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Rescuers try to save bees from devastation

By John Torigoe, CNN
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Food: 'Backwards' beekeepers
  • Backwards Beekeepers rescues bees in the Los Angeles area
  • Many hives are losing their worker bees
  • Bees pollinate about one-third of the world's crops

El Monte, California (CNN) -- Early morning chill seeps into the Nghe family's front yard. It's an oasis of fruit trees where a bee swarm the size of a football -- some 10,000 bees -- is huddled for warmth in the branches of a kumquat tree.

They're about to get a rude wake-up call.

Backwards Beekeeper Roberta Kato dons a white bee jacket, veil, and worn gloves with gaffer's tape over the fingertips. She grips a branch just above the swarm, looks over her shoulder at the father, Thanh; daughter, Lisa; and sons, Jimmy and Dustin.

"If they start coming, walk away OK?" she says.

Kato, a diminutive fourth generation Japanese-American, with a soft, lyrical voice gives the branch a startling and assertive yank.

The swarm comes alive. A fist-sized ball of honey bees drops straight to the ground while a larger cluster falls onto a 'nuc' box -- a wooden ''nucleus" box lined with a half-dozen frames that Kato has placed underneath the swarm.

Kato delivers an even more aggressive series of yanks. The remaining swarm comes alive with a frightening buzzing noise that crawls into the senses.

These aren't the feared Africanized "killer bees." They are "apis mellifera", the Western or European honeybee.

Just watching Kato work has alleviated the Nghe family's anxiety.

"I called the city (of El Monte)," says 23-year-old Lish Nghe. "The city referred me to an exterminator. My dad got really angry because he did not want to exterminate the bees. So I did my research online and it said the bees are endangered and a lot of beekeepers are looking to save the bees and have a home for them so that's how I found Backwards Beekeepers."

We try to spread the word, you don't have to treat bees. You don't have to use chemicals to keep them healthy to allow them to survive.
--Kirk Anderson, Backwards Beekeepers

Kato, a pediatric pulmonologist with a children's hospital in Los Angeles, has been one of Backwards Beekeepers leading volunteer bee rescuers.

"Sometimes people will call in," she says. "They're frightened because they don't know what to do or they've heard stories about Africanized bees, and they don't realize bees can be kept in your backyard and be very easy to handle. Just like this family: They wanted to save the bees but hadn't thought about keeping them."

Kato says that's the most exciting part.

"I try to aim to have a new beekeeper every week," he says.

One of Backwards Beekeepers original members, Russell Bates says they are busy.

"The rescue hotline is on fire. We're getting about 20 calls a day."

Bates and his wife, Amy Seidenwurm, keep four hives in their hilly Silverlake backyard -- rescued swarms producing enough honey to bottle and barter with their favorite restaurants, including trendy wine bar, Bar Covell. The restaurant sells a cheese plate with a spoonful of the couples' all natural honey labeled "Feral Honey and Bee."

"On every cheese plate we put some of this local honey and people love that," says Bar Covell owner Dustin Lancaster. "We say it comes from right here in the neighborhood and it's delicious every time."

Hives in danger

Backwards Beekeepers are advocates of chemical and pesticide-free beekeeping -- far different, they say, from the commercial beekeeping industry.

An alarming number of hives have disappeared in what scientists call colony collapse disorder. The worker bees simply vanish leaving the hive empty except for the queen and drones.

More than 29% of bee colonies were lost between fall 2008 and winter 2009, according to the USDA. The agency said that represented between 580,000 and 770,000 hives. Between 2009 and 2010, about 34% of hives were lost.

Read the USDA report

It's devastating the commercial beekeeping industry.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates more than one third of the world's crops, such as fruits, vegetables, and nuts, are pollinated by bees.

Bates calls it "chemical collapse disorder" because the commercial beekeeper is using miticide and antibiotics inside the hive to control Varroa mites and stress -- all characteristics of CCD.

Eric Mussen, a honey bee expert at UC Davis agrees: "The majority of commercial beekeepers do put chemicals in their hives mostly to control Varroa mites."

"Bees are stressed," says Bates, "when they're transported thousands of miles (by commercial beekeepers) and not allowed to leave the hive. They're starved between trips and they won't poop in the hive. When they get there, they're fed corn syrup and artificial pollen."

Bates says he's not vilifying the commercial beekeeper, but he does point out that the methods and practices aren't sustainable.

Bee fever

Roberta waits until the swarm has settled in the portable hive. One by one she gently nudges them into the slats and relocates the swarm to the Nghes' side yard.

"I call her 'Mighty Mouse,' " says 63-year-old Kirk Anderson, who's clearly impressed with her bee rescue abilities. "She does everything so effortlessly."

Kirk is Backwards Beekeepers' bee guru and on the club's YouTube videos demonstrates how to capture bee swarms and harvest honey.

"When you want to become a beekeeper, you kind of get this bee fever," he says. "And if you're in L.A. and you get the bee fever, you want to have them before you even knew you wanted to have them."

Anderson's bee fever started in 1969.

"I got a Montgomery Ward catalog and I ordered a 3-pound package of midnight bees says Anderson. "They were black bees, and they had been bred to be calm and nice and sweet and not hurt anybody. And that was my first package of bees."

"We try to spread the word, you don't have to treat bees. You don't have to use chemicals to keep them healthy, to allow them to survive because these urban bees are surviving in the walls of garages, unusual places. They are going without any treatment whatsoever, so they're healthy," he says.

"I think L.A. is the best kept secret on the planet, and I think we're kind of leading the pack."