The swarm of bees darkened the sky above Rob and Chelsea McFarland’s backyard before settling into a football-sized honeycomb on a tree branch.
Most people would find the sight terrifying. But the beeekeeping couple knew better than to panic.
“That’s actually when bees are at their least aggressive,” Rob said. “Swarms have nothing to protect. … [The bees] are just looking for a place to settle in.”
This is the kind of educational information about bees that Rob, together with wife Chelsea, work to deliver on a daily basis. Emphasizing the health benefits of honey and the benefits of beekeeping for gardeners, the Mar Vista couple behind the organization Honeylove is all about changing the way people think about honeybees.
This past year, the McFarlands have spearheaded a grassroots campaign to legalize backyard beekeeping in Los Angeles—with the sustainability and garden-focused community of Mar Vista as the testing ground.
The Del Rey Neighborhood Council on Aug. 11 voted unanimously to support a feasability study for an urban beekeeping program conducted by Honeylove.
Visitors to the Mar Vista Farmers' Market Green Committee tent this summer may have spotted Chelsea wearing a bee costume at the market's , gathering signatures on a petition. On a single day at the market, more than 500 people signed, said Green Committee co-chair Sherri Akers.
Those petition drives were the initial steps in an effort to add Los Angeles to a list of cities that have already legalized beekeeping, including New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Santa Monica.
The swarm that landed in the McFarlands' backyard last year added to their budding interest in the conservation and tending of honeybees. The couple had already been talking about bees for some time, having seen the documentary film The Vanishing of the Bees.
They had started following the Backwards Beekeepers blog, which includes videos from beekeeper-turned blogger Kirk Anderson. Rob joined the Backwards Beekeepers and began responding to calls to remove hives and homes from households and transplanting them to a farm in Simi Valley.
Preservation, rather than extermination, is the goal, Rob said.
Chelsea, meanwhile, was employing her social media skills to manage their blog. Their skills are complementary, with Rob serving as the hands-on beekeeper and Chelsea as the online organizer, Rob said.
And the two share a deep love of conservation. Chelsea edited a public service announcement Rob put together while working with orangutans in Borneo, which is how the couple met. Their work has also focused on the preservation of other primate species. But as they heard warnings of declining bee populations, they decided to shift their focus.
“It was like, why do we have to fly all the way to Indonesia to help the world?” Chelsea said. “We can do it right here in our backyard.”
There were immediate roadblocks, however. The McFarlands quickly discovered that residential beekeeping is outlawed in the city of Los Angeles. They saw their neighbors calling exterminators to solve bee problems.
Santa Monica in December, amending its municipal code to allow two hives per property. Los Angeles is more of a large-scale battle, Chelsea admitted. That's why the couple enlisted the help of Maritza Przekop, chair of the Mar Vista Community Council outreach committee. Przekop was on hand Aug. 11 to pitch the feasability study to the Del Rey Neighborhood Council.
Przekop was unaware backyard beekeeping was illegal in the city when Chelsea first approached her about the issue. She called a meeting in the spring to see how many people would be interested.
It was one of the most well-attended meetings in recent memory, Przekop said. She then matched the passions of Chelsea and Rob with the organizational skills of the council’s Green Committee, Akers told Patch.
“It isn’t going to happen overnight. We may just be putting the wheels in motion,” Akers said. “If nothing else, the education and outreach that will come out of it is huge.”
In May, the committee began a feasbility study—a period of education and outreach about the possibility of launching an urban beekeeping pilot program in Mar Vista. The program will be patterned after Santa Monica's, Przekop said.
The feasiblity study is expected to conclude in October. A survey recently went up on the Mar Vista Community Council’s website to gauge community interest in a pilot project.
That element is crucial, Przekop said.
“If it’s not a grassroots effort, it doesn’t go anywhere,” she said.
Safety and health problems form the crux of concerns about the idea— in particular, allergies, Rob said, but added that bee stings are life threatening in only a sliver of the population.
Chelsea herself is allergic to bees. She carries an EpiPen just to be safe, and to be prepared for others as well.
She and Rob also work to distinguish bees from other stinging insects. Wasps and yellow jackets sting repeatedly and don’t pollinate plants.
“We’re trying to give bees a better name,” Chelsea said, wearing flip-flops that revealed yellow-and-black striped toenail polish.
Honeylove hosted a screening Saturday of the film The Vanishing of the Bees at the Mar Vista Public Library to coincide with National Honeybee Awareness Day.