By Cara Zimmerman
BU News Service
A few years ago, Rabbi Liza Stern added four hives to the roof of a Hebrew school in Cambridgeport. As thousands of bees swarmed the neighborhood, local residents raised concerns and a Board of Zoning Appeal meeting was held to address the complaints. This was the first buzz in a long debate between beekeepers, their neighbors and the city.
Since Stern provoked Cambridge to question its beekeeping policies, beekeepers say they have been in limbo as they wait for any potential future regulations on having hives. This ongoing uncertainty affects their seasons, while misconceptions surrounding beekeeping are affecting the proposal, they said.
“There are a lot of miscommunications and misguided notions about bees being dangerous. As long as everyone is informed to what is safe and what is not, it really isn’t a problem,” Isabella Romano, beekeeper of four years and BU graduate explained at Cambridge’s Follow the Honey store recently.
More than two years after the issue first surfaced, on Oct. 5 the city’s Ordinance Committee held a public hearing to discuss new rules on beekeeping that will be part of the proposed Urban Agriculture Zoning law. The proposed ordinance took a step towards becoming law when the committee forwarded it to the City Council with a favorable recommendation. The council may further revise the zoning petition before adoption, however. And there’s still a question of when this ordinance, if passed, may be put into place.
Follow the Honey owner Mary Canning said local businesses are in jeopardy as they await a vote.
Canning said she hosted a community beehive since 2011 behind her shop that served as an educational tool for visitors, including elementary schools who brought their students to learn about the bees. But she decided to take a break from having the hive during this last year of “bureaucratic uncertainty.”
Canning stressed the importance of educating community members about bees before an ordinance is enacted.
But for now, beekeepers like Canning must wait on a City Council vote or face up to a $300 per day fine if they continue to keep bees. Even the vice mayor, who put forward the ordinance approximately two years ago, said too much time has passed.
“I realized there were a lot more beekeepers in Cambridge and if someone complained about them they had no recourse. So, that’s when we started working on an ordinance,” Marc McGovern explained before last Thursday’s meeting. “That report is taking an incredibly long time. It has been about two years.”
McGovern isn’t the only city councilor mystified by the wait; Councilor Jan Devereux is also baffled and has advocated for moving forward with the regulations.
“I am with Vice Mayor McGovern. I am really puzzled of how this could take so long,” Devereux said during Thursday’s meeting. “I attended the meeting in March. At that point, the regulations just needed some tweaks and would be ready in June. I am really impatient, I don’t understand.”
In addition to the delay in putting a proposal in place, one of the regulations approved at the meeting was questioned by local beekeepers. Committee members unanimously approved an amendment that said no more than two beehives would be allowed on a property unless the Public Health Department grants special permission. Beekeepers are unsure about the change.
Canning, who has kept bees for 12 years, thinks three hives is a good number.
“There are just different practices you can do if you have a few more hives,” she added. “So, locking everyone into two hives is probably problematic.”
Other proposed regulations include limiting the apiary (a structure that contains the hives) to a height of 6 feet. The hives must be at least 5 feet from property lines and the structure must also be elevated. Permits must be obtained from the Public Health Department.
Local beekeeper Mel Gadd, who keeps hives at his home and at the private Cambridge Friends School, is also frustrated with the slow legislative process.
Although he was not present at the meeting, he said the ongoing debate is connected to the city’s lack of discussion with those educated on bees.
Furthermore, Gadd feels the city hasn’t been honest about its communication with local hive owners.
“I have a problem with transparency. They said they have spoken to a lot of people, but they haven’t spoken to anyone. It’s a lie,” said Gadd. “I want to see the list of what beekeepers they spoke to, what experts they spoke to.”
According to Gadd, it isn’t just bees but all pollinators that are important to the earth. Without them, 40 percent of fruits and vegetables would disappear from store shelves. In 2013, Whole Foods did a campaign, which showed that
without pollinators, farmers couldn’t grow 52 percent of produce sold in the chain’s stores including apples, broccoli and avocados.
The City Council will consider the future of beekeeping at its Nov. 9 meeting, when the first of two readings of the ordinance will be held. The Department of Public Health also needs to approve public health regulations.
This article first appeared in the Cambridge Chronicle as part of a collaboration between the Chronicle and the BU News Service.