Dear Modern Farmer: How Do I Legally Start an Urban Bee Hive?

Dear Modern Farmer: How Do I Legally Start an Urban Bee Hive?

Have a question about growing your own food or raising animals in the city? Ask Modern Farmer’s legal advice columinst, Kristina Ploetz, Esq.

Dear Modern Farmer,

I live in a pretty dense urban area, where I keep a small rooftop garden. I’ve decided I want to branch out and start a beehive. Is this legal? Do I need to register my beehive somewhere? What do I need to tell my neighbors? If, in the unlikely chance, someone gets stung am I legally liable?

Thanks,
Aspiring Apiarist

Dear Aspiring Apiarist,

You are asking all of the right questions at the right time — that is, before you bring your first bees home. This is because the answer to all of your questions is, “it depends”, and not knowing the laws and best beekeeping practices in advance could get you into trouble. Fortunately, beekeeping on residential property is permissible in many places, though often within the confines of certain requirements.

To determine whether bees are permissible where you live, you must check the local zoning ordinance. The zoning code will specify whether bees are allowed in your zoning district — either “as of right” (without a permit) or with a special permit — or prohibited altogether. Unfortunately, some zoning ordinances are vague and poorly written and do not expressly state whether bees are permitted or not. In these instances you would want to talk with the local zoning enforcement officer or building department (or a lawyer) to get further guidance. Additionally, some communities address the permissibility of bees via their local health code and/or animal control ordinances, so check those too. If your property is part of a condominium or homeowners’ association, you will also need to verify whether beekeeping is allowed under those rules and bylaws. Even if the local zoning code allows bees, if your homeowners’ association bylaws prohibit bees, you will be out of luck unless you can get a waiver or change the bylaws.

Assuming bees are allowed in your zoning district and regulated via the zoning ordinance, you must determine what requirements must be met in order for you to comply with the law. Many zoning ordinances will regulate some or all of the following:

• minimum lot size required for keeping bees;
• siting of hives and minimum setbacks to property lines and adjacent structures;
• permissible types of hives and bee species (i.e. gentle stock or no Africanized bees);
• maximum number of hives/swarms;
• whether enclosures, fencing or hedges (flyaway barriers) are required; and
• requirements for on-site water sources (to minimize drift onto adjacent properties with standing water sources like pools).

Even if the zoning ordinance does not address all of these factors, you should always fill in the gaps by utilizing best beekeeping practices established for your area. This ensures a healthy hive and increases a peaceful coexistence with humans in close proximity. Your local agricultural extension office or hobby beekeeping associations can provide information in this regard.

The leniency of beekeeping ordinances varies widely among communities. For example, in Cleveland, the number of hives allowed in residential districts is limited by lot size, with one (1) hive permitted for every 2,400 square feet of lot area (no hives are permitted on lots less than 2,400 square feet). The hives must be set back at least 5 feet from any property line, and at least 10 feet from any dwelling on adjacent lots. Beekeepers in Cleveland must obtain a 2-year license, which costs $50 and must be renewed when it expires. In the residential zoning districts of Madison, Wisconsin, up to six (6) hives are allowed per lot, but no minimum lot size is specified (though there are minimum setback requirements: 10 feet away from public sidewalks, three feet from property lines and 25 feet from abutting principal structures, like a neighbor’s house). Licensing fees in Madison (including the initial application) cost just $10 annually, and licenses can be revoked if there are three beekeeping ordinance violations within a 6-month period. Things are bit more expensive and rigorous for beekeepers in Minneapolis, which requires an initial permit fee of $100 (thankfully, in April 2013, the Minneapolis City Council amended the ordinance to eliminate the $50 annual renewal fee that was once required). Minneapolis beekeepers must also obtain the written consent of 80 percent of neighbors within 100 feet of the property and 100% of the immediate abutters (except for rooftop hives sited two stories or higher), and complete and provide proof of attendance at one of three qualified beekeeping courses.

