If you drive down Huntington Dr., headed east, just past the El Sereno branch library, you might notice a handwritten sign tacked to a tree: “HONEY BEE MIEL DE ABEJA.” Sitting nearby most days will be Victor Jaramillo Soriano, the “Honey Man” of El Sereno. He parks a metal cart at the end of the driveway. It is stacked with Ziploc bags of bee pollen and an assortment of amber jars of honey priced between $6 to $10. The ones with honeycomb inside cost a buck extra.
Most of what he sells is taken directly from Soriano's own hives in the neighborhood, the honey sweetened by orange trees, wildflowers and cacti that dot the nearby hills and arroyo. Beekeeping has deep roots in Los Angeles, dating back over 150 years, but residents haven’t always embraced it. In 2015, the City Council finally repealed a ban on residential apiaries that had been on the books since 1879. If Soriano ever knew of that rule, he didn’t bother to follow it; he tells us he started raising bees in the neighborhood all the way back in 1948. That revelation gives us pause and we ask an indelicate question: his age. He replies with an avuncular smile, “on June 28th, I turned 93 years old.”
“My first memories as a child were of bees, not my mother or father,” he says. Victor was born in Tepetongo, a tiny municipality in the central Mexican state of Zacatecas. His father was also an apiarist who had retired to Tepetongo but in his younger days, he had traveled throughout California, following the Missions Trail, selling beeswax candles and honey at each one,” Bianca Estes tells us. She’s Soriano's granddaughter and a bee farmer herself, up in Poulsbo, Washington where she runs Shallow Roots Ranch. “My great grandfather was a loner and liked to travel,” she explained. 19th-century California could be violent and unruly but the elder Soriano found safe passage thanks to his wares. “Bees always give mankind two things, sweetness and light,” says Estes, explaining that wherever her great-grandfather went, “he was welcomed, revered and anticipated.”
Like his father, Soriano eventually made his own journey to California as a teenager. “I worked with bees since the [American] men were off at war. Even beekeepers were off at war,” he explains. He quickly landed in Northern California, picking fruit, but eventually came to Los Angeles in 1946 and settled in El Sereno, then still more rural than suburban. With money he had saved, Soriano began buying up cheap plots of land throughout the area, many of which he used to set up hives. He takes us to one of them, located up a few minutes away, near Our Lady of Guadalupe Church.
The lot sprawls across a quarter acre, rising steeply against the hills. Once upon a time, there was a house here but that’s long gone and instead, the plot is feral with citrus trees and gnarled nopal clusters, all of which Soriano planted over 50 years ago. He takes us to a small patch beneath a canopy of trees where 15 active bee hives are stacked. “They’re a little aggressive today,” he warns and we don’t approach any closer. Soriano doesn’t wear a bee suit when he visits his hives. At most, he might use a little smoke to calm them down but he eschews most of the accoutrements of modern apiary work. “I’m sure that there is no one my age working with bees or that has my experience. I do things with bees no other beekeepers can do,” he brags.
Younger apiarists sometimes seek him out. “They have their own ideas from what they read in beekeeping books,” he says. “The books are good and have images but it’s better to learn by practicing. I’ve tried a bunch of experiments. The experiments I’ve tried don’t appear in the books.” As an example, he shows us one of his hive frames, each stamped with his country registration number, B-149. He makes these by hand, from wood, and unlike plastic frames where the honeycomb is completely prefabricated, Soriano only uses a homemade “starter” comb, made from beeswax, which allows the bees to build the rest of the honeycomb on their own. “People from as far as Santa Ana and Pomona will come look for me because they want to see a hive made completely by the bees,” he says.
We clamber down from this lot, headed to see a few other ones in the neighborhood, but Soriano explains that he has scores of different plots, some here, others in Green Valley, west of Lancaster, still others in Elko County, in northeast Nevada. The honey he collects from each region reflects the local terroir. “Here, you have flowers like orange,” he says, pointing to some trees but in Green Valley, “the honey tastes of sage and buckwheat. Everywhere gives it a slightly different taste.”
For years, Soriano would collect his honey and then sell them at local drive-in theater swap meets: the Paramount, the Starlight, the Sundown. “I would say my honey was better because it was extra virgin,” he says, laughing. “It’s extra virgin because my bees’ reputation is impeccable.” He laughs again but then adds: “actually, my bees really are virgins because only the queen produces offspring.” He even refers to the female worker bees as his daughters: mis hijas. “They are the first to get up to work and the last to call it a day. They are better engineers and builders than people and they work in the dark,” he beams.
The bees have always been good to him even though his apiary work was always a side hustle. In his younger days, Soriano ran a home renovation business at Maycrest and Huntington but when times were lean, he always had the honey to fall back on. Of his children and grandchildren, only Bianca Estes followed in the beekeeping footsteps but she remembered well, “my grandfather always had money, no matter what was happening.” That was no small inspiration behind her opening her own bee farm during the Great Recession.
Soriano tells us that counting himself, his father and grandfather, his family has over 300 years of beekeeping experience but Estes says it goes much further. She traced the family’s beekeeping as far back as a botanist who had departed Genoa for what would eventually be known as Colombia, back in the early 1500s. On his manifest included a box of bees. “We see ourselves as the keeper of the bee,” she says.
Both Estes and Soriano are deeply concerned, like all apiarists, with the mysterious colony collapses that have ravaged the beekeeping community over the past decade. Soriano's sister-in-law thinks it’s the cell phone towers but he thinks it’s parasitic Varroa mites which are increasingly turning up in the hives he’s looking after. “More than anything I like to protect them,” he says. “A wise man once said once the bees are gone humanity wouldn’t survive another five years.” (It’s a misattributed Albert Einstein quote).
Back at his house on Huntington Dr., Soriano pulls out his “bee bell,” a metal, Frisbee-like disc that he clangs with a piece of pipe. “In the evenings, I use this to call the bees back to their hive,” he says. We’re a bit wary, expecting to be overwhelmed by a buzzing swarm but no bee-pocalypse manifests. He puts the bell down and reassures us that they don’t come rushing back: “it takes time but the bees eventually come home.”
Top Image: Victor Jaramillo Soriano's Honey Products | Oliver Wang