Launch of a honey bartering business

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I asked my friend and fellow beekeeper Russell Bates to write about a new honey bartering concern he and his wife Amy started, called Feral Honey & Bee. They don't sell honey; they barter it for other goods from businesses in their Silverlake, Los Angeles neighborhood.

A Short History of Feral Honey & Bee

My wife Amy and I got interested in trying beekeeping in 2008. We looked at a few how-to books, but didn’t like the fact that they all told us we’d need to keep a cabinet full of chemicals on hand to treat the bees for various maladies. The books made beekeeping sound like an exercise of constant worrying: endless vigilance for pests and diseases that would attack the hives if given a chance, and mandatory counterattacks with miticides, antibiotics, and acids.

None of this sounded any fun at all, and we probably would have gone no further if we hadn’t met a longtime beekeeper in our neighborhood named Kirk Anderson, who was keeping hives all over Los Angeles and letting his bees care for themselves. What’s more, he was using local wild bees that he’d captured as swarms or rescued from locations where they weren’t welcome. He was clearly having a lot of success, and more importantly, a lot of fun. That got us interested.

201109151121-1Together with Kirk we founded Backwards Beekeepers to share information about chemical-free beekeeping and encourage people to try it for themselves using bees from their own area, not ordered through the mail. We apparently struck a nerve here in LA, because before long our meetings were thronged and our blog was drawing media attention.

Most people new to beekeeping are surprised to hear that cities are great places for bees to thrive. In fact, our environment here in Los Angeles is pretty much free of all the pesticides that commercial farmers douse their fields with and that end up inside the migratory bee hives the farmers hire to pollinate their crops. Bees in the city have a clean environment, a wide variety of blooming flowers, shrubs, and trees to feed on, and no stress from being trucked thousands of miles across the country as field workers. As Kirk says, it’s bee paradise.

Amy and I had never thought too much about what we’d to with the honey we collected from our hives; we wanted to give the bees plenty of time to build up stores and get well-established. But starting in 2009 we started finding lots of extra honey comb in our hives, and within the next year we had collected about 60 pounds of it.

201109151122We couldn’t believe how good the honey tasted. If the honey you’re used to eating comes in a plastic bear from the supermarket, good wild honey will blow your mind. We started sharing ours around and watching our friends get that OH MY GOD look in their eyes when they tried it. And an April harvest tastes very different from a June batch, because different flowers have been blooming in the neighborhood during those times. Local honey is like a census of your surrounding plant life.

We weren’t interested in starting a honey business, but we liked the idea of getting our honey out in the neighborhood and figured it would be a good conversation-starter about bees and the benefits of keeping them without chemicals.

In a nod to the beekeeping philosophy we’d adopted, we named ourselves Feral Honey & Bee. Our friends Ron Fleming and Brent Stickels of YYES Design worked up a label, and we approached a few places in our neighborhood and asked if they’d be interested in bartering for some local honey. It didn’t hurt that we brought samples along; the honey did the work for us.

Today Amy and I have four hives in our back yard in Silver Lake. We leave the bees to survive on their own, and every so often, when conditions are right, we collect a bit of what they’ve produced. Beekeeping isn’t all unicorns and rainbows: we’ve had our share of stings, and every hive’s temperament is different. But if you’re forearmed with some knowledge and a few tools, it’s a great low-maintenance way of taking a bit more responsibility for your food, improving your (and your neighbor’s) garden, and stoking out your friends with the occasional treat. Sharing honey around is a great way to connect with your neighborhood.

201109151124Feral Honey, when it’s available, shows up in jars at Village Baker & Cafe in Atwater Village, on the cheese plate at Bar Covell in Los Feliz, and in cocktails at Barbrix in Silver Lake. We don’t sell the honey ourselves, and I think that helps us appreciate it more. As upstate New York chemical-free beekeeper Sam Comfort says, “I don’t sell my honey -- it’s much too valuable. I give it away instead.”

Now that you've read the story, you can buy the T-shirt!

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    1. well it’s a drone… so perhaps it’s a victim of a particularly vicious hive ejection.  that is, following the point where the ladies drag the boys out of the hive to die; typically after the breeding season.   one is free to elaborate on the human parallels, or not…

  1. That was a very old and beat-up drone that I found walking in circles near one of the hives. Bees work themselves literally to death, and this guy was just about there. Drones are stingless, so I knew I could let him hang out on my left hand as long as I wanted while I shot the photo with the right.
    –Russell

  2. Once this guy kept trying to pressure me into a similar business arrangement and wouldn’t stop despite my repeated refusals. When I told him he was getting annoying he just replied “Honey badgerer don’t give a shit.”

  3. Are the bees that are collected from wild or feral swarms less likely to succumb to hive collapse? Somehow I am under the impression that “store-bought” bees are more susceptible.

