Urban beekeeping provides sanctuary for bees and a source of pleasure and potential income for their caretakers. Studies show that city bees may produce more honey, enjoy greater food source biodiversity, and live longer lives than their rural and suburban counterparts. Urban bees generally don’t need to rely on the supplementation of high fructose corn syrup or a monoculture of genetically modified, pesticide-ridden plants for food. Additionally, beekeeping supports food sovereignty by increasing pollination for urban agriculture, furthering access to healthy, local food options in areas that are often inhabited by low-income or at-risk communities.
But how does one legally start an urban beehive? Laws regarding beekeeping can be murky at best. A statutory provision in the Georgia code prohibits counties and municipalities from prohibiting and interfering with beekeeping, though this seemingly only applies to agricultural beekeeping, leaving counties and municipalities with the power to regulate beekeeping through zoning. Many local governments have zoning codes that do not specifically address urban beekeeping, but as the hobby gains in popularity, new zoning provisions are being created. An important distinction should be made between those doing beekeeping purely for hobby and those doing beekeeping as a means of commerce.
The GA Department of Agriculture regulates the cultivation of honey, so permits and licenses must be obtained through them. In addition to getting licenses, those wishing to keep bees for the purpose of creating and selling honey must check the local zoning codes to see if selling a product in a residential zone (“home occupation”) or producing a product in a residential zone that will be sold off the lot (“cottage food industry”) are permitted.
Many zoning codes, including those of Atlanta, define bee products like honey as ‘farm products.’ In order to sell bees a license must be obtained. For those that are required to be licensed, the Commissioner is authorized to enter any premises in order to inspect hives, require registration of bee colonies, require the removal or destruction of hives or related fixtures from the state, appraise value of aforementioned property to be destroyed, reimburse said beekeeper for fifty percent of destroyed property, and issue permits for the importation of honeybees and equipment into the state of Georgia. Yet, Georgia does not require the inspection of beehives entering the state that many states require in order to ensure freedom from pests.
Beekeeping Laws are Often Fuzzy
If you just want to keep bees and hives as a hobby then you do not need a license from the Department of Agriculture, but you will need to check your local zoning code to see if your government has any restrictions on beekeeping. While many governments are now creating new zoning restrictions, it appears that the majority of jurisdictions do not directly address the issue of backyard or urban beekeeping. The City of Atlanta and Athens-Clarke County have no explicit regulations regarding backyard beekeeping in their zoning code, leaving the legality of the practice in a grey area.
This means that urban beekeeping could be interpreted as permitted or not permitted, depending on the stance taken by the government. For instance, since beekeeping is included in the definition of an agriculture use and not included anywhere else in the code, it could be argued that the city council intended to exclude bees from residential uses since it specifically recognized and included bees as agricultural uses. However, if no specific regulations for urban beekeepers exist, it could also mean that the practice simply wasn’t taken into account, and since it is not specifically mentioned it was meant to be permitted. Moreover, local code enforcement officials could also shut down beekeeping as a public nuisance if local code does not specifically protect it. In any case, if urban or backyard beekeeping is not specifically mentioned, restrictive decisions will be up to the local government, subject to future legal action.
Due to the explosion of beekeeper hobbyists, several cities that had previously banned the practice have overturned these laws, such as New York City. Many cities that had not addressed the issue at all have now created restrictions and guidelines. While these municipalities have welcomed the 25 percent increase in backyard apiaries over the past five years, some cities in Utah and South Carolina have recently upheld municipal bans on beekeeping on any land not zoned for agricultural use. A proposed ordinance in Savannah, Georgia (as of Feb 21, 2014) requires commercial beekeepers to be licensed and creates restrictions on the number of hives in residential areas based on lot sizes.* It also requires certain actions on the part of the landowner to ensure bees are adequately cared for and requires to landowners to take certain precautions to prevent bees from wandering into neighboring lots.
The municipalities that have addressed urban beekeeping cite residential concerns for human health as well as property value. Health concerns for beekeeping in residential areas stem from the common fear of bee stings and the potential impact on allergic individuals; neighboring residents may view bees as a threat to personal safety. Some people have expressed the opinion that beekeeping may even decrease the value of residential properties simply by being next door to a hive. However, the monetary and intrinsic value of bees to surrounding gardens and ecosystems is difficult to ignore. When done responsibly, beekeeping can be unnoticeable and beneficial for neighboring residents.
