Bee Fans Try To Get Los Angeles To Allow Hives In Residential Areas
Rob and Chelsea McFarland are on a PR mission for bees. So far, they've gotten the support of 8 L.A. neighborhood councils and city Councilman Bill Rosendahl.
Rob and Chelsea McFarland are leading an effort to make beekeeping legal in Los Angeles. (Los Angeles Times)
"The sky was sort of darkened out," he recalled. "It was kind of a presence that I couldn't ignore."
McFarland, a social media entrepreneur and avid gardener, was intrigued by honeybees and aware that hives have been dying from a mysterious cause labeled colony collapse disorder.
"I knew enough about honeybees to know they were in real trouble," he said. "So the last thing that I wanted to go down in my own backyard, literally, was for these bees to be exterminated."
He left frantic messages on a hotline operated by Backwards Beekeepers, a Los Angeles club that sent a member to his house. The beekeeper cut a clump of bees about the size of two footballs out of the tree without wearing a protective suit, showing an enthralled McFarland that the swarm was docile.
"It totally captured my attention, and I began to obsess over it a little bit," he said.
McFarland and his wife, Chelsea, became interested in beekeeping but discovered that Los Angeles does not allow hives in residential zones. So, the McFarlands decided to launch an unusual grass-roots drive to change the city's law by first winning support from at least 10 of L.A.'s 95 neighborhood councils.
Now, almost a year and a half later, their devotion has won support from eight councils. And an enthusiastic city councilman has initiated a formal study, a first step that could bring L.A. on board with other bee-friendly cities, such as New York, Seattle, San Francisco and Santa Monica.
"We have to be clear that this environment that we live in is threatened, that bees are an essential part," said Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who boasts that he has two wild hives in his yard.
The McFarlands, with their own money and what they raised at a "yellow-tie" fundraiser, started a nonprofit organization called HoneyLove. ("Chelsea's always referred to me as 'honeylove,' " Rob explained.) With friends, family and allies, they host regular educational events across the city, such as honey tastings and mead-making. Rob, 32, who is lanky and a little laconic, and Chelsea, 30, radiant and effervescent, have devised a strategy that relies heavily on their infectious passion for bees.
"They're just unhindered enthusiasm and love for what they're doing, and how can you not love that?" said Kirk Anderson, a mentor to many L.A.-area beekeepers.
McFarland learned from beekeepers how to capture swarms and remove unwanted hives. He has been stung more times than he can count but recalls one time with wry humor: "I'd opened my veil to itch my nose real quick and the zipper snagged as I was closing it back up and right at that moment it was like Jedi bee shoots the gap right into my face and stings me right between the eyes," he said.
The McFarlands have set up a sanctuary for rescued bees on a hilltop in the Simi Valley. One weekend, they installed a new hive among a dozen brilliantly hued ones surrounded by blooming mustard. Rob, sheathed in a beekeeper's suit, watched the bees stream out to explore, hovering and circling tentatively.
"You figuring it out?" he asked gently.
Saving bees led the McFarlands to want to do more. Chelsea is a video editor who studied documentary filmmaking. Rob was working on a documentary on orangutans when they met. "Chelsea and I realized that we could utilize the skill set that we've acquired over the years in marketing and media," Rob said.
They have created a sprawling social media presence to promote bees. Besides a dot-org website, HoneyLove is on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Change.org, Tumbler, Pinterest, MeetUp, you name it.
They have devised an ingenious campaign that blends zany fun and clever bee shtick, slyly anthropomorphizing the fuzzy yellow-and-black insects into huggable cartoons. At events, Rob sometimes wears a bee suit or a yellow T-shirt, and Chelsea typically appears more flamboyantly attired, often in a bee-striped tutu. "It's pretty hard to ignore people when they are walking around in bee suits," Rob said.
Rob has drawn some of the distinctive images they use, including a stylized queen bee with a crown, while Chelsea is the source of much of their playful creativity. "I mean this in the most positive way. She's a drama queen," Rob said. "A drama queen bee?" Chelsea shot back.
The McFarlands first sought approval for residential beekeeping from their neighborhood council in Mar Vista, devising an approach that included a four-month feasibility study and extensive community outreach.