Bees on the Brain

Honey, the Environmental Protection Agency is failing you.

Hilary Kearney, in her bee suit, inspects a section of backyard beehive.
  • Hilary Kearney, in her bee suit, inspects a section of backyard beehive.

Hilary Kearney reminds me of a modern Joni Mitchell. She wears her stick-straight, shoulder-length, blond hair in a side-swept part. When I first met Hilary, she was barefoot and standing in her kitchen. Minutes earlier, I was greeted by her boyfriend on the front porch of their Bankers Hill two-story Victorian rental. He was sitting among a hodge-podge of miscellaneous chairs and potted plants, dark-haired and thin with scruffy facial hair.

I followed him through the front door and into the kitchen where their roommate, a girl with messy hair, fried eggs and bacon in a pan. Hilary met us there, wearing cotton floral shorts with a lacy beige top. Freckles speckle the bridge of her nose and spill out across her cheeks. She doesn’t shake my hand. She nods hello. She seems preoccupied. She has the expression of someone whose mind is filled with a million thoughts.

Hilary’s boyfriend is getting ready to leave. He’s off to check one of the six beehives Hilary hosts in San Diego County.

Hilary Kearney is the woman behind Girl Next Door Honey. Apart from selling and bottling her own honey, she teaches beekeeping courses, hosts beehives in people’s yards, and offers bee-removal services.

“My business slogan is ‘Pollinating hearts and minds,’” Hilary tells me. We are sitting outside, she in a faded white wicker chair and I across from her sitting in a small spot of shade.

In order to understand Hilary and her mission to save the bees, we need to start at the beginning.

While attending UC Santa Cruz, Hilary’s boyfriend (the one I met on the front porch) had a list taped to his wall. On the list were things he intended to do before he died.

Kearney bought a book on beekeeping for her boyfriend, started reading it, and “got sucked in.”

Kearney bought a book on beekeeping for her boyfriend, started reading it, and “got sucked in.”

“It had all this random stuff [such as] beekeeping and firefighting. It wasn’t anything he was going to do soon; they were goals for his abstract future. When I saw it, I thought, Maybe I’ll get him a beekeeping book for his birthday. So I did. I started reading it. I got sucked in. I don’t even know if he read it,” she tells me, smiling at the memory.

After graduating from college, Hilary moved back down to San Diego — Clairemont, specifically, her hometown. She moved in with her dad. She still had honey bees on the brain.

“I started researching bees. They are so fascinating when you start reading all the details about the bees themselves. It wasn’t really about, ‘The bees are dying! We have to save them!’ In 2010, that wasn’t as prominent in the media. For me, it was more a love affair with the bees themselves. One colony can start with 20,000 bees and get as big as 100,000 bees. And the worker bees — they are all female. I sometimes make sexist jokes about male bees, drones, during my classes; they are lazy and sit around in the hive watching TV. The worker bees actually kick the male bees out because they are a drain on resources. They are there to mate with the queen. Worker bees live up to 42 days. The queen bee can live years; some people say she can live seven to ten years. I just think it’s so magical that this insect, this tiny insect, can live ten years. Isn’t that insane? That’s some magic.”

Hilary’s dad had one of those traditional canyon-style Clairemont yards.

“I thought, I could put a hive down there and no one would even know. I started researching it a lot. I went on [beekeeping] forums. I watched videos. I got really into it. I found free plans online to build a hive. I asked my dad if he could build it. He said, ‘Yeah,’” Hilary recalls.

All she needed were the bees. Hilary placed an ad on Craigslist offering to remove an established hive free of charge. Days later, a couple in Ocean Beach called her. They had a swarm of bees that just moved in to their shed.

“I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll come get it!’”

Hilary didn’t have a beekeeping suit so she improvised. She piled on three sweatshirts and three pairs of pants. She took a pair of garden gloves and duct-taped them to her wrists. She duct-taped her socks to her ankles. She swept her hair up in a beanie.

“Before I left, I told my dad that I was going to get bees tonight, and he was, like, ‘WHAT DO YOU MEAN?! I’m coming with you.’” Hilary remembers.

Her dad fished a welding mask out of the garage and wrapped a towel around his head before the pair headed to O.B.

I imagine they were a sight to behold when they rang the bell of the Ocean Beach couple’s home.

