Terry Oxford: Sustainable Urban Beekeeping
Terry Oxford is a beekeeper…on the rooftops of downtown San Francisco. It’s true! Urban areas can often be better habitat for bees than the countryside because of the parks and residents’ gardens that tend to grow flowers during a wider season than happens in nature. But they have one big thing looming against them: the chemicals used in those parks and gardens put urban bees at more risk.
Terry is a long-time activist, environmentalist and owner of UrbanBeeSF, and today she’s talking with us about natural, sustainable beekeeping—how to raise strong, healthy bees that require no human intervention and no chemical interference. Not only that, Terry discusses why current beekeeping practices simply are not cutting it: for bees, for humans, and for our planet.
Tune in to hear about:
- The sophisticated way honeybees think about, and plan for, the future. (Hint: they’re light years ahead of us!)
- Gender roles in beehives, and how sustainable beekeeping supports BOTH the male and female bees. (Conventional beekeeping often cuts males out of the operation entirely).
- How chemicals used in cities have created a world full of poisonous flowers. (Let that sink in for a minute.)
- The most efficient way to create food for pollinators in a city.
- The story of pollination—magical AND sexy.
- Why Terry is reducing her beekeeping practice while expanding it in other ways.
Transcript: Rootstock Radio Interview with Terry Oxford
Air Date: February 18, 2019
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.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Terry Oxford, an urban rooftop—are you ready for this?—beekeeper. And are you ready for this? Downtown San Francisco, California. And Terry, as you might imagine, is a long-time activist and environmentalist. Terry’s focus is natural, sustainable beekeeping and her goal is strong and healthy bees that require little human intervention and no chemical interference. Welcome, Terry.
TERRY OXFORD: Thank you. I’m so happy to be here.
TM: Same here, Terry. I just love reading all about you, and I love bees, so I’ll say that right up front. And I love the fact that you make so many comparisons between humans and bees. And maybe we could start out and I can ask you, what are those comparisons that you have between bees and humans?
TO: Oh, it’s so funny. And it’s just, you know, when you’re thinking whimsically about things and humans, I often think of metaphor. I think that honeybees are highly intelligent. And the thing that I notice most about them that is different than humans is their future thinking is very, very sound. They protect the future by being all for one inside the hive, for the larvae. That’s what they do.
So what I tend to do is think of a beehive as a uterus, because that’s what it is. It’s a ball, about the size of a volleyball, that’s just all eggs. And so it’s a uterus. That’s what they’re doing, they’re all protecting future generations, and everything they do is for the future. So if humans had even a tiny modicum of that in our thinking, I don’t think we would be having any of these conversations.
And I tend to think—and this is, again, just sort of whimsical—I tend to think that it’s because it is a female-dominated species. The hierarchy is female. And, you know, they tend to be a little bit more nurturing. And not all females, of course, but definitely in a beehive, it’s definitely that way. And so I appreciate it in that sense. And I do believe in respecting the female and the uterus, absolutely, because that’s where the future comes from. You care for that, and you’ve got a healthy future.
TM: Bravo, I agree with that! But you know, the thing that maybe our listeners don’t know, it’s not just the queen, but all of the workers are female bees. And the drones, who are the males, are important, but they really don’t have a whole…they’re not working.
TO: They’re not out working the flowers, yes. So when you see a bee in a flower, that’s a female. And it tends to be a worker. And it’s not going to be a queen and it’s not going to be a male. The males stay home and the queen, of course, stays home.
And the males are definitely essential and very, very important. I love my drones. I adore my drones. And I think one of the things about natural beekeeping is that it’s drone-supportive. What commercial beekeeping and conventional beekeepers do is they often will cut out the drone comb and just remove the males at the larval stage, out of a beehive. And I think that you need the males. They need to be supported, they need to be well cared for, they need to be respected, and I do that.
And I think, you know, one of the main messages that I would like anybody that hears me to walk away with is, it’s all about poison-free flowers. That’s all this conversation is ever about for me. It’s not about chemical manipulation, it’s not about mites or no mites—it’s not about that. It’s about feeding these animals organic food. And I know that the term organic has been carried away from where it originated from back in the day. But the bottom line is, what organic means to me is systemic chemical-free.
