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Urban Beekeeping in the Fox Valley

What’s all the buzz about?

By Lori Palmeri

three_combsDid you know the honey bee (Apis mellifera) is the Wisconsin State insect, designated in Chapter 326 of State statutes? According to the Department of Natural Resources, “In 1977, the third grade class of Holy Family School in Marinette was studying the legislative process, hands-on. With encouragement from the Wisconsin Honey Producers Association, they asked the Legislature to select the honey bee as the state insect.

Forbes Magazine featured blogger, Tom Barlow’s interview with Dr. James Tew of Ohio State University’s Honeybee Laboratory, about “urban beekeeping, “… in cities like Denver, Minneapolis, Helena, Montana, New York City” and, I add to that list, closer to home, Madison, Milwaukee, La Crosse, Eau Claire and Green Bay (2010 repealed ban on beekeeping). Barlow observed, “This effort supports rehabilitating our nation’s ailing bee population as well as contributing to local food production. However, those that are allergic to bee stings are not so thrilled…” that is, about bees in the city, for fear of any bee sting, not just the docile honey bee.

Public education opportunity #1: There is a distinct difference between a honey bee and a wasp or other aggressive stinging insects.

The public education component requires facing those fears and looking at the different kinds of bees, and as Barlow and Tew opined, “…what protections can be put in place to minimize even the unlikeliest of harm. Typically stings occur from wasps, yellow jackets or hornets seeking food at the picnic or having their nest disturbed. They can and do sting repeatedly. However, a honey bee does not want to sting you because it will die after stinging since they lose their stinger in the process which is attached to their digestive system.”

Despite a small percentage of the population concerned with bee sting allergies, the last five year estimates now indicate there around 100,000 beekeepers, up 10% to 15% since the early 2000’s across the country.

Dr. James Tew of the Honey Bee Laboratory at Ohio State University is inspired by the numbers of amateur urban beekeeping he has encountered , “They are valuable contributors”, he said, “to the recent stabilization, if not growth, in the world bee population”. And, many of these are hobbyists, operating in urban settings.

Barlow’s blog went on to report, “Tew sees urban beekeeping as part of a couple of movements, the green and the locavore. The concern over colony collapse disorder, he believes, worried those who value the balance of nature, and some urban devotees have taken it upon themselves to help reestablish bee colonies. The locavore movement, valuing foods locally grown, also helped inspire amateurs to try their hand at beekeeping.

Urban beekeeping is not, however, without its downside, at least among those who fear that bee stings could lead to anaphylactic shock and death. In fact, a number of communities still have laws on the books forbidding residents from having their own hives, although many are being reversed. The numbers don’t support the fear, however; sources estimate annual deaths from bee stings at around forty people per year.” Some best management practices could mitigate the perceived threat.

Tew said there are some simple steps that a beekeeper can take to minimize the potential for harm from a hive; “… by fencing the hive to five or six feet, bees are forced to climb upon departing the hive, and mischievous children are kept at a distance. Since bees most commonly sting near the hive in defense of it, this reduces the likelihood of such an event. The docile bred honey bees are non-aggressive. They just want to be left along to do their work…” that is, producing neighborhood local honey.
So, if the little honey bee is Wisconsin’s state insect – why are they not allowed to be kept in most Wisconsin cities by local ordinance? Some Wisconsin cities have passed urban beekeeping ordinances allowing apiaries, like Madison, Milwaukee, LaCrosse and Eau Claire, and Green Bay. And, it looks like Fond du Lac is on track to be the next city to pass such an ordinance. As of April 13, the FDL Plan Commission reviewed the zoning code for setback requirements and the issue is expected to go back to City Council in early May. That is just in time to get hives in before it’s too late at the end of May for this region.

beekeeping_beeLast year, as a member of the Oshkosh Sustainability Advisory Board, I worked with a local group of citizens, including Brian Humboldt, gardener with the Seeds of Change Community Garden on Jefferson Street, and an avid beekeeper from Pickett, Jon Dudzinski, to bring forth a recommendation to Oshkosh City Council for an ordinance allowing urban beekeeping. However, it never made it past the SAB because the Council representative would not support it due to personal allergies. Clearly, public education is needed to bring the discussion to a reasonable level in Oshkosh. Responsible hive management and public education can and do ensure benefits for all.

