What’s That Buzz?

Beekeepers hoping for change that will legalize their hives


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Lacking a loud dog and without any trace of feral felines, that last thing Roy Mathews ever expected at his door one morning was a visit from Eureka City animal control. But just after 10 a.m. on a blue-skied June day, an animal control officer paid a visit to Matthews's home in Henderson Center. Matthews keeps bees -- or rather, kept bees. Though no one had approached him or his wife, apparently, someone in the neighborhood was less than pleased with the bees and filed a complaint against Matthews and his plucky pollinators. Since current Eureka municipal code does not allow beekeeping within city limits, Matthews had to move his hive.

"I asked if it could wait until after dark when the bees are in," he recalls. "Moving them at night would have saved a lot of bees." Bees are diurnal, going from flower to flower by day, pollinating hundreds of plants, especially fruit trees, in the process.  Then at night honey bees return to their hive, which would make evening the best and most bee-friendly time for moving a colony. The officer was adamant, though, and insisted the bees be moved immediately.  

By afternoon, Matthews' hive was relocated to a friend's property on Union Street, outside Eureka city limits. Over the next three days to his horror, yet as he expected, he swept nearly 1,000 dead Italian honey bees from his back deck -- the industrious ones that were gone when the hive was moved. They returned to discover their home was no more. Without a hive, a home that protects them from the elements and maintains their social structure, bees cannot survive.

As soon as he moved the bees, Matthews reported what happened to Kathy Lee, president of the 70-member Humboldt County Beekeepers Association, which seeks to educate the public about bees and beekeeping. Lee is familiar with Eureka and Arcata beekeeping laws and thinks they're out-dated. "In the 1950s and 1960s many cities passed ordinances banning livestock and animal husbandry in residential areas as a way to keep nature out," says Lee. The Eureka ordinance is no exception. Passed in 1959 when folks were keen on getting off the farm and into the suburbs, the code states that bees cannot be kept within 200 feet of any human-occupied structure. Given that an average city residential lot in Eureka and Arcata is 6,000 square feet, (imagine a rectangle 60 feet by 100 feet), this currently negates any legal beekeeping within Eureka. And in Arcata, beekeeping is not allowed at all in the residential areas where most beekeepers and would-be beekeepers live. Lee and the beekeeping group want that to change, and they are asking both cities to come up with something more inclusive for bees and their admirers.

Garrett Brinton teaches beekeeping courses through Humboldt State's Extended Education office, and he knows first-hand that the hobby is captivating Humboldt residents.  "In 2009 I taught 45 beginners," says Brinton, "and in 2011, I had 65 in the beginner class. I've also started teaching a new series of beginner and advanced beekeeping classes in southern Humboldt." He believes more and more Humboldt County residents are catching that sweet honey bee buzz and want to learn how to cultivate and care for their own hives. "When I started teaching a few years ago, most people in the class were older, retired and male, but now there's a wider representation of ages and gender," says Brinton. Beekeeping, apparently, isn't just for grandpa anymore. And many new beekeepers live in residential areas still governed by 50-year-old city ordinances -- so technically, they're breaking the law.

Members of the Humboldt County Beekeepers Association consider these ordinances antiquated, especially given the state of honey bee populations nationally and worldwide. According to a 2010 United Nations Environment Programme report, the number of U.S. honey-producing bee colonies peaked in 1950 at 5.5 million and has been steadily declining. As of 2010 an estimated 2.5 million honey bee colonies remain in the United States, representing a more than 45 percent decrease in honey bees since 1950. Between the perils that bees face globally and the restrictive laws locally, the Humboldt beekeeping group was already primed for change when Eureka City Councilwoman Marian Brady got in touch, after being alarmed by a deep rumbling in her compost pile. It was a mass of bees, and the beekeeping group helped Brady identify them and come up with a strategy. Turns out they were bumblebees, not honey bees. They were pollinating Brady's apple tree and she decided to leave them alone. In turn, Lee and other bee fans asked Brady for help getting the city's attention.

In August, Brady introduced to the council the notion of changing the existing law to allow beekeeping within Eureka. The council asked the city manager and city attorney to research the issue. They will be looking at sample laws from Denver, Minneapolis, New York City, Salt Lake City, Seattle and other cities that have recently updated laws to allow for urban beekeeping. For example, New York beekeepers must register with the city and notify neighbors of the intent to keep bees. In Salt Lake, a hive must be maintained 15 feet away from property lines and public access points; while in Seattle hives must be kept 25 feet away from property lines unless the hive is elevated eight feet above the ground. Work on the proposed Eureka ordinance is expected to gear up after the new city attorney arrives on Nov. 1.

Arcata City Councilman Shane Brinton has also picked up on the buzz and plans to bring the issue before the Arcata City Council in October. Brinton has been reading new urban beekeeping laws for hints on what could work in Arcata.

It's likely that some residents could be a little nervous about neighborhood beekeeping. In big cities that recently loosened restrictions, residents worried that their neighbors' bees might not respect fence lines, and could become a stinging nuisance in their own backyards. And some people are just scared of bees. Longtime Eureka resident Katherine Camili, who recently left to attend college in the Bay Area, says she would have been frightened of nearby beekeeping. Even so, she says, "Bees are important and I do think that residents should be allowed to keep bees in the city. I would just steer clear of them and hope that I would be aware of what residents were keeping bee hives."

When the issue comes before both city councils, members of the Humboldt County Beekeepers Association will be there, highlighting the important role of honey bees as pollinators, especially as their numbers plummet worldwide. They are crucial, says group president Lee, to "help create a healthy urban ecosystem."




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