“When we got there, the couple was, like, ‘What!? You don’t have bee suits?’ We were, like, ‘No, it’s fine,’ and they were, like, ‘Have you ever done this before?’ and, I was, like, ‘No, I watched a YouTube video.’ They were horrified, but they couldn’t look away; it was like a bad train wreck. The wife went inside and the husband stuck around. He wanted to help.”

Despite being underprepared, Hilary and her dad managed to successfully remove the bees and safely secure them in the hive back in Clairemont.

“Turns out they didn’t have a queen, so they failed over the next couple of months. I didn’t realize what was happening because I was new. That’s why I teach my beekeeping class with so much passion. I get to tell everyone what I did wrong and save people from the mistakes I made. I was lucky to go so long without a suit and not get into trouble. I tell my students now, ‘At least have a headpiece and carry an epi-pen.’”

It took Hilary a few tries before getting the bee-removal thing down.

Through laughter she tells a similar tale.

“I got a call from an elderly lady living in Julian. She told me that she had an aviary that had three nesting owl boxes. The sides had fallen off and bees had gotten in. There were beehives in each box. I thought that sounded great because they were already established hives doing well. It’s not a swarm. I can just take these boxes and transfer them when we get home. My first mistake is that I get there late and it’s already starting to get dark. We didn’t have suits. I thought, No big deal. We will just seal up the boxes. I assumed that they would be well made but they were old and had cracks. As soon as we closed up one entrance, they would start flying out another entrance. They were aggressive. It was like a horror movie! It was a dark, windy shed, basically in the desert. I’m in there with my boyfriend and this woman I don’t even know. She’s older and I’m worried about her. There was this moment where my boyfriend was closing up the hive and I started to realize that the bees were all flying. It was dark, so I couldn’t tell how many there were. You don’t want to have flashlight because they are drawn to the light. I hear the elderly lady say, ‘Ow!’ so I said, ‘Get out! We all need to get out!’ We ran. Later, we managed to get two of [the nesting owl boxes] closed up. That was the stupidest thing I did without a suit. I think it was after that I said, ‘I need to get a suit.’”

Not long after, Hilary became known around town as the bee girl.

“People found out I was beekeeping and they would say, ‘So and so needs a bee rescue,’ and I became very busy trying to save as many bees as possible. I immediately became this bee activist. It was a little bit weird. At first it was illegal, and I was trying to keep it this big secret that I had backyard bees. That was 2010.”

It wasn’t until January 2012 that the San Diego City Council would legalize backyard beekeeping. The current beekeeping ordinance in San Diego requires beekeepers of multiple hives to keep their hives 600 feet away from other homes and businesses and 100 feet back from public roads. An apiary of one or two hives must be located 15 feet from the property line, 20 feet from the public right-of-way, and outside of any and all setbacks.

Dwindling bee populations in California (and the nation) have prompted officials to take a second look at zoning laws that govern beekeeping and (in most cases) disallow it in urban and suburban settings. There is now an ominous term for the reduction in bee numbers: colony collapse disorder, which dictionary.com defines as “A pathological condition affecting a large number of honey bee colonies, in which various stresses may lead to the abrupt disappearance of worker bees from the hive, leaving only the queen and newly hatched bees behind and thus causing the colony to stop functioning.”

On October 9, 2013, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors discussed the plausibility of amending the county’s current beekeeping zoning laws in unincorporated areas. The group unanimously voted to consider the idea. There has been no word yet on when those amendments will be made.

A beekeeper in El Cajon who’s also a member of the beekeeping society (who asked to remain anonymous) told me over the phone, “The regulations are ridiculous. The county is making it virtually impossible to keep bees. I have hives but they certainly aren’t legal.”

At the October 9 San Diego County supervisors meeting Dianne Jacob said, “San Diego County has about 1.5 million hives that are used to pollinate almond, avocado, broccoli, onion, fruit, and seed crops across California. However, declining bee populations in California have prompted municipalities and members of beekeeping organizations to promote beekeeping in urban and rural areas. European honey bees play an important role in the $5.1 billion San Diego agricultural industry, and beekeeping is another way to further the county’s efforts to increase agricultural tourism [and] agricultural production,” Jacob said. “And while we’re improving the farming economy, we’re also helping property owners to use their property to their advantage.’’

Since the 2012 zoning changes, Hilary has been able to teach more classes and has begun hosting hives around San Diego.

“I started getting a sense of urgency, at least a strong desire to teach classes because of the death of bees. Most people know nothing at all about bees. They don’t know the difference between a bee and a wasp. That’s pretty incredible, considering our dependency on bees is huge. One in every three bites of food we eat is pollinated by bees.”

