LOS ANGELES – For the past three years, Rob McFarland has kept a beehive filled with 25,000 bees on the roof of his house smack in the middle of Los Angeles.
The bees occupy some prime real estate — they even have a view of the Hollywood sign — but are illegal squatters in the trendy neighborhood of bars and eateries near Santa Monica.
On Feb. 12, the City Council voted unanimously to begin the process of granting bees like McFarland’s legal status in LA’s residential areas after a lengthy lobbying effort from bee lovers of all stripes.
“LA has an ideal climate and a ton for bees to forage on and is emerging as a real epicenter of urban beekeeping, but ironically, it’s not legal here,” said McFarland, who formed a group called HoneyLove.org to advocate for backyard beekeeping.
The vote comes against the backdrop of colony collapse disorder, a worrisome die-off of honeybees that has captured the attention of environmentalists and farmers worldwide. Cities from New York to Denver have in the past few years legalized urban beekeeping to encourage local agriculture and boost the health of the bee population.
The push, however, has alarmed some, who fear such an ordinance could bring more residents into direct contact with the Africanized, or “killer bees,” that are already thriving in walls, trees, electrical boxes and compost bins.
At the heart of the debate are a new breed of urban beekeepers who rescue those wild bees from extermination and relocate them to backyards — and almost all of these hives have some “killer bee” genes mixed in.
Critics of the practice fear a blanket legalization of backyard bees would allow these self-styled “ethical bee removal specialists” to expand their efforts with dangerous consequences.
“To just haul them (feral bees) out of the fences and stick them in the backyard, that’s not a good idea,” said Eric Mussen, a bee expert at the University of California, Davis.
Killer bees fully colonized Los Angeles County by 1999 and have almost completely pushed out the existing wild bee population. The bees can attack when an intruder gets closer than 100 feet (30 meters), can chase a person up to half a mile (800 meters) and will remain aggressive up to an hour after an attack, according to the county.
Those who work with feral bees insist that the concerns are overblown.
Feral bees in Los Angeles do have some African genes, they say, but the danger has been diluted from years of interbreeding with local, non-Africanized bees. The resulting hybrid hives can be managed easily with proper training, common sense about hive placement and good communication with neighbors.
Beekeepers like Askren estimate that 10 percent or fewer of the feral hives they relocate are so aggressive they must be destroyed.
“If we really had serious Africanized bees in LA, people would be chased down the street every day,” she said.
Africanized bees are also hardier than their European counterparts, which are used for commercial pollination, and could help counter colony collapse, said McFarland, the rooftop beekeeper. He and others who work with feral bees say unlike European bees, their hives don’t need any chemical treatments to keep them healthy.
“We need them. We need to preserve what’s clearly a superior bee. They’re the ones that are surviving,” he said. “My opinion is that they’re a blessing in disguise.”
Feral bees have also sweetened the pot for an emerging niche business: Some beekeepers-turned-entrepreneurs have recently started companies to remove unwanted wild hives, relocating them to backyard bee boxes and then harvesting rich honey that can sell for top prices to people who prefer local ingredients.