Cassandra Landry | Photos by Hilary Kearney & Tim O'neil
12.10.2014 | Issue #6/7
I’m only a few miles from the Mexican border when I pass a welcome sign for National City, a town just minutes south of downtown San Diego. A quick turn off the main drag leads to a dirt road lined with eucalyptus and cactus, their sturdy arms reaching toward a cloudless blue sky. A white Prius idles just past a large, creaky wooden gate. I’ve come—zipping past Camp Pendleton as helicopters hover overhead, the coastline escorting me down Interstate 5, glittering and winking like a horrible tease—to meet a beekeeper.
Hilary Kearney is not getting cutesy with a few hives on a restaurant roof. Nor does she supply all of San Diego’s markets with her airy, floral honey, pressed from hives hosted on properties all over the county. She does, however, rescue swarms from walls, trees, sheds, and anywhere else you may stumble upon them. It’s pretty kick-ass.
She fell in love with bees almost five years ago, and in the face of drought, colony collapse, and the labored re-stitching together of our nation’s food systems, is staunchly on the side of the pollinators. As Girl Next Door Honey, she has amassed over 14,000 followers (and counting) on Instagram, and at 28—blessed with an artistic eye and an uncanny dexterity for using an iPhone camera while wearing thick gloves—she has emerged as one of the most notable modern educators in the field.
She tosses me a pair of rubber shoes (“They don’t usually go for the feet since they’re not aggro, but you never know”), and shows me how to tuck the waxy top half of my polyester coveralls under the elastic band of a vented, heavy mesh jacket (“Very Oompa-Loompa, but it lets air in and keeps you cooler this way”). On goes the attached hooded fencing veil, which she zips me into, two toggles dangling somewhere below my chin. I am now ready to hike around Mars.
This location is a part of Kearney’s hive hosting program, where willing participants allow her to tend to bees and teach the occasional class on their property. A low wooden fence divides the lot from it’s neighbor, a nursery harboring Jurassic-sized cactus and desert plants.
“I’m self-taught, and I didn’t have a mentor,” she tells me, as she unloads plastic tubs full of bits of saturated comb from her trunk, a few errant bees floating out of the car, in preparation to free-feed honey back to her colonies. It’s apparently something most beekeepers don’t do, for fear of spreading disease. Kearney scoffs at the paranoia: the honey is from a colony of hers, one she knows is healthy. Disregard for the status quo is a common thread in her approach. “I learned about bees themselves and how they live, and then I worked from there. A lot of the decisions I make as a beekeeper I try to base on what I know about what the bees would have done without me.”
Mentor-less though she was, Kearney has unwittingly become a mentor herself, powered by the immediacy of social media. After being featured on the Instagram blog, Kearney’s account, full of National Geographic-worthy close-ups and action shots of swarm removals, suddenly jumped to 13,000 followers overnight. She's accessible, a cool chick who helps the planet without proselytzing, and she makes you believe you could do the same. “I didn’t know they had posted the article. I woke up and…” she breaks off, laughing. “My phone was going nuts.”
“I went from having 1,000 people who were already interested in bees or were beekeepers or gardeners, to having a total cross-section of the whole population following me who knew less than nothing about bees,” she says. “I had to make my Instagram a lot more educational. Now, unless I want to have 80 versions of the same question, I have to preemptively think about what I’m going to be asked when I post.”
In a medium where "lifestyle photographers" garner hundreds of thousands of followers by taking pictures of branches against blank walls and latte art, Kearney's popularity is an anomaly. It's not that beekeepers and their work are necessarily secretive, but it's hard to picture anyone who communicates the intricacy of the work so well. A cursory glance through her archives is surprisingly devoid of any snarky trolling or off-color sparring between commenters; it’s stacked with compliments and lightbulb moments and gratefully abandoned fears. Bugs are cool, especially do-gooders like honeybees, and people are reveling in the intimate shots Kearney affords them.
“That’s something that I’ve been trying to do all along, but now I’m reaching people that I would never have before,” she admits, before revealing the ultimate compliment, “...and a lot of them are 13 year-old boys flirting with girls on Instagram through my pictures.”