Eau Claire and LaCrosse have both encountered controversy in enacting the ordinance allowing beekeeping in their cities within the last year. However, Fond du Lac City Council Vice President, LeeAnn Lorrigan and Councilwoman, Karyn Merkel both say they anticipate the new ordinance going through without controversy. It may be that education helps. The UW Extension in Fond du Lac happens to offer a beginner beekeeping course for $50 and is well attended each year according to registration staff. It also helps that the local fire department Lt. Todd Shippee is also a beekeeper and has had experience with swarm removal.

Even Madison initially had some issues with an alderperson that was allergic and the education process prevailed. There are numerous urban hives thriving today.
In recent years, Appleton passed urban agriculture zoning ordinance. In 2012, the issue of whether to allow bees was decided, by amendment to the urban agriculture ordinance, bees are allowed on areas designated as urban farms. In Appleton, urban farms are considered a permitted use in agricultural, industrial, central business, and commercial districts, and a special use requiring council approval in residential and public institutional districts. The city issues annual permits for raising honeybees. Neenah is considering allowing mason bees, but does not allow honey bees.

beekeeping-sidebarWhy is urban beekeeping (and urban farming) important in Wisconsin cities? In the case of Appleton, while reviewing the Riverview Gardens project, the Community and Economic Development Department noted that it advanced several goals in Appleton’s 2010- 2013 Comprehensive Plan, including economic development, the viability of regional food production and processing, and leadership in sustainability.

In order for Wisconsin and (other Midwest) cities to be resilient, sustainable and have the ability to respond to potential produce and grocery challenges expected, as a result of water and drought issues in say, California, we need to take seriously our local food security and promote local food production where ever possible. City planners and elected officials, in serving to protect the “health, welfare, and safety of the general public” are called upon to think beyond the big box as a source for serving population health and nutrition.

This includes not only honey produced from urban beekeeping, but the pollination by the bees enhances food production in the urban community and backyard gardens
Meanwhile, in the rural outskirts of the Fox Valley, Jon Dudzinski and his crew from Lotnix, LLC are building 105 beehives for rural distribution in East Central Wisconsin. At a friend’s family barn in Ripon, on a Sunday afternoon, they assemble the hives in hopes of providing local honey to surrounding cities, along with lip balm they make.

The hives have to be placed in May, or else it will be too late for the region for them to be productive. They also hope to create a local mead, or honey wine, with the harvesting of the honey crop. On average each hive, which has 10 frames within it, will produce 70 lbs. of honey in one season. It takes a half pound of honey to produce one bottle of wine. They also hope to “overwinter” the bees in California to help with the almond crops, as well as spare them a Wisconsin winter, which can at times be extreme enough to be fatal for the hives. Their goal is to double the number of hives in the area each year. And as natural pollinators, these bees will facilitate healthy gardens for further food security in the region. Local grocers are already in line for their anticipated honey crop and regional retailers can’t get enough of their lip balm. This group of ambitious young men would welcome the opportunity if invited, into the urban environment for next year’s expansion.

According to the East Central Wisconsin Beekeepers Association, overall, honey production was down 21 percent last year, dropping Wisconsin from 10th to 15th among honey-making states. Nationally, production was up 20 percent. Surrounding states were up as well.

Agriculture officials say there are things people can do to help, for example using less pesticide and growing plants native to the area. “That will help actually foraging insects like bees and other pollinators to get their nectar,” said Vijai Pandian, a horticulture educator with University of Wisconsin-Extension.

In the Midwest region, Mills Fleet Farm is getting into the beekeeping business. For the first time, two of its three dozen stores, including the one in Grand Chute are taking orders for “live honey bees.”

Urban Apiculture: Is beekeeping fit for urban areas?
The June, 2012 issue of the Biofortified , an independent educational non-profit organization incorporated in Wisconsin has made it their mission to strengthen the public discussion of issues in biology, with particular emphasis on genetics and genetic engineering in agriculture. They printed the following position statement for public consumption, by Karl Haro von Mogel. PhD, UW Madison geneticist.

