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LIFESTYLE : Not Just Buzz Words : Beekeeping is more a hobby than a business for many. Some say it's relaxing and may even cure disease.


NORTH HILLS — Charles Owens, a high school biology teacher, was just 51 when his doctor gave him the tragic news. His incessant shaking was due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. He could count on living just six months to two years more.

Owens' son, a large-scale beekeeper in Northern California, brought his father a swarm of bees to tend, to help keep him busy.

"Because of my biology background, I've always had an interest in natural science," said Charles Owens, now 73. "I became fascinated by the bees and how they work. About the time they were supposed to be burying me, I was getting stronger. They've been a tremendous therapeutic value to me."

Owens, who lives in North Hills, believes that not only the work involved in caring for bees improved his condition, but their stings helped as well. "It may have something to do with the immune system's response to a sting. All I know is, I've had thousands of stings over the years, and I'm still here."

He has 25 colonies of bees on his half-acre, each one home to 60,000 to 100,000 bees. As much as 250 pounds of honey can be produced per colony, and so far, this has been a good season for beekeeping. "At my age, I'm having trouble lugging the 65-pound containers full of honey," Owens says.

Beekeeping might be a misnomer, because bees are highly self-sufficient. The combined distance that the bees in a colony travel to produce a pound of honey is more than the distance around the world. During a San Fernando Valley spring, they are able to collect nectar from a wide variety of blossoms, giving locally produced honey a unique taste and scent.

It's estimated that in the Valley, there are 800 to 900 people tending bee colonies, many of which are illegal. Beekeepers are required to register with the county each year and pay $10 for a license. They must also check to see if any ordinances outlaw beekeeping in their city, and if the property where they will keep their bees is zoned for agricultural use.

Most keepers take to bees because they like them, not because they're thinking of making a living selling honey. "There's a great deal of regulation surrounding bees," says Simon Scharf, a Tarzana beekeeper. "Most people buy the cheap honey that's imported from other countries, and there's not much of an appreciation for the bees that make the honey."

Scharf, who learned about beekeeping from his grandfather, began a business keeping bees and removing swarms while working as a paramedic. "Many times I would be called to treat someone who had been stung from a group of bees that had swarmed. I'd tell them I could get rid of the hive, and I'd come back when I was off duty and remove (the bees.)"

He eventually left his job to form his own company, Bee Professional, in which he removes wild hives from residences and office buildings throughout the Valley. Scharf also tends to 20 hives of his own. "It's very calming to watch bees work; they're so organized, you can study them for hours."

In a remote canyon in the Antelope Valley, Jerry Harmon finds the time he spends with his 10 colonies very valuable. "Not long after I got into this, I got a divorce, and the days I'd tend to the hives kept my sanity."

Harmon of Lancaster first became interested in bees when one stung him in the arm as a child. "I was fascinated by the morbid side of bees, their stingers; then I began to learn and build an appreciation for them."

An appliance repairman, Harmon spends at least one afternoon a week checking his hives, collecting honey and watching his bees. He gives the honey he harvests as gifts to friends and family, and he eats a peanut butter and honey sandwich for lunch each day.

Harmon takes exception to the public's image of the bee as aggressive. "They only sting when threatened, and after stinging they die, so they've got to be pretty sure you pose a threat to them."

Until recently, the biggest worry among local beekeepers has been the sagging interest in their hobby as the region becomes less agriculturally oriented. But that concern has been replaced by another: Finding a way to stop the encroaching Africanized "killer bees" before they infest local colonies.

"People are going to think all bees are the Africanized bees, and hopefully there won't be mobs coming out and destroying every hive they see," Harmon says.

"We'll need to watch our hives more often," says Scharf. "The Africanized bee is very aggressive and is able to take over a hive."

But some believe a solution to the Africanized bee problem will be found. "There are so many advances in genetics, I think they'll be able to breed out the aggressive instinct in these bees," Owens says.

"It's not going to hurt the back-yard beekeeper; it's going to affect the big commercial farms, and they'll be leading the way to find a solution."

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