“Obviously educating kids is a huge part of changing people’s mindset,” she continues. “For me, bees are part of the bigger picture. One sustainable choice like this leads to another one, and it’s part of reconnecting people to not just their food system, but the environment. I think it helps people see that connection.”
Today’s agenda includes an attempt to reunite an orphan bee from a colony she recently lost with one of the other hives. After bringing home a box she presumed was empty, a ghost hive, she found one lone bee, hiding in the wreckage. She’s got a soft spot for the fighters—the survivors—so she’s been toting her along until she could come back out to the hives. She dabs a little honey on the bee’s back and scoots her towards the doorway.
“Don’t kill her! She’s covered in honey! Accept her!” she tells a light blue box, as a few bees come out to inspect the intruder. It doesn’t appear to be working. “They can smell that she’s not one of them,” she sighs, before plucking the orphan back onto her finger to try a different spot.
Kearney mostly deals in feral bees, preferring their born-in-the-wild work ethic and tenacity to bees you can purchase online, which are in most cases, Italian. She hates Italian bees, she tells me, because even though they’re admittedly beautiful, they’re weak and lazy. She’s also foundation-less, a rarity among many beekeepers, who tend to favor pre-fab stamped sheets of beeswax when constructing their hives. Her boxes are full of empty frames, which allows the bees to get a little creative if they feel so inclined. A pre-stamped foundation limits the size of the cells, she explains, and since breeds vary wildly across the board, in size and habits, it made more sense to her to allow them to make the call. “That’s one of the tenements of natural beekeeping, which is a silly term, because the very act of beekeeping isn’t natural,” she says. “I kind of want to say bee-centric beekeeping.”
She pulls out a frame that reveals a wildly undulating cross-section of comb. It looks like something out of a Frank Gehry-meets-Antoni Gaudí fever dream.
“Bees are amazing,” Kearney says, gingerly passing me the frame to hold against the light. We watch a cluster of bees perform their famed figure-eight dance, communicating the location of the food source by the angle of the “eight’s” apex in relation to the sun. “They’re mathematicians, they’re architects.”
As she loosens each frame, one by one, she holds it to light to check the cells for honey and brood. Some are capped with a rusty gold wax top, and some glisten in the late afternoon sun. Since it’s winter, she explains, even in the balmy low-80s of San Diego, there’s less nectar to forage. The queen will stop laying as many eggs, but it’s not always reason to panic: bees will naturally downsize their population since there’s less work to do and limited food supply. With each new hive we stick our faces into, Kearney will interrupt herself to point out the queen; she’s the one with an elongated torso, moving quick over the wiggling bodies of her workers. She seems to know them all individually, never losing track of who’s where.
“A lot of it is instinct. It’s a lot of trial and error. You’ll lose colonies, and you’ll keep learning,” she explains. “It’s like, how observant are you? Some people just have it, and some people don’t. Some pick it up really fast and just have this connection and ask the right questions, and some people are just overwhelmed by all the information.”
The catalyst for Kearney’s passion was her boyfriend and bee-wrangling partner, Tim O'Neil, whose personal bucket list included the big—”ride my bike across the country”—and the small, one of which was beekeeping.
“I had never heard of anybody wanting to do that before. I had never really even thought of it,” she says. Hoping to help him cross an item off his list, she bought him a book on the subject for his birthday, and wound up reading it herself. “It just sucked me in.”
Without knowing it, Kearney was approaching a fork in the road: this was 2010, and after graduating and moving back to her father’s home in San Diego, shiny new studio art degree in hand, she hit the inevitable post-grad wall. “I felt a little lost when I got out of school,” she recalls. She fell into a job temping at an office, which turned into a full-time gig when the woman she was covering for decided not to return. “I hated working in an office. It was killing my soul. I wasn’t doing art anymore, and I was miserable. I started researching beekeeping as something to hang on to, I think.”