And you have to understand, the chemicals that agriculture uses these days are so completely toxic. And that message is not getting out there. When the buzz about bees is happening, they’re talking about other things. They’re talking about mites, typically. And to me, what that is, is a simple deflection tactic to get the subject away from where it belongs, which is, most of our agriculture is poisoned—and we know that. Everything that they’re growing for us, bees and native bees are out there pollinating it and dying as a result. Because nothing can eat poison every day and survive.
And the way that these poisons are made is so wrong. What they’ve basically done is created poisonous flowers. So what that’s from is, systemic insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides are inside of the plant or the tree. And those poisons come out in the nectar, the pollen, and the guttation, which is an important word to know. Guttation are the little liquid drops that come out of the tips of leaves. Sometimes they’re mistaken as dew.
TM: Yeah, say that again—gotation?
TO: Guttation is really—it’s a drop of moisture. So here in California, I am highly conscious of moisture for animals, that there’s not enough because we’re so dry. And so the guttation liquid that oozes out of a leaf is moisture for a lot of species. I’ve got a Japanese maple, a very old one, at one of my hive sites, and I see bumbles on it a lot. And they’re just going for that liquid, because there’s no flowers or anything. They’re drinking, and a lot of species do. They need this liquid.
That is the most toxic of where the poisons come out. It’s even more toxic than what comes out in the nectar and the pollen.
TM: I just want to make sure our listeners know that systemic means you can’t wash it off.
TO: Exactly, and people don’t know that.
TM: Yeah, I know a lot of people say, “No, I wash my produce. I’m doing fine.” Well, that might be okay for some—a very few, actually—pesticides, but most of them go into the roots and into the very being of the plant.
TO: Yeah, into the vascular system.
TM: And it stays there for a long time. It isn’t like it just goes away the next year. It can stay for quite a long time, can’t it? Like six years, eight years?
TO: Six years is the last—I think the last study stopped at six years and still found it.
So what I like to do… This subject seems very complex to the general public. And confusion has been driven into the narrative because then people are off topic and they’re easily polarized, and we, more than ever, with the media. So it’s actually a very simple topic. And the way that I like to explain it is with a tree. So for me, trees are basically a very efficient use of space to create pollinator food within a city. I can’t fix what’s going on in Afghanistan, I can’t fix what’s going on in Washington D.C., I can’t fix what’s going on anywhere. But, so I’ve decided, for my sanity, to take responsibility for feeding pollinators in the city of San Francisco. So that seems manageable to me, and a good way to be responsible to fix my neighborhood problems.
So I look at a flowering ornamental tree—and let me just put out some definitions right now, because I’m going to start saying some words, so I’ll define them right now. I’m not talking about honeybees anymore. I call it pollinators. The pollinator life system of the planet is in big trouble. The important pollinators wherever you are, are your native pollinators. Honeybees are often thought to be an indicator species of the health of an ecological system. They are not the indicator species anymore, because honeybees are highly manipulated by commercial and conventional beekeeping to kind of hobble them along at this point, because they’re faced with so much poisonous agriculture in the pollination [unclear—events?], in the Central Valley, and trucking them across the country, and basically, supporting a few industries that make a lot of money on specialty crops, like almond and citrus specifically.
So when I talk about bees, I’m talking about native bees and butterflies and hummingbirds, and those pollinators that need nectar—that’s carbohydrate—and protein—that’s pollen. So nectar and pollen are carbohydrate and protein for pollinators, so that’s what I talk about.
You know, in a city as small as San Francisco, no matter how hard I try, I’m never going to be able to plant meadows in the city—they won’t let me. There’s no hope for getting a big enough piece of land where I can grow organic, poison-free food for pollinators. The only room that I have in the city to create a meadow is a flowering tree. So what my focus is, is flowering ornamental trees for cities, suburbs, wherever you are. Everybody buys a tree at some point in their life and plants it, hopefully.
So in the short time I’ve been focusing on this, I’ve sadly learned that more than 75 percent of all flowering ornamental trees grown in California are pretreated with neonicotinoids and fungicides, systemically, making them poisonous for years.
