The city of Arcata is looking into relaxing its ordinance on residential beekeeping.
The Humboldt County Beekeepers Association brought the idea to loosen restrictions to the Arcata and Eureka city councils earlier this month. the beekeepers association hopes that recent attitudes toward urban sustainability and education about bee culture will welcome bees back into neighborhoods.
Kathleen Lee, the president of the Humboldt County Beekeepers Association, says a number of challenges face beekeepers. Beekeepers have been the subject of vindictive neighbors, causing people to lose their hives.
”there are a lot of bees kept in the city,” Lee said. “It’s not really enforced unless someone complains.”
Keeping bees in residential zones also puts beekeepers at risk of liability.
Arcata City Councilman Shane Brinton said he wants Arcata to relax beekeeping codes in Arcata.
“I want to set standards that are fair, protect neighborhoods and protect people with allergies,” Brinton said, adding that he’s aware of community fears that surround bees and doesn’t think that looser restrictions will lead to irresponsible beekeeping. “I want to make sure the code allows a process to remove problems.”
In Arcata, beekeeping is allowed only with a permit in residential zones considered “residential-very low density” and “agriculture-residential.”
”This is a holdover from the ’50s and ’60s when planners were trying to push nature out of urban environments,” Brinton said. Other major cities, including Seattle and New York City, have recently relaxed beekeeping laws, and the city staff is looking at those codes for guidance.
Local beekeeper Garrett Brinton — who is not related to Shane Brinton– said high fences can eliminate the need to have large setbacks from hives.
“you don’t want bees crossing sidewalks in big numbers. but once you get them up eight or 10 feet, they disperse,” Garrett Brinton said.
Lee took the issue of beekeeping before the Eureka City Council as well. the Eureka ordinance currently prohibits beekeeping within 200 feet of any occupied structure. This effectively outlaws beekeeping citywide, Lee said.
Robert Wall, Eureka’s director of community development, said he hasn’t had any direction from the city council to work on the beekeeping code. “It’s actually under animal control, but there’s an assumption that we’ll work on it. We’ll be happy to work on it,” Wall said.
Education is the key to good relations between bees and people. Kathleen Lee said bees are defensive only near their hive, and even then only right around the flyway, or front entrance. Swarming and robbing, two bee behaviors that see the bees leave the hive in big groups, can be managed by proper technique, Lee said.
During the fall, bees prepare to overwinter.
”they get kind of desperate that time of year,” Lee said. “it does mean that people have to know what they’re doing.”
Lee said the beekeepers association has a dual mandate. Members help each other set up, maintain and enjoy beekeeping. they also are committed to educating the public and host events for schools and business associations.
Shane Brinton said he hopes that the beekeepers association can help the city educate the public.
”they know the behavior of bees,” he said. “it would be great if the city either has a fact sheet or directs people to the association.”
Deborah Giraud at the Humboldt County Department of Agriculture said the risks of keeping bees in residential areas are minimal.
”in general, it’s really important to have more honeybees,” Giraud said. “we have a lot of problems with pollination here because of weather. most calls in here are about fruit trees. And it’s a pollination problem.”
Richard Wolf isn’t sure if his property lies in a zone that prohibits beekeeping, but he’d like to see the ordinance changed. there are already enough things to worry about with bees.
”most things that can go wrong do,” Wolf said.
After the typical winter die-off of 25 percent of his hives, Wolf said he has to deal with mites, fungal infections and bacterial disease. And bears. Wolf set up an electric fence to protect his hives after a bear decimated his apple trees and threatened his bees.
Wolf began beekeeping after seeing a neighbor’s hive. he took the beekeeping course at HSU, bought a beehive kit and hasn’t stopped.
”It’s a good use of my land, and they pollinate my trees,” he said.
Wolf harvested 130 pounds of honey from six hives this year. That’s after the 50 pounds per hive that’s left for bees to overwinter.
Wolf said that after some initial costs, beekeeping is relatively inexpensive. Wolf bought kits to build his own hives. he gets bees through the mail.
”the postal service delivers it rapidly. they don’t like it buzzing around the post office,” he said.
Beekeeping does take time. During peak season Wolf spends six hours or more a week tending to his bees.
Wolf said he has never had issues with his neighbors regarding his bees.
The problems beekeepers face seem minor compared to the problems honeybees face. Colony collapse disorder is well known but not well understood. Hives have been suffering huge losses for the last few decades. This has many concerned, from scientists to hobbyists and those in the agriculture industry.
Garrett Brinton teaches beekeeping through the extended education program at HSU. he said colony collapse disorder is most likely a combination of factors. New fungal, viral and bacterial infections have been introduced to U.S. bees in recent years. Mites harm bees and can spread diseases. New systemic pesticides in plants can be harmful to bees, even when applied properly. any one of these conditions weakens a hive, making it susceptible to more problems. Garrett Brinton cites large agriculture’s monoculture style of farming as difficult for bees.
Garrett Brinton said pollinating almonds in California’s Central Valley is the No. 1 source of income for large beekeepers. More than half of U.S. bee colonies are used to pollinate California almonds. but bee numbers have dropped dramatically. there are now 2.5 million managed bee colonies in the U.S., down from 5 million in the 1950s.
”I’ve had losses myself,” Garrett Brinton said. he lost seven hives in a matter of three weeks, with no indication that something was wrong. “(With colony collapse disorder) the hive goes down really fast,” he said, adding that Humboldt County is a good place to raise bees, with lots of nutrition, less pesticide use and a growing interest in beekeeping.
Garrett Brinton said city ordinances have discouraged people from starting hives, though he estimates there are dozens of people in Eureka and Arcata who keep bees in violation of city code.
Garrett Brinton reiterates that education is key to keeping bees and communities safe.
“Swarms can be intimidating,” he said. “but they’re homeless and gorged up on honey. It’s one of the gentlest situations they are in.”
Africanized bees are another topic of concern. African bees were brought into South America in the mid-20th century with the intention of hybridizing for better honeybees. a narrow stock of particularly defensive bees led to the spread of a more dangerous breed of bee. Garrett Brinton said there is no expectation that Africanized bees will get any farther north than San Francisco, as they don’t overwinter well.
He said he sees responsible beekeepers as a bulwark against bad bee behavior. Beekeepers routinely replace defensive hives with gentler colonies. they act as educators and stewards of a disappearing practice and a disappearing ecological necessity.
”they pollinate our trees,” Garrett Brinton said. “when something’s free, you don’t pay a lot of attention to it. Until it’s gone.”
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