Urban beekeeper on a quest to protect nature’s pollinators
Rosa Goudsmit does not take “no” — or even “we’ll see” — for an answer.
The 42-year-old Jewish Dutch native, now living in Silver Lake, keeps a small flock of sheep next to her home, and she is hoping soon to open an “urban kibbutz” a few hundred yards from the Silver Lake reservoir.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, though, Goudsmit was headed to the offices of a major exterminator based in the Westlake neighborhood. Her mission: Persuade the company to consider not killing bees, but instead to use her to help safely transport the insects to a local beekeeper.
Pulling up in her multipurpose Chevy truck — its uses include transporting her two small children and carrying food for her sheep — Goudsmit was decked out in black Nike exercise pants, a black sleeveless gym shirt and a neon blue Los Angeles Dodgers baseball cap. She was carrying a book titled “The Backyard Beekeeper.”
Walking confidently into the company’s parking lot, she inquired in Spanish of some employees how many trucks the company uses for bee extermination purposes. Two, she found out. “I hope they use the special vacuums,” she said quietly to herself as she examined one of the trucks. When rendered docile by smoke, bees can safely be sucked into a special bee vacuum and eventually transported to a new hive.
Inside the company’s office, she quickly found a manager who recognized her, presumably from past impromptu negotiation sessions, as this one also appeared to be.
While the manager was busy sorting employees’ mail, Goudsmit jumped right into her pitch: The company, she said, should offer people with a bee problem the option of transporting, rather than killing, the bees.
Goudsmit knows both how to transport bees and is in contact with a handful of other local urban beekeepers who would gladly take them. Goudsmit doesn’t like when bees are fumigated and gassed; she wants them dealt with tenderly, and when an owner isn’t set on having an intrusive hive destroyed, she is willing to help make sure those bees are transported safely so that they can continue to work their magic of honey production and pollination.
But first she has to convince the exterminators to change, which potentially could lead to a loss of business or, at the very least, some extra work to go out of their way to contact transporters like her. Not an easy sell.
Goudsmit has been involved in beekeeping and safe transportation since 2010, when she used bee stingers to treat arthritis in her back. The bees, she said, reduced her pain so much that she began caring for them for her own medical use and research. Eventually, realizing the magical purpose that bees serve humanity — largely in regard to agriculture — she decided to make it her mission to save the lives of as many as she could.
Her dream of linking beekeepers and bee transporters with exterminators in Los Angeles, would, she said, “probably make Los Angeles the coolest city in the world for bees,” potentially saving countless productive ones from death.
Another dream for Goudsmit is to give L.A.’s bees the same protection afforded to the pack of coyotes that roam Silver Lake, occasionally attacking people’s dogs and cats. City wildlife officials oppose the trapping and killing of coyotes in most instances.
“The coyotes are protected by the city. They don’t do any good for us,” Goudsmit said. “But the bees that we need to survive? An exterminator can go and gas them — it makes no sense to me. There is something really off-balance here.” As long as bees are not protected, though, her best shot at saving them is convincing exterminators to work with bee lovers like her when they get calls.
At this pest control company, the manager gave her the response that any bottom-line minded businessman would — we don’t do bee transportation. We kill bees. We can’t tell potential customers to not use our service when they want us to come and help them.
Goudsmit, relentless, but with a smile, continued her pitch, walking with the manager into his office. What about when people call and indicate that they’d like the bees removed, not killed? What then?
Very few people who call are asking for removal, he answered, but when they do, he’ll instruct his call operators to refer them to Goudsmit. As he entered her information into the company’s database, she smiled and gave him a hug. Her aggressive yet nonconfrontational, and sweet, form of negotiating may just net her a few clients who want to save bees. More important, though, from her perspective, some bees may be saved.
As Goudsmit prepared to leave the office, she remembered something. Reaching into her bag and pulling out a jar of some of her finest honey (she collects rare types from across California), she gave it to the manager.
The urban bee transporter, it seems, likes to catch her bees with honey.
Rosh Hashanah and the art of beekeeping
I never told my wife about the bees.
My wife, the rabbi, has suffered my enthusiasm for urban farming with bemusement and exasperation, anger and forgiveness. Much like God Herself suffers the Children of Israel.
Last Monday morning, for instance, after returning on a long night flight from New York, she was up way too early, making coffee in the kitchen, when the two pygmy goats burst through the open hallway door and charged like plains buffalo for the dog-food container. Goldie (yes, Goldie Horn) used one of her mini-shofars to crash the tin lid, which skittered across the floor, followed by a shot pattern of kibble.
“ROB! GOATS!” I heard.
I rushed in to shoo them off and herd them, like a wannabe Jacob, back into the pen, from where they had managed once again to escape.
And where, six months ago, I found the bees.
This was back when I got it into my head that my urban farm, with two goats, five chickens, four dozen artichoke plants, a summer garden, plus pomegranate, lemon and fig trees, really needed a beehive. Because the year before, my tomatoes and peppers had failed to thrive.
“Bees,” Pete, my very laconic farmers market plant man said. “Incomplete pollination.”
