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URBAN JUNGLE : To Bee or Not to Bee

July 14, 1996|Ed Leibowitz

Since he shucked the blue jumpsuit of a paramedic 12 years ago for the white jumpsuit of a bee remover, Simon Sharf has embarked on the occasional freak assignment. The 41-year-old sole proprietor of Bee Professional once extracted nearly a hundred pounds of honey from behind the wall of the Reseda Hilton, which the head chef was soon dispensing buffet-style in the hotel parking lot. He removed a misshapen hive built around the skeleton of a possum hungrier than he was wise. He ousted a phalanx of German yellow jackets that had the audacity to invade the set of a movie being made for the Disney Channel. But seldom has he encountered the kind of entrepreneurial predicament he will tackle this afternoon.

"This guy was an aerospace worker who was laid off in '92," Sharf says as he negotiates his Jeep Comanche through San Fernando Valley traffic. "He's producing these worms for landfills." A swarm has settled in one of his plywood spawning boxes.

The West Hills worm farmer, Karl Troesken, ushers Sharf into his backyard. He lifts the lid of a box to reveal his squirming harvest. "These worms will eat radioactive waste," Troesken boasts. "They'll eat asbestos." On the open market, they fetch $10 per pound.

Sharf suits up his slender frame for the confrontation: yellow rubber gloves with cuffs that reach to his elbows; a Styrofoam pith helmet with a shroud of mesh that protects his dark eyes and modest grin. He asks for a stick to prop up the lid. "This is where I lose my nerve," Troesken declares, retreating toward his back stoop.

Sharf has suffered so many stings over the years--in the thousands, he says--that he is not at all squeamish. Born in Israel, he cultivated honey on a kibbutz in the Valley of Jordan. But Israeli architectural conceits quashed any possible career in bee removal. "Here the walls are hollow," he explains, "and it's very common for the bees to settle in the walls. Over there, most of it is solid brick and cement, and that doesn't give the bees the opportunity to settle into structures." Not until he came to California in 1977 was he introduced to this niche market of pest control.

A swelling lump of bees has formed just below a hinge; Sharf brushes the humming mass aside with his glove. "Look at this," he says. "They have honeycombs already built." He picks up a hand-held bellows, lights some burlap inside and trains it on the hive. "The smoke actually brings back a very primitive instinct from the time when they were in forests," he says. "They think the forest is on fire, and they try to grab honey. . . and once they're fully loaded with honey they won't attack."

With a scraper, Sharf dislodges chunks of honeycomb, placing them in a cardboard box. The bees, heavily laden, putter around as vigilantly as they can. As usual, Sharf is probing for the queen. "Probably she's in the next comb," he says. "Yeah, she's right here."

Once the queen hits the cardboard, the workers follow her scent into the box. Sharf will reestablish the hive in his own backyard to raise honey, or give it away to a researcher he knows. He tries to avoid extermination unless the bees have nested someplace hazardous.

Indeed, all the invaders of Troesken's worm farm will survive, save those with the misfortune to be away probing for pollen this afternoon. They are doomed to fly around until overwhelmed by exhaustion or worse. "No other beehive will accept them," Sharf rues. "Bees have their own smell and identity, and literally they're going to be stung once they try to get another beehive. Sometimes they do make an exception if they're fully loaded with pollen and nectar."

Troesken asks for advice on how to prevent the bees from returning, but Sharf assures him that he is probably safe.

"It's a sign of good luck," Sharf tells him. "The Chinese say any time bees come to visit you. . . "

"It's good luck?" Troesken asks.

"It's good luck," Sharf says.

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