According to United States Department of Agriculture estimates, one-third of all food and beverages consumed in the United States are dependent on pollination. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 207 billion dollars annually — 71 percent of the world’s most widely consumed crops — are pollinated by bees. A study conducted on managed honey-bee colonies done by the United States Department of Agriculture found that bee colonies in the United States fell by 31.1 percent in the October 2012–April 2013 period. That’s more than triple the losses that used to be the norm in beekeeping prior to 2005.

Since 2006, the Bee Informed Partnership has documented bee losses in the range of 21.9 to 36 percent. In 2012, beekeepers in Montana and South Dakota reported a loss of 40 to 50 percent of their hives. In Maryland, nearly 60 percent of managed hives didn’t make it through the winter.

Meanwhile, Hilary continues to promote her cause in San Diego County.

“I joined a garden meet-up group online. The woman running the group reached out to me and asked if I could teach a class on beekeeping. I taught my first class in my dad’s living room in Clairemont. Fifteen people signed up, only four people came. The next month I did another one. It didn’t change; 15 people said they were coming, people were on the waiting list, only four people came. I started charging and everyone showed up. I started once a month teaching this class. I advertised on Craigslist. Shortly after that, maybe six months, I met someone at a meeting that was starting his own company — the San Diego Sustainable Living Institute. He approached me and asked if I would teach bee classes through him. I did that because the meet-up thing wasn’t really working. We continued to teach out of various people’s living rooms but now I have a base at Tecolote Canyon [Nature Center in Bay Park].”

Hilary’s classes opened up a broader scope for her honey-bee advocacy. She teaches Introduction to Beekeeping, Beekeeping 201 — Beginning Hive Inspection — and a Bee Hive Relocation workshop. Instead of only receiving referrals from her friends and family saying, “I know a bee girl,” people from her classes began referring their friends and neighbors. Now, Hilary receives emails every day from someone who needs help with bees.

“What’s so awesome about the backyard beekeeping movement is that you are putting people out there and arming them with knowledge about bees. Then they go out as little warriors and tell everyone about bees, but also it’s about getting people not to use pesticides. My last class I had a teenager that took my class. This kid was very intelligent. He said, ‘I live next to a public park and they probably use pesticides. Is that going to hurt my bees?’ I said, ‘Absolutely. You know what you should do, go over there and talk to the maintenance crew and find out what they use and find out if you can get them to stop or use something else. You’re young. People will listen to you. They will be impressed that you care.’ I get these [students] who go back to their neighborhoods and talk to their neighbors about not using pesticides.”

Why no pesticides? Hilary explains, “Neonicotinoid pesticides are bred into plants’ genetics. It results in a systematic poisoning of the life cycle. The pesticides are in a plant’s vascular system, which means they are in the leaves, roots, pollen, and nectar. It’s killing pollinators and earthworms.”

Neonicotinoid was placed on a two-year ban by the European Union in April 2012. Despite laboratory studies linking neonicotinoids to bee die-offs, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency have yet to follow the European Union’s lead.

In March 2012, environmental and consumer organizations, along with beekeepers, filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to protect honey bees and other pollinators from neonicotinoids. The agency intends to issue a review of pesticides laden with neonicotinoids in order to further study their effect on the life of bees. But, that review will not be completed until 2018.

In Bankers Hill, I follow Hilary into her backyard. She shimmies into a white bee suit and places a pair of dark green Hunter galoshes on her feet. She looks like a backyard astronaut.

“I must look like an alien to [the bees],” she says while handing me a stainless-steel bee smoker, and asks me to continually press a button that releases puffs of frothy smoke. The smoker is used to diminish the defensive response of honey bees.

“The smoke makes them very docile,” Hilary tells me as she climbs up on the roof of her garage.

She is surrounded on all sides by homes.

“Do your neighbors mind that you have a hive up here?” I ask.

“The guy that lives over there is really interested in it. I’ve been told that the woman over here doesn’t like it. She’s pregnant and scared.” Hilary pauses. “But she’s never talked to me about it. She has nothing to be afraid of,” and with that Hilary pulls out a honeycomb. A few of the bees’ entire bodies are inside the comb. Their little rumps stick out.

Hilary laughs at the sight, “They think their hive is on fire. They do what we do: they take what’s most important to them. They are gorging on honey so they can take it with them.”

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