Meet Terry Oxford who started UrbanBeeSF, a San Francisco based beekeeping venture fighting for environmental policies that would protect pollinators and birds. Read on to find out more.
Tell us about yourself. Where do you live? How did you get into beekeeping?
- My name is Terry Oxford and I’m a rooftop beekeeper in downtown San Francisco since 2008. I also am a girl, even though Terry is spelt like a boy.
- I’m told the bees choose the beekeeper, not the other way around. I saw and was awe inspired by the collaboration of insect to flower for reproduction and food while working at TreePeople in Los Angeles in the mid 90’s. After that, all roads led to Rome. But beekeeping didn’t make logistical sense to my strange brain while I had a tree filled backyard in Los Angeles. It made perfect sense in downtown San Francisco! And because I’m never interested in the easy way, I haul thousands of stinging insects up 12 foot ladders, up 5 flights of circular, Victorian era staircases, or through Michelin starred restaurants and up their roof hatches, or over 4 foot parapets. I step across HVAC and water pipes and dodge fans because I know a 2nd story height mimics a tree canopy, which is where many pollinators prefer to spend their time. Hell, that’s where I’d be if I had wings!
What does UrbanBeeSF do?
- More than anything I educate corporations that care about pollinators and have commercial landscaping. And increasingly, politicians and government agents– I teach what native pollinators, honeybees and birds want to eat. I build critical awareness about the dangers of chemically driven, monoculture, ornamental landscaping and I talk about diverse and organic nutrition for all beneficial insects and birds. I use the honeybee’s booming voice to fight the organized, well-funded, blithely arrogant and lying voices of the chemical and pesticide industry.
- Then to soothe my aching heart from planetary devastation all around, I place hives with restaurateurs I love or businesses that walk the talk. I provide them fresh honeycomb only after my bees are served. For fun, I take a little honey for myself to win awards in blind taste tests for ethical beekeeping contests.
I get asked all the time to place hives for a business’ PR purposes and I just tell them I don’t give a damn about their PR greenwashing. The only way I’ll work with them is if they replace their poisonous landscaping, from soil to sapling. So if a building owner or Hotel GM is just interested in how much the honey will cost or how much honey they will get, I stop it short and tell them I’m not their girl. They can easily find a beekeeper that doesn’t think about what his bees eat and never talks about soil health. Anyway, my work at this moment has inspired 8 different sites, mostly downtown. Probably at least a quarter acre all told of native and organic beneficial pollinator food from soil to seed. And its growing! One of my commercial courtyards near the Ferry Building is even making compost tea in the basement!!! And another building is getting ready to plant 6 flowering native trees untreated with any systemic chemicals. You’ll see butterflies, songbirds, moths, hummingbirds, stick bugs, lady bugs, bumbles and honeys at these sites. It warms my heart to see the good people can do! I know honeybees are not native, but I think I balance it out by providing insects and seeds for birds to eat and the right food to support all native biodiversity for this region. I also am working on a neonic-free tree planting campaign called SkyMeadows SanFrancisco.org which will create an oasis in Northern California. More on that soon on my website.
How do you keep track of your hives? Do you take notes?
- I visit the hives at least every 2-3 weeks, more during spring and fall and I take notes on my phone. But I was looking at your system and it looks great.
What’s the best part of beekeeping?
- I’m good at getting bees to reproduce naturally. I’ve learned to gauge springtime weather, the flower bloom and nectar flow. I baby and carefully time my healthy and chemical-free drone brood and have developed good splitting abilities with very high success rates. Creating the splitting conditions for a naturally mated queen from fat and happy drones always makes me feel like a super hero.
What’s the worst part of beekeeping?
Beekeepers, Associations, their thought leaders and those academics and researchers who shill for, take money from or run interference to protect and soft peddle the pesticide industry message are on my very last fucking nerve.
