Thinking Like Bees with Terry Oxford of UrbanBeeSF
Today, guest host Anne O’Connor speaks with Terry Oxford of Urban Bee San Francisco(UrbanBeeSF). We were so happy to meet Terry at Organic Valley’s Grass Up event in San Rafael, California, this past October. Not only is she a wealth of knowledge about bees and honey, but she helps her bees create beautiful works of honeycomb art, and she is passionate about creating safe urban environments for these little creatures that are disappearing due to sprayed and systemic (inside the plant) pesticides.
She says on her website, “UrbanBeeSF never uses conventional/commercial beekeeping practices such as plastic-wax foundation, food replacement, mite pesticides, chemical mixtures or antibiotics inside any of our hives. From hive to jar only wood, stainless steel, glass and our amazing bees come in contact with the honey.”
We hope you enjoy this interview about the beauty and plight of pollinators with the passionate Terry Oxford.
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
ANNE O’CONNOR: Welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, sitting in for Theresa Marquez today. I’m here today with Terry Oxford, who is the owner of UrbanBeeSF in San Francisco, California. Terry, thank you so much for being here with us today.
TERRY OXFORD: Thank you. Thank you so much. I’m honored.
AO: So [unclear] today to talk about bees. And this small little creature is such a hard worker and has such an influence on our food system. So I would love for you to tell us, you are an urban beekeeper—what does that mean?
TO: Well, what I do is I keep bees in the city. I’m in a completely urban environment. And I think that one of the things that makes my bees successful and happy is that I keep them up in a canopy of trees. I typically place my beehives on rooftops that are close to banks of trees or groves of trees. And so that’s what bees naturally go to. In the wild, they’re up in trees; they’re within a branch or in a trunk that’s hollowed out, and that’s where they like to be. They’re not typically on, not at all—honeybees are not at all on the ground, typically. They really like to be up fifteen, twenty feet in the air. So I think that’s why my bees are happy and content in the city.
AO: Terry, you produce this amazing honey. It’s multilayered in its flavors and it’s very complex. Tell us, how does that honey get to be so textured and varied?
TO: Yeah, I have to completely agree with you—it’s amazing. Basically, I attribute the deliciousness of this honey to the diversity of the trees in San Francisco. We have so many different types of trees that are varying stages of maturity and beauty. And they are all sorts of trees. There’s a lot of gum trees, there’s the amazing eucalyptus, there is acacia, everything; bottlebrush, different types of bottlebrushes. And all of these trees produce flowers almost all year long. So my bees are really, really lucky because they take advantage of it all year long.
And each of these trees has a flavor and a color that is extraordinary. And when you blend that together with the addition of fennel, which grows wild all over San Francisco, you just get this amazing, delicious, complex blend of almost savory honey. And it’s beautiful, it’s great, pairing it with vegetables, fall vegetables. And even just by itself, it’s just an amazing flavor. And most people, when they taste it, they say they’ve never tasted anything like it. And I know that honey out of the comb is always that way, it’s always the most delicious. But San Francisco street trees are delicious. And they’re not just for people—they’re for bees too.
AO: So you talk about what it means to be an ethical beekeeper. Can you explain, I guess, what is an unethical beekeeper and what’s the difference?
TO: You know, it’s really, really difficult to produce the food that big ag and big pesticide have created in this country, and now all around the world. They’ve created a food system that is based on monoculture and very little diversity. Both of those things are unnatural and unsustainable, as we’re now seeing really, really clearly.
So the problem with that kind of food production is it requires bees to be brought in to pollinate a crop. And what happens when those bees are treated that way is it puts them under vast amounts of stress from being trucked and also being fed sugar, and then being exposed to herbicides, pesticides, just that whole toxic soup that happens when monoculture farming happens—they just create this whole area of toxicity. And then also, all of those bees being trucked from all around the country, and oftentimes [unclear] around the world, brings in all sorts of mites and diseases and things like that.
So bees are susceptible to a lot of what’s going on. And I believe firmly the culprit number one is the pesticides that are used. Because guess what: insecticides kill insects. They work. They’re deadly. They’re deadly targeted, and they’re very effective. And yes, they kill. And then also, you know, the EPA has already been proven to be ineffective against the lobbying power of these industries. So you get that combination and bees are really in trouble.
