Hilary Kearney reminds me of a modern Joni Mitchell. She wears her stick-straight, shoulder-length, blond hair in a side-swept part. When I first met Hilary, she was barefoot and standing in her kitchen. Minutes earlier, I was greeted by her boyfriend on the front porch of their Bankers Hill two-story Victorian rental. He was sitting among a hodge-podge of miscellaneous chairs and potted plants, dark-haired and thin with scruffy facial hair.
I followed him through the front door and into the kitchen where their roommate, a girl with messy hair, fried eggs and bacon in a pan. Hilary met us there, wearing cotton floral shorts with a lacy beige top. Freckles speckle the bridge of her nose and spill out across her cheeks. She doesn’t shake my hand. She nods hello. She seems preoccupied. She has the expression of someone whose mind is filled with a million thoughts.
Hilary’s boyfriend is getting ready to leave. He’s off to check one of the six beehives Hilary hosts in San Diego County.
Hilary Kearney is the woman behind Girl Next Door Honey. Apart from selling and bottling her own honey, she teaches beekeeping courses, hosts beehives in people’s yards, and offers bee-removal services.
“My business slogan is ‘Pollinating hearts and minds,’” Hilary tells me. We are sitting outside, she in a faded white wicker chair and I across from her sitting in a small spot of shade.
In order to understand Hilary and her mission to save the bees, we need to start at the beginning.
While attending UC Santa Cruz, Hilary’s boyfriend (the one I met on the front porch) had a list taped to his wall. On the list were things he intended to do before he died.
“It had all this random stuff [such as] beekeeping and firefighting. It wasn’t anything he was going to do soon; they were goals for his abstract future. When I saw it, I thought, Maybe I’ll get him a beekeeping book for his birthday. So I did. I started reading it. I got sucked in. I don’t even know if he read it,” she tells me, smiling at the memory.
After graduating from college, Hilary moved back down to San Diego — Clairemont, specifically, her hometown. She moved in with her dad. She still had honey bees on the brain.
“I started researching bees. They are so fascinating when you start reading all the details about the bees themselves. It wasn’t really about, ‘The bees are dying! We have to save them!’ In 2010, that wasn’t as prominent in the media. For me, it was more a love affair with the bees themselves. One colony can start with 20,000 bees and get as big as 100,000 bees. And the worker bees — they are all female. I sometimes make sexist jokes about male bees, drones, during my classes; they are lazy and sit around in the hive watching TV. The worker bees actually kick the male bees out because they are a drain on resources. They are there to mate with the queen. Worker bees live up to 42 days. The queen bee can live years; some people say she can live seven to ten years. I just think it’s so magical that this insect, this tiny insect, can live ten years. Isn’t that insane? That’s some magic.”
Hilary’s dad had one of those traditional canyon-style Clairemont yards.
“I thought, I could put a hive down there and no one would even know. I started researching it a lot. I went on [beekeeping] forums. I watched videos. I got really into it. I found free plans online to build a hive. I asked my dad if he could build it. He said, ‘Yeah,’” Hilary recalls.
All she needed were the bees. Hilary placed an ad on Craigslist offering to remove an established hive free of charge. Days later, a couple in Ocean Beach called her. They had a swarm of bees that just moved in to their shed.
“I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll come get it!’”
Hilary didn’t have a beekeeping suit so she improvised. She piled on three sweatshirts and three pairs of pants. She took a pair of garden gloves and duct-taped them to her wrists. She duct-taped her socks to her ankles. She swept her hair up in a beanie.
“Before I left, I told my dad that I was going to get bees tonight, and he was, like, ‘WHAT DO YOU MEAN?! I’m coming with you.’” Hilary remembers.
Her dad fished a welding mask out of the garage and wrapped a towel around his head before the pair headed to O.B.
I imagine they were a sight to behold when they rang the bell of the Ocean Beach couple’s home.
“When we got there, the couple was, like, ‘What!? You don’t have bee suits?’ We were, like, ‘No, it’s fine,’ and they were, like, ‘Have you ever done this before?’ and, I was, like, ‘No, I watched a YouTube video.’ They were horrified, but they couldn’t look away; it was like a bad train wreck. The wife went inside and the husband stuck around. He wanted to help.”
Despite being underprepared, Hilary and her dad managed to successfully remove the bees and safely secure them in the hive back in Clairemont.
“Turns out they didn’t have a queen, so they failed over the next couple of months. I didn’t realize what was happening because I was new. That’s why I teach my beekeeping class with so much passion. I get to tell everyone what I did wrong and save people from the mistakes I made. I was lucky to go so long without a suit and not get into trouble. I tell my students now, ‘At least have a headpiece and carry an epi-pen.’”
It took Hilary a few tries before getting the bee-removal thing down.
Through laughter she tells a similar tale.
“I got a call from an elderly lady living in Julian. She told me that she had an aviary that had three nesting owl boxes. The sides had fallen off and bees had gotten in. There were beehives in each box. I thought that sounded great because they were already established hives doing well. It’s not a swarm. I can just take these boxes and transfer them when we get home. My first mistake is that I get there late and it’s already starting to get dark. We didn’t have suits. I thought, No big deal. We will just seal up the boxes. I assumed that they would be well made but they were old and had cracks. As soon as we closed up one entrance, they would start flying out another entrance. They were aggressive. It was like a horror movie! It was a dark, windy shed, basically in the desert. I’m in there with my boyfriend and this woman I don’t even know. She’s older and I’m worried about her. There was this moment where my boyfriend was closing up the hive and I started to realize that the bees were all flying. It was dark, so I couldn’t tell how many there were. You don’t want to have flashlight because they are drawn to the light. I hear the elderly lady say, ‘Ow!’ so I said, ‘Get out! We all need to get out!’ We ran. Later, we managed to get two of [the nesting owl boxes] closed up. That was the stupidest thing I did without a suit. I think it was after that I said, ‘I need to get a suit.’”