SOUTH PORTLAND — Some apiarists – “beekeepers,” to laymen – are buzzing about a 3-year-old city ordinance they say is unnecessary and discourages people from raising bees.
The ordinance, enacted in 2008 after one keeper’s thirsty bees began bugging children at a pool, outlines how apiarists must operate within city limits. It includes specific rulings on matters like colony density, barriers to keep the bees away from property lines, queen bee selection, water supply and more.
The law also requires a $25 registration fee, which the keepers claim is improperly administered, and a fine of up to $1,000 for each day a keeper is in violation of the ordinance.
Phil Gaven, one of the city’s six apiarists, said the ordinance is unnecessary and cumbersome. In a letter to city councilors, he said South Portland’s law is more extreme than the rules in more densely populated cities like San Francisco and New York City, which he said have relaxed their rules.
“State law already covers all the needs of this municipality,” Gaven told councilors on Monday.
Gaven said the law is like requiring not only a dog registration fee, but spelling out in detail all of the ways a good owner takes care of their pet – and threatening them with huge fines if they don’t follow the rules.
“When you’ve got a dog, it’s a good idea to trim their nails and get them dewormed,” Gaven said in an interview. “That doesn’t mean there should be a law.”
And so, Gaven and Paul Jacobs, another beekeeper in the city, are lobbying the council to simplify the ordinance.
They said it should require only that keepers register with the city and notify the city of the number and location of hives within 30 days of placement.
They also said apiarists should agree to abide by the best practices set forward by the Maine Beekeepers Association, which include some of the same rules as the current ordinance.
City Manager Jim Gailey opposes a wholesale rewrite of the ordinance.
“By no means is the ordinance drafted to penalize anyone,” Gailey said. “It’s only there to help us deal with the individuals who are not good beekeepers … . It gives us some enforcement capabilities. The state guidelines provide for no local enforcement. It would defer everything to the state. Things can happen quicker at the local level.”
Gailey stressed that the ordinance was passed precisely because of a beekeeper whose lack of care for his bees caused them to swarm onto other people’s property.
But Gaven stressed that the rules regarding nuisances in the city’s codes are already enough to deal with bad beekeepers. He also said the law is unnecessary because the city was able to address the beekeeper issue before passing the ordinance, and has had no problems since passing it.
“Portland has 40 beekeepers,” Gaven said. “And they have no ordinance. Why we need the most exhaustive law in the country is beyond me.”
For the most part, councilors seemed willing to change the ordinance, though to varying degrees.
Councilor Tom Blake said he was opposed when it passed in 2008. He said the city should be able to rely on the state’s licensed beekeeper, Tony Jadczak, with any problem it has with bees.
“Why should (keepers) pay $25 here when they only have to pay the state $2, and the state has a professional beekeeper?” Blake said.
Mayor Rosemarie De Angelis also supported relaxing the rules.
“I think this is overdone, overworked and just too much,” De Angelis said. “The fee structure, to me, is absurd. The fines are ridiculous.”
The mayor agreed one of the problems with the ordinance is that the city tried to get too detailed, creating situations where Gaven said good beekeeping runs up against the law.
“The more we try to write it, the deeper a hole we’re going to dig,” De Angelis said. “And we have the nuisance ordinance if we need it.”
Councilor Maxine Beecher was less supportive of the cause.
“We’ve already had the bad experience,” Beecher said. “And though you’re saying you’ll police yourselves, I do worry.”
One part of the ordinance most likely to be rewritten is the $25 registration fee. The ordinance says simply that “the fee for an annual permit to keep bees is twenty-five dollars.” Gaven complained that he has been charged more than that because of a “disagreement” about how to read the law.
Code Enforcement Officer Pat Doucette said she interprets the law to mean a $25 fee per site. Gaven, who keeps bees on several properties throughout the city, said the fee should be per keeper. Councilors disagreed with Ducette’s interpretation.
Though Gaven hoped to get the ordinance reworked Monday night, he said he is generally pleased with the response he got from councilors, who said they’d like to meet with experts such as Gaven and go through the ordinance line-by-line for a revision.
“I think they see the clumsiness of the ordinance now,” he said.
South Portland beekeeper Phil Gaven shows off his “swarm-preventing nucleus” at a friend’s home on Ship Channel Road. Bees only swarm when a new queen is ready to be born, Gaven explained. The old queen will leave the hive with a slew of her sisters to start a new home elsewhere. When Gaven sees that a new queen is ready to be born in one of his hives, he removes the queen and sets her up here. “I do the work for them so they don’t have to swarm,” Gaven said.
Apis mellifera, the common honeybee, hard at work at one of Phil Gaven’s beekeeping sites. The bees at this hive, located in Brett Bigby’s garden on Preble Street, produce the bulk of Gaven’s honey. “By giving the bees an ideal home, they make more honey than they need to survive the winter,” Gaven said.