Thursday, September 22, 2011

Free The Bees!

I was pleased to see this North Coast Journal piece on local beekeeping and its related legal problems. All the local city councils should get onboard the effort to allow beekeeping within city limits. It's a no- brainer.

As an aside, the Eureka Animal Control officer that insisted the fellow in the story remove his hive immediately rather than wait for nightfall when the bees are inactive showed extremely poor judgement. Does he handle all his cases like that?


At 10:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am aware of one other case in recent years in which the Eureka anti-honeybee ordinance was enforced, and in that case at least the beekeeper was given plenty of time (I believe it was two weeks) to relocate the hive.

In that case the complaint that prompted the enforcement action was from an obnoxious neighbor who had maintained a grudge and a campaign of harasssment for decades against the beekeeping homeowner for completely urelated reasons. Complaining about the bees and getting them evicted was just one more way to carry out that harassment.

After many threats and acts of vandalism (including throwing rocks at another neighbor's house and shooting up that neighbor's chimney with a pellet gun), eventually the beekeeping homeowner and the other neighbor had to obtain restraining orders against the obnoxious neighbor. Soon afterward, no longer allowed to carry out his campaign of harassment and threats, the offender moved away.

The fact that the Animal Control officer in question insisted on moving the hive while thousands of bees were still out foraging for nectar and pollen (rather than at least waiting until dark when they would be back in the hive) shows ignorance and/or callous indifference by the Animal Control officer in question, as well as inconsistency in how the ordinance is enforced (as mentioned above the other recent case where a hive was evicted gave the beekeeper a lot more time to relocate the hive).

But the broader point is, when we have so many unnecessary, rarely-enforced laws on the books, that leaves a lot of room for these sorts of laws to be abused, through selective enforcement, for the purpose of harassment.

At 1:58 PM, Anonymous skippy said...

Honeybees are disappearing at a frightening rate, Fred.

No one is quite sure as to the reason why. What we're seeing are honeybee populations declining on a massive scale throughout the world. There are companies currently renting bees out to desperate farmers. You call, pay, and they arrive in semis and flatbeds unloading bees and hives during the flowering season. They leave them for a few days or weeks until delivering them onto their next location. I've spoken to one of these 'bee wrangling ranchers' on his trip through the Central Valley. It's a big business, he tells me.

Bee keepers were keeping their continuous hive losses to themselves because of the embarrassment that they were doing something wrong. We now know that isn't the case and the problem has reached a critical turning point: we're losing 30% of our bees yearly. The situation is growing worse; some feel this borders on a 'national disaster' for agriculture if the trends continue. In some parts of China, farmers manually pollinate their fruit trees using bristle brushes applied to the blossoms. The only reason we haven't had a complete collapse is beekeepers have been splitting their hives to grow new colonies-- and keeping the bee populations from failing altogether.

At first we thought that CCD--Colony Collapse Disorder-- was causing honeybee declines due to mites; specifically, the Varroa mite. While this has been discounted as the single reason for CCD, it still remains a source for concern. No one knows, or is entirely sure, of what's causing CCD. The disorder has recently reared its ugly head in Hawaii decimating a portion of their commercial organic honey hives. One possible correlation is CCD occurs where monocrop agriculture (growing a single crop year after year on the same land without crop rotation) is practiced and pesticides are used. Areas free of these two indicators usually have no CCD issues.

One National-Beekeeper-Head-Honcho expert argues that hives should continue to be split. He strongly advises everyone, all of us, having at least 1 beehive in our yard, reasoning “It's better to have 60,000 people keeping a hive than a single beekeeper keeping 60,000 of them.” He believes we’ve reached a critical turning point in declining honeybee populations requiring this sort of serious response.

The only problems I’ve heard of in the city limits are twofold: your Eureka neighbors may be allergic to beestings and not look very kindly on your attempts saving bees and the world at large. Hives can also ‘swarm’ with colony overpopulation and a new queen in tow, flying over the fence onto your neighbor’s tree and building a new colony-- much to the Strub's chagrin... or horror.

With all things considered, Fred-- Free the Bees!

