Keeping Bees in the City

Beekeeping is a fun and often very rewarding hobby. If you live in rural areas with a lot of agriculture, keeping bees is seen as a normal and often necessary practice. But given the fascinating and exciting nature of keeping bees, and concern for the plight they are currently in, it is increasingly common to find city-dwellers joining in on all the fun. Except for one problem, there are many towns and cities that have bans on beekeeping. New York City was home to an underground – or rooftop – movement of urban beekeeping that eventually led to an ordinance that made it legal.

In my local area, the small village of Mount Horeb completely banned beekeeping two years ago, while the big city of Madison recently legalized it with a very open-minded ordinance. Today for my National Pollinators Week series, I’m going to talk about the rights and wrongs of urban beekeeping.

Is beekeeping fit for urban areas?

There are several arguments against keeping bees in urban settings, and many in favor of it. It is often argued that honeybees in cities are a danger to public health and well-being, a nuisance when they are active or swarming, and that they prevent one’s neighbors from enjoying their own property. It is also sometimes argued that bees belong outside of town because they are associated with farms.

Arguments in favor include that honeybees are not dangerous, are no more a nuisance than the average neighbor’s barking dog, benefit the gardens of other citizens, and provide educational opportunities. Furthermore, encouraging more hobby beekeepers could help stem the tide of collapsing colonies, raise awareness of this issue, and produce delicious honey for people. There is a growing and important interest in urban farming and gardening, and beekeeping fits very well in that trend.

Nevertheless, the most vocal opponents of urban beekeeping are not swayed by educational opportunities or safety arguments based on the experience of beekeepers. They may often be allergic to bees, misunderstand their gentle nature or the conditions in which stings actually occur. Honeybees only sting when defending the hive or their own selves. Unless you are disturbing a nest, practically the only way you could get stung is by stepping on a bee with bare feet in a park, but since bees can fly up to five miles from their hive to visit flowers, this can happen whether or not the bee hives are physically within the city. In fact, most “bee stings” that people get are actually wasps, which are far more aggressive and can sting again and again with impunity. Honeybees sting once and die. If you are allergic to bee stings, it would be best to keep an Epipen with you at all times, no matter where you are, and wear shoes.

Rooftop beekeeping in Melbourne, Australia

Issues with public nuisance, and enjoying one’s property are easily mediated by the proper regulations. Obviously, if I put one of my hives right on the edge of my property, or in front of a public sidewalk with the entrance facing everyone else – I would be imposing on other people, and increasing the likelihood of someone accidentally disturbing the nest. The trick is to get the bees to go up once they leave the hive, and they won’t run into anyone. My back yard is sunny and open, while all my neighbors have trees and other barriers between their yards and mine. As a result, all of my bees fly straight up about 30 feet before they go anywhere else. Not every yard is so ideally suited for beekeeping, but all it takes is a 6 foot high fence, dense foliage, or earthen wall to accomplish this. You could even put the hive on a rooftop high above anyone who could be affected.

Bees also need to visit water sources, and could annoy neighbors who have swimming pools. By putting a consistent water source in your own yard near the bees, they will leave your neighbors alone. I use a bird bath on the other side of the garden.

Swarms, as I have discussed already, are harmless and not so much a nuisance as they are a fascination that draws a crowd of interested citizens. Whenever I pick up a swarm from someone’s property, they always learn a lot about bees.

Finally, aggressive bees should be avoided. Africanized honeybees, which can be angered easily and sting people down the road from their hive, are often banned completely. If a hive is aggressive and is attacking your neighbors, it should be removed, or re-queened with a gentler genotype. The daughters of this new queen will inherit her disposition. It is believed that the large number of urban beekeeping bans currently in place are actually the result of an aggressive strain of bees that used to be prevalent throughout the US. Early in the imported beekeeping history of this country, an aggressive and cold-tolerant German breed of honeybees was widespread in both kept and feral hives. This breed has become quite rare today, as it was not disease-resistant, and beekeepers switched to Italian, Carnolian, Russian, and other breeds. All bees are not the same, and laws built to protect from one breed of bee aren’t needed for today’s more civilized bees.