Now I know many beekeepers who do this, who are doing this are—I’m not saying they don’t love their bees and I don’t even want to get into that, although that is the larger argument—but the problem is our state of the world right now and our state of agriculture is really destroying the planet. And the pollinator life system is, I believe, our warning call, and I don’t know if we’re going to hear the next siren that goes off because the pollinator life system, I believe is going to be one of the last voices that we hear as we [unclear]. If we let this system go and not fight tooth and nail to protect it, I think that as a species, we’re not going to understand our own humanity anymore, because we won’t have that connection with nature that we have evolved with.
AO: But I want to just take a step back, and could you give us a little perspective from your work, what is actually happening with bees? The trouble that you’re referring to at this moment that some people may not know about.
TO: Right. I don’t like to use the term colony collapse disorder. A lot of people have heard of that term, and it was a term that was created back—I’d say maybe we’re getting on fifteen years now—when they started to realize that bees were dying en masse, they were just dying. Commercial beekeepers would come to their hives and find nothing, that they were all gone. So big ag, at the time, knew that there was going to be a big problem with this situation, coins the term colony collapse disorder, because probably at that time they didn’t know what was going on with bees.
Now, fifteen years down the road, bees are still dying in huge, huge waves, or in huge numbers, and beekeepers are very, very worried about it. Because we get—beekeepers understand how important pollinators are. So as a result of these huge deaths and everything, there’s been a lot of studies done, oftentimes by scientists who work for pesticide industries like Bayer, Syngenta, et cetera—Monsanto, of course.
So these scientific studies oftentimes point to a culprit, the culprit number one, and that is the varroa mite. They used to just say it was the varroa mite and nothing else. Now they’re starting to understand that people read a lot and can identify with a lot of different sources on the Internet, so we understand now that there’s a lot of culprits. So now the chemical industries are saying it’s varroa mite, number one, and then possibly loss of habitat, monoculture, and they always put poisons and pesticides at the very bottom of that list.
So the problem is that bees are still dying and there are industries out there that are protecting their profits. And it’s really simple—if you follow the money, everything makes sense. So what’s happening is bees are dying, there’s a lot of obfuscation about what the culprit is, and the industry’s prime culprit is the varroa mite. And then other beekeepers who are not suffering from varroa mites, or not losing their hives due to varroa mites, know that it’s other things. It’s pesticides first, it’s loss of habitat for sure, and it’s lack of food.
So bees are suffering, like every other species on this planet is suffering, where humans have such a magnificently huge footprint that we really take almost all of the resources on this planet for ourselves. And it’s like we’re squeezing out and muscling out and elbowing out every other species on the planet. So the pollinator system is no different than the ocean systems and, you know, the polar bears and everything. It’s like we’re taking too much, and that’s simply it.
So pollinators are very important species that, like I said earlier, we evolved, our big brain got this way, because of the food that we eat and the nutrition that we have so freely enjoyed from the pollinator system. So we have all of these vitamins and nutritional requirements in our body, and we’re given that by the pollinators. We evolved right alongside them. Whatever happens to them will happen to us. That’s why they are one of the most critical species right now. And I’m not just talking about honeybees. I’m talking about the whole pollinator system, because whatever you do for honeybees, to save them, will save the rest of them—the birds, everything.
AO: Can you talk about—you know, bees are the ultimate collaborators, they’re the ultimate cooperators. And I’d love it if you could talk about the ways that bees have had to become resilient, and what can we learn from them?
TO: Well, the way that I see that played is that they’re definitely just one—they are one organism made up of thousands and thousands of little beings, but they’re just one organism. And their collaboration within the hive is very self-sacrificing. It’s based on, they seem to—and I don’t mean to anthropomorphize them, but they seem to be very self-sacrificing. They live for the whole instead of the individual. And I think that there’s some really good lessons in there: that bees, unlike humans, they seem to—they’re unable to work against their own interests. You know, they only work for the whole, the collective whole.
And I think that that is what makes them sustainable and so intelligent as a species, because they’re not out for themselves, they’re there for the group. So it’s interesting that the parallel to, or the difference to being human is that we seem to excel at working against our own interests. And it’s almost like our lifestyle choices or our apathy or anything like that, there’s almost like a weird, strange, suicide thing that humans have where we’re willing to destroy ourselves for our individuals. And that’s the big difference that I see in bees, is that they really just operate for the whole, for the community. And that’s true sustainability and that’s something that humans could learn from.
AO: So you use only natural materials in your hives. Can you talk about that?