Last year and the year before I was working with Friends of the Earth, Pesticide Action Network, Xerces Society, EarthJustice, American Bird Conservancy and many other Earth Heroes who were just trying to get a limited Imidacloprid labeling bill (SB 602 and SB 1282-Pesticides) through the California Senate. That Senate Bill would have done two things; prevented sale of Imidacloprid, Bayer’s best selling neonic, to the general public at all California garden centers and stores and the bill would have required any plant sold in California to be labeled if it was attractive to bees and pre-treated with this deadly neonic. A good bill that beekeepers could support, right? Wrong. When the California Beekeepers Association (CSBA) stood up to support big pesticide’s profits instead of bee safety, I was the only one in the room that wasn’t shocked. The pesticide industry collaborated with that beekeeper Association and together they killed the bill. Ask yourself why the pesticide industry would NOT have taken control of the beekeeper associations voice long ago? Which other industry goes back for more, after their livestock is killed on the deadly pollination fields, year after year? That speaks to a seriously dysfunctional relationship between beekeepers and bee poisoners. After the California State Beekeepers Association stand, all the senators said, If beekeepers are OK with imidacloprid, why should I stick my neck out? And the Bayer funded citrus industry used some lame reasoning that gardeners should be allowed to act as Citizen Exterminators for the State of California Citrus Industry to home eradicate the citrus psyllid if they see any in their backyard (completely discounting how systemics work. If you see the pest, its too late). These poisons with microscopic labeling, that your mother can buy at the big box store, require a professional license and a hazmat suit in the agriculture environment, they’re that powerful! Bayer counts on most gardeners overusing because you know, if a little is good, a lot is better! Plus boots on the ground, real world conditions already proved that conventional neonic protocol did nothing to stop the citrus psyllid from taken over the Florida citrus industry, but that truth didn’t matter and was scoffed at. Just for fun, scroll to the bottom of the attached pdf to see which Associations and their connected industries support poisoning bees. Organizations such at the CSBA, plus the all-powerful hotel and real estate industries who also ‘say’ they care about pollinators right here in San Francisco, but instead work to poison them, are also listed. With people, you don’t listen to what they say, you watch what they do. Actions speak louder than words.
Some bee Academics and many, many beekeepers say they are OK with neonics and chemicals in beehives and generally don’t want to talk about the fact that Bayer, et al, is in the business of poisoning flowers. People are tribal and clannish and don’t want to stand alone against powers like the pesticide industry. I get it. I’m scared of creeps who don’t have to kill you to shut you up. But if not now, when?
Just take a moment to deconstruct the whole thing. Everything makes sense when you understand that people and bee.orgs who have the microphone speaking about bees mostly represent industry interests because they receive money or support from the industry. These corporations use the successful, polarizing strategy of other criminal industries like big tobacco…Deny, Deflect, Defend. Its worked to polarize beekeepers and keep them talk about only one thing. Mites. Mites are the deflection tool which draws attention away from the tsunami of systemic insecticides, herbicides and fungicides we are all eating. You can’t grow food in chemicals and expect to have a future. It’s unsustainable. Yes, of course mites are a problem, but not the number one problem. Number one problem is the infrastructure built by the criminal, chemical industry. Poisoned food is plaguing all of us. If bees are eating poison, so are you. And why would CSBA object to a limited ban unless they have friends with benefits in the industry? It’s how the industry gets away with this kind of massive abuse of power. And don’t get me going about Industry funded academics and researchers who have built an entire infrastructure around the varroa mite. How many careers and jobs now rely on keeping the mite front and center? And how many millions of dollars move through the Bayer/Monsanto endorsed bee.orgs? Take Eric Mussen’s ApisM for instance. There’s a long history of money from Bayer, Dow, BASF and Syngenta: https://www.projecta
And we continue to see our grand old institutions like UC Davis collaborate with global chemical corporations without addressing their massive conflict of interest. We watch as a gusher of pesticide money flows in just one direction, towards the bee thought leader’s narrative of Mites! Enemy Number One! I guess billions of pounds of pesticides which are 6000+ times stronger than DDT that are delivered to all pollinators via their food source, and which persist for years in the plant, made to disrupt the delicate balance and biology of insects in a beehive is not a problem worth illuminating. To say absolutely nothing about the inert ingredients and their unscrutinized strength, which the EPA has never even looked at. Getting your bees tested for mites in the US is cheap and easy. But try to get poisonous flowers or your hive tested for myriad, ubiquitous chemicals and expect to fork over $800 to $1000. And good luck locating a lab now that isn’t rubber stamped and pre-approved by Bayer (Who bought up all the independent labs, I wonder?) USDA labs have become just a high LOD joke.
