Finding something you’re really passionate about can be a long and arduous journey—or it might just show up on the side of your house one day.
Janet Andrews was simply looking for help removing a swarm of bees from the roof of her home in Orange, CA without having them exterminated. When she got the right technician to her house and saw him pull out several long strands of beeswax and honey, something clicked.
“He drug out these long pieces of honeycomb and I looked at them and thought, ‘that would be a great addition to my garden,’” Andrews says. “So I had him bring them back and then I got started beekeeping.”
Just over a decade later, Andrews has translated chemical-free bee rescue and relocation into a healthy young social enterprise of her own that goes by the name ‘Backyard Bees’. With the help of a few regular volunteers and her grandchildren, she manages a decentralized collection of nearly 100 hives located on residential and commercial yards and rooftops around Orange County. The hives collectively produce about 5,000 to 6,000 pounds of raw, gravity-strained honey annually, which she sells at Whole Foods, local hotels, and farm markets.
What may be more impressive, however, is that all of Andrews’ hives are stocked with rescued swarms like the one that initially inspired her. As a result of working exclusively with wild bees, she has never purchased queen bees to start new hives—common practice in commercial beekeeping operations—and she has never had any problems with Colony Collapse Disorder, or other ailments that have become common in many hives around the U.S. She also never feeds them. Instead, she focuses on being exceptionally selective in choosing the backyards where she places her hives, following a strict criteria that favors access to variety of pollen and food, minimal noise, and minimal disturbance. All of this, she says, to simply encourage the bees to be bees.
Andrews attributes the health of her bees, the health of her product, and the health of her business to this passive yet reflexive interaction with nature.
“I live with nature, I don’t try and poison it,” she says. “My main thing is to save some bees. This time of year so many get killed by exterminators because it’s swarm season. It’s nice to educate people to that and save some bees. We need them.”
It could also be said that the bees need Andrews.
Since rescuing her first swarms, Andrews’ decentralized model has exponentially raised awareness about the plight of bees and their importance to our food supply by giving people a “no experience necessary” opportunity to support bee rescue and develop a relationship with the cause. Almost immediately after the first local news report about Backyard Bees people began contacting Andrews and volunteering to host a rescued hive in their backyard. This enthusiasm from strangers, along with her grandson’s bad reaction to a bee sting in her backyard, inadvertently birthed Backyard Bees’ unique model, whose organic development could be seen as yet another manifestation of Andrews’ ethos. As with her style of bee care, the relationships with hive hosts seems to work out well for all involved: hosts receive pollination from the bees, 10 percent of the honey harvest from their hive, and the satisfaction of supporting bee rescue. Andrews keeps the remainder of the honey and the beeswax for her business.
Andrews further connects with her community by opening up her own home gardens to full-circle gardening classes that walk participants from seed, through pollination and fruiting, and back to seed again.
For someone who gained her business and beekeeping acumen exclusively from trial and error and other self-education, Andrews is startlingly proficient at developing and presenting a deeply diversified product. Ask her what she makes and in less than a minute, in a calm but matter of fact voice, she gently tours you through her product line of honey, lip balms, lotions, and candles, as well as her philosophy, values, the structure of her classes, and her plans for expanding her inventory. She simultaneously delivers the strongest elevator pitches for the importance of bees, the power of nature to nurture itself, and her business. And yet, at the end of that, you still have the sense you’re talking to a nice lady you’d just as likely run into at a local garden club meeting.
There are some social entrepreneurs and marketeers who spend years trying to calculate how to affect this kind of balanced, authentic persona and build a product around it. But for Andrews, it seems to be the effortless result of genuine care for and trust in the natural world. Through this mellow but determined demeanor, she sidesteps the righteous urgency often drummed up by attempting “save” or “rescue” something and actually gets it done.
“They take care of themselves,” she says of her bees, noting that she visits each hive only once every 6-8 weeks, depending on the season.
Andrews seems to have organically developed an equally reciprocal business ecology that nurtures herself, the bees of Orange County, and her customers. The self-educated entrepreneur and beekeeper admits she isn’t making huge profits, but continues to do the work because she loves what she does, continues to find interest in crafting new products, and gets satisfaction from making a contribution to a larger cause. In certain business circles this would veer dangerously close to sounding like a dismissible passion project. Yet the applied ethos of Backyard Bees manages to respond by spinning something like marginal profits into another paradigm-challenging suggestion of one way we might all be a little happier and more successful by living closer to the balanced middle of things than at any extreme, by learning how to be hands-on by being hands-off. Through this lense, “business as usual” doesn’t seem so bad.