SARATOGA SPRINGS — The swarm of popularity surrounding urban beekeeping is leading to conflict in several Wasatch Front cities, where leaders are contemplating imposing restrictions, revisiting outright bans or simply trying to learn what it means to have honeybee hives in neighborhood backyards.
Earlier this month, West Jordan officials held off passing an ordinance that would have added restrictions that beekeepers say are unfair. On Tuesday, Saratoga Springs officials are meeting to consider revising restrictions put on city beekeepers about a year ago. Similar discussions on beekeeping are happening in Murray and in the Weber County community of Roy.
This past weekend, Saratoga Springs beekeeper Ryan Murdock hosted a City Council member at his home as part of his ongoing efforts to educate city leaders about the practice of beekeeping.
"I think it is a matter of just being able to get out and educate people that the domestic bee is not out to get them," he said.
Murdock has been joined by multiple groups, including the Wasatch Beekeepers Association, in efforts to educate both city officials and the public about beekeeping.
Interest in beekeeping has skyrocketed in Utah over the past several years, with the state experiencing a 500 percent increase in the number of registered beekeepers since 2008, said Cory Stanley, a bee specialist at Utah State University Extension Services.
"With the interest in beekeeping that we have seen in the last several years, in the last year I've been really making it a big push to educate people," Stanley said, adding that she frequently tries to lend her expertise in such disputes and has set up a website, http:ees.usu.edu.
"I personally do not want to get involved in city politics," she said. "But I want them to make decisions based on biology and based on facts, not based on fear."
Some cities, spurned by complaints of residents who say they are allergic to bee stings, treat honeybees as a nuisance, and are passing regulations intended to regulate all bees, which Stanley and Murdock say is not only impractical, but impossible.
"That is just insane. How do you regulate native bees?" she questioned, adding there are more than 900 species of bees in Utah, and more than 4,000 kinds in the United States.
Stanley said she frequently fields telephone calls from worried people who seek advice about ridding their yard of aggressive bees.
"What they really have is wasps. People who do not understand beekeeping are scared. City councils are scared because of the liability because what if somebody got stung? It is opening up a whole new territory for cities."
Honeybees are actually pretty docile — unless you disturb their hive, Stanley said. She works around thousands of bees at Utah State University's Bee Lab and frequently scoops a straggler off the floor with her hand, without repercussions.
"Honeybees get a bad rap," she said.
The tension that exists among some Wasatch Front cities, beekeepers and worried residents is unfortunate because the honeybee is already under enormous stress from a syndrome called Colony Collapse Disorder, which is not only threatening the population nationally, but worldwide, she said.
The disorder is essentially the widespread disappearance of honeybee colonies. After foraging, they fail to return to their hives, Stanley said, and the reason is elusive.
Typically, if a hive gets too crowded, half the honey bees will leave and set up shop somewhere else. Even in the case of wildfires, an entire hive will perish, rather than leave the brood, or babies behind. If a single bee gets sick, too, it will stay out of the hive and die on its own, rather than spread infection to the rest of the colony.
In the case of CCD, all those societal rules have literally flown out the window.
"All the brood is left to die because they can't fend for themselves," she said. "And it is not like we are finding mass graves of the bees who left."
Stanley said scientists don't know if it is a virus of some sort, a pathogen, pesticides or a weakened immune system that is causing the problem. It could even be something else entirely, she added. But the problem is severe — not only because honeybees produce honey, but perhaps more importantly because honeybee pollination adds $15 billion to U.S. crop value, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"It is a concern to everybody, and a lot of people are getting involved in beekeeping as a way to curtail the effects of CCD."
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