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Monday, August 8, 2011

Millions of Bees Buzz in S.F. Backyards and Balconies

Posted By on Mon, Aug 8, 2011 at 10:10 AM

San Francisco is a gold mine -- not for the precious metal, though. We're talking about honey.

Since the 2007 media furor over mysterious honeybee deaths, when alarming numbers of North American honeybee colonies suffered colony collapse, urban beekeeping has taken off. In San Francisco today, there are an estimated 200 to 300 beekeepers, which means several million bees are buzzing around our city.

That statistic will divide readers into two groups: those who think, "Oh, that's cool!" and those who, like this writer, are fighting the urge to freak out and dive under their beds, with images of maddened bees swarming down Market Street coming to mind.

"That's just Hollywood," says Bryon Waibel, manager of the recently reopened beekeeping store Her Majesty's Secret Beekeeper. "When bees swarm, they're actually at their gentlest. They're leaving their hive and looking for a new home." This means that the bees have nothing to defend.

Not convinced? Waibel adds, "There's also a physiological reason not to be scared. The last thing they do before they swarm is fill up on honey. So it's actually difficult for them to arch their abdomen to sting anyone."

Okay -- that's semicomforting. But why would anyone want to keep bees in the first place?

TASTYBIT / FLICKR

"It's a wonderful way to connect with nature," says Philip Gerrie, owner of Noe Valley Bees. He owns 7 hives in two locations, which have 10,000 to 50,000 bees each, depending on the season. "It's perfect for people who love to garden and be outside, and it's in line with the whole movement of trying to produce something locally instead of getting it from across the world."

It's also economically sustainable, if not exactly profitable. This year, Gerrie's bees will give him 400 to 500 pounds of honey, which will cover the hives' maintenance costs.

The good news for eager new beekeepers is that San Francisco is bee paradise. "S.F. has a great climate for keeping bees, especially in the warmer areas like SOMA and the Mission," says Waibel. "But it's still doable in foggy neighborhoods."

Besides the gentle climate, S.F. is blessed with a year-round nectar flow. "There's a concentration of plants in a city landscape that you don't find in the country, where the bees would be in a big field with only one type of crop," explains Priscilla Morris, owner of Her Majesty's Secret Beekeeper. "In a city, there's always something in bloom."

In addition, there is no legal hassle -- beekeepers don't need permits in San Francisco. While there are no regulations or restrictions on location, Gerrie recommends having a deep yard and plenty of garden space, because "the bees tend to drift a bit, and it can be a problem if the adjoining homeowner keeps their windows open."

Sweeten the neighbors with some homemade honey - BROCKVICKY /FLICKR
  • brockvicky /flickr
  • Sweeten the neighbors with some homemade honey

No kidding. Morris advises new beekeepers to keep their neighbors well-informed, and use the opportunity to dispel misconceptions about bees. "A few jars of honey don't hurt, too," she says. "But it's of foremost importance to be a good and considerate neighbor."

For those of us who would rather just enjoy the sweet product, Gerrie recommends getting local honey. "Scientists have done studies on honey from the city versus rural honey, and honey from the city is purer, because nobody uses chemicals on their plants, which is more common in rural and suburban areas."

Unfortunately, the notion that eating local honey can alleviate allergies to pollen is probably an urban myth, as Gerrie notes on his website that the pollen honeybees collect is different from the pollen that causes hayfever.

And if you do run into a swarm of bees, try not to panic. "Go out and stand in the middle of it. It's an amazing sight," says Gerrie. That might be asking a bit much, but we can appreciate our local honeybees from a safe distance, at least, and from the dinner table, too.

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Caroline Chen

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