At 3:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Migratory beekeeping is not actually a new thing, it's been practiced for something like 150 years in this country. They used to move hives on wagons, on trains, and on riverboats and barges. (Going back even further, I believe I read some time back about how the ancient Egyptians used to move hives up and down the Nile to "follow the bloom," though I'm not sure whether that was mainly for the honey crop, or whether they realized the role it played in increasing crop yields).

Anyway, it's certainly true that commercial beekeepers have become more and more reliant on pollination contracts (as opposed to honey and beeswax) over the past few decades. Contracts for pollination services eclipsed honey production as the leading source of income for commercial beekeepers about 15 to 20 years ago.

And because of the falling supply of managed hives (about 2.5 million in the U.S. today, compared to more than 5.5 million in the 1950s) hive rental rates have increaased substantially in the last few decades, especially for crops like Almonds, which require pollination early in the year, when bee populations are still low and it has not yet been possible to split hives. (The Almond crop in California requires about 1.5 million beehives, which are brought in from all around the country each year, in late January and early February -- so that's more than half of all the human-managed hives in the country, at this point). And at the current rate of decline, within a couple of decades we could be in a situation where for some crops the growers will be unable to find enough hives to rent, at ANY price.

The more than 50% reduction in the numbers of beekeeper-managed hives in this country since the 1950s is due to a number of factors, including competition from cheap imported honey, colony losses from pesticides, parastic mites, various diseases, and now "Colony Collapse Disorder," which the latest research suggests can occur as a result of the bees being overwhelmed by any combination of several harmful factors, including a new strain of a fungal disease from Asia, new viruses, the parasitic Varroa mites (which arrived from Asia in the late 1980s), new "systemic" insecticides that are constantly present in the nectar and pollen of the treated crops, moving and crowding -related stresses due to industrial-scale migratory beekeeping / pollination operations, the poor nutrition that monocropped industrial-agriculural areas provide to bees, and likely other factors that we do not yet know about.

Add to that the fact that we also have also lost an estimated 90% (!) of all the feral honeybee colonies that we had as of the 1950s, and tha there has also been a similarly steep decline of native bee populations (bumblebees and solitary bees of which there are hundreds of different species, quite a few of which are now endangered) as well as other pollinators, and there is real reason to be concerned.

We haven't yet reached the breaking point in the sense that we're still able to produce huge amounts of food in this country, but the fact that the number of honeybee colonies continues to decline, despite the best efforts of beekeepers, well that should be a wake-up call to all of us that our food supply is becoming increasingly vulnerable to collapse.

At 3:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If all of this seems somewhat dramatic and alarmist, keep in mind somewhere around half of all the food we grow is heavily reliant on bees for pollination, and bee pollination contributes to increased yields on another 25% or so. Losing that pollination, or a large amount of it, would result not just in higher food prices, but potentially large-scale famine.

Given that fact, the miniscule amount of money that is being devoted to research into the historic bee die-offs that we are currently experiencing seems wholly inadequate in light of the grave risks of failing to turn this situation around.

The bottom line is that we've taken the bees for granted for far too long, and now it's catching up with us.

And that brings us back to the subject of Fred's post, because we should be encouraging people to take up beekeeping, and encouraging both kids and adults to learn about the importance of bees and beekeeping, not banning it.

New York City re-legalized beekeeping a few years ago. It seems to me that if people ae allowed to keep bees in places like New York and San Francisco, with their millions of people and highly dense urban landscapes, then small cities with much lower densities like Eureka and Arcata should certainly be able to accomodate some backyard beekeepers.

No, we shouldn't allow large, commercial beeyards with hundreds of colonies to be located right next to a school or daycare or anything like that, but a few hives in someone's backyard or on their rooftop, that should certainly be allowed. Heck, it ought to be encouraged!

At 3:46 PM, Blogger Fred said...

"Honeybees are disappearing at a frightening rate"

So I've heard. I believe I wrote here a few months ago I've noticed a scarcity of honeybees in my back yard. In fact, I don't believe I've seen one all summer, although I've seen a handful within a few blocks from my house.

I first heard about the 200' ordinance then when I mentioned I wouldn't mind having a hive in my back yard to ensure my vegetable garden gets pollinated.

I understand they've been renting hives to farmers for decades so I don't know that has anything to do with hive depletion in and of itself.

