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Beekeeper Rob McFarland removes a hive from a Sunset Park home while homeowner Paul Hekimian helps out on Saturday.

Beekeeper Rob McFarland uses smoke to make removing a hive a bit easier. The hive was found at a home in Sunset Park. (photo by Ashley Archibald)

SUNSET PARK — The bee hive that caught Paul Hekimian’s eye was epic.

The bees had built it in the branches of a rubber tree plant that started in a neighbor’s yard but arched over the fence toward Hekimian’s property, abutting the avocado tree in which his son, Lucas, has a tree house and zip line.

Lucas found the hive quite by accident, hidden by the leaves of the avocado tree.

Most people would fly to the phone book and find a removal service, asking themselves only if they wanted it chemical-free or fully loaded.

Not Hekimian.

“I am so excited!” he said, jogging around his yard at 8 a.m. on Saturday morning to prepare for what this reporter dubbed “Project: Bee Relocation.”

The goal: to get the rather large number of bees currently suspended between 15 and 20 feet above the ground into boxes lined with thin wooden frames in such a way that they would actually create a new hive and stay there.

Hekimian grew up in Houston, Texas. His father, George, was a professional auto repairman and hobbyist beekeeper.

He had 90 boxes full of bees lined up outside the shop, and the family harvested and sold the honey they produced.

The Hekimians kept the bees for 10 years until the zest for the hobby faded, only to be replaced when George discovered an interest in racing pigeons.

Yeah.

The discovery of wild honeybees nested in Hekimian’s yard brought back old memories and a keen desire to pick up where his dad had left off, something that couldn’t have happened within Santa Monica’s city limits until early 2011 when the City Council made it legal to have bee hives on private property.

It was a no-brainer, said Dean Kubani, director of the Office for Sustainability and the Environment.

“The Council seemed to feel like this is a pretty reasonable request,” Kubani said. “If they become a nuisance, they can be shut down. It doesn’t seem to have manifested itself as a big problem.”

Only three people, including Hekimian, currently keep bees in Santa Monica. There used to be four, but one had to be removed after a swarm left the box and attacked a barbecue next door, said Stan Hernacki, an officer with Santa Monica Police Department’s Animal Control Unit.

Prospective beekeepers must register their hives with Animal Control, which puts the information in the emergency response system so that firefighters, police and paramedics know beforehand that they might encounter bees at the property.

They do the same for places that have dogs deemed “vicious,” Hernacki said.

Animal Control officers then go to the home and ensure that the property meets the minimum requirements outlined in the ordinance, specifically that the hives are five feet from the property lines, that they face away from other properties and that they are screened so that bees must fly over a six-foot barrier before leaving the property, or be placed at least eight feet above the adjacent ground level.

The ordinance also requires that the keepers give the bees plenty of room to prevent overcrowding, which leads to large groups of bees leaving the hive to look for more spacious accommodations.

This phenomenon, called “swarming,” can also happen if there’s no queen present in the hive, which led to another stipulation that the hives be “re-queened” every two years.

Hekimian contacted Animal Control as soon as he found the hive, received approval and called Rob McFarland.

The two had met just the day before Lucas’ discovery at a beekeeping talk hosted at the Whole Foods Market in El Segundo, one of a series of events the grocery store put on to raise awareness about honeybees and the role they play in the environment.

McFarland and his wife Chelsea were speaking for Honeylove.org, a non-profit organization they founded to protect honeybees and help out the uninitiated with bee problems.

McFarland got started in beekeeping a year ago in true DIY fashion. He just did it. Skill and knowledge came along with some painful experiences, and now McFarland pitches in where he can to help others learn the ins and outs of beekeeping.

He came over Saturday morning, and Project: Bee Relocation got underway.

First, McFarland prepped his smoker, a hollow canister which he filled with sagebrush, lavender and other sweet-smelling plants. He lit the tinder, capped the smoker and began pumping it full of air to create white, fragrant smoke.

The smoke serves two purposes, McFarland explained. It convinces bees that their home is in imminent danger, which causes them to dive into the hive and begin drinking up as much honey as they can.

It also disrupts their line of communication. Bees “speak” to one another by releasing pheromones, smelly chemicals that can call the entire hive to action.

FYI — the “attack” pheromone smells oddly like banana Laffy Taffys or Now & Laters.

“It’s like a smart bomb,” McFarland said. “It says, ‘This is exactly the one you want.’”

McFarland climbed the ladder with the smoker in one hand and a knife in the pocket of his bee suit. The suits are like overalls attached to a mesh hat with zippers to completely encapsulate the wearer.

They’re not strictly necessary — Hekimian showed the group photographs of his father standing shirtless and smiling, surrounded by bees.

McFarland began pumping smoke into the hive. He then cut sections of the hive away from the rubber tree plant and handed them to Hekimian as videographer Eric Longden documented the whole affair.

There was one other observer. George Hekimian was also watching from Texas through an iPad. Paul used bungee cords to strap his iPad to the branch of the avocado tree to afford him a better view.

After the main chunks of the hive came down, McFarland and Hekimian trimmed sections of the wax so they would fit within the thin wooden frames and strapped them in with rubber bands.

Eventually, the bees will seal the existing chunks of hive into the frame and chew away the offending rubber bands, McFarland said.

After the frames have been put into the box, it’s a waiting game. The bees could choose to stay in the box, or they could vacate the area and establish a new hive elsewhere.

Within minutes, it was clear the bees would stay. The little creatures crawled through a slit in the box, turned around and began fanning the air with their wings to spread the pheromone signaling wayward bees to come home.

Hobbyist beekeeping is in the middle of a renaissance.

Within the last five years, headlines appeared in newspapers across the country regarding “colony collapse disorder,” a then-mysterious ailment that was killing off honeybees by the hive.

The disorder is now thought to be caused by a combination of a deadly virus and a parasitic mite. Either way, it was devastating to the honeybee population, and humans stepped in to help.

“Beekeeping has been having problems and honeybees are having problems,” said Troy Fore, a second generation beekeeper and president of the Foundation for the Preservation of Honey Bees.

The publicity brought a new wave of devotees, although how long they stay in the labor-intensive field has yet to be seen, he said.

From an environmental point of view, the more bees, the better. Bees are responsible for pollinating a full third of the food that enters our diets, according to Eric C. Mussen, a professor at UC Davis, in a paper titled “Don’t Underestimate the Value of Honey Bees!”

Their efforts were responsible for nearly half of California’s agricultural production in 2007, when Mussen wrote the paper, or roughly $16 billion.

That means urban and hobbyist beekeeping, like what Hekimian is about to take on, is increasingly important as wild bees continue to be ravaged by disease and pests.

Hekimian is aware of the plight facing bees, but he’s more looking forward to the fun of beekeeping, a blast from his past.

“It’s fascinating to see it come full circle,” Hekimian said.

ashley@smdp.com