Beees are in danger; we all know this. The USDA estimates our current bee population is at a mere third of its peak value of 5.5 million hives, circa 1950. There has been a 30% decline in the last decade alone.
Commercial demand for pollinators continuously increases. But constantly moving bees around just stresses them further and spreads disease.
Beekeepers have been predicting catastrophe for decades. Severe and constant drought, foreign parasites (varroa mite) and systemic pesticides have wreaked havoc on these crucial pollinators.
Here in San Diego, one beekeeper has had enough. Hilary Kearney, founder of Girl Next Door Honey, is (literally) standing on the rooftops and (figuratively) screaming out to everyone that it needs to stop.
Love at first flight Kearney says she was called to beekeeping, "a classic girl-meets-bee story." Her love is reciprocated; when we first meet, she has to stop to chase a few bees out of her hatchback. "If I have my window down at a stoplight, they try to fly in," she says. I'm not sure she's joking.
Girl Next Door Honey is Kearney's vehicle to pursue her deep love of bees. She started out relocating and housing wild swarms and hives. When her apiary outgrew her yard, she started a Host-a-Hive program; installing and maintaining hives in other people's backyards.
It's a brilliant business venture. She is crowd-sourcing her honey production. The bees have a safe place to live. The homeowner gets to help save bees, sees improved pollination and garden health and has access to deep discounts on exceptional honey. Everybody wins. Currently she manages close to 40 hives in San Diego, most of them tucked away in backyard gardens or cleverly concealed on rooftops.
Kearney employs treatment-free beekeeping. Her bees are free to build natural comb. She never applies chemicals, antibiotics or artificial feed. As much as possible, the bees are left to their own devices. As a reward, her bees make some of the finest honey available. She describes it as, "real, raw, tasty and from your own backyard." She has a constant waiting list of buyers, but supply is perpetually low. Fighting the good fight "We used to get 200 pounds of honey from a single hive. Now it's more like 20, or 50 if you're lucky. You'd think backyard hives would be productive—everyone has irrigation. But there are pesticides everywhere now."
Kearney refers to the growing use of neonicotinoids: systemic pesticides designed to absorb into the plant tissue for constant "protection." They were originally touted as safer for bees, since they could be dispensed to the seeds, soil and foliage (rather than during bloom). But studies have shown they accumulate in the soil and are secreted with flower nectar.
So-called "neonics" can cause neurological shock and disorient bees. Kearney suffers regular pesticides losses in all her hives. At best it's a few bees buzzing in circles on the ground. At worst it can wipe out an entire hive. She stands next to what had been her best hive and points out a mat of dead bees.
"This hive was so gentle and super productive. The pesticide didn't wipe them out, but they're probably not strong enough to make it through winter."
The irony is: People trying to help bees might actually be hurting them. Many plants from big-box stores come pre-treated with systemic pesticides.
Whenever Kearney installs a Host-a-Hive, she canvasses the neighborhood—begging people not to buy treated plants and not to spray. "Backyard gardeners basically never need to use pesticides. If you have a problem, it's most likely in your soil. When plants are weak they get infested. Try some organic fertilizer instead. Pesticides are treating the symptom, not the disease."
In extreme cases, she asks one simple thing: "Please, just don't spray plants that are in bloom." That's a sure way to kill the bees, no matter what pesticide you use.
Kearney spends a lot of time teaching people about bees. She is the consulting beekeeper at Suzie's Farm Camps and the San Diego Zoo. She offers regular beekeeping classes to San Diegans, at all levels. And she recently began hosting Hive Tours, for people just curious to see inside a working beehive.
Kearney's background is in art; she puts her talents to use designing anti-pesticide door hangers and informative flyers along with her labels and website. She plans to create new and exciting ways for people to learn about bees.
"I want to build a scaled-up hive model that people can play with, then maybe look at a real one behind glass."
As humans, we might find it uncomfortable to contemplate our dependence on other creatures: particularly ones so small. But we need bees. And right now they need people like Kearney.
For live bee removal, Host-a-Hive, beekeeping classes or other bee questions, visit the website or Facebook.