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Making a home for bees by the freeway

Charlotte Silver

In a city that struggles to find enough space for housing, parking or children, a few dedicated people have found a luxurious, spacious and cheap home for bees.

On an empty tract of land in San Francisco’s Visitacion Valley neighborhood, Karen Peteros has set up a farm where she and a crew of volunteers are raising honey bees. But honey’s not all the farm’s about: Peteros hopes to give these bees a taste of California’s native plants and flowers as well.

I meet Karen Peteros at The Bee Farm on a Sunday afternoon. It’s on a plot of land on San Bruno Avenue, which runs parallel to Highway 101 and the Bay.

She’s already suited up and at work with two apprentices she’s mentoring. She throws me a bee-suit to put on while she puts her colony back together. “I don't want others to start robbing it,” Peteros says.

I slip on the white onesie she gives me and place the veiled head-cover over my headphones. After I thread the headphone wire through my sleeve I’m ready to enter the apiary.

The apiary occupies a corner of the plot and is surrounded by a horseshoe-shaped mound of mulch that helps keep the wind out. Inside there are bees everywhere: around 12 hives and thousands of bees in each one. One hive produces around 60 pounds of honey.

“For every little dribble of honey, it’s like exponential amounts of nectar that had to come in,” Peteros explains. “I mean honey is dehydrated nectar from flowers, so I always say when you’re eating honey you’re eating the essence of a flower.”

The Bee Farm is covered with flowers, but that’s not how it was when she found it. “We spent the first couple of months clearing it because it was like a garbage/weed lot essentially,” she says.

Peteros leased the spot from the media company, Clear Channel. They’ve got a billboard on the site. As long as passing motorists can see that billboard, Peteros can do whatever she wants on the ground.

“We only pay them a dollar a year, and we don’t even pay them that. We give them honey instead. Which is actually worth more than a dollar,” says Peteros.

And that’s just part of the deal Clear Channel gets, says Peteros. “We promised that we would take what was an eyesore and turn it into eye candy.”

Now it actually looks cozy: the smoker they use to calm the bees wafts sweet smelling smoke into the air. The hives are painted bright lavender, cool mint, and white. And there’s a huge variety of plants.

“We’ve got Yaro, we’ve got African blue basil that bees go crazy for, we’ve got cosmos, we’ve got a bunch of native plants that were donated from the Haight-Ashbury clinic,” says Peteros.

The Bee Farm’s goal is to nurture the region’s various bee populations. That means nurturing the plants that support them.

“We’re trying to use native plants that are grown here locally, so hopefully they’ll attract our native bees.”

Honey bees contribute about $20 billion a year to the US economy, largely by pollinating crops. But around the country, the honey bee population is dropping fast: over the last six years, close to 10 million North American beehives have perished. Peteros wants to fight that trend, and build a robust population of bees in San Francisco. “The whole purpose is to feed the bees, and they will come, hopefully,” she says.

And they are coming. Up close, each bee seems almost startlingly individual. As Peteros transfers them off of one frame into the box, a few baby bees fall to the ground. She gently picks them up by their heads—careful to avoid their stingers—and puts them back in the box.

She picks up a particularly fragile looking bee: “This bee was parasitized by the Varroa mite, see how it doesn’t have a wing? And so the colony was collapsing.”

Varroa mites carry bacterial and fungal disease and can destroy entire colonies. Some farmers use a fungicide to fight it--but the fungicide’s linked to a bee-killing disease.

“If you are going to be a decent beekeeper you’re going to need to understand the lifecycle of the honeybee and how to manage the impact of Varroa mites on the bees--whether you do it through integrative pest management or whether you’re going to go hard core chemicals. We don’t go that route, but that’s not to say others don’t,” explains Peteros.

Still, plenty of bees at The Bee Farm are in good health. The bees returning to their queendoms look like a traffic jam as they crowd around the small entrances of the hives, with chunks of pollen stuck to their tiny bodies.

In the winter, they live for just six weeks, Peteros says, “Because they literally work themselves to death."

When I meet Peteros' apprentice, Joshua De Leon, he’s examining his hive to determine how much honey to extract, and how much to leave in the colony for the winter.

“Some hives react differently to being opened than others. but you just train the hives,' he says. "They show you what they want. if you’re still long enough, you can just feel it you can see it.”

De Leon has been working with bees since he was a kid, and he loves it. 

“Right now is I have a mouthful of honey, it’s the best gum ever. I’ve never smelled anything quite as healthy, and was just enveloped in this golden aroma.”

But the peaceful haven has had some interruptions. In late 2013, Clear Channel informed Peteros that they wanted to convert part of the land into a parking lot. So they started scaling back. 

“We weren’t going to push back or anything. We were lucky to have this,” Peteros says.

Early this year, however, that changed --- the city told Clear Channel that it couldn’t actually build a parking lot on the site because of zoning. So for now at least, the Bee Farm will stay where it is.

“We’ve got lot of wildflower seeds that we’re going to toss over these berms, so hopefully the berms that surround the apiary will be a carpet of color come March and April,” says Peteros.

A garden full of flowers will make these bees very happy.

To listen to this story, please click on the audio player above. 

Crosscurrents Audio Academy