end, we all suffer stings. Kearney on her ankle, O'Neil on his thigh. Even their roommate, a mere bystander in this entire demonstration, takes a hit on the scalp from a kamikaze bee that snuck into the house. We dab our wounds with baking soda and vinegar and down a couple Benadryl. Kearney warns that I may have a Muppet hand come morning, but she says not to be alarmed unless I start vomiting or can't breathe. This is my initiation, I decide, the price I must pay. The bee is dead. I, however, am headed home with its liquid gold in a jar that, according to its label, ironically once contained Paula Deen mixed-fruit preserves.

At least the jar and I are better off.


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