by Sandra Barrera, published on May 20, 2011 - 04:16:23 PM PDT|
Max Wong was in her Mount Washington home when a neighbor, breathless with excitement, began pounding on the door.
"I was just at Home Depot, and there's a swarm of bees out front," he told her.
Like any bee rescuer and beekeeping advocate, Wong sprang into action. She reached for her protective gear -- veil, jacket and gloves -- and set off to go trap the swarm with help from her boyfriend and fellow beekeeper, Stephen Ratter.
The couple is part of what Wong calls "the honeybee underground."
In cities across the country, there's a grass-roots movement afoot to preserve bees, and it's all in response to the phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder.
Bees are abruptly disappearing from hives as documented in the new film "Vanishing of the Bees," narrated by Ellen Page, and nobody knows why.
But there are theories.
The documentary -- first seen at film festivals and arriving June 7 on video-on-demand and DVD -- explores several possibilities, including bloodsucking Varroa mites that weaken adult bees and their developing brood, and agricultural practices such as spraying pesticides and trucking in commercially bred bees from across state lines to pollinate crops.
"If the bloom stops, bees have no food to eat," Wong says. "They end up starving in the fields."
Not in her backyard.
Here, bees visit thousands of flowers within a 3-mile radius (in search of nectar for food and pollen for
honey, a small quantity of which is harvested by Wong) for the benefit of the hive and not big agriculture.
"This unsustainable agricultural landscape that we're finding ourselves amid is not going to go away," says Maryam Henein, one of the filmmakers behind the documentary.
"Unfortunately, these chemical companies are making gazillions of dollars at our expense," she said. "They're polluting our planet, they're polluting us, they're polluting bees and it's really up to us to raise awareness in order to put pressure, so that systemic pesticides are banned in order for the precautionary principle to be implemented."
Henein is referring to an environmental approach of acting to avoid the potential for serious or irreversible harm, despite scientific certainty.
"Until then, what we can do is shop at farmers markets, buy organic, grow our own food, keep bees," Henein adds.
That is, if you can. Santa Monica allows beekeeping in single-family residential areas, but elsewhere in Los Angeles County, it's legal under certain conditions only.
And it's too bad, says Wong, whose six hives in her double-size backyard are only legal because they're kept 30 feet from the neighbor's house.
"My favorite aspect of beekeeping is that it's very meditative," she says, echoing the way many beekeepers feel watching their hives.
And there are more beekeepers by the day. They even have their own club, of which Wong is a member. The 600-member Backwards Beekeepers promotes "organic, treatment-free" beekeeping using feral swarms captured from homes and businesses throughout the community.
Got a swarm? Call the club's Bee Rescue Hotline, at 213-373-1104, and someone will come out and move the hive for at most a small fee.
One of the club's co-founders is Kirk Anderson, a Silver Lake-based house painter by trade who's been beekeeping since the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s.
"I've always been married with kids so I could never afford to go back to the land," he says. "Beekeeping answered my farming impulse. So I bought my first package of bees from Montgomery Ward ... and I started from there."
These days, Anderson, who lives in an apartment, keeps 25 hives on other people's properties throughout L.A. County, from Altadena to Bel Air to Studio City.
He also teaches those new to beekeeping the ropes through a series of how-to videos at the club's website. A majority of those are professional women, he observes.
Wong -- a film producer who's at work on an educational Backwards Beekeepers film about urban beekeeping, with a grant from the Annenberg Foundation -- has been raising bees for two years.
She got her start with bees rescued from an outdoor speaker, a hot tub and the space between a brick facade and the interior wall of a home. More recently, she introduced the Home Depot bees to the mix, and they seem to be thriving.
No chemicals, no supplemental feeding required.
"But then I'm not standing in front of nature," she says.