The Basics of Bees: An Interview with Urban Beekeepers Joy and Corey

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On the surface, Joy and Corey are just an unassuming couple, living in a downtown Los Angeles apartment.  But get them talking, and you'll discover that they're actually covert urban beekeepers. How (and why and for gosh sakes where) do they do it?  I interview them after the jump.

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1) How did you get started with beekeeping? How'd you know what to do?  Where'd you get the materials/bees?

Joy: Corey has a friend who was interested in beekeeping, and as Corey says, it was a safe fantasy since it seemed unlikely we could keep bees in downtown LA. I got into the elevator one day with the owner of our building, and on a whim asked him what he thought of keeping bees on the roof. To my surprise, he said he'd think about it. About a week later, Corey was in the elevator with the owner and he said "There's a swarm of bees 15 feet from the front door. If you can catch them, they're yours." So we scrambled, called our friend who had all the materials, did a lot of things wrong, and managed to capture the swarm. No stings, all good.  Luckily, that particular swarm was very kind to us. After we captured the swarm, we hightailed it to Los Angeles Honey Supply, which has everything!

Corey: It's like the bees found us! People freak out when they see a swarm (they're often the size of a basketball) but there's truly no need.  When bees are swarming, they are as docile as they'll ever be(e). They have no larvae or honey stores to protect and they're just looking for a new permanent home.  If you're lucky it'll be the one you set up for them — it's like you're offering them a fully furnished apartment and you've already loaded the Uhaul! And yes, a big shout out to Larry at LA Honey Supply.  He's got everything a beek could need and he's just a few miles east of the city.
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2) How much time/work does it take?

Corey: About 40 hours/year is what I've heard estimated, and that's just the first year.  As you progress, you realize that there's just no need to check the girls every week.  Bees have been bees a lot longer than we've been humans. As local guru Kirk Anderson says "let the bees be bees!"  Nowadays, I check them every month or so and only when I have a good reason.  Every time you "crack" the hive (they seal the hive with propolis and it makes a cracking sound when you open it) the bees have to spend energy resealing the hive and recovering from your intrusion.
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3) What's the best part?  What's the worst part?

Joy: For me, the best part is the simple fact of it. We keep bees. Well, that's really a misnomer — we host bees. I love that we're even a small part of fortifying the bee population. Aaaaaaaand there's the honey. YUM. The worst part is when something goes wrong in the hive. You can't help but feel responsible. Nature's gonna do, but still. 

Corey: The best part? Well yeah, the honey is just incredible. But as someone with a curious nature, I love seeing what these amazing creatures have been up to since I last checked them.  I often have trouble sleeping the night before — it's like xmas eve. The worst part? Completely agree with Joy on how personally you take it when things go south.  I had a couple of hives take off because of a wax moth infestation. It's devastating.  Of course, I count myself lucky that as a hobby urban beekeeper we've had no losses to CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder).  This last year was the worst ever for commercial beekeepers and it's a huge, looming problem.  Bees are very fragile organisms and are viewed as the canary in the coal-mine.  Meanwhile, from all I've heard and read, the major agriculture businesses refuse to take any responsibility. It's terrible. 
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4) Tell me about the honey. How do you harvest it?  Is it different at different times of year?

Joy: Ah, the honey. Different every time we harvest. Our first harvest, the honey was the color of molasses. At our most recent harvest, it was amber-gold. One harvest tasted like raisins!

Corey: We're big fans of letting the bees build their own wax foundations on the frames (thanks again to Kirk Anderson). This means that when we harvest (a couple of times a year) we're able to simply cut the honey filled frames into a bucket, mash it up and strain it through cheesecloth. Couldn't be simpler and couldn't be tastier!
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5) Anything else?

Joy: I highly encourage anyone who's interested to take the plunge. Depending on where you live there will be certain things to watch out for (neighbors, etc..) but it's a relatively low start-up cost, and the rewards are immeasurable.

Corey: If you have 15 square feet you can do this. It's funny, but "Beekeeping for Dummies" was the only book I looked at before starting, and it's about all you need.  Of course like anything, it can be as complicated and as expensive as you allow it to be, but again, the bees know what they're doing. 

Thanks, Joy and Corey! 

(Images: Joy Osmanski)