All We Are Saying Is Give Bees A Chance

annie-bee-thumbHere’s a fantastic article and video about the White House honeybees. Yet a blurb last year about a White House bee swarm prompted one commenter to accuse Michelle Obama of breaking a D.C. ordinance stating that hives can’t be kept within 500 feet of a residence (although “enclosed properties” are exempt—does the White House fence count?). Hobbyist beekeeping is legal in some cities, including Denver, Chicago, Atlanta and San Francisco, but not in most, including Providence—and that’s a shame.

This photo is of my thumb as I hold up a frame full of bees in my Rhode Island backyard. I intended to document the bees’ progress, but I might also be documenting myself breaking the law.

My husband has always loved honeybees, but I hesitated to get them. I consider myself a law-abiding person, with nary a parking ticket to my name, and we learned that every city and town in Rhode Island has some type of ordinance against beekeeping (even if we haven’t easily found the text of these ordinances). I finally caved, agreeing to learn about beekeeping in Lil’ Rhody. We attended classes through the Rhode Island Beekeepers Association (RIBA) early this year, along with more than 150 other Rhode Islanders, and local media has documented the growing trend.

The super-nice RIBA folks helped arrange proper transport of our bees to RI, encouraged us to build a pond so the bees wouldn’t bother neighbors with pools, required us to register with DEM’s bee inspector, and taught us holistic ways to treat care for our bees, like “sugaring” them to protect against Varroa mites. (Once you get past the German writing in this video, you can see how disgusting these invasive mites are. They suck the life out honeybees, and their size ratio is comparable to a rat latching on to a human being. Blech.)

Annie-bee-shoesWe installed our first package of honeybees in April, and I’ve fallen hard for these hard-working gals, even if I hardly get to see them. Some bees fly over our fence and out of sight, foraging from daybreak to sunset. Others remain inside to build up the hive or attend to the queen and baby bees. The bees are usually too focused to notice humans, although I happened to snap this photo when one stopped to inspect one of my bee-themed shoes before hustling back to work.

But the hard work of honeybees—which pollinate $15 billion of American crops annually and produce the approximately 275 million pounds of honey Americans consume each year—is overshadowed by fear of their stingers. True, some people are fatally allergic to bee stings, but the USDA notes that only .0015% of our population is “hypersensitive or allergic to bee or wasp stings”—and honeybees have a different type of venom than other insects. A person allergic to a wasp or hornet wouldn’t necessarily be allergic to a honeybee. Not everyone realizes that honeybees are loath to sting us, as it means certain death for them, while most other insects can sting with impunity. Also, I’ve seen several Rhode Islanders point fearfully to yellowjackets and call them “bees.” Don’t let those stripes fool you; a yellowjacket is a wasp, and rather than making honey, it steals it. We’ve seen our bees fend off attacks from wasps, hornets, spiders, and even bumblebees looking for honey and larvae. A honeybee’s life isn’t easy.

Maybe more press on initiatives like the “First Bees” will help spread awareness, like how the First Lady’s vegetable garden does for childhood obesity. We have real problems, and even small steps can lead to solutions. The U.S. is dependent on honeybees for a lot more than honey; our crops need the pollination, and honeybees are the best pollinators around. Experts disagree on what’s killing off America’s honeybees: pesticides, cell phones, or environment-related hazards like those parasitic mites. As far as I’m concerned, the more people responsibly rearing honeybees, the better.

Rhode Island has a fantastic Right to Farm law in which our general assembly “declares that it is the policy of the state to promote an environment in which agricultural operations are safeguarded against nuisance actions arising out of conflicts between agricultural operations and urban land uses.” Isn’t it time Rhode Island’s cities and towns recognized the importance of all agricultural operations—from urban vegetable gardens to backyard beekeeping—that help, not hinder, our citizens?

5 thoughts on “All We Are Saying Is Give Bees A Chance”

  1. Annie Messier

    You’ll have to forgive me for not revealing my own location, but I suspect whatever its ordinance against bees is–and the woman who answered at Town Hall wasn’t useful in helping me uncover this info–any beekeeper would automatically be breaking the law if it matched Washington, D.C’s. Overall, Rhode Island is a very urban state, and I can think of few properties in my entire town that are 500 feet away from a residence ; )

  2. Annie Messier

    The commenter was nice enough to include the full D.C. ordinance’s title, so I did confirm it existed before mentioning it. But it also exempts “enclosed properties,” and I don’t know if the White House could be considered such a property. I also wonder how useful and educational bee colonies like the one you described are handled by D.C. lawmakers–I didn’t notice any other exemptions in the ordinance. If the Smithsonian Bug Zoo is breaking the law, perhaps the law wasn’t written with everyone’s best interests in mind.

  3. We used to keep bees in our small backyard growing up in South Kingstown.

    The lot wasn’t very big and we definitely had neighbors within 500 feet. Then again, this was the late ’70’s early ’80’s- no one really payed much attention those days.

    Several of the surrounding neighbors had chicken coops too. Again, the lots were approx. 3/4 of an acre.

  4. BTW- That line about Michelle Obama violating the residential laws is BS.

    The Smithsonian Bug Zoo is located very close to both the White House but to also a few residential properties like the Watergate building and the Blair House. The Smithsonian Bug Zoo has a LARGE honeybee colony that they maintain and allow to pollinate out in the wilds of the Washington Mall.

    I suspect this bee law doesn’t even exist.

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