Some communities actually require you to notify your neighbors about your bees in advance.

Once you know whether you can meet the zoning ordinance standards (or other relevant regulations), be sure to comply with any notice, permitting or registration requirements. These requirements vary widely between communities. In some communities where beekeeping is an “as of right” use, it may be as easy as setting up your hive in your yard and you’re done. In other communities, you may need to register your hive with the local zoning board office (or board of health) and provide contact information and hive location. For those cities where beekeeping requires a permit, an application must be filed (and often a public hearing will follow shortly thereafter) to determine whether the permit will be granted. Some permits and filing fees need to be renewed annually, so pay attention to these requirements. Additionally, many state departments of public health or agriculture also require hive registration (like in Oregon, where five or more hives must be registered with the Department of Agriculture), so check online or with your agricultural extension office to determine whether this step is also necessary.

As for whether to give your neighbors the heads up about the bees, some communities actually require you to notify your neighbors in advance. You should be aware that in some cases, the bee permitting process provides the neighbors with an opportunity to object to the hives (we’ll leave the legality of this for another day), so be prepared to promote the benefits of beekeeping and dispel any misinformation that people have. Even if giving notice to your neighbors is not legally required, it makes good sense to tell them anyway. It provides you with an opportunity to address concerns at the outset and educate them about the benefits of beekeeping, like promoting the essential function of pollination and cultivating a local food source.

In fact, the most likely concern from neighbors will be the fear of getting stung, especially for those who may have a bee sting allergy. This often comes from a place of misunderstanding about the various types of stinging insects and their typical behavior. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture website, a honeybee typically only stings as a defense mechanism to protect the hive, and “will rarely sting when it is away from the colony foraging on pollen, nectar or water.” But, if the honeybee is provoked or feels threatened in any way, it may ultimately sting someone, and so your fear of legal liability is understandable.

If someone does get stung by one of your bees (which, in and of itself might be difficult to show considering that wasps and hornets are the more likely culprits when it comes to stings), the most likely legal premise would be a claim that you acted negligently. That is, someone could possibly prevail on a claim of negligence if they were able to show that you failed to exercise reasonable care in your beekeeping. If beekeeping is expressly prohibited on your property (under zoning), or if you utterly failed to follow the regulations and/or usual best management practices for beekeeping in your area and set the stage for a sting to take place (such as placing the hive too close to a dwelling or failing to provide a constant source of fresh water), then that kind of claim might hold a bit of water. Whether you would be covered under your homeowners insurance policy in the event of a sting (especially that take place on your property) should be discussed with your insurance agent. As beekeeping becomes more popular, there have been a few attempts to introduce state legislation that would limit legal liability for properly registered hives, but those efforts are only just beginning to gain traction so monitor them accordingly in your own state to determine whether you can take advantage of any such laws should they pass.

Since most beekeepers are good stewards of their surrounding natural environment and want the endeavor to prosper, they often do exercise reasonable care by following all applicable rules and guidelines. Using docile bee stock, installing warning signs on the property and around the perimeter, locating the hive at the rear of the lot and away from pedestrians and dwellings, and creating adequate fly away barriers are just some of the ways that beekeepers can exercise reasonable care. Most zoning ordinances and good beekeeping practices are designed, not surprisingly, to help the honeybees thrive and reduce perceived threats to the hive (and therefore minimizes the risk of stings) to allow humans and bees to coexist in close quarters. So while the potential for legal liability always exists, it is certainly minimized for those beekeepers that act prudently with respect to those parameters.

Disclaimer: This information is general in nature and for educational purposes only. It is not intended as specific legal or any other advice for any individual case or situation. This information is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing thereof does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship. The reader is encouraged to seek the advice of an attorney or other professional when an opinion is needed.

Kristen M. Ploetz, Esq. is the founder and manager of Green Lodestar Communications & Consulting. Email her your legal questions about growing your own food in the city here.

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