Affirmatively establishing urban beekeeping as a permitted use in residential areas could be a great step towards protecting our pollinator populations and alleviating the concerns of neighbors. With a permitting system, numbers of pollinators, as well as pollinator health, bees could be more effectively tracked and managed. Not only would this offer beekeepers property rights protection for bee ownership, it could also help protect the bees. With a permitting process, certain precautions and management practices would have to be undertaken in order to receive and maintain the permit.
Beekeeping is a rewarding hobby, but it’s a responsibility that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Beekeepers make the commitment to care for their animals and take part in Good Neighbor Practices in order to ensure a healthy hive and avoid swarming or other circumstances that could possibly result in nuisance claims. For instance, in order to ensure that residents have the ability to care for their animals, the city of South Portland’s permitting process for bee hives requires the meeting of numerous criteria involving bee facility maintenance standards. If it is determined that the hive is not being well maintained, the permit is revoked. Permits can require regular inspection, ensure that proper water sources are available, and address population suitability for a specific area. They can also require that the acquisition of hive and hive equipment be from sources that provide pest and disease-free products, a glaring omission in Georgia’s current bee laws. This is not to say that regulation is always good, or even relevant, for maintaining bee health. However, informed regulation and best management practices could pave the way for healthy pollinator populations and happy neighbors.
Our Most Important Bees Don’t Require a Permit
More so than honey bees, native bees and other pollinators perform the majority of the pollination (more efficiently) that occurs across the landscape; bees pollinate around 75% of fruits, nuts, and vegetables grown in the United States. As such, honey beekeeping is not the only way to contribute to the revitalization of pollinator populations; this can be as easy as simply planting native wildflowers. Bees love open, ecologically diverse, sunny areas, especially mid-successional plant habitats with little to no tree presence. Urban areas of Georgia provide a unique respite for bees, considering how wooded the rest of the state is. Ideally, these areas should be managed for long-term use and left primarily undisturbed, save light biannual mowing to prevent succession into less ideal plant communities.
It is also important to keep in mind blooming periods and lengths for bee pasture plants in relation to those of the crops that require pollination; the two periods should not occur at the same time in order to lessen competition between the crops and the pasture plants. Moreover, a diverse collection of perennial, long-blooming, native plants in larger, more connected sanctuaries with clean water availability is ideal. Increasing density and diversity of nesting and pasture sites can lead to an increase in pollinators which then leads to an increase in plants and crop production.
Furthermore, some bees have recently been observed adapting to their urban environments in unexpected ways. Researchers discovered that two species of leaf-cutter bees were using bits of plastic material found in plastic bags and caulk to build brood cells in their nests. Larvae that developed in the plastic-infused nests emerged healthy and free of parasites, which led researchers to believe that the plastic provided a protective, anti-parasitic element. Notably, the bees appear to have purposely collected the plastic. Leaves were widely available, yet in one case the plastic material comprised almost 25 percent of what would normally have been constructed with leaves. The plastic also appeared to have been chewed and worked in a different way than they would do so with leaves. Bees may be adapting to our environment, but it’s important that we also adapt to theirs if we want to continue to enjoy their numerous and critically important benefits.
So what can we do to improve conditions for these important insects? We can require city councils to designate land as pollinator friendly habitats. Wildflowers and other blooming native plants require minimal upkeep, providing a cheaper and easier alternative to high maintenance, curated landscaping. Public spaces could replace costly imported flora with attractive yet low maintenance native plants, as well as drastically reduce or discontinue pesticide application.
We could also work to create a connected network of wildflower corridors, preventing bees from becoming isolated and unhealthy. As for agricultural uses, farmers or urban gardeners can create more wildflower habitat and nectar strips. Increasing native wildflower habitat is an easy and low cost way to help all pollinators. Increasing native wildflower habitat is an easy and low cost way to help all pollinators; if you want to help save our pollinators, you can contribute by urging for the creation of designated pollinator habitats, the banning of pesticide and pesticide-coated seed use, and by simply planting more native wildflowers.
The City of Savannah adopted an ordinance in 2015 stating that all beekeepers are required to annually register each apiary with the Chatham County Department of Building Safety. The ordinance also restricts the number of colonies on a property based on lot size, requires adequate water to be provided to the bees, requires fencing of flyways if colonies are within 25 feet of the property line, and clearly states that backyard beekeeping must not be a public or private nuisance. Learn more about their beekeeping ordinance here.