On February 12, 2014 a group of Los Angeles backyard beekeepers gathered to urge the Los Angeles City Council to consider making the practice of beekeeping in Los Angeles residential zones legal. These guerilla beekeepers outlined their reasons for cultivating bees and their hives, describing their commitment to locavore living and urban farming and their personal belief in the health benefits of locally derived honey. On a larger scale, they pointed out, their work prevents colony collapse disorder, a significant problem in which pollinating honeybees desert their hives, leaving at risk important agricultural crops such as almonds, avocados and blueberries. The beekeepers argue that the urban environment's diverse vegetation and lack of agricultural pesticides discourage such abandonment of hives. Fortunately the city council agreed to review the laws against backyard beekeeping.
Perhaps the city council members should consider that beekeeping is not new to Los Angeles and has, in fact, long been a part of the county's agricultural history.
Like many of the early beekeepers themselves, bees made their way to California from the Eastern United States by ship -- migration to the Western states by land was made nearly impossible by the arid mid-western plains. Typically setting off from New York, the bees and their hives made their way through the hot and humid Isthmus of Panama, landing in San Francisco wharfs, crowded and dazed upon disembarking the steamer, much like their human shipmates. The July 1, 1852 issue of the Daily Alta California reported the first importation of bees to California by Mr. W.A. Buckley and Lady of Newburgh, New York. This eccentric sounding couple arrived in San Francisco on June 28 on the steamship New Orleans, carrying the one last remaining beehive of the three they had in their possession when they left New York. Although the Daily Alta reported the hive to have arrived "with its industrious inmates in healthy working condition," Lee H. Watkins, in his 1968 article "California's First Honey Bees," refutes this notion. Watkins notes that because of the bees' long term confinement, Buckley's admittance that he knew very little of caring for bees, and Watkins' inability to unearth any record of W.A. Buckley or his last remaining hive, make it highly unlikely Buckley's bees were as the Daily Alta described.
Most histories on beekeeping in California credit Christopher A. Shelton as being the first to import healthy, living hives, in 1853. After arriving by ship in San Francisco, Shelton settled in Santa Clara County with his hives -- these colonies being the earliest California ancestors of the honeybee. While one of Shelton's wayward bees might have made its way southward from Santa Clara County to Los Angeles County, historical records indicate that it is O.W. Childs who first brought a beehive into the Southland on September 4, 1854. Childs purchased his hive in San Francisco for $150, from a ship carrying many hives that had originated in New York. It is unknown where Childs settled in Los Angeles County with his hive, although the Los Angeles County foothills became a popular spot for bee ranches, or apiaries.
According to Thompson and West's "History of Los Angeles County, California," by 1860 many county residents were beekeeping, with one particular party in the county harvesting twenty-five colonies, and "several others in the same business, all doing well." Cary McWilliams, in "Southern California: an Island on the Land," noted that "bee-ranching became a type of bonanza farming by 1870. On a foothill homestead, the bee rancher would start with a swarm of 100 stands in October, quickly increase the swarm to 400 stands, and ship 40,000 pounds of the finest comb-honey by July."
Most honey was shipped to San Francisco for sale, where it sold for a good profit. W. McPherson recorded that San Francisco buyers of "Los Angeles Mountain Honey" were told that "it is the purest and most delicate-flavored honey that ever comes to this market, and commands the highest price." In fact, according to "The Surveyor General's Report for 1871," Los Angeles County is recorded as the greatest producer of honey of the five honey-producing Southern California counties, including Kern, San Bernardino, San Diego, and Santa Barbara, bringing in 168,000 pounds of honey at a net worth of $11,760. According to McPherson, "there [was] no easier way to make money than that of 'Bee-Ranching,' in Los Angeles County."
The growing apiary industry created the need for manufacturers of beekeeping supplies. Miller Box Manufacturing Company, located right next to the Los Angeles River at 201-233 North Avenue 18 at Pasadena Avenue, offered their customers hives, honey extractors, swarm catchers, smokers and veils for both lady and gentlemen apiarists.
The popularity of beekeeping continued to grow in Los Angeles County and surrounding counties. At its first meeting in El Monte on August 18, 1873, the nine members of the Bee Keepers Association of Los Angeles gathered to adopt the organization's constitution and by-laws. By 1880 the organization had, at its peak, 56 members. The organization continues today as the Los Angeles County Beekeepers Association, promoting educational outreach on all things bee related, and supporting bee friendly legislation.
Beekeeping has enjoyed a long history in Los Angeles County. While initially practiced primarily for profit, it has of late grown into an environmental choice, reflecting the beekeepers' belief in the health benefits of local honey and an advocacy of local farming practices and the proliferation healthy bees and their colonies.
McPherson, W. Homes in Los Angeles city and county. Los Angeles: Mirror Book and Job Printing Establishment, 1873.
McWilliams, Carey. Southern California: an island on the land, 9th edition. Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith, 1980.
Reproduction of Thompson and West's History of Los Angeles County, California, 1880. Berkeley: Howell-North, 1959.
Watkins, Lee H. California's first honey bees. American Bee Journal, Vol. 108 (5): 190-191.