Sometime this month, almost 2 million bees will travel from La Canada Flintridge to a new home in Glendale. Residents needn't worry, though. The bees are locked up in 31 beehives and will be traveling on a small pickup truck owned by local beekeeper George Vilmur.
Vilmur, 80, has raised bees as a hobby for 22 years, the past 10 at a wilderness preserve called Cherry Canyon, where he traded honey for rent privileges. He keeps 31 hives on a hilltop ridge overlooking Glendale, Burbank, Pasadena and La Canada Flintridge; 30 more are kept in a more secluded canyon spot near a reservoir.
Earlier this year, La Canada Flintridge received state funds to buy 40 acres for parkland in Cherry Canyon--including the land where Vilmur keeps his bees. And the hilltop hives, which lie about 20 feet from a popular hiking and riding trail, have been evicted.
"People come up the trail to get to that high point and . . . they ride right into the flight pattern of the bees going into those boxes. It's really an interference," said Bill Campbell, director of community development for La Canada Flintridge.
However, Campbell said, the city has not received any complaints; moving the beehives is a precaution. Vilmur's other hives, which are less accessible to hikers and horseback riders, will be allowed to remain on city land.
Vilmur has received permission from Glendale to relocate the 31 ridge-top hives to city-owned land in an unoccupied canyon at the end of Fern Lane, near the Glendale Freeway. He plans to move them at night when the bees are sluggish and sleepy, placing screens around the hives so no bees can escape during the four-mile journey.
Michael Pearson, a bee inspector for the Los Angeles County agricultural commissioner, says the move poses "absolutely no danger" to nearby residents.
Vilmur said he bears no ill will toward La Canada Flintridge city officials for forcing him out.
"I understand their plight. They're afraid the bees will sting people and scare the horses," Vilmur said. He is a friendly man, who speaks with great fondness about his charges and the important role they play in pollinating plants and flowers.
"It's only when you disturb them that they get ornery," he explained.
But Vilmur said that tending to 61 beehives and battling apiphobic bureaucracies is too sticky a task for an 80-year-old man. For the right offer, he would consider selling the beehives and abandoning his hobby, he said. He'd even throw in his beekeeper's veil and elbow-length gloves. Vilmur declined to name a price, but Pearson said hives sell for anywhere from $30 to $70, depending on size and quality.
Vilmur, who once dabbled in real estate and owned gas stations, got involved with honeybees by chance. In the early 1950s, when he owned an 11-unit apartment building in Glendale, one of his tenants began gingerly raising bees as a hobby. But the tenant never got over his fear of bees, and, in 1954, he unloaded four hives on Vilmur.
Although his wife wasn't thrilled, Vilmur installed them in his backyard, bought protective clothing and read up on bee lore.
He also resigned himself to getting stung.
Once, he dropped a hive while trying to move it and a host of sleepy, angry bees poured out, stinging him in 32 places. Another time, a bee crawled inside his beekeeper's veil and stung him between the eyes, puffing up his face and swelling his eyes shut. He was hospitalized briefly.
"I'm as allergic as the dickens to them," Vilmur said cheerfully.
When his neighbors began to complain, Vilmur moved his bees to Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy, a private school above Descanso Gardens. The agreement was that Vilmur would keep the school supplied with honey in exchange for keeping the bees on the property. That arrangement lasted until about 10 years ago, when the school asked him to move the hives because of a teacher who was acutely allergic to bees.
In 1976, Vilmur moved his beehives to Cherry Canyon. In 1981, La Canada Flintridge city officials got wind of his beehives and made him apply for a beekeeping permit, which they recently revoked.
Campbell said there is only one other beekeeper in La Canada Flintridge and that his hives pose no danger to residents as they are in the mountains and remote. Glendale, on the other hand, has about 16 registered beekeepers with about 400 hives, city officials say.
Handles With Bare Hands
One recent sunny day after a heavy rain, Vilmur puttered around on the hillside bee retreat, checking his hives and demonstrating his apiarian skills to a visitor.
"See how gentle and docile they are? I can handle them with my bare hand," he told a visitor, prying open a beehive and lifting out a wooden frame covered with about 500 crawling bees. He didn't flinch as several bees descended on his bare hands and one crawled slowly up his shirt sleeve. Instead, he shook it out gently and slowly replaced the bee-laden frame with steady hands.
"They don't like sudden movements," he explained.