TO: I know. Yeah, it was really hard to pick of the pieces after that and figure out how, how can I make a difference? How can I really do something to save birds and insects? Because basically what systemics do is they…the flowers are poisonous. That’s what we’ve done, that’s what our agricultural practices have done: created poisonous flowers. We’ve weaponized flowers. And just let that sink in. We’ve weaponized flowers, right?
And so, sadly, people go to their nursery or where they would typically buy a tree, and plant it for pollinators, and then it’s poisonous for at least six years. And the degree of poison just depends on how the applicator felt that morning when they applied it. So your nursery doesn’t even have to apply it. In fact, they often don’t know, and they’ll say, “No, no, no! We don’t treat.” But it doesn’t mean that tree has not been pretreated originally.
And so that’s my jam, is flowering, ornamental trees for cities and suburbs throughout the state of California, and trying to get as many as possible that are chemical-free in the ground before I’m gone. And then I’ll feel like I did some good on this planet. And let me just give you some good news, can I?
TM: Please! We want all the good news we can hear.
TO: I know, I know, I know. In these times, everybody’s reaching for something hopeful, and my message is very dire. But here’s the good news, is that if you plant it, they will come. So there is a farm in Santa Rosa that I frequent because it gives me emotional well-being. And it’s called Bees N Blooms. And that’s the letter “n,” not the word “and.” They have a pollinator farm—they’re planting for pollinators.
So, when I go up there, I’ll see hummingbird moths, I’ll see amazing insects that you just, I thought were gone. So that’s the good news, that if you do it, life wants to live. It wants to live, it wants clean food, it wants a home, it wants habitat. And if you give it to them and give them a safe place, you’re going to see an abundance of birds, because they’ll have insects to live on.
So that’s the good news. And that makes me really happy, to know that we can make a difference. But it’s got to be focused, and you’ve got to know that our agricultural practices are highly, highly chemical-infused. And that doesn’t work for people and it definitely doesn’t work for insects.
TM: Well you know, you hear all the time—because, you know, I’m in the farming world and I’m in the organic side of it—“Oh, we’re going to cause harm to the corn growers. And what will we eat? And organic can’t feed the world.” So there’s that side of the story that we have to keep hearing over and over again when we say we must reduce our dependence on pesticides. How do you answer that?
TO: Yeah, I think that there’s two ways to really look at that. If you really break down that statement, “We have to feed the world,” it’s not happening. What we’re doing is we are feeding a tiny percentage of the world, and that’s the wealthier Western countries, and we’re feeding them a lot of crap. A lot of the food that goes out is causing obesity and diabetes, and it’s filled with Roundup and chemicals. And people, if you just look at us, in this country, we’re not doing well. We’re not doing well, and I don’t know when we’re going to call it, and start telling the truth about how we’re doing as a nation. But we’re kind of in trouble. Our children are suffering.
I think there’s something really, really lost when you don’t see nature. And if you don’t have the opportunity to know what a butterfly looks like, or what a flock of butterflies look like, or that the sky is supposed to be dark with birds—if you don’t have that opportunity, and I think if humans lose their sense of awe about nature, we’ve lost a great lesson there about how little we are, how little our importance is in the grand scheme of things, and how other things, other species, are much more important than us. They are more important than us. They’re going to be as happy as clams when we’re gone. But we can’t survive without them.
So we’re eating really, really high on the food chain all the time, and that’s not good for the natural world. It’s taking too many resources from everything else. And then the chemical industries are in charge of our food system, and you don’t even have to dig deep to know that that’s true. You don’t even have to be a skeptic to know that chemical industry, agrochemical companies control the dialogue, all the way from the top to the beekeeping associations. I see their influence deeply and powerfully.
And that’s happened here. It’s happened all over the EU. It’s, in real time, happening in South Africa right now where Bayer is partnering with the beekeeping associations to create monoculture and to take away from the indigenous people and the people that have been farming for generations on a small scale. They’re industrializing agriculture right now in South Africa, and I’m watching it in real time through friends.
TM: Yeah, and the Gates Foundation, too, is also supporting that with their funds, which is so troubling.
TO: Well, yes, follow the money.