I really can't see much downside to allowing hives in town. Sure, some are scared by bees. In fact, we got a little nervous when a swarm looked like it was going to set up housekeeping on the rose arbor next to our back porch. We called a beekeeper to come get them but they flew off on their own before he showed up.

I'm sure some are worried about getting stung, but bees are pretty peaceful creatures in my experience, despite a childhood scare that left me scared of them for years. They don't bother me at all now.

Now yellowjackets, THEY BOTHER ME, as I've been stung numerous times by them. Sometimes without reason.

I'm sure no one would object to some rules regarding distance they could be placed from houses, but I'm sure not much distance is really needed. The beekeepers themselves would probably know best.

I know not long after I brought up the beehive issue earlier I discovered a hive in the lot next to a place I was working at on Herrick Avenue. Was relieving myself next to a fence, happened to peek over the other side and there was a beehive (what are they called? Supers?).

I'd never noticed it before and I was 10 to 15 feet from it and they never bothered me. I've even run power equipment that close to them and they never got upset. I wanted to go take a closer look but I'd have had to climb the fence to do so.

Anyway, beehives in town is a great idea. Let's see just how hard it is to alter or remove the current hive restrictions. I wouldn't be surprised if takes a ridiculously long time.

At 5:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I commend you on your positive attitude toward honeybees. Thanks for posting about this movement to "Give Bees a Chance" in Eureka adn Arcata.

One issue that is a legitimate cause for concern is the approx. 1/10 of 1% of people who are deathly allergic to bee stings.

So if you want to keep bees in your backyard, it's a good idea to check with your immediate neighbors to make sure none of them are among that 1/10 of 1%.

But the 200 foot setback is just unnecessary, and it of course renders the keeping of bees illegal in almost all of Eureka. A 20 foot setback should be more than enough to ensure that neighbors won't have any significant impact from the bees coming and going from their hive, since at that distance nearly all of them are flying at least 15-20 feet up off the ground as they make their way to the flowers (honeybees typically forage in about a 2-3 mile radius from their hive, they won't all be massing on your neighbors flowers or something like that).

By the way, a "swarm" is just a natural process whereby a strong colony divides itself, and about half of them leave to start a new colony somewhere else. When they do that, they will fly out of the hive en masse, and then they will usually cluster nearby for a day or so before heading out to their new home. While they are hanging in the cluster like that, they are making sure they have a queen bee with them, and they are sending out "scout bees" to search for the best cavity to nest in (often a hollow tree, a hollow wall with a hole in it, or an empty hive box).

While they are swarming, and while they are hanging in their swarm cluster for that day or so, they are even more gentle than usual (they don't have a home or honey to defend, and they aren't at all interested in giving up their lives in the act of stinging someone...they are just focused on getting to their new home alive). It's always possible that while the swarm is airborne, one might get tangled in your hair or clothing or something, and you might end up with a sting, but even that is quite rare.

By the way, you did the right thing by calling a beekeeper, since if they can get to the swarm cluster before they fly away to their new home, the beekeeper can usually get the swarm to move into a hive box, and then bring them to a good location. That is good for the bees, because with a beekeeper looking after them their chances of survival are about 3x greater than in the wild, and it's good for the humans in the area, because it means the bees end up in a hive in a good location, rather than in someone's wall or attic where they might become a nuisance.

At 6:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For those interested in learning to keep bees, HSU Extended Education offers a course called "Practical Beekeeping" every spring.

It will be listed in the HSU Extended Ed Spring Catalog that comes out around December, and the course starts in mid-February, with once-a-week classes through mid-May and 3 or 4 Saturday afternoon field trips to a local beeyard to learn to work with the bees.

The teacher also organizes a group order for beekeeping equipment at a discount, and for "package bees," which are sort of like an artificial swarm that comes with 3 lbs of bees in a little wood-and-wire-screen cage/box, along with a queen bee. Those are then installed in the hive to get you started, and they build up their population from there.

Those enrolling for these classes have their choice of attending the class in Arcata (at the HSU campus) on Wednesday evenings, or the SoHum session in Miranda (at South Fork High School) on Thursday evenings.

