Growing interest in home beekeeping sets off Howard zoning dispute
More people raising bees for honey, pollination, but opponents fear stingers
By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun
5:37 PM EST, January 18, 2011
The tiny honeybees in Dan and Jeri Hemerlein's six hives in their big Columbia backyard are dedicated work-a-day drudges, oblivious to the passions they've stirred in humans across Maryland.
But in a search for water next door in retiree Sam Peperone's yard, the bees set off a Howard County zoning fight that has lasted close to three years and drawn hundreds of bee supporters to a series of public hearings over the last 18 months.
The local dispute has highlighted what experts say is a global trend, and Howard County has become a flashpoint in the debate over growing interest among home beekeepers, who number more than 3,500 in Maryland alone. Nationally, the number of beekeepers has increased by close to 25 percent in recent years.
Experts say a new interest in locally-grown food and a mysterious disease killing millions of bees has sparked much of the interest, heightened in Howard County by increasing suburban development that has consumed a chunk of the insects' natural habitat. Peperone realizes he's hit a nerve, but the 79-year old is riled too. He's afraid to have his grandchildren play outside, he said.
"I want the normal use of my yard, that's all," Peperone said, complaining that he feels besieged by beekeepers trying to paint him "as the one trying to do away with all the bees in Howard County".
Apiarists, both amateur and professional, are alarmed by Howard's quirky zoning rules on beehives, which classify the insects as farm animals and requires them to live 200 feet away from nearby homes a far stricter rule than in crowded Baltimore and other places. Many areas are relaxing restrictions on bees as more hobbyists begin to raise them. They argue that the European honeybee is harmless and rarely stings even when disturbed and is a helpful pollinator that provides a steady supply of honey.
"Urban environments around the world, from Moscow to Istanbul, Paris to London, Melbourne to Rome are seeing an increase in beekeeping," said author Grace Pyndyk, who wrote "The Honey Trail," describing the phenomenon.
With suburban development and disease sharply reducing wild hives in places like Howard County, more people see a need for human-nurtured beehives, though local regulations vary widely. Baltimore City requires 2,500 square feet of space for a hive, but has no buffer requirement, while Baltimore County requires a minimum four feet of space along with a four-foot high fence or hedge between beehives and adjoining properties . Anne Arundel County requires hives to be at least 50 feet from a front lot line, but only 5 feet from backyard boundaries for developments with 5 homes per acre.
Howard County Council members were to discuss the issue at a work session late Tuesday, and are scheduled to vote February 7 on a change in regulations that would allow hives within 25 feet of an adjoining property, or 10 feet if a six-foot fence or hedge is installed.
Jeri Hemlerlien, an organic gardener who said she got involved after seeing her children's fascination with the winged insects, isn't even sure her bees are causing Peperone's problem.
She said she keeps water near her hives to prevent bees from searching farther afield, and the family also has a birdbath for that purpose. There are three other beekeepers within a half-mile, she added, noting, "We've tried to be vigilant." Honeybee enthusiasts say the docile insects are often confused with more aggressive yellowjackets or wasps.
Peperone agrees he's never been stung. Still, he's baffled by the huge response to his April, 2008 complaint. " I don't understand it." Peperone said. "It's a hobby people feel passionate about."
That passion which includes urban beekeepers in Baltimore and Washington rowhouse neighborhoods, suburbanites like the Hemerleins' 3.5 acre farm remnant and rural hobbyists is rooted in the insects' vital function, carrying pollen from plant to plant. Without that, many fruits and vegetables would not grow.
Kim Flottum, editor of Bee Culture magazine, said the number of beekeepers nationally has increased 20 to 25 percent in the last three years. After repeated stories about salmonella outbreaks and other food safety scandals, he said, "People began to say, 'Where is my food coming from? is it safe?'" Organic food devotees especially need reliable pollination to produce what they want to eat, he said.
People interested in organic foods, urban agriculture and environmental sustainability are driving the trend. New York City health officials last year removed a ban on urban beekeeping in the Big Apple. First Lady Michelle Obama had hives installed on the White House lawn as part of her healthy foods drive. "People are wanting to take control over what they eat and how it is produced," Pyndyk said in an e-mail.
The unexplained die-offs of bees over the past several years has also increased the interest.
"It has increased dramatically since the publicity over Colony Collapse Disorder," the mysterious killer of millions of commercially used honeybees first noted in 2006, said Dennis van Engelsdorp, a senior researcher at Penn State University and the former Pennsylvania state apiarist.
"There's been a huge resurgence of hobby beekeeping, agreed Jeff Pettis, research leader at the government's Agriculture Research Service's "bee lab" at Beltsville."People say, 'what can I do to help?'"
Pettis leads federal research into the problem because honeybees are crucial to the success of 130 different commercially grown crops that add $15 billion annually to the national economy, according to a recent bulletin from Edward B. Kipling, ARS's administrator. But Kim Kaplan, a spokeswoman for the ARS in Beltsville, said backyard hobbyists won't resolve that problem.
"Farmers need all their pollination done at one time, "Kaplan said, explaining why they pay to have huge numbers of commercially used bees trucked in. Still, beekeepers feel they are doing something worthwhile, and van Engelsdorp said they are helping in other ways.
Hobbyists are helping pollinate local, native flowers, fruit trees and vegetables, as well as strengthening the breeding of gentle European honeybees as a defense against more aggressive Africanized species now seen across the South, van Engelsdorp said.
"For me, it's a reminder that each of us can engage even in a small way in protecting and preserving our planet. We're fools if we don't think that is an essential thing to do," said Howard County Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a Democrat who represents the neighborhood where Peperone's zoning complaint occurred. She and co-sponsor Greg Fox, a Republican, are sponsoring the legislation to ease the rules.
Maryland's beekeepers care for 11,300 bee colonies, said Jerry E. Fischer Sr., the 74-year old Maryland State Apiarist who said he began caring for the tiny critters as a farm boy in Rosedale.
"It does become a passion," said Janice E. Asato, of Mount Airy, a native of Great Britain and the first female president of the Howard County Beekeepers Association.
Asato said she and her husband encountered beekeepers at a local fair in Virginia a decade ago, and saw it as a natural extension of their gardening passion. She has six hives now. Her organization is growing fast, she said, with 76 people expressing an interest in the next round of beekeeping classes to begin next month at the Howard County Fairgrounds.
At the Howard County Council's last hearing on the zoning issue December 20, Asato's group set up a honeybee display in the George Howard Building's lobby and three dozen people testified on the issue for over three hours. Baltimore City beekeeper Meme Thomas, director of Baltimore Honey, a collection of beehive enthusiasts, brought a slideshow to illustrate how humans and bees can live close together without problems, environmentalists quoted from "The Lorax" by Dr. Seuss, and Howie Feaga, president of the Howard County Farm Bureau, said backyard beekeepers are needed to replace all the hives that used to grow in the wild that have been paved over or died out.
"Only the hobbyists keep the bees around," Feaga said.