TM: Yeah, follow the money. But, you know, you talked about “It isn’t just about bees for me,” even though maybe we’ll come back to that. You talked about it’s all pollinators. I’m still trying to make sense of a November article in the New York Times that was about, “The Insect Apocalypse Is Here,” is what it was called.
TO: Yeah, yeah.
TM: I wondered if you could say something about that, because those aren’t necessarily pollinators, are they?
TO: Oh yes, definitely. And let me just say, I’m not going to get into a debate about the quality of journalism in this country. But I’ll tell you, that news came out about a year ago, and it was at a very important study out of Germany, and reputable scientists were involved. And Dave Goulson out of the University of Sussex in the UK speaks about this too—I love that guy. What they’re saying is that 70 percent of biomass is gone. Biomass is flying insects, and that’s food all the way up the chain. Not only is it food for birds and providing source for them, it’s also source for reptiles, amphibians, fish, water species, and then it’s also—
TM: And birds.
TO: —soil and compost. It’s such an important part of the food chain. It’s almost like humans have decimated so many of the large animals that now we’re [unclear—rolling?] all the way down and decimating all the insects. And that’s pesticides.
And I say that that’s systemic pesticides. I stopped calling out neonics because they’ll just replace it with something else. It’s systemic. When you make a plant poisonous from the inside, deadly for its entire life, and for years in a flowering tree, you’ve created an ecological crime against the planet and humanity. And the problem is, these pesticide industries, or these chemical companies, have so much money, they control all the lobbyists, control all the way down in our infrastructure. They control the whole show—they do.
I’ve been to committee meetings in Sacramento trying to get a simple labeling bill—just labeling plants that are grown in California that are pretreated at the nursery. And the California State Beekeepers Association voted with Bayer that day—killed the bill in committee. I took names, I got business cards. They killed the bill in committee that day. And the senators that I talked to afterwards said, “Why am I going to go against Bayer if the beekeepers are okay with this chemical?”
It’s just such a deep, deep well. And the problem is that you have human nature in charge. And we’re very self-interested. We’ve mastered selfishness as a species. And I think until we can really evolve and look at something else and say, “That thing over there that’s different than me, that deserves the right to live. That deserves a place on the planet. That deserves clean food, a home, and safety.” Until we can do that and stop putting ourselves at the very top of importance, I’m not sure what’s going to happen. But that’s all I’m doing. I’m just focused in on it.
So the good thing about this farm up in Santa Rosa is we’ve already got a thousand trees planted from seedlings grown organically and biodynamically. And, you know, it’s amazing, some of them are six feet tall now. They’re going to be ready to be planted and sold to the city in just a few years, if not even next year, some of them. And everybody wants to help, they really do. I think that’s the key, is finding people that really want to help.
So my goal is more local farms around me that will plant these kinds of trees, trees that are good for nature, good for birds, that provide seeds and flowers to support the pollinating life system of the planet and then focus in on it that way.
TM: If you’re just joining us, you are listening to Rootstock Radio. And it’s Terry Oxford here who is sharing her passion for insects, for bees, for pollinators, for trees and flowers that aren’t polluted with systemic chemicals.
Terry, wow, what an activist you are. And when we started out today, you were saying, “I really want to talk about soil, too.” And certainly when we talk about—well, first of all, the “insect apocalypse” and some of the more chilling aspects of our pesticide-intensive food and agriculture, we know that we’re destroying soil. And I think that there’s a link here between these pollinators, and you’re just making it right now. We use so much of this, and we’re also ruining soil. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about your feelings of what soil has to do with this.
TO: Right. Soil is critically important to everything; everything starts there. And the chemicals that we used en masse, they pollute the soil as well. They come out into the soil; they kill all of the life that’s down there that is so necessary. And then they also, neonicotinoids, have been found in water tables. And there was a study—I think it was the Great Lakes—where they found it in the water table and rivers.
It’s very, very important to understand that these chemicals, neonicotinoids, are powerfully strong. They’re over 10,000 times stronger than DDT. They don’t degrade, they don’t go away. They last, often, for the life of the plant or for years in the trees. And they’re expressed in nectar pollen and the liquid that comes out for moisture, for sips of water or sips of moisture.
