When Max Wong first "outed" herself to her neighbors, she wondered when the police would be knocking on her door. Until then, she had kept her passion a secret.
But Wong said most of her Mount Washington neighbors were simply puzzled. Beekeeping? Illegal? In Los Angeles?
"It's the yummiest way of breaking the law," said Wong, one of the backyard beekeepers who is pushing for Los Angeles to allow apiaries in residential zones. In a city so proud of its orange trees and urban greenery, "beekeeping should never have been illegal," she said.
Under Los Angeles codes, beekeeping isn't allowed in residential zones like her Mount Washington yard, according to city planning officials. Backyard beekeeping has nonetheless blossomed as Angelenos worried about honeybee health or devoted to urban farming have started tending hives at home. Now backyard beekeepers want Los Angeles to follow in the footsteps of New York and Santa Monica, spelling out rules to let people keep bees in residential neighborhoods.
If Los Angeles gives backyard beekeepers the stamp of approval, "they can come out of the closet, so to speak," said William Lewis, president of the California State Beekeepers Assn. "They won't need to fear that a neighbor will force them to move their hives."
The City Council took its first step Wednesday toward exploring the idea, asking staffers to draft a report. At a news conference before the meeting, Councilman Paul Koretz argued that urban beekeeping was especially needed in the face of colony collapse disorder, which has devastated agricultural hives that pollinate avocados, almonds and other crucial crops.
"If you care about blueberries," Councilman Mike Bonin added, "you care about this."
Not everyone was convinced that new rules were needed. Southern California beekeeper Dael Wilcox argued that backyard beekeeping wasn't actually illegal, just not spelled out in law, and that the city should keep it that way. So far, complaints about managed hives have been so rare that the city doesn't track them in their own category, Department of Building and Safety spokesman Luke Zamperini said.
Other beekeepers countered that regulations would get rid of any "gray area" and ensure that hives were tended safely. Santa Monica approved such rules three years ago, restricting backyard beekeepers to no more than two hives and regulating how and where the hives could be placed near property lines. New York set forth its own rules even earlier, much to the chagrin of locals who argue that Los Angeles should have led the way.
"We should at least keep up with New York City on things like this, if not surpass them!" said Arroyo Seco Neighborhood Council President Nina Zippay, whose group backs urban beekeeping.
Beekeeping seems to have boomed in recent years. Lewis said that when he started keeping bees in the Los Angeles area, fewer than a dozen people showed up at local beekeeping meetings. Last month the number was near 70, he said. Rob McFarland, co-founder of the Los Angeles beekeeping nonprofit HoneyLove, estimated that Los Angeles beekeepers number "somewhere in the thousands." Swelling interest in sustainability has driven the trend.
"If we can protect honeybees," McFarland said, "we can go a long way in protecting our ecosystems."
On his Del Rey rooftop, McFarland pried open a hive Tuesday to show a reporter rows of wooden frames coated with bees, moseying over honeycomb. He estimates as many as 30,000 bees call it home, but neighbors and bypassers would scarcely know it was there if he hadn't told them about it. In Santa Monica, police and city officials said backyard beekeeping hadn't caused any serious problems.
The idea still stirs up fears. City Council member Bernard Parks asked city staffers to make sure the report explains how hazards and potential health issues such as bee allergies would be addressed. Before the meeting, McFarland argued that beekeeping would actually diminish those threats, because people were less likely to be stung by a "managed colony" than by untended bees. Koretz and other backers also said that worries about aggressive Africanized bees, a concern raised by some biologists and critics, were overblown because such bees had long since interbred.
Experienced beekeepers know how to handle a hive that turns aggressive, but "the worry is if someone just doesn't pay attention," UCLA ecology professor Peter Nonacs said.
Besides exploring backyard beekeeping, the City Council also voted to instruct the Bureau of Street Services, which handles calls about unwanted hives, to promote alternatives to extermination such as relocating "nuisance" hives. It also threw its support behind a federal bill calling for certain pesticides to be suspended until they were proved not to harm bees and other pollinators.
"If we don't vote for it," Councilman Mitchell Englander joked before the unanimous vote, "it'll be a buzz kill."