Needless to say, bees have not held a place of great esteem in my life. I’ve always had some vague understanding that bees are an essential component of flower, fruit, and vegetable production, and, of course, that they themselves produce a delicious by-product, honey. But bees were more of a nuisance to me than anything – stinging little buggers that left me swatting frantically at their approach.
Yet when news of the honeybee crisis (and with it a rise in urban beekeeping) began surfacing on my radar, I found myself strangely intrigued. I’d always imagined that beekeeping was something one did on a farm, or, say, another large patch of land with no one living within a ten-mile radius. Having hundreds and hundreds of potentially lethal insects semi-contained in close proximity to unsuspecting neighbors seemed risky and dangerous, if not slightly insane.
In fact, it turns out that there are beehives all over the city – in parks, on porches, on rooftops, and probably in one of your neighbor’s yards right now.
Homesteading is hot right now – in addition to jam-making, canning, and back-porch vegetable gardening – I’ve heard reports of chickens and goats in Glen Park and Diamond Heights backyards. So it makes sense that there's been a surge in urban beekeeping over the past few years. There are around 450 beekeepers in the city now, up from 25 just a few years ago.
Though it may seem counterintuitive due to the scarcity of space, San Francisco is actually the perfect place to raise and keep bees. First, it’s legal – unlike many counties in the U.S. As long as your bees don’t create a public nuisance, you’re free to have a hive wherever you want it. Second, bees thrive in our mild climate – especially in warmer areas like the Mission, Glen Park, and Noe Valley. Third, there’s a market for the product. Food-obsessed San Franciscans are definitely more apt to throw down $10–$20 for a jar of local honey (which, by the way, puts the honey bear to shame.)
Still, the reality of being responsible for hundreds of bees seems daunting. How does one even get bees, anyway? And where does one get those amazing beekeeping outfits? And what if the bees freak out and swarm an innocent bystander?
Clearly, it’s time to talk to the pros.
If there’s anyone who knows about beekeeping in San Francisco, it’s Cameo Wood, the owner of the nation’s only urban beekeeping store, Her Majesty's Secret Beekeeper. Cameo also runs the San Francisco Urban Beekeeping Group, which has monthly meetups at Borderlands Café. I head over there one evening to join my fellow “beeks” in conversation about all things bees. Cameo sits at the head of the table and presides over the informal meeting, in which around 25 beeks, ranging from newbie to professional, discuss topics such as starting a hive, where to get bees, bee diseases, and – yikes – dealing with swarms.
Perusing the honey shelf, I notice that the local honeys are divided by neighborhood –Glen Park honey, Mission Dolores honey, and Noe Valley honey. I write down the contact info from the labels and send off a few emails the next day. I’m ready to see some hives.
After the meeting, I accompany Cameo to HMS Beekeeper so she can give one of the beeks some new equipment. Walking into the store, I am blown away by the lovely smell. It is sweet, grassy, and earthy. It is the smell of pure honey. Jars of the stuff, both local and imported, line the shelves, along with candles, lotions, and soaps. On the other side of the shop sit various wooden hives, books, tools, and – best of all –beekeeping suits.
A few weeks later, I huff and puff my way up 26th Street to Diamond to visit Noe Valley Apiaries, a one-man outfit run by longtime beekeeper and former president of the San Francisco Beekeepers Association, Philip Gerrie. It is a beautiful spring day: The flowers are in full bloom, the wind is blowing softly, and the bees are buzzing gently. Philip ties a protective veil on my head and lights a smoker, a tool that blows smoke into the hives and calms the bees. He leads me up a small path into his other lot. There, toward the back fence, are the hives.
I freeze in my tracks. There are thousands of bees buzzing around each of the five hives. I stare at them warily for what seems like an hour. A blue jay suddenly lands on the tree branch above and causes me to jump several inches off the ground.
“Relax,” says Philip. “It’s just a bird.”
Slowly, I approach the hives. Philip opens the cover of one and blows smoke into it. “They think there’s a fire in their house, so they get distracted,” he explains. Gingerly, he lifts up a frame to inspect the bees.