And then they also, they’re taken up by surrounding plants as well. So when you plant a hedgerow for pollinators off a piece of land that has been treated with any sort of chemicals like this, they’re drawn into these plants too, and so making their flowers poisonous to the pollinators that you planted for. So, not calling out the agricultural practices, but just planting flowers or doing nice things for that, is a big mistake that we are making.
We really need to focus in on what’s gone on before so we can build something that’s based in truth to where we want to go. Because what’s going to happen is, if we continue avoiding the topic of systemic poisons and how they work and how they devastate everything that they’re close to, we’re never going to get to the truth of understanding how important it is to stop using these, and to plant biodynamically and as organically as possible.
TM: You know, when I listen, it sounds to me that you started out keeping bees and you’ve got more and more educated on why the bees, and it’s led to you being very, very concerned about these poisons in our food. It just struck me: Wow, you’ve gone through an evolution, haven’t you?
TO: Yeah, yeah. And I think evolution is really important. I think just stopping where you start is what a lot of people do. I think a lot of people get into beekeeping because you want to help. And I used to work for TreePeople in Los Angeles, planting trees. And so it was there that I learned about pollination and that magic story. And it is magic—it’s totally amazing how that works. And so—
TM: Pretty sexy!
TO: It is, it’s really sexy. It’s totally about sex, it’s awesome, and how interspecies are helping each other survive through different needs. It’s just beautiful. And I think that’s the awe.
But a lot of people get into beekeeping because they do care. They want to make a difference and they just really give a damn. But I think what happens is also there’s a lot of people that get into beekeeping and they’re just like, you know…beekeepers are a cross section of society. They all have different intentions. And if you give a beekeeper automatic credibility for being an environmentalist, that’s like giving all chicken farmers a pass and saying that they all treat their chickens in the same way.
TM: But they don’t.
TO: They don’t. Everybody is different. Everybody has different intentions with their animals. And then there’s a lot of opportunists coming onto the scene because beekeeping is such a fad. I’ve noticed that too. And what’s happened in a small city like this, is we have far too many honeybees now. And you can tell, when you look at flowers, and if you don’t see any bumblebees or mason bees and all you’re seeing is a ton of honeybees, you know the invasive Europeans have come through again and kicked out the natives. So that’s what’s happening.
So I’m reducing my beekeeping practice quite a bit this year, and I’m now raising other pollinators that are natives. So I’m raising mason bees. I’m going to give leafcutter bees a shot and see how that does. But since last year I’ve been raising a local butterfly, and it’s an anise swallowtail butterfly, and it’s exquisite. It’s exquisite! And watching a caterpillar turn into a chrysalis, it’s amazing. And then that, hatching into this beautiful butterfly that unfurls its wings... So what I’ve been doing is releasing them when they’re ready to mate, and then releasing them, letting them go, and then hopefully they’ll lay eggs on the plant that is native in this area that they eat, that they feed on. So that’s also making me feel a little bit more sane.
TM: Well, before I forget, I just want our listeners to know that you have a website, and it’s—
TM: Okay, great!
TO: Yeah, and I just wanted to say, that New York Times article that came out in November, one thing I wanted to say about it, it was excellent. The news itself came out almost a year before, and that’s what made me sad, is it took almost a year for the New York Times to pick it out. But it was still beautiful. And the issue of biomass is what we should all be focusing on right now. And the only way you can really help something to survive is to make sure that it has a place to live and food, and that it has to be clean and organic.
And beekeeping is not the message anymore. That story has been hijacked by the chemical industry, which informs the conventional agricultural industry and the conventional beekeeping industry. That’s all hijacked. It’s now about biomass. We’re there—we’re at 25 percent left.
TM: Well, you know, it’s been a real pleasure to talk with you and feel your passion and your energy. And when I talk with people like you who say, “We can do this!” and “I’m going to do it!” I just want to thank you so much for that, because it’s very inspirational.
TO: I do have hope—I do.
TM: I know that you do, Terry! I can feel it. And so, Terry Oxford, thank you once again for all the beautiful work that you’re doing.
TO: Thank you, Theresa.
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