“There are several issues relative to keeping bees in urban settings, including pros and cons. It is often argued that honeybees in cities are a danger to public health and well-being, a nuisance when they are active or swarming, and that they prevent one’s neighbors from enjoying their own property. It is also sometimes argued that bees belong outside of town because they are associated with farms.”

Arguments in favor include that honeybees are not dangerous, are no more a nuisance than the average neighbor’s barking dog, benefit the gardens of other citizens, and provide educational opportunities. Furthermore, encouraging more hobby beekeepers could help stem the tide of collapsing colonies, raise awareness of this issue, and produce honey for people. There is a growing and important interest in urban farming and gardening, and beekeeping fits very well in that trend.

Nevertheless, the most vocal opponents of urban beekeeping are not swayed by educational opportunities or safety arguments based on the experience of beekeepers. They may often be allergic to bees, misunderstand their gentle nature or the conditions in which stings actually occur. Honeybees only sting when defending the hive or their own selves. Unless you are disturbing a nest, practically the only way you could get stung is by stepping on a bee with bare feet in a park, but since bees can fly up to five miles from their hive to visit flowers, this can happen whether or not the bee hives are physically within the city. In fact, most “bee stings” that people get are actually wasps, which are far more aggressive and can sting again and again with impunity. Honeybees sting once and die. If you are allergic to bee stings, it would be best to keep an Epipen with you at all times, no matter where you are, and wear shoes.

beekeeping-sidebar2Issues with public nuisance, and enjoying one’s property are easily mediated by the proper regulations. Obviously, if I put one of my hives right on the edge of my property, or in front of a public sidewalk with the entrance facing everyone else – I would be imposing on other people, and increasing the likelihood of someone accidentally disturbing the nest. The trick is to get the bees to go up once they leave the hive, and they won’t run into anyone. My back yard is sunny and open, while all my neighbors have trees and other barriers between their yards and mine. As a result, all of my bees fly straight up about 30 feet before they go anywhere else. Not every yard is so ideally suited for beekeeping, but all it takes is a 6 foot high fence, dense foliage, or earthen wall to accomplish this. You could even put the hive on a rooftop high above anyone who could be affected.

Bees also need to visit water sources, and could annoy neighbors who have swimming pools. By putting a consistent water source in your own yard near the bees, they will leave your neighbors alone. I use a bird bath on the other side of the garden.

Von Mogel says, “… It is believed that the large number of urban beekeeping bans currently in place are actually the result of an aggressive strain of bees that used to be prevalent throughout the US. Early in the imported beekeeping history of this country, an aggressive and cold tolerant German breed of honeybees was widespread in both kept and feral hives. This breed has become quite rare today, as it was not disease-resistant, and beekeepers switched to Italian, Carnolian, Russian, and other breeds. All bees are not the same…” ( and a local beekeeping class or UW Extensionist could likely enlighten the willing to learn public).

Von Mogel advocates, “ Even the best arguments against keeping bees in urban areas can be mediated with the right rules, and the function of government is to find that middle ground where beekeepers can keep a few hives safely on their property, and the rights of everyone else are also protected. There are many different flavors of beekeeping ordinances across the country, some with restrictions on the number of hives you can have, some have licensing fees, and some make you get permission from a large proportion of your neighbors (which can mean an absurdly large number of people depending on the radius). Almost all require a barrier and a water source, and distance requirements from nearby buildings and public walkways. City by city, regulated urban beekeeping is coming back.”

Are the Fox Cities and Oshkosh ready to not just allow, but encourage urban honey bee keeping in support of our state insect, facilitating future local food security? Or, will we live in fear and ignorance about a natural community-building process that could be nurtured; support local food, and promote healthy gardens across the region. As a community, we should at the very least, have a public conversation on whether it is beneficial for Oshkosh to revisit a very outdated ordinance.

Lori Palmeri is an urban consultant, creative re-maker, and resident of the central city neighborhood of Middle Village, Oshkosh since 2008. As a UW Oshkosh alumna, she served the City’s neighborhood identity and association education renaissance, received her Master’s degree in Urban Planning from UW Milwaukee, and serves as a local organizer and advocate for neighborhood revitalization. She has worked in central city neighborhoods in Southeast and East Central Wisconsin since 2010.

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