It wasn’t, technically-speaking, legal at that point to have backyard bees in San Diego County, but Kearney and her father (“a pretty handy guy”) forged ahead and built a hive off some plans found online. One Craigslist ad later, plus a YouTube video watched for a quick how-to, and she was rescuing her first swarm. No bee suit, zero fucks given: a picture from the day shows father and daughter decked out in sweatpants tucked into boots and scarves wrapped around heads. Word spread, and soon she became the one to call if you needed someone to take some bees off your hands.
The path to career beekeeper was not without screw-ups, which is probably a comfort to Kearney’s students encountering their own learning curves. An early inspection even lead to the accidental killing of a queen, an incident that still seems to make her cringe.
“I was holding the frame she was on, fumbled and dropped it, and it crushed her. It was the worst thing ever,” she recalls. “When they lose their queen, they know pretty fast. They all start making this noise...it’s this kind of drone buzzing noise. It’s both low and high-pitched at the same time. I don’t know how to describe it.”
She attempts to replicate the noise, something that comes across as a deep, chest-thrumming whine. “So when I crushed her, I knew it because almost immediately they started making that noise. And when a bee dies, they’ll drag out the dead body and throw it out the front door. So I checked the ground the next day, and there she was.”
“Stuff like that happens to everyone,” she says. “You learn to be careful.”
Somewhere in the doldrums of her run-in with the 9-to-5, a few solid steps down the path that would lead to her current destiny, Kearney joined a vegetable garden club. When they found out she was a beekeeper, they asked her to teach a class. One class turned into a monthly affair, which has chugged along for two years. One level has snowballed into varying advanced classes, certificate programs, and hive tours. She now occasionally works with the San Diego Zoo.
“People are pretty much surprised by most of the things I tell them, because the average person knows little to nothing about bees," she admits. "They don’t know what honey is made of, and that’s incredible. I was one of those people, though so I’m not judging them.”
(Honey, in case you’re sitting there thinking, oh shit, I am that person, is made thus: the bees gather nectar from flowers, and carry it around in their honey gut, a second stomach for storage. Back at the hive, they spit it up into the cells of the comb, and dehydrate it. Originally, it’s about 70% water, and once it’s brought down to 17%, they cap it with a little beeswax, which seals in the correct moisture level.)
“I’ve always been someone who really likes making a difference. Not necessarily on a huge scale, but on an individual level. I really like changing someone’s mind for the better,” she says. ”We’re legally killing bees with pesticides and the government’s not doing anything about it in the face of all this scientific research, but at least I can convince some 13 year-old boy in Idaho that bees are important. That makes me feel better.”
On principle, Kearney makes her hive hosts sign an agreement to not use pesticides in any capacity, and urges them to speak to their neighbors about doing the same. She mentions that even some farmers have approached her about hosting bees for a few months out of the year, and she refused on the grounds that the bees should have a reliable permanent home. She’s equally skeptical of restaurants who buy hives under the guise of environmental activism, just so they can say they produce honey in-house. “Plant some pollinator plants first, and then talk to me,” she says. We lapse into silence for a moment, mesmerized by the steady hum of activity before us.
“The beekeepers are working really hard,” she says, finally. “At a certain point, it becomes time for us to put our foot down and demand what’s best for the bees. We speak for them.”
Sometimes, she tells me, she will go two or three days without opening a hive, and starts to feel a little sad. “I look at this, and I could just sit on the ground over here for 20 minutes and watch them. They’re like little fairies. They’re klutzy, and it’s so fun to watch them fly. That’s why I have so many pictures on Instagram, it’s because they’re delightful.”
The time comes for me to get back on the road, and as we’re heading back to the cars, Kearney hesitates. “You know,” she says, “I think I’m going to hang back here for a few more minutes.” She helps me out of my suit, shakes my hand, and leaves me with a jar of Girl Next Door Honey made in nearby La Mesa. As I’m trundling back down the dirt path, I catch her in the rearview mirror—a lone figure in white against the backdrop of the mountains, happily crouched down, snapping photos as her bees circle around her.