Slow Legislative Process Keeps Cambridge’s Beekeepers in Limbo

Photo by Cara Zimmerman

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. 

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