TO: Yeah, yeah, there’s… You know, commercial beekeeping and actually a lot of hobbyists get started with beekeeping with what the industry puts out there, and it’s all very convenient for the beekeeper. So inside the box are plastic templates in the shape of honeycombs that the bees are supposed to start building here—you know, it’s like a template. So there’s plastic inside, and then that plastic has been coated with beeswax of very dubious origin, and then on top of that the boxes are quite large and made for honey production only. That’s the main goal.
So, and then I don’t use anything plastic. I only use wood, and inside of the hives is absolutely nothing like plastic or anything. I don’t use any chemicals, medicines, pesticides, acids, gases, nothing. I don’t use anything at all, it’s just bees. I keep my hives really small and tight because, to me, [a] hive is, like I said, it’s an organism. And it’s basically a uterus. So what it is is it’s a womb. And so what you do with the womb, you keep it as small and as enclosed and tight and dark, with ventilation, as possible. And so the bees inside of my hives are very, I think that they are safe and able to do a lot.
And then the other thing that I do that’s a little bit different is I don’t control my bees by cutting out drones, which are the males. A lot of people cut out the drones because they’re trying to control what’s going on inside of the box and control the queen and the bees’ behavior. And I think all of these things are very, very unnatural and not good for queens. I don’t clip my queen’s wings. I don’t do anything like that. And the reason being is because I don’t think that the industries that brought bees to their knees are really capable of different results doing the exact same things.
So my bees feel very comfortable to reproduce naturally. And that’s, I think, what my superhero power is, is that I’m able to get bees to have sex in a natural way, not inseminated or anything like that. So it’s just such a joy to me when I split a hive and I come back and I check it and there’s a queen in there, and she’s obviously had natural sex. And I’m happy for my drones—I think that the whole drone, queen, worker bee cycle is just really, really important naturally, the way that it’s supposed to happen. So that’s what I do that’s, I think, what makes my bees successful.
AO: Wow, who would ever know that having natural sex is the key to great honey.
TL: Hey, right?
AO: We like it. I like it.
TO: I love it. I really support my drones. You know, drones are such an interesting, interesting group. They don’t really appear to have a job. Like the worker bees are all females and they just work, work, work, dawn to dusk. They’re really happy. From birth to death, they’re just working. They clean up after themselves, they dig themselves up out of their cell, they carry away the wax from their little cell. But the males, the drones, have to be assisted out of the cell; they can’t even be born on their own. And they pretty much sit around and eat honey and make a mess, and they’re buzzy and loud and droning.
But when you remove them to control the hive—I’ve also tried that because I’ve tried almost everything—what happens is, and this is going to sound a little bit woo-woo, but I’m going to go on a ledge and say it, morale drops in the hive. There’s a reason that the drones are supposed to be there, there’s a reason that the queen is laying them. And we don’t know everything about anything, I think. And a lot of beekeepers are like, “Well, you can’t do that, you know, you gotta control your drones and your queen.” And I’m like, how do you know? How do you know? How can you possibly know what you’re really doing?
AO: If you’re just tuning in, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, and I’m here today with Terry Oxford, who is an urban beekeeper in San Francisco and the owner of UrbanBeeSF.
This is one of the areas that—I mean, it’s a good microcosm for the larger conversation that we’re having, right? Which is that we know just so very little, and we don’t know how things work, and yet sometimes we think we do. And so the consequences are showing us right now that we don’t know everything, and so finding these other ways is critical. And what you’re saying is your bees are surviving without any of that. They’re surviving because they’re building their immune systems and they’re doing it naturally. So something is happening there.
TO: Yeah, and I still lose hives, but they do reproduce, and the hives keep going and going and going. And they have mites, and they’re not dying year after year after year. And they’re producing other hives and they’re going and going. You know, my hives typically last about, I’d say they can last between four or five years, and that’s just not normal for a lot of beekeepers, especially commercial beekeepers. If they’re struggling to make money with their hives and doing what their family’s been doing for generations, they’re the ones that are really paying the costs of the toxic pesticides that are out there, because they’re doing it for dollars.
I’m not doing it for that. I’m doing it for love, and I’m actually doing it for the pollination system too, like for the trees and the flowers and the plants. And that’s almost more important to me right now, because what’s going on with climate change now and the drought, especially here in California, is you’re just seeing massive, beautiful, mature sixty-year-old trees dying. Now a lot of trees are aging out, and that’s normal, but what’s happening with the drought is they’re severely weakened.