    1. The bees from wild/feral swarms do not have problems with colony collapse disorder.  This is due to wild/feral bees getting to draw their own comb.  Commercial beekeepers have pre-drawn frames of comb larger than bees naturally make it, thus the bees grown in this comb are larger than they normally are.  This makes them dramatically more susceptible to mites/disease, thus the increased use of chemicals/pesticides which further weakens the bees.

    1. I think it would definitely work in SF…in fact people are already doing it. You may want to get in touch with these people to help you get started: http://www.sfbee.org/

      Good luck!
      -Amy

  4. The Jam roundel in the photograph is wrong. It should be blue on the outside with a red centre, based as it is on the RAF roundel.

  5. My father used to keep bees when I was a kid. Soon after I became old enough to appreciate it, though, some local blights hit, which wiped out not only our hobbiest colonies, but hit the professional pollination & honey business pretty hard, too. My sister developed an allergy to bee stings so we never rebuilt the hives.
     
    I remember there was some sort of treatment we would give the bees to prevent disease, but I don’t remember what it was, so I don’t know whether we could be considered “chemical free” or “organic” or not. I’ll have to ask him. For me, the distinction between ‘absolutely chemical free’ and ‘small amounts of chemicals that someone knows exactly what are’ is not important. After all, I happily take medication for my own health problems. But now I’m curious.
     
    Between the honey and the free maple syrup from my grandparents, I was completely spoiled by cheap, tasty natural sweeteners. I rarely find commercial honey that tastes like I remember. Honey flavor depends strongly on the local flowers, whether they be deliberately planted fields, or regionally-varying mixes of wildflowers. And decent stuff is so expensive…

  6. Is there a way ordinary citizens can join the bartering? I would gladly trade excellent homebrewed beer. (and I am local enough to actually make it feasible)

  7. Most people new to beekeeping are surprised to hear that cities are great places for bees to thrive. In fact, our environment here in Los Angeles…

    Man, both these folks and the Urban Homestead folks: “anyone can have huge gardens and keep bees and whatever in your urban city — we do it in LA all the time!”People: LA barely qualifies as urban!If you have a 500+ sq foot garden, like it looks like these folks do, you can hardly pretend that you’re a city-dweller. And even if you only have a 200 sq. foot garden, when the density of your city is only about 7000/sq. mile, your bees and chickens are going to be infinitely happier.I know, I know, people keep bees on New York city roofs. That is indeed “urban” bee keeping. But the density of most of LA is what we would consider a sparse suburb here in the northeast.(Ok, so maybe I’m just annoyed because I want bees too…)

    1. People: LA barely qualifies as urban!

      I suspect you could use to recalibrate your definition of ‘urban.’  Mid-rise-to-high-rise structures with wall-to-wall concrete and asphalt isn’t the only way to do ‘urban.’

      Many LA neighborhoods (including Silver Lake) started out as turn-of-the-(previous)-century streetcar suburbs, but have long since morphed into something else entirely: low-rise, polycentric, linear urbanism.  

      Think lines and nodes, not centers.

      There are a fair number of areas in LA and ‘greater LA’ that are indisputably urban by even the most hidebound traditional definition – and many more that qualify by any definition that tallies urban amenities and diversity of form, function and population rather than just how tall the buildings are.

      Easterners who think LA is all suburbia aren’t really paying attention. They’re just reciting well-worn stereotypes.

  8. Hey Russ & Amy, your honey sounds delish.  Too bad I don’t live in Silverlake any more… but now I live in the land of locavore (Eugene, OR) so homegrown honey is pretty easy to come by.  Do you ever trade long distance?

    -Janel

  9. I like the last quote about the honey’s value and giving it away. I feel the same way about my veggies. HTe only thing that brings me more jobs that eating them is giving them away ot friends, coworkers and neighbors.

  10. Now that their secret is out they’ll be getting a nice visit from the IRS, which wants its cut, cash or barter regardless.

  11. Wow, thanks. Maybe the answer would be to make the combs smaller. It might mean less honey per comb in a commercial sense, but the bees would be healthier.

  12. Small geographic nit:  “Silver Lake,” not “Silverlake.”  

    The neighborhood takes its name from Silver Lake, the Los Angeles city reservoir it wraps around, which, in turn, is named for Los Angeles City Councilman and Water Commissioner Herman Silver (1830-1913) .

    (Rather excessively detailed biography here.)

  13. I used to live near a wild beehive that lived in a hole in a great old oak tree in the rural hills west of Walnut Creek, CA. The bees were slightly smaller and a darker color than regular honeybees, and we always wondered what the honey tasted like but as far as I know, no one ever tried harvesting it, as the hole was about 10 feet up and quite narrow. The old paths that led to that spot have been eaten up by development; I wonder if that old hive is still there.

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