Evan McCarthy is in his front yard, loading up a trailer, and he’s talking about worst-case scenarios.
“We just have to hope they’re not Africanized bees,” he says, dropping some protective gear in a wooden storage box. “They are nasty. They will chase you down the street. If we get there and they’re Africanized, we will know. We will know within minutes because we will be getting stung.”
The Africanized bees, he explains, are a Frankenstein’s monster creation, a mix of Italian and African bees created to withstand the heat of Brazil. They are as aggressive as a drunk tank brawler. They are willing to kill themselves stinging someone for any reason, maybe just because they can.
He double checks what he needs: bee suits, smoker, vacuum, hive boxes. He backs up his F-250, attaches the trailer, and he’s rolling. Evan, “The Bee Guy,” off to save one more hive; off to try to turn South Florida into a haven for the troubled honeybee.
It’s not that McCarthy was always “The Bee Guy.” Actually, by day, he’s an airline pilot for Delta. But a few years ago, he was looking for a new hobby. So he tried out becoming an apiarist, a backyard beekeeper.
He got obsessed and soon quite literally filled his home with equipment—nowadays with bee boxes and filters and coolers of honeycomb spread out everywhere. He started going to meet-up groups and delving into chatrooms, websites and YouTube videos. He discovered that the honeybee today is threatened by pesticides and colony collapse disorder, some mysterious thing that makes whole hives just die. Since bees are responsible for pollinating fruits and vegetable plants, McCarthy thought this ought to be more of a big deal.
As a pilot, McCarthy has a lot of downtime, working a schedule alternating between a few days on and then a few days off. He started using those downtimes to collect unwanted hives, sometimes from attic crawl spaces or maybe tucked into a rotted bit of fencing. He needed places to put them, so a friend posted on the app Nextdoor inquiring if people might want honeybee hives in their backyards.
“Probably the most interesting thing about this was how many people were into it,” McCarthy says. Soon, he had six hives spread across Fort Lauderdale. Then it was closer to 20. Just from that one post, McCarthy started a waiting list of people who wanted hives, at last count totaling more than 25.
He’s not looking to make money off it, so McCarthy created a non-profit. It’s called the Happy Bee Honey Club. He asks homeowners who get his hives to make a donation, maybe a couple hundred bucks, depending on what they can afford. It might cover the equipment he needs. McCarthy figures he’s donating the four-plus hours it takes him to move a hive.
Like on this recent Thursday, when McCarthy drives a few blocks south from his home in the Citrus Isles neighborhood. He parks in front of a decrepit wood slat house that’s about to be demolished. There’s a beehive in a wall between a window and the main electrical box. The bees would have savaged the demolition team. The owner was planning to have an exterminator kill the hive until he heard about McCarthy.
At first, McCarthy approaches the hive slowly, wearing just flip-flops, shorts and a T-shirt. “I don’t really care anymore about getting stung,” he says. “I’d rather get stung than roast in that suit.”
There’s a credit-card-sized hole of wood rot about eye level, and the bees are using it as a landing pad. McCarthy explains that the goldenrod and Brazilian pepper plants are blooming, and so the bees are frantic to collect the pollen. He points to a worker bee that just landed, covered in a pumpkin-colored fuzz, the pollen that will soon become honey.
Knowing the next step will anger the workers, McCarthy dons the full beekeeper suit. He uses a handsaw to cut into the side of the house. Removing the wood siding reveals a massive hive, four square feet at least. The honeycombs hang down in concentric rows, so full of honey it drips down the wood siding. Immediately, the bees start to attack.
“Here they come!” McCarthy says, as the bees descend.
They take potshots at McCarthy’s suit and divebomb his mesh facemask, but they’re unable to sting him through the fabric. They are not, thankfully, Africanized, so their attacks are fairly measured. Still, though, it’s unnerving to hear the buzzing, to see the bees swarm on the mesh less than an inch from his eyes, to have them crawl on the surface of his suit. McCarthy is largely used to it, but it’s an innately human reaction to freak out just a little when a beehive attacks.
He sprays the hive with a handheld smoker. The bees become frantic, passing quickly over the hive to collect as much honey as possible, like a person gathering his or her most valuable possessions from a burning home. “They think the hive is on fire, so they’re going to take as many resources as they can with them and try to set up the hive somewhere else,” McCarthy says.
Before they can do that, McCarthy sets up a wood box beehive and attaches a vacuum to it. On the lowest setting as to not hurt the bees, he begins vacuuming them up into the box. The hive is years old, and there seems to be an endless supply of workers. Every time McCarthy passes the vacuum over a spot, a new swarm immediately replaces it. Sweating in the heavy cotton suit and full Florida sun, it’s exhausting work, but within an hour he’s got a box full of bees.
McCarthy uses a kitchen knife to cut the honeycomb out, removing it in sheets and placing it in rows of the hive box. The goal is to transport as much honey and larvae as he can, making sure the hive has resources to set up its new home.
For five hours he’s there, removing and readying the bees for transport. McCarthy sets up the new hive a few blocks away in the backyard of a woman who contacted him from the Nextdoor posting. It’ll take a few months for the hive to reestablish itself, and McCarthy will have to come back multiple times to make sure it’s healthy. Eventually, the homeowner can harvest honey every couple weeks, perhaps gallons at a time.
From a sample McCarthy pulled out that day, the honey is a dark amber, not spicy like orange blossom honey, but thick and rich, tasting of caramel. After straining it through a mesh sieve using a potato masher, it’s unfiltered, so there’s bits of honeycomb and pollen, which McCarthy says makes it even healthier, a respite for allergy sufferers.
McCarthy has big plans for where this could go. Maybe someday he has a team of beekeepers spread out across South Florida, or the entire country, or maybe the globe, all working for his non-profit to save honeybees.
For now, though, he’s still working mostly in his neighborhood, just your average commercial airline pilot saving honeybees and creating new devotees to his Happy Bee Honey Club.