And another note for folks interested in beekeeping: Humboldt County Beekeepers' Association meetings are open to the public, and are held on the first Thursday of each month, from February through October, from 6:30-8:30 pm, in the Conference Room of the Humboldt County Agriculture Department at 5630 South Broadway in Eureka (you have to get off the Humboldt Hill exit from 101, bear right onto South Broadway, and then the Ag Department building is immediately on your right, just across the street from KIEM-TV).

The Beekeepers Association's meetings are good place to meet some of our local beekeepers, get answers to your question about keeping bees and perhaps find someone in your town or neighborhood who would be willing to act as a "mentor" to help you get started. So the last meeting for this year would be two weeks from today on Thursday, October 6th, starting at 6:30pm. I haven't seen the notice yet, but in past years a number of local beekeepers have brought their honey to taste at the October meeting, and I suspect that'll be the case again this year. So that might be a little added incentive to come check it out!

There are a lot of challenges for both honeybees and beekeepers these days, but the one silver lining is that more people are becoming aware of the importance of honeybees and their keepers, and are becoming interested in learning to keep bees themselves. Enrollment in the Practical Beekeeping class has been rising steadily for a number of years now, with more people of all ages and both genders getting into beekeeping.

If anyone reading this is interested in becoming one of these "newbees" I strongly encourage you to look into it. It's not super-easy to keep bees, it does require some knowledge and skills, but there are good resources here locally to help you gain that knowledge and those skills.

And it does offer a lot of rewards: It's fun and fascinating, it's a very calming and contemplative activity that will really sharpen your awareness of the natural world around you, and if you stick with it, you can sometimes harvest as much as 5-10 gallons of honey from a strong, healthy hive. Talk about "sweet rewards!"

At 9:04 AM, Blogger Fred said...

Could you give us an idea of the costs involved in beekeeping, 6:10? How much do the hive boxes cost? What about "package bees"? Are there any regular costs associated with hive maintenance throughout the year?

Thanx in advance for your reply. This certainly sounds interesting.

At 9:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Fred,

Thanks for your interest.

To buy the basic tools new (a hive tool, veil, smoker and a few other small items) will run you about $50. To buy all new equipment for one hive, in other words enough hive boxes ("supers") for one hive make it through the first year, plus the frames and foundation for those boxes (which is what the bees build their honeycombs on within the box), plus a bottom board, a lid, and a couple of other necessary items, will run you, altogether, somewhere between $150 and $250, depending on whether you buy the parts as a kit that you assemble yourself, or whether you buy them all already assembled.

A set of "Package Bees" (which includes 3lbs of bees plus a queen bee) costs between $70 and $90, depending on what kind of bees (there are a couple of different breeds of bees available, each with its pros and cons).

Those are the approximate prices, as of this past spring, for new equipment, tools and package bees bought through the Group Order that is organized by the teacher of the Bee Class.

However, you can sometimes save quite a bit by purchasing some of your tools and/or equipment used rather than new (though there is always some risk that the used equipment might be carrying some disease spores).

And there are a few other places where you can save, for example a plain old piece of plywood with a cinder block on it can work just fine for the lid, and if instead of package bees, you start your hive from a swarm you capture, that would be free (not including your time capturing them, of course).

Of course buying the hive equipment and then waiting around for a swarm to show up is a bit hit-or-miss, so most people start their first hive with package bees. Then if a swarm does show up later, you can use those to start a second hive (and it's good to eventually have more than one hive, since there are situations where it's really helpful to be able to "borrow" resources from one hive to strengthen another, and ocassionally one hive may have its queen bee die during the winter when new queens aren't available, and if you have two hives you can just combine the two hives so that the queenless one doesn't die out, then you can split them again in the spring when new queens are available).

Other costs include a beginner beekeeping book (something like $25 new, or cheaper if used), the cost of the beekeeping course ($120 for the whole semester), and maybe 20 lbs of sugar to feed them in the form of sugar syrup during their first month or so to help them get started. Sometimes medications are used in the fall if the bees have too high a level of parasitic mites or other issues, but the medications are not very expensive.

