Among the new state laws that took effect in July is a measure that’s dissolved local government prohibitions on beekeeping and put apiary regulation entirely in the hands of state government.
Some home-rule advocates oppose the law, but it’s being celebrated as a boon, especially for backyard beekeepers.
Fort Myers resident Milissa Bell, known as “The Unruly Gardener,” is an organic gardening consultant for whom keeping honey bees is a natural fit. Her name means “honey bee” in Greek, and after all, the bees chose her.
“They started moving into my house,” said Bell. “They moved into my wall and they lived there. And because I’m a gardener, I was like, ‘well you know, they’re helping pollinate my garden’ so I let them stay. “
Bell decided to start maintaining honey bee colonies in hive boxes in her yard after having the bees removed from her walls twice.
“Once I got a taste of that honey, I was like, ‘we have to have bees,’” said Bell. “So I’ve been hooked ever since. These are the flowers from my neighborhood; the essence of this place.”
Bell’s story is hardly unique. Florida’s honey industry is consistently one of the top five in the nation with a more than a $13 million annual economic impact. It’s driven by commercial beekeepers who each maintain thousands of hives.
But, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture, most registered beekeepers in the state are hobbyists or ‘nitch pollinators’ like Bell. Interest in beekeeping has increased dramatically in the last three years according to the Florida Apiary Division’s assistant chief David Westervelt.
“At that time we had about 900 beekeepers that were registered in the state,” said Westervelt, referring to 2009. “What’s happened since then, we’ve gone up to about 2,600 beekeepers which about 95% of those are nitch pollinators.”
Gary Ranker, a long-time commercial beekeeper and president of the Florida State Beekeepers Association, says as the number of urban backyard beekeepers began growing, so, too, did the number of cities and counties passing ordinances that ban beekeeping in residential areas.
“For the past several years we’ve been noticing a lot of municipalities just basically going online and looking at what other municipalities throughout the country have done and just wrote an ordinance up outlawing beekeeping in their area,” said Ranker. “Not necessarily giving good education or judgment to allowing beekeepers to keep bees.”
Those prohibitions were the impetus behind the new law removing bans on urban beekeeping. Among the concerns behind local bans and other restrictions on beekeeping has been the establishment of feral Africanized bee colonies, which are quicker to sting than their European honey bee counterparts if they feel threatened. But, Westervelt says having more docile European honey bee colonies around can actually help to breed out the aggressive behavior in the feral Africanized bees.
“The male is the one that actually carries the grumpy gene because that’s what mates with the young queens and as long as you have more European drones out there competing against the African, you’ll keep a gentler strain of even Africanized bees,” said Westervelt. “In areas like Tampa where they have a larger population of nitch pollinators and have for probably 40 years, their Africanized bees in that area are naturally gentle and they’re not as aggressive or defensive as we like to say as your ones are in Fort Myers and Fort Lauderdale.”
Still others argue there are potential safety issues the new law doesn’t address.
“Some cities would like to enact protections or ordinances dealing with a prohibition of apiaries or beekeepers within a hundred feet of schools or something of the like so that,” said Ryan Matthews with the Florida League of Cities. Matthews says after speaking with officials with the Florida Apiary Division, he became convinced the division’s inspectors could handle state-wide regulation of the industry and the Florida League of Cities withdrew its opposition during the January legislative session. Now, the league’s concerns are strictly ideological.
“It’s a home rule issue. One of the founding constitutions of the Florida League of Cities is to protect the home rule power of our 410 cities,” said Matthews. “Each city’s different, but that doesn’t mean that each city shouldn’t be able to govern the way it sees fit.”
Even though local municipalities can no longer pass their own urban beekeeping restrictions, residents concerned about the safety of a neighbor’s hive can complain to the state and an apiary inspector will evaluate it.
Even with the spike in backyard beekeeping, the number of complaints the state’s Apiary Division responds to hasn’t increased significantly. Westervelt says more often than not, the complaints are less about the bees and more about neighbors not getting along.
“As a matter of fact, the two that we just had -- one in Tampa and one in Jacksonville -- turned out to be neighbors not liking neighbors,” said Westervelt.
Westervelt says he and other members of the Honeybee Technical Council are holding meetings to review current beekeeping regulations. But, he doesn’t think the new law will have much impact on best management practices already in place.
Meanwhile, gardener and backyard beekeeper Milissa Bell says she’s happy with the new law and the growing number of urban beekeepers around the state.
“There’s a great disconnect between this idea of residences and animals and vegetables and all of these ordinances that are created that kind of put us under the illusion that we’re not reliant on these things for life,” said Bell. “It’s in everybody’s interest that likes to eat.”
After all, Bell points out, roughly one third of the planet’s food crops are attributed to pollination.