Meanwhile the poison manufacturers pay for ‘independent’ neonic studies through agricultural or land grant universities and extensions who rely on those same industries grants for funding, so the outcome is always soft on pesticides/not a problem for bees/calls for further study/and “Have we brought up mites in the last 15 seconds?”
So yeah, beekeepers and their thought leaders who trust the powers that be in our chemical laden agriculture industry, with their latest TechnoFix and their ‘reasonable and moderate’ voices, bug the fuck out of me. The general public imagines that all beekeepers are nature lovers and we all have the same objective. But that is like believing that all chicken farmers have the same intentions and practice high quality animal husbandry. We’re dealing with the difference between conventional, industrial chemical based farming vs organic or regenerative agriculture. Can you guess which one doesn’t fit in with our infrastructure? It just proves how important owning the narrative is. People want to be told what to do and like to have rules laid out for them. Who doesn’t love an easy, spray-can fix? Call an insect a pest and it’s game on. I’m sad for the pollinators. Beekeepers could have done so much good, we could have stood up as a group armed with simple common sense against these horrible poisons. Instead beekeepers are easily polarized, love to fight, they block, shame or vilify any researchers or beekeepers who speak out, as they smugly re-arrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, doing and saying nothing in their conferences but waiting for more industry funded research, while arrogantly discounting the interconnectedness of the entire natural world that is clearly saying there is no safe dose. And who has more wealth to drive this narrative, bankroll the shills and keep everybody off topic than that toxic elephant in the room? With friends like these, bees don’t need enemies.
All new beekeepers make mistakes, can you share one you made when you were a beginner?
- You’ll make mistakes so find a good mentor. That’s not easy. I got lucky. He taught Zen based Intentional Beekeeping as in First Do No Harm. He spent significant class time teaching about greed for the Gold and how that works against bee health. It stuck with me.
A big part of your mission is activism. Can you tell us about what issue you are most concerned with right now and what others can do to help?
- Because the world is afire, and to preserve my sanity I long ago narrowed my focus to a single issue. I can’t do much about oil heating the planet, poisoned drinking water, dying oceans, diminished human rights, zero animal rights, sociopathic criminals running corporations and governments, academia funded by business interests, racism, the long accepted hatred of women, etc. But I do try to stick a finger in the eye of the pesticide industry. That’s what makes me happy.
What accomplishment (so far) are you most proud of?
- Seeing my bees thrive without adding chemicals into the hive. It’s because I work to preserve the existing poison-free and diverse pollinator food planted in the city plus I don’t treat my girls like slaves or AI machines. At this moment, San Francisco flowers are largely chemical free. But that is about to change precipitously. I’ve been going to the Urban Forest and Dept. of the Environment meetings for two years because the city is about to plant nearly 55K saplings and about 70% of them are likely pre-treated with neonics and fungicides. I’ve called the city’s tree nursery vendor lists about their systemic poison practices and I’m losing my shit on this one. Its not an accomplishment yet, but I’m focusing on it and the city of San Francisco, which is the only American city that operates on the Precautionary Principle (thank you, Hippies), knows the deal and what’s at stake. I put it in writing and nailed it to the door.
Is there anything new you are working on now that you’re excited about?
- Yes! Last weekend at an organic farm a group of us planted 1000 Red Flowering Gum Tree seeds. We did the same thing last year and those trees are now over 5 foot tall. Soon they will be ready for sale to the city. They’re great pollinator trees that provide millions of flowers full of nectar and pollen all year round, are gorgeous, full of seeds for birds and tons of nooks and crannies for nests and hiding places for all sorts of creatures. The best tree ever for my 7X7 square miles of city.
What challenges have you faced as a female beekeeper/entrepreneur?
- People often look right past me and talk to my dude interns or helpers assuming the guy is the beekeeper. My helpers are all exceptional men, so they introduce me as the beekeeper. I believe if I were a man, people would give me that auto-credibility that men get simply through the timbre of their voice. I also am weary of men who know less than I, explaining things to me.
- How did you or do you overcome those challenges?
- I drop my voice an octave or two.
*Feature photo by Modern Hive