Even the best arguments against keeping bees in urban areas can be mediated with the right rules, and the function of government is to find that middle ground where beekeepers can keep a few hives safely on their property, and the rights of everyone else are also protected. There are many different flavors of beekeeping ordinances across the country, some with restrictions on the number of hives you can have, some have licensing fees, and some make you get permission from a large proportion of your neighbors (which can mean an absurdly large number of people depending on the radius). Almost all require a barrier and a water source, and distance requirements from nearby buildings and public walkways. City by city, regulated urban beekeeping is coming back.

Mount Horeb: Un-bee-lievable!

However, in 2010, Mount Horeb, WI, proposed to ban beekeeping from within the city. For those who are not familiar with this little rural village, Mount Horeb is south of Madison, has a large Scandinavian influence, has a nearby limestone cave, and quite possibly has more trolls on main street than people. (I mean the mythical kind.) Somehow, this quaint burg decided that honeybees were not welcome:

Bees aren't the only life that appreciates water

11.19 Keeping of Bees.
(1) With the exception of A-1 Agricultural District zoning, it shall be unlawful for any person to establish or maintain any hive, stand, or box where bees are kept or keep any bees in or upon any premises within the corporate limits of the Village.

Beekeeping was put on the agenda for a Village Board meeting, and many beekeepers came to speak about their experiences. I was not there, but one beekeeper gave a frank assessment of what happened:

Thank you all for your support but this did not end well. In fact it ended very sadly. A number of club members, and some townsfolk gave good testimony. In all there were about 25 people who spoke in support of allowing bee keeping in Mt Horeb. Speaking against bee keeping was a single family led by a woman who was so emotionally unstrung that she left halfway through the meeting in tears. This family produced no facts. Their arguments were based entirely on an unfounded panicked fear of all bees. Those in support talked about the different kinds of bees, how honey bees are basically benign and are generally beneficial to the community. They talked of their own personal experience with bees. Unfortunately, the hysterical woman’s fears spoke to the Village Board. One by one the board members said that despite the expert testimony, they remained terrified of all bees and did not want them in the village. They voted to continue the ban on the raising “of bees and wasps” inside the village limits. (Yes, they are so poorly informed they banned wasp culture.) One board member said he was voting against for his grandchildren. He said his nine grandchildren were afraid of bees and, even though this fear might not make much sense, he was supporting them in holding the fear. With logic like that how could the board have acted otherwise. There was a single vote in favor of bees cast by a very courageous woman.

This is the real culprit of "bee stings." And it is no bee.

So Mt Horeb has decided to go it alone. They are bucking a national trend in which many new people are taking up bee keeping and cities, like New York City five months ago, are increasingly encouraging bee keeping and making it legal. They openly chose to create public policy based on unsupported fear rather than fact. They chose to hide from the issue rather than regulate it. God help us all.

When I read this, I couldn’t help but think of other things people fear against all reason – some we talk about quite a bit on this blog.

One of the board members, however, did not seem to think they were acting out of irrational fear. In response to someone else’s complaint about their decision, they said:

The boards actions were not “foolishness” or based on “irrational fear”.  Beekeeping belongs outside of Village limits.  We had more than enough information to make a decision.  Almost every person who spoke in favor that night were from outside of Mount Horeb and were beekeepers.  I have an allergy to bee’s and while it is unlikely I would be stung, I wouldn’t want to take the chance.  If we had a beekeeper next to my house, I would guarantee my kids wouldn’t play in our backyard for fear of getting stung, irrational or not……you try to convince a 10 and 3 year old otherwise.

Barry B. Benson. A 'male' worker bee.

Because of course, the fears of a 10 and 3 year old must be the basis for public policy. I was scared of bees at that age, and in some ways I still am. But kids rarely have bad encounters with honeybees, which only sting if the hive is threatened or if they are stepped on. When I was young, I used to follow honeybees visiting our large rosemary bushes and capture them in jars. I was never stung. Try to do that to a wasp and you will probably get a different response.  The funny thing is that banning wasp-keeping from the Village was on the agenda as well – as if anyone kept them on purpose! Maybe it would be more effective for public safety to issue cease and desist orders to wasp nests found within Village limits?

