San Francisco Beekeeping

Shepherds of The City: the life of urban beekeepers

Beekeeper Kevin McKean pulls a frame partially filled with brood (larvae) from his backyard hive.

Craig Lee/The Examiner

When people asked Kevin McKean what he was going to do during retirement, he always said the same thing: “I’m going to have pigs and bees.” The pigs didn’t work out — it’s not easy to raise hogs in San Francisco — but the bees became his life.

Apiarists, or beekeepers, who raise bees in urban spaces are not in it just for the honey or a means to an end in crop production. When a city is your pasture and your livestock is a critical part of the food chain, you become a combination of farmer, conservationist, educator and occasional public safety officer during swarms.

The San Francisco Beekeepers Association is a growing community of apiarists dedicated to serving honeybees and the people who manage them in San Francisco. As ambassadors for local pollinators, their work is instrumental in maintaining the biodiversity of The City, but most

“People always think that you can’t keep bees in The City, but I think it’s actually a lot easier,” said Taylor Capozziello, president of the SFBA. The SF beekeeping community is quite large, she explained, which might surprise  some. “You end up figuring out that people in a few blocks’ radius are beekeepers as well.”

Agriculture in cities is becoming more common, and for good reason — growing your own food presents a direct path to food equity, is healthier and reduces emissions that would be used to truck fresh food in from farms. However, it is predicated on having space, time and capital to host plants or animals, which is not a reality for some, especially in San Francisco.

Bees are different, said McKean. They’re low profile, and they have their own agenda.

“It’s a lot like having a flock of sheep, except there are 50,000 sheep instead of 100, the sheep are the size of a marble, or tinier, and they’re completely wild,” he said. “People manage bees, we put them in hives, and we can mostly persuade them to stay there. The truth is that they manage themselves.”

McKean got started with SFBA in 2014. It takes a fair amount of capital to invest in beekeeping: suits, frames, boxes, various tools, smokers and a class to learn about bee care can run you between $400 and  $650, plus subsequent fees in the hundreds every year to restore supplies.

Joining a local beekeeping guild like the SFBA can offset some of the initial costs with gear discounts, and having new members join an organization incentivizes responsible husbandry, noted Capozziello.

Part of that is understanding your role as a beekeeper, explained McKean.

“You are there to guide, make suggestions and try to influence what the bees do. But ultimately the bees will do whatever they’re going to do, as we discover again and again every day. They make crazy choices.”

Once a colony gets going, it goes through a boom-and-bust seasonal cycle. Right now, honeybees are slowly beginning to reopen their hives (literally — bees close off the hive’s entrances in colder months to conserve heat) after a long winter spent in a survival cluster. Springtime is spent rehydrating honey stores, building the population back up and expanding honeycombs.

Happ-bee New Year — A bee’s New Year is in the fall, according to experts, because its condition at the end of summer after the gathering seasons greatly affects its prosperity the following spring.

Bees can thrive indefinitely with proper care, but they are still fragile, and often colonies collapse. Keepers in the U.S. lose about 30% to 40% of colonies annually to any number of causes: parasitesdiseasepesticides, extreme climate or poor management. Any of these can smite an entire colony in a matter of weeks.

“Every new beekeeper goes through the agony of losing their first colony,” said McKean. “We’ve joked in the club about needing to offer grief counseling. It’s almost like losing a pet — they’re not going to curl up with you and watch TV, but people have an emotional bond with bees.”

In San Francisco, the health of the local pollinator population is greatly affected by the resources available to it, said Capozziello. That means the plants in nurseries, the trees on the streets of The City and flowers in backyards are potential vectors. So far, the honeybees have proven to be resilient and adaptable.

“We have lots of speculation on it,” she said. “For a while it was getting pretty rough. Now it seems like more bees are surviving the winter than before. Maybe our methods are getting better, maybe we’re breeding more mite-resistant bees. Maybe there are less pesticides in our plants. So at least we’re hopeful.”

But not all pollinators have the benefit of a shepherd. There are 1,500 species of native bees in California, 81 of which live in the Bay Area. Most live alone, which reduces some of the dangers of disease or pest transmission, but the impact of pesticides is often lethal. Capozziello said that as stewards of bees, it is the SFBA’s imperative to help all of them — which means planting a wide variety of native plants and creating places for the native bees to nest.

“I think a lot of people have started to realize that (saving the bees) is not just about the European honeybee, which people usually first get excited about, but a lot of different pollinators,” she said.

Among other urban spaces, The City is uniquely qualified to achieve that goal. It’s fairly mild, and even the most dense industrial or built-up neighborhoods are not far from a green space.

“In this city, even if your bee is flying out of Market and Kearny, they fly a quarter of a mile and they’re in parklands near the Embarcadero or Western Addition where they can graze,” said McKean.

In fact, he added, density can also be a good thing.

“San Francisco has such a crazy variety of flowering plants, both indigenous and imported, so you get this wonderful mixture of flavors, and every batch from every neighborhood is a little different. San Francisco honey is fabulous.”

We are here to share current happenings in the bee industry. Bee Culture gathers and shares articles published by outside sources. For more information about this specific article, please visit the original publish source: Urban beekeeping in San Francisco: conservation and honey | Culture |