I was armored with a full-body white beekeeper’s suit but I was still nervous as the bees pelted the back of my head, clearly annoyed I had invaded their space. And who wouldn’t be? I was encroaching on their private pad, their outside terrace perched on top of the city of San Francisco.

Jardiniere Restaurant, one of the city’s finest culinary establishments, is home to thousands of bees that live on top of the two-story brownstone on Hayes Street. The hives have only been there since May, but the bees are already producing honey thanks to the abundant food sources at the nearby Hayes Valley Farm.

Joel Sartore Bee

Terry Oxford, owner of UrbanBeeSF, manages these hives, and several other bee communities, or apiaries, located on top of some of the best restaurants across San Francisco. On the same Saturday afternoon, Oxford cleaned up some of the honeycomb and harvested honey that would be served later that night at Jardinere as an accompaniment to the cheese plate.

“The restaurants care more about the bees than the honey,”.

But Terry – and the restaurants she works with – doesn’t do this for the honey, though it is certainly a tasty result. She says she does it because bees are a critical part of the ecosystem, even in the urban jungle of San Francisco.

“The restaurants care more about the bees than the honey,” Oxford said. “I provide the restaurants with honeycomb, but it’s more of an essence than in bulk. Having the bees on their roof is almost like having a mascot for organic, sustainable [products].”

Oxford, also a property manager for San Francisco’s human residents, always keeps an eye out for prime bee real estate. She said she tried hives on top of residential buildings before, but quickly recognized the symbiotic relationship she could forge with restaurants. They give her roof space, she gives them honey.

For restaurants like Quince in the Jackson Square neighborhood that also boasts a rooftop garden, complete with a perfect view of the TransAmerica pyramid building, the bees are an added bonus as they help pollinate the garden’s plants. Other San Francisco restaurants Tony’s Pizza and Nopa, which also have apiaries atop their establishments, are benefiting the neighborhood flora with their honey suppliers.

Terry became interested in beekeeping after spending a day with a beekeeper up in the Sierra Mountains in the 1990s. The “amazing experience,” in tandem with Oxford’s research into the bees’ decline in population, inspired her to take beekeeping classes and start a venture of her own.

“I found out I was pretty good at it,” she said. “My bees survived year after year, my queen reproduced, my bees reproduced and the population grew. I’m still able to split the hives and make more. And I do it all without medication or pesticides.”

Joel Sartore Bees on Honeycomb

Oxford was quick to note that she is no expert; instead she calls beekeeping a practice, “like Buddhism.”

In doing this for more than 4 years, Oxford said she’s learned many lessons, from what you need for healthy hives to which type of bees to use in the San Francisco climate (and microclimates).

After watching Oxford and her team heave several heavy stacks of hives over the top of Quince’s second-story rooftop, it was clear that urban beekeeping requires flexibility. If one location loses a food source, or lacks enough water or sunlight, or too many other bees move into the area, then the hives must move too.

It’s clear when Oxford talks about her bees that she has an unmatched passion for these creatures. To her, the queen is the “badass” of the hive, but, she notes that the drones deserve more respect than they get. Each type of bee, from females to drones to the queen bee herself, is a vital part of a healthy hive, and, in Terry’s mind, a healthy planet.

“Seeing a bee in a flower, it’s this beautiful relationship of keeping each other alive.”

Joel Sartore Bees on a sunflower.