To Bee, or Not to Bee

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Here’s the buzz—backyard beekeeping is a thing!

Responding to alarming reports of colony collapse and the threat to our food crops and wildlands, city and suburban dwellers are keeping the beekeeping tradition alive with hives abuzz with bees tucked away in backyards and gardens all over the country.

In California, 30 percent of our food source is dependent on bee pollination, so commercial beekeeping is in every way a vital part of our multi-billion-dollar agricultural community.

Indeed, it’s the honeybees that remain crucial, pollinating billions of dollars of fruit, vegetable and nut crops every year while collecting food for their hives.Yet, according to Wikipedia, some have found that “city bees” are actually healthier than “rural bees” because there are fewer pesticides and greater biodiversity from year-round gardens.

Beekeeping (or apiculture) is the maintenance of bee colonies, commonly in man-made hives, by humans. Most such bees are honey bees in the genus apis mellifera, but other honey-producing bees such as stingless Melipona bees are also kept. A beekeeper (or apiarist) keeps bees to collect honey and other products that the hive produces, including beeswax, propolis, flower pollen, bee pollen, and royal jelly, fed to the queen. A location where bees are kept is called an apiary or “bee yard.”

A Short History of Bees

Depictions of humans collecting honey from wild bees date back about 10,000 years and beekeeping in pottery vessels began about 9,000 years ago in North Africa. According to several references, simple hives and smoke were used and honey was stored in jars, some of which were found in the tombs of pharaohs such as Tutankhamun.

Europeans brought Western honeybees and crop seeds across the Atlantic in 1622. It wasn’t until the 18th century that European understanding of the colonies and biology of bees allowed the construction of the moveable comb hive so that honey could be harvested without destroying the entire colony.

In the U.S., until WWII, honey bees were cultivated primarily by farmers for their own crops. In fact, our primary impression of beekeeping is primarily from depictions of commercial beekeepers in white suits and veils, smoking hives.

Yet, with more information, hands-on classes, books, and online videos, beekeeping is now accessible for everyone with a little land and some native plants nearby.

More Bees, Please!

My first introduction to beekeeping occurred in February, when my fiancé, Jim Hoffman, cheerily announced, “I have brought home a bee box.”

He was referring to the square box with vertical “frames” where the bees live and produce wax, honey, pollen and where the Queen lays her eggs.

Since the learning curve was straight up before actually getting bees, we started monthly classes at The Valley Hive in Chatsworth, where we also purchased our supplies, tools, bee suits, gloves and beekeeping books (

Our bees arrived in April inside a small, screened wooden package of about 10,000 gentle Italian bees with the queen in a separate container.

At first, wearing the white cotton bee suits and heavy gloves felt awkward, like going into a clean room or donning a space suit. But that feeling lasted only a short while before you relax, pry open the hive and install a box of adorable, buzzy bees and feed them a gallon of sugar syrup in a feeder.

Tragically, two weeks after installing our package, our first queen died. We replaced her with the help of Keith, a professional beekeeper in the Valley. Patient and kind, he reassured us that 20 percent of queen bees die in their first month, so we were still doing “okay.” Considering how little we knew, we took that as a compliment.

Now, with our fourth hands-on Sunday morning class under our belts, we have gained just enough knowledge to check on our two-month old hive, feed it sugar syrup, smoke the hive and check for the queen and the existence of eggs and larvae.

Monthly hands-on classes continue at The Valley Hive in Chatsworth, so anyone wanting to learn, can purchase suits and equipment and join the classes, but you can’t obtain your bees until next April.

For more information, go to

Olga Crawford, Topanga Homesteader

Topanga has a long and rich history of beekeeping, including the family of Gary Varney who has kept bees in the canyon since the 1950s.    

In 2015, at a Topanga Historical Society meeting, Varney spoke about his family business of hives with additional stories from beekeepers Delmar Lathers and Daniel von Wetter.

The Varney’s story is told in “The Topanga Story: Expanded Edition,” published by the Topanga Historical Society in 2012.

Currently, could there be a more enthusiastic bee keeper in Topanga than Olga Crawford?

Since moving to Topanga a decade ago, Olga Crawford and her husband, Sam Crawford, have raised their three teenage boys on 23 acres near Topanga State Park. A real estate agent with Sotheby’s, Olga loves her Topanga Homestead where she keeps bees, chickens, and a large garden.

“I’m kind of a lady farmer and homesteader for my hobby,” she enthused. “I would love to do this fulltime.”

Born and raised in Moscow, Olga spent summers at the family’s Dacha in Zagorsk.

“Zagorsk was a small, beautiful town, just like old Russia,” she recalled. “We had a little plot of land on a pond; my dad built our Dacha cabin and we would garden. It’s where I inherited my desire to homestead, always had a garden bed. When we purchased our property here, it was about the land and I was taken by the idea of having our little Topanga homestead.”

Ironically, beekeeping was not the first thing on Olga’s mind when she started her Topanga homestead.

“Three year ago, as a total fluke, a friend was getting rid of his hives,” she said. “To be honest, I was completely horrified of bees; I always thought they were out to sting you. But after conquering that fear, I could keep bees and not be afraid. I started beekeeping, learning about the colony as a whole and fell in love with them; now there is zero fear.”

Olga and I spoke of the concentration it takes to tend bees and the meditative effect they have.

“When I bee keep, I can be the calmest person in the world,” she said. “Over three years, I have had amazing, calm hives with Italian queens and some feral swarms…they are really not out there to get you. They have a very clear job, they are out to find a new place to live.”

Olga said containing a swarm is easy; they should never be destroyed or exterminated because any expert beekeeper can save them.

“When they leave their original hive and swarm, the take on as much honey as they can fly [with],” she said. “They can’t sting because their bellies are so full.”

Follow Olga Crawford and her bee hives on Instagram at #Crawfordapiaries or #Topanahomestead.

Los Angeles County Beekeeping

Officially known as apiaries, bee hives are thriving all around Los Angeles County.

According to Noriel Reyes, Agricultural Inspector III, Apiary/AHB/HazMat Program with the Dept. of Agricultural Commissioner/Weights & Measures in Arcadia, beekeeping in Los Angeles County is at a three-year high.

“Yes, definitely, since 2015, we have seen a threefold increase,” he said. “We have more registered hives, but a lot more unregistered, because they are a little bit scared that they might be fined, or neighbors might call the police.”

Inspector Reyes said there is nothing to fear if you register your hives and follow local city and county regulations.

“People are allowed to have those bee boxes in their residents, as long as the city allows it and no bees are overly aggressive.”


For more questions and a wealth of beekeeping information:; or e-mail Mr. Reyes:

Go on now! Get bees, go to bee classes, read “Beekeeping for Dummies,” get a hive and a bee suit and have a great time enriching your land with Nature’s best little buzzy, fuzzy friends!


Annemarie Donkin

Annemarie Donkin is a journalist who wrote for The Signal in Valencia, CA and was the Managing Editor for the Topanga Messenger from 2013 to 2016. She is thrilled to write for the Messenger Mountain News to continue the tradition of excellent community newspapers. When she’s not writing, she loves to travel throughout California, read, watch movies and keep bees.

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