WORCESTER, Mass. — Mary Duane said she got into beekeeping in 1999, and has been hooked ever since.
Ms. Duane, a certified master beekeeper and president of the Worcester County Beekeepers Association, keeps three sets of bee boxes, neatly stacked on top of each other in the back yard of her Blithewood Avenue home. Each stack holds about 60,000 bees, and they buzzed and darted in and out of their hives on a recent afternoon.
From the street, Ms. Duane’s home is as unassuming as the rest along Blithewood, and she hopes it stays that way. Ms. Duane said she’s concerned that a new set of proposed regulations intended to expand agricultural opportunities in the city could saddle beekeepers with unnecessarily restrictive regulations.
Ms. Duane donned a beekeeper jacket and hood and deftly went through a stack of boxes containing thousands of bees, buzzing and crawling and eating. They come and go during the day according to the sun, and return to the hive at night. They’re pollinators, and are prized by the agricultural industry. They are essential to production of crops across the country, from almonds in California to blueberries in Maine. Ms. Duane said they’re typically docile creatures; she said yellowjackets and hornets have a much more earned reputation for stinging people than honeybees do.
She said in some ways, urban settings lend themselves quite well to smaller beekeeping operations. She said her neighbors aren’t overly concerned with maintaining perfectly manicured lawns, and don’t use pesticides or excessive fertilizers that can be troublesome for bee colonies. Ms. Duane’s yard is bordered by thick vegetation; there’s no elaborate setup for her bees; just the boxes, a smoker, and a nearby water source.
The city administration earlier this year proposed an amendment to the zoning ordinance establishing rules and regulations for urban-scale farming and agricultural use. The Planning Board recently recommended the proposed amendment to the City Council; last week, the council sent the proposal to its Economic Development Committee for further review.
A separate, coordinated ordinance governing beekeeping included as part of the review of the urban agriculture amendment has also been proposed. Ms. Duane said the major concern with the beekeeping ordinance is the abutter notification. The original proposal requires beekeepers seeking a special permit to operate to notify any abutters within 300 feet, and requires descriptions of the locations and dimensions of hives on the property, along with other details. Ms. Duane said she fears excessive abutter notification could unnecessarily alarm neighbors who have been living near a beekeeper for years without incident, and could attract vandals. She said it could cause unnecessary conflict in a neighborhood.
“If we have to tell our neighbors we have bees, and they say they don’t want them there, then what happens?” Ms. Duane asked.
She said she fully supports the idea of encouraging urban farming. She said food sourcing could become a serious issue if the supply chain is ever disrupted; she noted that only 10 percent of the fruits and vegetables consumed in the state are grown here. She said done properly, beekeeping can continue to thrive in urban environments. She said she has a friend who keeps bees on top of a hotel in Boston without most people ever knowing it exists.
She said she’s amenable to some sort of formal process that establishes regulations for beekeepers. And she said that ultimately it could produce best practices that strengthen the beekeeping community.
“We want it to be a workable situation,” she said.
In its recommendation to the City Council, the Planning Board appeared amenable to the beekeepers’ suggestions. The board recommended limiting information required in the permit and removing “flyway barrier” requirements, and opined that the abutter notification language in the original proposal is “too burdensome and unnecessary.” But the board also said it understood residents may have legitimate concerns about proximity to beehives, and encouraged city staff to come up with a way of giving concerned citizens generalized information on the location of bee colonies.
Before sending the Planning Board recommendation to committee last week, two councilors voiced initial concerns about the proposal.
At-large Councilor Konstantina B. Lukes disagreed with the notion that it would be too much trouble to establish a system of abutter notification; said said other planning and zoning issues manage to involve abutter notification without too much expense. She said not requiring the notification when there’s a change of use on a property “really challenges the notion of transparency.”
And at-large Councilor Morris A. Bergman said he wondered about liability issues that could arise if someone gets stung by a beekeeper’s bees.
Ms. Duane said beekeepers would prefer no abutter notification, but would deal with some sort of requirement if it was restricted to something like neighbors in the immediate vicinity. She said she keeps liability insurance on her policy, and has additional insurance because she sells some of the honey from the hives. But she said she didn’t know how anyone can prove that a bee that stings someone came from a particular beekeeper’s hive. She said bees can travel three to five miles in search of nectar and pollen.
“If someone up the street gets stung, how do you know?” Ms. Duane asked.
Ms. Duane said she doesn’t think the proposed beekeeping ordinance grew out of any sort of malice against the hobby. But she said she’d like to see the city become more “pollinator-friendly,” incorporating more pollinator-friendly plantings into urban design. She said she finds bees fascinating, “the little dance they have going on.”
Information from: Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, Mass.), http://www.telegram.com