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.
Together 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.
We 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.
Feral 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!