LOS ANGELES For the past three years, Rob McFarland has kept a beehive filled with 25,000 bees on the roof of his house smack in the middle of West Los Angeles.
The bees occupy some prime real estate — they even have a view of the Hollywood sign — but for now, they are illegal squatters in the trendy neighborhood of bars and eateries near Santa Monica.
On Wednesday, the City Council will vote on whether to begin the process of granting bees like McFarland's legal status in LA's residential areas after a lengthy lobbying effort from bee lovers of all stripes.
"LA has an ideal climate and a ton for bees to forage on and is emerging as a real epicenter of urban beekeeping, but ironically, it's not legal here," said McFarland, who formed a group called HoneyLove.org to advocate for backyard beekeeping.
The vote comes against the backdrop of colony collapse disorder, a worrisome die-off of honeybees that has captured the attention of environmentalists and farmers worldwide. Cities from New York to Denver have in the past few years legalized urban beekeeping to encourage local agriculture and boost the health of the bee population.
The push, however, has alarmed some, who fear such an ordinance could bring more residents into direct contact with the Africanized, or "killer bees," that are already thriving in walls, trees, electrical boxes and compost bins.
At the heart of the debate are a new breed of urban beekeepers who rescue those wild bees from extermination and relocate them to backyards — and almost all of these hives have some "killer bee" genes mixed in.
Critics of the practice fear a blanket legalization of backyard bees would allow these self-styled "ethical bee removal specialists" to expand their efforts with dangerous consequences.
"To just haul them (feral bees) out of the fences and stick them in the backyard, that's not a good idea," said Eric Mussen, a bee expert at the University of California, Davis.
Killer bees fully colonized Los Angeles County by 1999 and have almost completely pushed out the existing wild bee population. The bees can attack when an intruder gets closer than 100 feet, can chase a person up to a half-mile and will remain aggressive up to an hour after an attack, according to the county.
Those who work with feral bees insist that the concerns are overblown.
Feral bees in Los Angeles do have some African genes, they say, but the danger has been diluted from years of interbreeding with local, non-Africanized bees. The resulting hybrid hives can be managed easily with proper training, common sense about hive placement and good communication with neighbors.
There are already around 10 feral hives per square mile in Los Angeles, so moving them to backyards where beekeepers can monitor them makes sense, said Ruth Askren, who maintains hives for 22 clients and has relocated wild hives to backyards all over the city.
Beekeepers like Askren estimate that 10 percent or fewer of the feral hives they relocate are so aggressive they must be destroyed.
"If we really had serious Africanized bees in LA, people would be chased down the street every day," she said.
Africanized bees are also hardier than their European counterparts, which are used for commercial pollination, and could help counter colony collapse, said McFarland, the rooftop beekeeper. He and others who work with feral bees say unlike European bees, their hives don't need any chemical treatments to keep them healthy.
"We need them. We need to preserve what's clearly a superior bee. They're the ones that are surviving," he said. "My opinion is that they're a blessing in disguise."
Feral bees have also sweetened the pot for an emerging niche business: Some beekeepers-turned-entrepreneurs have recently started companies to remove unwanted wild hives, relocating them to backyard bee boxes and then harvesting rich honey that can sell for $110 a gallon to wealthy foodies obsessed with local ingredients.
Some customers even want honey made by bees in their specific neighborhood because they believe that eating honey made from local pollens will combat allergies.
Tyson Kaiser's business, Sweet Bee Removal, charges $125 an hour for a hive extraction and once made $5,000 over three days removing a massive feral hive from a tile rooftop in one of LA's ritzier addresses.
In the past year, Kaiser estimates he has removed nearly 200 hives and swarms; he currently has a network of "hive hosts" who keep excess feral colonies on their property in exchange for half the honey they produce.
On a recent sunny day, Kaiser checked on a feral hive he put on a resident's roof last fall. Dressed in a full-body white bee suit and a zippered hood with a mesh face mask, Kaiser carefully opened the hive as bees buzzed around him and traffic whizzed by two stories below.
When he was done, about a dozen agitated bees followed him from the roof, down a ladder and into the residents' house before they gave up the chase.
"There are people who think we're crazy for what we're doing," said Kaiser, who's been keeping bees for three years. "But they're afraid that new beekeepers dealing with feral hives are going to tarnish the image of the established beekeepers."
Regardless, urban beekeeping is happening every day under the city's radar and controlling the rapidly growing hobby is better than turning a blind eye, said Martin Schlageter, policy director for Councilman Jose Huizar. Huizar supports the bee ordinance and has introduced a motion to encourage the city to avoid destroying feral hives when possible.
"There's greater awareness of the crisis with bee populations generally and the importance of these pollinators," he said. "People want to ... social network freely about this and give tips to likeminded folks and they don't want to feel like they're going to be caught out for breaking the law."