Sacred Honey Bee Evening video clip, CLICK ON THE PHOTO TO VIEW

Sacred Honey Bee Evening video clip, CLICK ON THE PHOTO TO VIEW
Click on this photo for a video of "Evening in Honor of the Sacred Honey Bee". Photo by Daniel Bahmani

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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Angry buzz rises among neighbors of beekeepers

CORTE MADERA, Calif. — Nicole Perullo's hillside yard is perfectly positioned to catch the lazy summer sun. And, as it turns out, some heat.

By Martin E. Klimek, for USA TODAY

Not in her backyard? Beekeeper Nicole Perullo of Corte Madera, Calif., is embroiled in a legal debate that's popping up all over the USA.

After planting an expansive garden in April, Perullo promptly added a hive of 50,000 bees to pollinate her vegetables and fruit plants. That's when the buzzing started from next door.

A neighbor fearful of bees had an attorney warn Perullo that zoning laws didn't permit them and she'd have to send her winged friends packing. As a result, the city council in this verdant suburb of San Francisco is studying whether to change its position on backyard beekeeping.

"I don't understand it — if I remove the hive, she'll still have bees," says a frustrated Perullo, 41, pointing to her neighbor's lot, which features numerous fruit trees and borders on bee-filled open space. "I didn't do this to create a nuisance but to teach my three kids where food comes from. I hope the city reconsiders."

MORE: How to get started in beekeeping

Perullo's desire to use bees to grow food locally while educating children is much like Michelle Obama's mission with her White House garden hives, whose honey makes its way into salad dressings for heads of state and whose bees are visited often by school groups.

But while the first lady encountered no red tape in setting up her hives, Perullo's fight to keep bees is echoing from coast to coast as the hobby booms. Local politicians weigh pro-bee arguments against concerns that the insects can sting everything from humans to property values as they decide whether to lift bans that date back a half-century, when cities were trying to shed their agricultural roots.

On Monday, Oak Park, Ill., officials agreed to take the first steps toward allowing beekeeping. That news concerns real estate agent Gary Mancuso.

"Nothing against bees, but a lot of people are fearful," says Mancuso, a RE/MAX agent in town. "I equate it to the house next door that's in disrepair that a potential homebuyer may not want to live next to. Beekeeping could be the safest thing around, but that 'what if' factor will give people pause."

A booming, buzzing hobby

There are now an estimated 125,000 amateur apiarists nationwide, up 25% in the past five years, says Kim Flottum, editor of Bee Culture magazine. Their clout has helped overturn anti-bee laws in cities such as New York, where membership in the city's bee club has surged from a trio of friends to hundreds.

When neighbors complain, "it comes down to education," says Andrew Cote, president of the NYC Beekeepers Association. "Honeybees really don't pose a threat, they enhance our lives. Plus, I find a jar of honey often sweetens the deal."

As a rule, experts say, honeybees are insects on a mission (making honey) who sting only when that mission is in jeopardy. The thugs that give this flying neighborhood a bad name are wasps, hornets and yellow jackets, which are the source of most human griping.

Bee enthusiasts argue that a good beekeeper — who backs the hive with proper fencing and provides his bees with both flora and water — can host colonies that can go virtually unnoticed by neighbors.

But local lawmakers in Utah and South Carolina cities recently upheld bee bans, seeing the practice as appropriate only on land zoned for agricultural use.

"These battles are a symbol of people's concerns that there's a bigger problem here than meets the eye," says Taggart Siegel, director of the documentary Queen of the Sun: What Are the Bees Telling Us?, which hit theaters this month in New York and L.A. "Bees disappearing is a catastrophe for our health and the planet's balance. We can't be so estranged from nature."

A third of the nearly 3 million commercial bee colonies have collapsed in the past few years, and a third of those can be attributed the as-yet-unresolved issue of colony collapse disorder, or CCD. Experts are unable to explain why bees are succumbing to both viruses and pathogens that they had long been able to keep at bay.

Without bees, produce would wither on the vine, a concern that caused Häagen-Dazs to begin donating a percentage of its sales to CCD researchers at Penn State and the University of California-Davis.

"Half of our 70 flavors depend on bees," says Diane McIntyre, head of brand communications for the ice cream maker, which has dished out $710,000 for research since 2008. "At first, consumers couldn't figure out the connection between bees and ice cream. But not anymore."

Hotels such as the Ritz-Carlton Charlotte and the Westin Annapolis have found that rooftop hives help promote their green status. At the Fairmont Hotel group, 13 properties globally have hives, including in Dallas, Seattle and Washington.

"People are curious about it," says Ian Bens, executive sous chef and co-beekeeper at the D.C. Fairmont, which uses its honey in soaps, teas and cocktails. "I won't say there wasn't a fear factor when I started, but I'm over it and it's nice to feel we're helping in a small way."

White House beekeeper Charlie Brandts has seen his bees perform a minor miracle. A tree on the South Lawn that hadn't produced fruit in decades suddenly popped out apples the size of grapefruits after the hive arrived in 2009.

"The main reason we got bees was to pollinate Mrs. Obama's garden," says Brandt, whose primary job is in the White House carpentry shop. "But we're all aware that there are much bigger issues here."

The USA is "on the verge of not meeting our pollination needs," says Jeff Pettis, who leads the Department of Agriculture's Bee Research Lab. "Word is spreading that the bees are in bad shape."

A grass-roots campaign

Into this breach step these backyard — and rooftop — beekeepers, says Flottum. "It gives them satisfaction to help the bees, but also some sense of control over their food and maybe even their lives," says Flottum. "As for city officials, change is tough. Some continue to ban it outright, but the smart ones are looking at it as they would a barking dog. Something to rule on with a level head."

In Santa Monica, interest in community gardens just helped push through a pro-bee ordinance. "It fits in nicely with what our city's about," says Mayor Richard Bloom. The rules allow beekeepers up to two hives, which must face toward their property and sit at least 5 feet from the property line.

Such safeguards aren't enough for lawmakers in York County, S.C., who recently voted to keep an ordinance limiting bees to agricultural land. The ruling came on the heels of a neighbor complaining that bees from nearby hives were sipping water from his pool.

"The issues for us were safety, loss of property values and being a good neighbor," says councilman David Bowman. "We're not anti-bees. It just seemed like this was a bad idea."

When bees were brought to the fore in Ivins City, Utah, they landed on the desk of Kevin Rudd, the city's building and zoning administrator. When the state's bee experts were asked to weigh in, "they actually suggested we allow beekeeping, but at the resulting city council hearing, there was concern from citizens who showed up, so it didn't pass," says Rudd.

"The experts can say one thing. But I can tell you that if my wife sees a bee fly in the room, there's no convincing her it won't bite," he says. "That perceived threat can affect your quality of life."

That about summarizes the issue Diane Fafoutis has with Perullo's lone hive, which sits in a far corner of the lot.

"My client has concerns about bee stings, the ordinance says bees cannot be kept here, and she had me write a letter asking her neighbor to get rid of the hive," says attorney Albert Cordova. "As for next steps, we haven't crossed that bridge yet."

The Corte Madera city council has asked for a study that will result in a recommendation on the current anti-hive ordinance.

"The stated mission of the town is to promote sustainability," says Perullo's husband, Yon, 41, out digging in the garden that is poised — weather, bees and city council willing — to pop out rows of carrots, squash, zucchini and other fare. "I'd say that should bode well for us."

For her part, his wife can't quite fathom being told her nascent beekeeping days are done.

"I can't imagine staying here if it didn't pass," says Perullo, her sunny demeanor clouding over. "I mean, if New York City can have bees, why can't we?"

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