The irony of the fears-of-children defense is that children are presented with countless images of fat, fuzzy, happy bees in art, books, clothing, cereal boxes, and now cartoon films. As a society, we try to help children appreciate bees, even if they have never seen a hive. I have given several classes about bees to very young children at a local community center and when I am done explaining how wasps are the mean bugs and honeybees are friendly, topped with a chance to spin the honey centrifuge and take some home in a little jar – I guarantee there are 15 new bee enthusiasts that go home each time. Respectfully, the Mount Horeb Board member who penned this reason for voting to ban bees ought to put a little education to those fears.

The Madison Beekeeping Ordinance

Following the Mount Horeb defeat, and rumblings of bee-fearful neighbors, members of my local beekeeping club, the Dane County Beekeeper’s Association (we’re mad about bees!) started talking about a beekeeping ordinance for Madison. Strictly speaking, beekeeping was not banned in the city, however, it was also not authorized, so it fell into rather ambiguous territory – leaning toward the illegal side. Some thought it best to not attract attention and accidentally get it banned, while others, myself included, wanted to get it done so that it would be fully and permanently legal.

It was a long process, spearheaded by an enthusiastic keeper named Michael Gourlie, but the whole DCBA helped the City of Madison draft an ordinance that would ensure that people could keep bees legally and safely within the city, while also adding some of the flexibility that hobby beekeepers today would need to manage their hives well. For instance, many ordinances allow only two hives, however, it is difficult with the harsh Wisconsin winters and the many diseases, pests, and problems today to overwinter a colony. When it is common to lose half of your hives, two hives does not provide a measure of security for your bees. Also, some beekeepers are getting into trying to breed them and raise their own queens, which requires additional, often small hives. We argued for a number greater than 2, and won.

Here is the final ordinance, adopted this February:

  1. Hives may be located only on lots with residential use.
  2. No more than six (6) hives may be located on a lot.
  3. No hive shall exceed twenty (20) cubic feet in volume.
  4. No hive shall be located closer than three (3) feet from any property line.
  5. No hive shall be located closer than ten (10) feet from a public sidewalk or twenty-five (25) feet from a principal building on an abutting lot.
  6. A constant supply of water shall be provided for all hives.
  7. A flyway barrier at least six (6) feet in height shall shield any part of a property line that is within twenty-five (25) feet of a hive. The flyway barrier shall consist of a wall, fence, dense vegetation or a combination thereof and it shall be positioned to transect both legs of a triangle extending from an apex at the hive to each end point of the part of the property line to be shielded.
  8. The owner, operator, or tenant obtains a license under Sec. 9.53, MGO.
  9. The applicant for the license notifies all residents of the property and the owner or operator of the property if the applicant is not the owner or operator.

In my opinion, it is still missing an important clause. While the distances and barriers are put in place to protect your neighbors – what if they have no problem whatsoever with your bees? The neighbors closest to our bees are former beekeepers themselves. A simple clause that allows distance rules to be exempted by written permission from affected neighbors would add some more needed flexibility. However, some officials at the City were concerned that it could lead to a sort of coercive conflict between neighbors. Still, not having this detail is better than having to ask permission from neighbors to even keep them at all!

It is always good to be respectful, listen, and respond to concerns that your neighbors may have about your bees. Though keeping bees can be beneficial, and though the law can guarantee the right to keep bees, it doesn’t mean that your neighbors can be ignored, either. Even if your bees meet the minimum requirements of the law, see what you can do to accommodate their concerns. And always, always offer them honey!

One by one, cities are coming around, and it takes an active, involved, and vibrant community of beekeepers to make it happen. Find allies amongst city officials who are willing to work with you to draft ordinances that make sense for your area. (Feel free to cut-and-paste from ours!) Some states are even considering wiping anti-bee ordinances off the books in one fell swoop, and regulating them by Agricultural experts in state offices. Even so, it falls on us beekeepers and enthusiasts to educate the public, and demonstrate the reasons why beekeeping – even in urban areas, can be safe, fun, and the right thing to do. These things have a tendency to snowball, as now the neighboring city of Middleton is asking to join in on the urban beekeeping trend!

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Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.