The worker bees are busily taking care of the queen bee’s brood and delivering pollen that eventually gets condensed into honey. I can see teeny tiny larvae (baby bees) in the cells when I hold a frame up to the sunlight – and where the bees have started to create wax. In spite of my fear, I am completely fascinated by the perfect system the bees have created for their survival. It’s all about making sure the queen has the best environment possible to lay eggs and create more bees.
I look down and notice a bee making its way up my leg. I take deep breaths and try to remind myself what Philip has told me about bees: that making a sudden, jerky move (like swatting) is actually the worst thing you can do. To a bee, you’re really just a surface to land on. Comforting, I guess, though Philip gets stung soon after he says this.
We continue to inspect the hives. Each has eight frames and all must be checked to ensure things are running smoothly – there should be no trace of mites or other diseases, the broods should be filling up the cells, and, most importantly, there should be no sign of an imminent swarm. Philip lets me hold some of the frames while he inspects them, and I try not to think about the proximity of about 200 bees to my bare hands.
The whole process takes about an hour, and I notice that I have grown quite calm. The constant hum of the bees has put me into a sort of meditative trance. After we are done with the inspection, I buy a jar of Noe Valley Apiary honey and practically float back down 26th Street, taking special care to notice all the flowers and trees (and the birds and the … well, you know.)
Emboldened, I decide to take a Beginning Beekeeping class at HMS Beekeeper. Taught by Karen Peteros, another former president of the SF Beekeepers Association, the class covers all the basics – equipment, resources, considerations – that you need to start a hive. We learn where to put a hive: in your backyard, a friend’s backyard, or a stranger’s backyard, with permission. A rooftop would also work, or you could put an ad on Craigslist to find a location. Karen explains that what bees need in order to thrive is sun, water, and protection from wind and nocturnal critters like skunks. She also discusses the cost of starting a bee operation (around $500), among other topics. The question of transparency comes up. Should you tell your neighbors, or your landlord? It’s a touchy subject for sure, and really depends on the situation. For example, an absentee landlord might not have to know, especially if all of your neighbors were fine with it. One of my classmates suggests rather than asking, “How do you feel about bees?” ask, “How do you feel about honey?”
Karen stresses that urban beekeepers should consider themselves experts, ambassadors, and advocates of bees. “There is so much misinformation and fear of bees, that it’s your responsibility to learn as much as you can, so that you can educate others,” she says. “Plus, the more you know, the more you’ll be able to deal if something goes wrong.”
After the class, Karen mentions that she has to go on an emergency swarm removal mission in the neighborhood. Naturally, I jump at the opportunity. She says she’ll box it up and bring it back for me to look at. Yes! Fifteen minutes later, she honks her horn and gestures to me to come outside.
“Do you have the swarm?” I ask, excitedly.
“No. They weren’t there when I got there.” She opens the door. “Get in.”
“Where are we going?”
“To my hives.”
Karen’s apiary is nestled up on a hill in the back of her Glen Park home. She zips me into a full-coverage beekeeping suit (unlike the men, she says, who are “cowboys” and don’t believe in full-coverage, women feel more comfortable being covered up) and we head into the backyard.
Like I did with Philip, I follow Karen as she does her inspections. I witness a dramatic attempted murder of a new queen that Karen’s tried to introduce to a hive, and a “hot” hive, full of angry bees that are too crowded and need redistribution. It’s too early in the season to get the honey, which is usually harvested in late summer/early fall via a machine called an extractor. Amazingly, one hive can typically yield up to 60 pounds of honey. Just think of the holiday gift potential!
After the inspections are done, I buy a jar of Glen Park honey and head home to have a taste test. Noe Valley tastes lighter and less sweet; Glen Park tastes richer and sugary. I eat them both with French blue cheese and sigh contentedly. It’s official: I’m buzzed.
There are many ways to start an urban beehive, but first join a beekeeping organization. The San Francisco Beekeepers Association, the San Francisco Urban Beekeeping Group, and the San Francisco Beekeepers Association Yahoo! group are all excellent resources for information, and also serve as mentors and guides. Once you have a basic understanding of what you’ll need, find your space, and then head over to Her Majesty's Secret Beekeeper for books, tools, and supplies. Lastly, get your bees! You can do that at HMS Beekeeper, or through a local beekeeper.