We all know that bees around the world are dying off due to a mysterious condition called colony collapse disorder. At the same time, urban farmers are trying to revitalize the idea of home hives. The bees get a small population bump, the neighboring plants get pollinated, the homeowner gets honey. Urban farmers take the idea that “change begins with me” quite personally — maybe too personally.
What I didn’t do was raise the idea of bees with my wife. How do you tell a woman from Brooklyn — I mean concrete, black-hat Boro Park Brooklyn, not hip, home-brew, aquaponic-farm Brooklyn — that you want to put a beehive 40 feet from her bedroom window? Here’s how: You don’t.
I ordered a book, “The Backyard Beekeeper.” Imagine my relief when it arrived in a plain brown wrapper.
The book was a revelation. Bees are an alien civilization — complex, hierarchical and orderly. You watch over the hive without intervening too much in their self-contained lives. In short, you are Spinoza’s God, they are humanity. The idea is to buy a hive, order a queen and her drones, then put their universe in motion. They do the rest.
The queen produces eggs; the drones mate with the queen; the workers, which are nonreproducing females, build and clean the honeycomb, get nectar, make honey. The hive is the model functional society; the beekeeper’s job is to not screw it up.
The more I read, the more amazed I was. Bees, it turns out, serve as a kind of evolutionary model for human tribal behavior. If natural selection affirms the power of selfishness, seeing life as a zero-sum game — either I pass down my genes, or you do yours — bees live a life of sacrifice, subsumed for the good of the group.
In his book “The Happiness Hypothesis,” Jonathan Haidt posits that humans have coevolved according to both our culture and our genetics. Genetically, we are predisposed to compete, to win out against others at all cost — survival of the fittest. But we are also hive animals who benefit by developing and following rules and laws that enable our group to succeed.
Haidt (and others) view religion itself as a set of rules that re-create hive behavior. We increase our chances for survival — and for happiness — by being part of a group. Morality and religion are intertwined. Future generations can no more reinvent morality from scratch than a single bee can re-create a hive.
“When opponents of evolution object that human beings are not mere apes, they are correct,” Haidt writes. “We are also part bee.”
Of course, a tribe like ours is not exactly a hive. It isn’t even always a tribe. We remain individuals, freer than bees to strike out on our own. But here’s the lesson the bee book taught me: It is only in the hive that we, as individuals, can thrive.
As I read my secret book, I wondered if that is one reason that honey is the symbol of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, which begins tonight. We Jews don’t say “Happy New Year” to one another. We don’t even say just “Good New Year.” We say, “Shanah tovah u’metukah” — a happy and sweet year.
The idea of honey, of the hive, is built into our wishes: Goodness is individual, sweetness comes from community. That’s why even the least practicing Jews find themselves drawn to synagogue on the High Holy Days. Maybe they don’t need to go to shul to know right from wrong, to feel a part of something larger than themselves, to experience the Mysterious. But how will their children know? How about their grandchildren? Individuals come and go — the hive remains.
Not long ago, just before I was about to have the bee talk with my wife, I noticed something unusual in the backyard: bees.
Dozens of them were crawling over the yellow pumpkin blossoms, buzzing back and forth to the goat pen. I followed their path to the round compost bin. At night (when bees sleep, too), I lifted the lid and peered inside: The bees had colonized the bin. And though I wouldn’t get honey from it, at least I’d provided the bees with a home, of sorts.
I filed the book on my shelf, let the bees do their thing on their own, and never told my wife about any of it. The last thing I wanted to do, I realized, was disturb the hive.
Shanah tovah u’metukah.
Rabbi attacked by African killer bees in Zimbabwe
A rabbi handing out matzah and wine for Passover to Jews in Zimbabwe was attacked by a swarm of African killer bees.
Moshe Silberhaft, the spiritual leader and executive director of the African Jewish Congress known as “The Traveling Rabbi,” was making a pre-Passover visit to the 190 Jews left in the beleaguered capital of Harare when he was attacked by the bees while walking from the Ashkenazi synagogue to the Sephardi synagogue on the Shabbat of April 2.
The rabbi was being accompanied by the Ashkenazi synagogue’s Torah reader, Yosi Kably.
“They suddenly swarmed on us from nowhere, buzzing around our heads and in our ears,” Silberhaft said of the bees from the hive located under a wooden pole. “We didn’t even hear them coming.”
After being stung repeatedly the two men ran into traffic, pounding on car windows, but no one would risk opening their windows for fear of letting in the bees. Passers-by attempted to help by spraying the bees with a poison and setting a tire alight to smoke them out.
Silberhaft and Kably called for help and were taken to a private doctor’s clinic, where they received adrenaline, oxygen, antihistamines, cortisone and painkillers. Some of the stingers were pulled out one by one by the doctor and assistants.
The rabbi returned to Johannesburg with stingers still on his head, nose and hands, as well as in his ears.
Silberhaft, a regular visitor to Zimbabwe and other sub-Saharan African countries, was visibly upset at missing the service and was saddened that the incident occurred on Shabbat.
“Africa is not for sissies,” he said.