Andrew West may not be your typical beekeeper. A former computer industry executive, West had spent the majority of his life knee-deep in software. The seeds of change came after meeting his wife in 2005, a landscape architect who pushed him to rediscover the outdoors. Envisioning a more natural and sustainable world, West became fascinated with backyard beekeeping. Trading in the office for the outdoors, Lives Hives was founded out of this vision, a barter system that would change the direction of local beekeeping.
“I just wanted to give back somehow, I wanted to feel like I was doing something good for a change…that I was not only stopping the hurt, but helping to reverse it,” said West.
Over the past several years, beekeeping practices have begun to mirror our very own farming practices, from the use of antibiotics to electromagnetic radiation and long-distance transportation of beehives. Many commercial beekeepers will purchase bees that have been shipped thousands of miles from their place of origin. These “FedEx” bees are taken out of their natural habitat, mixed in with different hives, and shipped cross-country. The queen bee is put into a little cage, away from the worker bees. Because these bees are not locally acclimated, the success rate is about 75% at best when installing the package bees into a hive.
“Commercial agriculture is very harmful to bees – not only due to the loss of habit, but also the increase use of pesticides and monocropping. While we cannot completely control what the bees consume, we can make changes to our agricultural landscape,” said West.
Bees are great indicators of environmental health, forming the foundation for nearly a third of the food we eat. To maintain healthy bees, it needs to start local. West finds his bees through local sources, from friends and family to his associations with the Santa Barbara Beekeepers Association. Rather than huge concentrations of beehives in one place, he is building a community of distributed beehives all around Santa Barbara County. These backyard hives are permanent structures, allowing hive hosts to enjoy the experience of cultivating their own local honey.
“Part of what I want to do is educate people. As I start planting hives in people’s backyards around the county, I want to let people know what’s going on in the industry and that we need to make a change,” said West.
The change begins with a more natural hive. The Langstroth standardized beehive offers an artificial template for the bees, forcing them to build cells the same exact size. West’s method, the Top Bar hive, allows bees to build comb naturally, building cells of many different sizes. The bees control what they need and when they need it. When collecting bees for a safe new home, West looks for a swarm, a natural indicator that bees are running out of space in their present hive. In this docile state, bees are easier to capture and much less likely to sting. Nevertheless, West still likes to take precautions when it comes to bee stings, especially on those chance meetings with a cranky bee.
“I usually wear full protection, gloves, suit, the whole deal. Some beekeepers have this “ego” about it. The less protection they have, they think the better beekeepers they are. There is definitely a machismo factor about it. I don’t really care…I’m a dorky beekeeper and proud of it!” said West.
If you are interested in hosting a hive, you must own your own land. Furthermore, no one on site may be allergic to bees. Additionally, make sure you are not using pesticides in your garden. Raise awareness. Ask questions. And if you want honey and good pollination in your backyard, host a hive.
Please check out www.livehives.com for more details on hive hosting.
If you are interested in learning more about beekeeping, the Santa Barbara Beekeepers Association will be offering “Bee Keeping 101” this Saturday from 2:30-3:30 pm at Whole Foods on 3761 State Street. Check out their website at www.sbba.org/
(photo credits: Rachel Hommel)