A 360 experience: One urban beekeper’s quest to go beyond the honey

On San Francisco’s 18th Street between Alabama and Florida Streets, a factory takes over half of the city block. Natural light floods into the building through the large windows. Around the corner, on the other side of the building, a café is bustling with crowds. Ever since opening this space in Mission district in 2012, Heath Ceramics has welcomed droves of visitors. But, some of them are not here for the potteries.

Terry Oxford, a high-energy woman in her 50s, enters the Heath Ceramics building from a side door and walks up the stairs. She quietly walks through a ceramics studio, opens the door on the other end, and reveals a vast rooftop. Oxford expertly navigates the rooftop, being careful not to trip over pipes on the floor. She purposefully takes a detour because she cannot easily climb over certain parts of a barrier. Finally, she arrives at her apiary with four beehives.

Terry Oxford in front of tiles from Heath Ceramics.

“At this time of the year when it’s cold, I just come up here and check the activity at the door [of the hives],” Oxford explains, “just to make sure [bees] are coming in and out, working and bringing in pollen.”

She asserts that what is going on inside a hive is completely expressed by what is going on at its doorway. As someone who has been a beekeeper for the past ten years, she does not need to open the hives to know whether the bees are healthy. In fact, she staunchly avoids opening them unless she has to, because in the winter months, the temperature outdoors is too cold for the bees, and the interior temperature is maintained at 95 degrees Fahrenheit by the bees themselves.

Oxford compares the four hives to wombs, each breeding and sustaining the lives of 20,000 to 30,000 bees inside.

As an environmental activist, Oxford has always grounded her beekeeping practices in what is best for the bees and our environment. While her primary intention of beekeeping has never been to harvest and sell honey from her hives, she gradually realized that bringing honeybees into the city is not the best way to protect our environment and save the pollinators. Oxford stressed that without cleaning up the ecosystem and making sure all pollinators have clean, pesticide-free food, any efforts of raising bees in the city is in vain.

Oxford began partnering with Heath Ceramics to set up the hives on its rooftop in the spring of 2016. This was not her first rooftop apiary, as she believes being on rooftops helps keep bees safely away from people, and protects them from ants, raccoons and other predators. She specifically chose Heath Ceramics because of its location in the Mission, where there is more sunshine and warmth compared to other parts of the city. Additionally, there is an abundance of food sources for bees in the area.

“Here in San Francisco, we’ve been really fortunate that the tree policy has not allowed any systemic pesticide treatment of any trees,” says Oxford. Using systemic pesticides on plants mean the chemicals will be absorbed by the plants into their system and circulate through all their tissues. No matter which part of the plants an animal feeds on, it is taking in toxins. Her bees mainly feed on the pollen and nectar of flowering gum trees, eucalyptus, bottle brush, acacia and citrus trees, acquiring the protein (pollen) and carbohydrates (nectar) that they need to survive, while also pollinating the trees.

Unfortunately, the sanctuary Oxford has found for her bees might soon be disrupted. Across the street from Heath Ceramics, a new development is being built. Oxford found out that once the construction is completed, the developers are planning on planting trees along the sidewalk, and the new trees are most likely pre-treated at the nursery with neonicotinoids or fungicides.

And that is not just a neighborhood problem, but city-wide.

“The thing that’s happening in San Francisco right now is they have neglected a lot of the treescape and have had to remove close to 18,000 trees over the last few years,” says Oxford. “The city is going to be planting close to 50,000 new tree saplings to replace the tree canopy that they’ve just clear cut.”

Having gone through governmental documents, Oxford discovered that almost 75 percent of those trees are pre-treated at the nursery.

“Once those trees are planted and start blooming, they’re going to be deadly,” she says. “In my opinion, the next couple of years are going to be a disaster for all biodiversity in San Francisco.”

According to a Friends of the Earth report, neonicotinoids are the most widely used type of insecticide in the world and are particularly toxic to bees. Neonicotinoids are a systemic chemical, meaning once they are given to a plant, it goes inside its system, and stays in it for years. The toxins from the chemical are expressed through the nectar, pollen, and even leaves of the plant, which are all nutrition sources for many insects and animals.

For Oxford, monoculture is the root cause of it all.

“Nature wants biodiversity, it doesn’t want monoculture,” she says.

The only way to keep our fields producing the same perfect crop and our produce without any flaw is to use a lot of chemicals. However, by doing so, the crop would be the only thing that survives in the area, and all other creatures would diminish, including pollinators, that are crucial to our survival.

Oxford has been working to make people realize that our food system is unsustainable and degenerative.

“We try to create our food in a completely antiseptic environment, and it’s not the way nature works. Nature doesn’t mind a bug, a worm,” she says.

While she acknowledges that the organic standards are being weakened by government and industry, she still encourages people to buy organic food and support organic growers. She believes that when people are supporting people that are farming organically and biodynamically, they are supporting a system that will support life in the future, and sending a message against the chemical-loaded, monoculture agriculture.

Oxford has also been incorporating this awareness into her beekeeping.

“I don’t identify with very many beekeepers, and I’m not happy being affiliated with that system,” she says. “I’m one of those people that just don’t deplete my bees. My honeybees get to keep all their honey.”

Oxford is not in the beekeeping world for the same reason many other beekeepers are, but she is starting to shift her focus because she feels it is unethical to bring more honeybees into the city. Honeybees are European imports brought to America because of the honey they produce, and due to the growing popularity of urban beekeeping, there are too many honeybees in the city. As a result, the native bees cannot compete with honeybees for limited food sources.

“Now I’m raising native Anise Swallowtail Butterflies and Mason Bees, and I’m going to give a shot to Leafcutter Bees and see how they do in the city,” Oxford says.

She knows she can support these species because there is still an abundance of clean food sources for them. Additionally, these species are part of the native population, and they can act as indicator species of how the ecosystem is doing, and how much poison is in the environment.

Other than supporting the native species, Oxford is also working to get as many organic trees planted in the city as possible. It is an action that is embodying a quote of hers that she posted on the homepage of her website, UrbanBeeSF, “Sustainability means doing something for the future from which you will never personally reap benefits. Giving without receiving reveals the best of our humanity, and where we need to grow the most as a species.”


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