Therese McLaughlin, Adam Novicki, and their basset hound, Thurston Howl,… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)
After dinner one night in downtown Los Angeles, my waiter offered me a better tip than the one I'd just left him.
He and his girlfriend were up to something illegal, he whispered. And he wanted to let me in on it.
No, they weren't robbing banks or fleecing senior citizens. They were beekeepers, said Adam Novicki. They tend to a thriving hive of backyard honeybees, which are critical to food supplies. But although we're in the midst of a mysterious national bee decline known as colony collapse, having an apiary in the city of Los Angeles is illegal.
All right, so it wasn't a stop-the-presses moment. But I did like the obvious angle — that something beneficial was outlawed in the City of Angels.
A couple of weeks later, I called Novicki and climbed a hill in Cypress Park to meet with him and his lady, Therese McLaughlin. Novicki, by the way, was a theater major at San Jose State many years ago, and he's worked as a comedian, musician, actor and Steve Martin impersonator, in addition to waiting tables at Spago and other fine eateries.
When I asked McLaughlin what she does for a living, the answer took a while. She's an actress as well as a personal assistant to an actress, she does voice work, she boards pets, and she and Novicki have established what they call T & A Farms (Therese and Adam), an impressive backyard produce operation, honey harvesting center and urban garden in the hills across Interstate 5 from Dodger Stadium.
OK, are they L.A. enough for you?
Novicki said his interest in gardening actually began when he worked at Spago, where waiters were educated on the origins of the food they served.
"It was roasted Chino Farms beets with goat cheese," he said, rather than just roasted beets. "It was Ojai pixie tangerines," not just tangerines.
To Novicki, that wasn't just foodie pretense. There was a difference in quality and taste. He didn't see himself working in restaurants forever, but he thought he might like to raise his own high-quality produce and sell it to them. So he began studying soil science at Pierce College, and then moved on to study plant science in a master's program at Fresno State, which he still commutes to along with everything else he's juggling.
So now let's get back to the bees.
About a year and a half ago, McLaughlin's curiosity was pollinated when she learned that honeybee populations are threatened and that in L.A., there were people dedicated to saving the bees.
"I thought, that's interesting, and it's important."
Important because bees pollinate a great deal of our food supply, and without them we're in trouble. But often, when someone calls City Hall to complain about a hive or a swarm, the result is extermination.
A bit of Googling introduced McLaughlin to Backwards Beekeepers, local bee lovers who believe the best hope for reversing colony decline may be the growth of pesticide-free urban farms and beekeeping, especially in a place where the climate makes for year-round vegetation. Among other things, the group fields calls from people desperate to get rid of hives, and the club sends volunteer rescuers out to gather them up and find new homes for them.
"I sent an email to the bee rescue hotline, saying that I was ready for some bees, and there had been a call to the hotline about a swarm that had taken up residence in a planter box in a family's yard," said McLaughlin.
She and a volunteer rendezvoused at a home in Santa Fe Springs before dawn one day in January, with McLaughlin in full regalia (Novicki bought her the suit, gloves, netted mask and beekeeping tools for Christmas). Using a smoker to calm the bees, they managed to coax them out of the planter and into a hive box for the ride back to Cypress Park, where the colony of a few thousand has grown to 15,000 to 20,000.
And since the bees arrived, Novicki's garden has exploded.
"It had been pretty skimpy the first two years," he said, attributing at least some of the turnaround to the work of the bees.
McLaughlin said the bees typically fly in about a three-mile radius, pollinating other people's gardens, and it's healthier for the bees to have managed hives rather than to swarm and needlessly frighten people who might be allergic to stings or suffering from killer bee hysteria.
An L.A. nonprofit called HoneyLove (http://www.honeylove.org) is trying to educate the public on the merits of beekeeping and the nutritional and economic benefits of urban gardening. So far, eight neighborhood councils have signed their support for the legalization of beekeeping, which is OK in some parts of Southern California but currently not permitted in single family residential zones in Los Angeles. In May, L.A. City Councilman Bill Rosendahl called for the planning and animal services departments to look into legalization, and a staffer in his office said Rosendahl may want to require support from neighbors before someone is allowed to keep bees.
At T & A Farms (http://www.tandafarms.org), McLaughlin pointed out how docile her honeybees were.
"They're just going about their business," she said as they ignored us, buzzing around the garden or returning to the hive from foraging adventures. You could hear the flutter of their wings, a soft, steady hum.
Novicki, meanwhile, proudly showed off a ridiculously robust bounty of heirloom tomatoes, Swiss chard, raspberries and dozens of other treasures.
I've got a small garden at my house, and now I've added a couple of flowering plants to attract more bees.
If I start harvesting honey, please, don't turn me in.