Matt Evans: The Legislature's War On Beekeeping

On January 13th, House Bill 1236 was introduced. This bill would effectively end beekeeping in North Dakota.

There are two main limitations of the bill, both relating to where beehives can be placed. The second limitation states that no beehive can be located within 2 miles of an operating school, daycare facility, or residential facility.

I have no idea what the legal definition of “residential facility” is.

The first limitation states that no beehive can be located within 2 miles of an occupied residence – unless the beekeeper previously secures, in writing, permission from every occupied residence within that 2 mile radius. This collection of written statements must be renewed every year.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]”Bees actually thrive in urban areas because there is so much concentrated plant diversity. People have flower pots, gardens, etc. Something is always blooming, all season long. The bees find it and make huge amounts of honey. We had beehives when we lived in downtown Fargo and we usually had great honey harvests.”[/mks_pullquote]

As it turns out, my wife has kept beehives for the last several years. She’s somewhat of a bee expert. She took a beekeeping course all the way back in college, and she has prepared and given several presentations and classes on beekeeping – to adults and children alike.

So I was shocked when I read this bill, because I happen to know enough about bees to know that the bill doesn’t make any sense.

It is reported that honey bees will fly up to three miles when foraging for nectar sources. If the goal of this bill was to place hives so far away from human activity that bees would be unlikely to come across humans when foraging, then the bill’s choice of a two mile radius is a poor choice – one that ignores the established evidence of what bees actually do.

Of course, the other difficulty with this argument is the idea that bees out foraging want anything to do with people to begin with. They don’t. When a worker bee stings a person, the stinger is ripped out of the bees abdomen. The stinger tip is barbed, so that it stays implanted into the victim. The organs that hold and pump the venom through the stinger stay attached to the stinger. When the bee flies away (or is brushed away by the victim), the relevant body parts get ripped out of the bee

When a honeybee stings, it is committing suicide.

The upshot of this is that honeybees – actual honeybees (as opposed to members of the wasp family, some of which can look like bees to the untrained eye) – are remarkably reluctant to sting. Experienced beekeepers can sometimes tend their colonies without wearing gloves. This is especially true because domesticated honeybees tend to be selected for good behavior (among other desirable attributes)

The reluctance to sting is especially true if the bees are foraging, and are far away from their hive. Since stinging is suicide, bees tend to only sting in close proximity to their own hive, and only when they feel threatened.

How close?

There is no minimum distance. Remember, some beekeepers can actually take the hive apart without gloves and not get stung. They can pull out the frame that the queen is walking around on, and not get stung. Our older son started sitting in front of our beehives to watch them come and go when he was two years old – just a few feet away. The bees have always left him alone. Bees tend to fly at heights taller than most humans, so it is only for the last few feet in front of the hive entrance where bees are flying low enough that they might bump into people. If you are 20 feet or more away from a hive entrance, you can usually stand there all day and never get bumped by a bee.

I apologize for delving into honeybee behavior here, but the point is this: the 2 mile criteria in HB1236 has no basis in actual bee behavior. They fly farther than 2 miles, yet except for when they are right next to the hive or right next to a food source on the ground, they fly up above human heights. And in any case, they don’t sting people unless they have to; after their warning bumps have been ignored (bees will fly into your face and bounce off of you, to try and convince you to go somewhere else without them having to sting you.)

[mks_pullquote align=”left” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]”So, HB 1236 ends urban beekeeping. And lest you think this is only a hypothetical concern – my wife’s talks on urban beekeeping in Fargo have been well attended and well liked.”[/mks_pullquote]

Ok, so setting aside that the 2 mile radius rule is ignorant of how bees actually work, what would the laws effects be?

Well, first off, urban beekeeping would be entirely eliminated. While the provision says that you can keep a hive within 2 miles of an occupied residence if you have the owners permissions, it outright bans hives within 2 miles of any school, daycare, or residential facility. Take your own house. Is there a school within 2 miles? You can’t keep bees – no matter what. If you happen to live more than 2 miles away from any school, daycare, or residential facility (whatever those are), how many occupied residences are within a 2 mile radius of you? 100? 1000? Is it even feasible to get written permission from all those people?

So, HB 1236 ends urban beekeeping. And lest you think this is only a hypothetical concern – my wife’s talks on urban beekeeping in Fargo have been well attended and well liked.

Bees actually thrive in urban areas because there is so much concentrated plant diversity. People have flower pots, gardens, etc. Something is always blooming, all season long. The bees find it and make huge amounts of honey. We had beehives when we lived in downtown Fargo and we usually had great honey harvests.

What about rural beekeeping?

We now live in rural Richland county. We are on farmland, zoned agricultural. We are the only farmstead on the entire section; the rest is planted cropland that is conventionally farmed. There are multiple occupied farmhouses within 2 miles of our place. In fact, I looked at our entire Township (for those unaware, rural North Dakota is split into 36 square mile “townships”, 6 miles wide and 6 miles tall. This is part of the land surveying system established long ago.) There is not a single location in our entire township that doesn’t have an occupied dwelling within 2 miles of it. In fact, based on a quick glance at the Richland county GIS system, there isn’t a single location anywhere in the entire county where beehives wouldn’t be within 2 miles of somebody.

HB1236 would make rural beekeeping entirely subject to how you got along with your neighbors – the number of possible locations in the state where you wouldn’t need to get written permission every year is vanishingly small.

So what, you say? Are bees really so important?

Yes. And they are especially important in North Dakota. In fact, North Dakota has been the number one honey producer in the US for the last decade. Our bee colonies are critical not only for domestic honey production, but also for the crop pollination services they provide – both in this state and in others (some beehives are shipped around the US to provide pollination services). In fact, our governor proclaimed that September of 2013 was North Dakota Honey Month.

Bees are good ag in our agricultural state.

HB1236 would end that. We are currently the national leader, and HB1236 would end that.

The house sponsors of HB1236 are:

  • Chuck Damschen, from Hampden in District 10
  • Dennis Johnson, from Devil’s Lake in District 15
  • Gary Paur, from Gilby in District 19
  • Robin Weisz, from Hurdsfield in District 14

If you’d like to know which representatives are attempting to end beekeeping in North Dakota, and who apparently have no knowledge of bee behavior, the above list would be a good place to start.

Better yet – you should contact your own representatives and let them know that HB1236 is ridiculous, not based on sound science, and would completely end urban beekeeping and drastically limit rural beekeeping, and that you’d like them to oppose it.

We are a state of producers. We make much of the nation’s food and energy. Given our heritage of agriculture, and given our position as the nation’s foremost beekeeping state, it seems utterly bizarre to me that some of our own legislators would want to do this.

Please, don’t let them.

HB1236 had committee hearings yesterday. It could come to a vote soon.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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