So my concern is, and this is a campaign that I’m working on, is to make sure that every single tree that’s planted in San Francisco as a replacement for these trees that are going to be felled over the next two years is to make sure that they are not treated with systemic pesticides. Because if they do that, if the city does that, if they plant their two saplings for each mature tree, if those saplings are treated with pesticides like systemic pesticides, then that tree is a little nuclear bomb for its entire life, and that’s going to be—I’m not going to sit still for that, because the reason that my bees are so successful is because of these beautiful trees.
So it’s very, very important to look at the whole thing holistically. You can’t just greenwash—you know, you can’t just say we’re going to plant two trees for each tree that we take down. The quality of those new trees has to be Nordstrom and not Walmart.
AO: So what are the chances of that occurring out there in San Francisco? I mean, I would think that in San Francisco you have a fairly good chance of making that case. Is that accurate?
TO: Oh, I’m being heard. I’ve been going to meetings and the city people, city council people that have been a part of those meetings, everybody that I’ve spoken to is saying, “Oh God, did anybody consider the bees?” And the answer is no. So there’s a lot happening in San Francisco with infrastructure.
And this is like, this is also a macrocosm-microcosm thing. San Francisco is my neighborhood—this is my local, this is where activism is local, so this my seven by seven square miles. I’ve got bees all over the city, so what happens here is really, really important. And what I’m doing is basically a template that can be taken to any city. And what it is is you first of all make the city aware of the importance of whatever they’re planting. And then what I’m doing now is I’m working really, really hard to find nurseries that will not use systemics. So that’s my work right now. And the trees that the city is planning to plant are going into the ground in 2017, so I’ve got like a minute of time to make sure that… Because the city knows, I have they’re order list and I’m working it. But yeah, this is something that is consuming me day and night, and it’s going to be—like they’re going to plant pesticide trees over my dead body, basically.
AO: So, Terry, can you tell us about how many hives—you’ve mentioned you have them all over the city, they’re on the rooftops and they’re around these large mature trees. Can you talk about your hives? How many do you have? How much honey do they produce?
TO: Yeah, the hives that I have are scattered around the city, and right now I have six hive sites. They usually have between two and three hives. I don’t really like very many more than that for any rooftop. My favorite style of roof is no more than two stories high, and I always, like I said earlier, I always look for canopy, I always look for the protection of trees. I do a water source on the roof because that makes me a responsible beekeeper. And what I do is I’m on restaurant rooftops in the city, so I’m on several restaurants. I’m on Jardinière, Nopa, Quince, and Cotogna, and then I’m on a couple of other friends’ roofs around the city. So pretty much scattered all over, all the way down to Sea Cliff and all the way up to Jackson Square. So I’m pretty much all over the city.
AO: Terry, how much honey can you produce on rooftops with the trees in San Francisco?
TO: Well, yeah, that’s an interesting question. I get asked that question all the time from either grocers or restaurants; they ask me if I’ll be a beekeeper on their roof. And if that’s their first question, I will almost immediately say no. What I do is I look for like-minded restaurateurs and restaurant owners who get the plight of the bee and really understand it, and I’ve found that with the restaurants that I’m working for.
So what I do is I give them fresh honeycomb right out of the hive, when it’s available and when the bees can spare it. So that amount of honey has changed over the years. The drought is really affecting the bees quite a bit, and all over California honey production is way, way down. And so what I do—again, because it’s all about the bees for me; it’s not even really about honey—I make sure that my bees have enough, and then what I’ll do is I’ll take out the combs for the restaurants and take it down to the kitchen and everybody’s really, really happy.
But I would say on average my restaurants probably get maybe, over the year, maybe about fifteen to twenty frames of fresh honeycomb. And then what they do with that is they usually put it on cheese plates or just serve it fresh as it is. They rarely crush it and use it just in its liquid form because it is so beautiful just on its own.
AO: This is a specialty product. This is not something that you can—
TO: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, when they get it, everybody just lights up because they know it’s a gift. They know it’s gold.
AO: If people wanted to hear more about your project there in San Francisco and see what you’re up to, how would they find you?
TO: Oh, I’ve got a great website that my friend Derek made, and it’s UrbanBeeSF, or UrbanBeeSanFrancisco.com—you can put both of those in. And yeah, there’s a lot going on on it.
AO: Thank you so much for joining us here today, Terry. Again, we’ve been speaking to Terry Oxford of UrbanBeeSF. Thank you for joining us, Terry.
TO: Thank you so much. Thanks, Anne. It’s a pleasure.
AO: If you’d like to hear more from Rootstock Radio, visit us online at rootstock.coop/radio [now organicvalley.coop/blog]. See you next week.
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