There are, of course, all kinds of fancy extras (full-body bee suit, fancy copper-sheathed peak-roofed lids, etc.) and you can spend all kinds of money on those sorts of extras, but those things are not really necessary.

So there are definitely some start-up costs, and beekeepers often joke that the first jar of honey they get is the "most expensive honey in the worlds." But the equipment can last for many years and if you stick with it then the cost, over time, is pretty modest.

Anyway, I hope this info is helpful. You can learn a lot more by searching online, readin a book or two (there are several at the County Library in Eureka), attendin some of the Bee Association meetings, taking the HSU Extended Ed "Practical Beekeeping" class, and of course by meetin and talkin to beekeepers. Most beekeepers are very enthusiastic about helpin "newbees" learn and get started.

At 9:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmmmm... I'm not sure what happened with my "g" key there at the end! (Seems to be working now).

At 10:14 AM, Blogger Fred said...

Thanx for the info. Fascinating stuff.

At 4:07 PM, Anonymous skippy said...

This was really good information. Thank you!

To Bee or Not to Bee...

My question is if the City changes the ordinance to Free the Bees!, could I have a beekeeper place a hive in the yard and cover the costs? I provide the space, you take care of everything else, and you get to keep the honey. Would this bee a realistic partnership?

I really don't want to see the bees quit-- or go on strike-- demanding more honey and shorter working flowers.

At 7:05 PM, Blogger Fred said...

Skippy writes,"could I have a beekeeper place a hive in the yard and cover the costs?".

Pretty interesting that one of my sister- in- laws dropped by yesterday and, after I told her about the bee thing, she asked the same thing. She wondered if maybe some bee guy (or gal) might want to set up a hive on her property and just have at it.

I can't help but think that at least some beekeepers might jump at that chance. Maybe our anon bee expert (9:42am) could address that? If nothing else, there's always the beekeepers' meetings at the Ag Building. That would be a good place to ask.

At 10:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Skippy and Fred,

First of all I'm glad you found the info I posted helpful.

As far as the idea of inviting a beekeeper set up a hive or two on your property, yes, it's a possibility.

Of course for someone trying to make all or most of their living through beekeeping, a location with just one or two hives doesn't really work out -- too much inefficiency in having one or two hives at many different locations. Folks who are trying to make a living at it tend to look for sites where they can have a larger number of hives, so that when they go to do inspections and so on, it's more efficient, time and transportation-wise.

But there are a lot of smaller "hobbyist" and "sideliner" beekeepers around, and one of them might potentially be interested. This might include a local beekeeper who already has a few in their own backyard and would like a few more, but doesn't have room for them or would like a second location to help "hedge their bets" in case one of the locations doesn't do well in a given year due to disease or some other factor. Or perhaps a prospective new beekeeper who can't keep bees at their own place because they live in an apartment, or have a very small backyard, or a landlord who doesn't want them, or whatever. And there are sometimes HSU students who take the class who would like to keep bees but they live in a dorm or apartment building or something like that and might be happy to be able to keep a hive or two in your backyard.

If you think you might be interested in hosting some bees in your backyard, then, yes, the Humbodt Beekeepers' Association might be a good place to start. There are the meetings, which I provided info on above, and you could also contact the current President of the association, Kathy Lee, at 822-6169.

There is also an online Yahoo Group forum for Humbolt Beekeepers, perhaps she could post a message there about your interest in hosting some bees, including your contact info, and you might get someone to contact you that way. Kathy could also instruct you about how to join that online Humboldt Beekeepers Yahoo Group forum if you're interested.

And I would definitely advise you to read a little bit about beekeeping, just so you'll have a basic idea of what's involved. As I mentioned above, there are a couple of books at the Humbolt County Library. They also have a subscription to "Bee Culture" magazine (until you know more about the basics, quite a bit of the stuff in Bee Culture mag may kind of go right over your head, but it will still be a lot of fun to leaf through and check out the pictures and some of the more beginner-oriented articles).

A&L Feed, in McKinleyville, which is the only local store that carries beekeeping equipment, also has a nice selection of beekeeping books, including several oriented toward new beekeepers and at least one specifically on the subject of "Backyard Beekeeping."

I'm glad the bees have caught your interest, and I encourage you to take one of these next steps and learn a little more.


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