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Supervisors recommend tiered beekeeping ordinance


Last updated 6/12/2014 at Noon

A beekeeper examines the bees in one of his hives.

Hobbyists, non-apiary farmers, and other commercial beekeepers desired a reduction in County of San Diego setback requirements for keeping hives. The San Diego County Board of Supervisors, who previously responded to regulatory relief requests from small winery owners and small equestrian operations by developing tiered ordinances, recommended the same approach for beekeeping within the unincorporated county.

The supervisors' May 21 meeting produced a 5-0 vote to give county staff direction to focus on a tiered ordinance and to work with stakeholders. The ordinance will require an Environmental Impact Report and will also include the development of an online best management practices course, but a suggestion to allow beekeeping on county-owned land will not require environmental review if current setback limits are met so an inventory of such lands is scheduled to be brought back to the supervisors June 18 for possible action while the supervisors' June 17 meeting may include amending the county's legislative program to recommend use of state lands for controlled hives.

"I think a lot of good ideas have been thrown out there," said Supervisor Dianne Jacob. "I think what staff's brought forward to us is a start, but it's not the end product."

The county's 2013 annual crop report is in the process of being finalized. The 2012 crop report cited a county crop value of $1,747,069,810 including $2,284,588 from apiary products. The inclusion of supporting businesses makes agriculture a $5.1 billion addition to the county's economy.

"Honey bees are indispensable and important," said county agricultural commissioner Ha Dang. "As pollinators bees are responsible for approximately one-third of all fresh fruit production."

The San Diego Beekeeping Society had approached Jacob with a request to relax the ordinance in order to promote the industry and preserve the county's honey bee population. In addition to allowing non-commercial beekeeping on smaller lots, a setback reduction may allow produce or flower crop farmers who do not necessarily wish to engage in honey extraction or beeswax sales to have hives on their farmland and could also allow hives closer to produce and flowers on non-hive farms.

"Beekeeping is important not only to agriculture but also to healthy lifestyles," said Supervisor Dave Roberts.

On October 9 the Board of Supervisors voted 4-0, with Greg Cox absent due to California Coastal Commission activity, to direct the county's Chief Administrative Officer to work with the San Diego Beekeeping Society and any other interested parties to investigate options which would protect and promote beekeeping operations throughout unincorporated San Diego County and to report back to the board within 120 days.

The stakeholders included community planning groups, registered beekeepers, pest control operators, and the San Diego County Farm Bureau as well as the San Diego Beekeeping Society. The investigated options included changes to the setback requirement; the existing ordinance requires beekeepers to maintain their hives at least 100 feet from a public access road and at least 600 feet from any dwelling which doesn't belong to the hive property owner.

"Our current ordinance is one that is very restrictive," Cox said.

Beekeepers are supposed to register hives with the county's Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures (AWM). Registering a hive does not involve additional requirements for the hive owner but gives the beekeeper access to pesticide and quarantine notices along with bee health and other outreach information while providing verification for insurance purposes in the event of hive loss. More than 25,000 hives are registered in San Diego County, and approximately 98 percent of those are operated by commercial beekeepers. A total of 90 beekeepers, including eight commercial operators, are registered; the 82 beekeepers classified as hobbyists consist of 33 in the unincorporated county, 23 in the City of San Diego, and 26 in other jurisdictions. In 2012 the City of San Diego amended its ordinance to reduce the setback distance for no more than two hives to 20 feet from a roadway and 15 feet from a property line.

The City of San Diego setback distances allow for beekeeping on lots as small as one-tenth of an acre, which equates to just over 4,000 square feet. However, that distance is within the hive defense parameters for both European honey bees and Africanized bees. "Both type of bees display defensive behavior near their hives," said county entomologist Tracy Ellis.

"These distances put people and animals inside the space occupied by guard bees defending the hives," said AWM assistant director Sandy Parks. "It is risky to place hives and people and animals in close proximity."

The first Africanized honey bees in San Diego County were discovered in 1999. AHB hives now account for approximately 80 percent of feral beehives in San Diego County. "The county is an Africanized bee zone," Ellis said.

Humans cannot visually determine the difference between European and Africanized bees; they can be distinguished from each other only by laboratory tests and by their behavior. The defense distance around hives is about 25 feet for European bees and about 150 feet for Africanized honey bees, who also respond quicker and send out more guard bees who will travel farther distances than European bees. An AHB attack can thus result in six to ten times the number of stings as an attack from a hive of European bees. Reproduction is more successful with Africanized bees than with European bees, so Africanized bees often take over hives. "These factors were considered in the development of the department's proposed options," Ellis said.

Beekeeping best management practices include obtaining a newly-mated queen of European stock each year to replace the existing hive which might have become Africanized. "Most beekeepers are knowledgeable about beekeeping and what is involved to ensure a safe and thriving hive," Ellis said. "Not all beekeepers practice responsible beekeeping."

Surveyed stakeholders had various opinions on a preferred setback distance. A setback between 100 and 200 feet was preferred by 31.65 percent of respondents, stakeholders totaling 20.86 percent of responses wanted a setback of less than 25 feet, the 50-100 foot setback was preferred by 20.14 percent, a setback between 300 and 400 feet was the choice of 17.27 percent, and 10.07 percent desired a distance between 25 and 50 feet.

One staff-proposed option will maintain the 100-foot setback from roadways and a 600-foot setback from sensitive sites including hospitals, schools, child day care and elder care centers, parks and playgrounds, and kennels and stables. The setback from dwellings would be reduced to 300 feet, which would allow hives on properties of two acres or larger without any additional regulatory requirements. That option would include a special permit involving completion of the online course and annual inspections, in which case the setbacks would be reduced to 50 feet from roadways, 100 feet from dwellings, and 150 feet from sensitive sites.

The staff-preferred option has a 200-foot setback from dwellings and sensitive sites while requiring a special permit involving completion of the best management practices course but only random or complaint-based inspections. That would allow for beekeeping on parcels as small as one acre. A special permit including an annual inspection would allow for a reduction of setbacks to 50 feet from roadways, 100 feet from dwellings, and 150 feet from sensitive sites.

The online course would be free of charge. The annual inspection fee is estimated at $200, which would cover AWM staff time, although the options to be explored include having San Diego Beekeeping Society members self-regulate the hive operators.

"I think we've got enough fees as it is," said Supervisor Bill Horn.

"Maybe the association can help us in crafting something," said Supervisor Ron Roberts. "There may be a way of working together."

The staff-developed options will be included in the tiered ordinance which would allow shorter distances with additional oversight. An actual ordinance is expected to be brought to the county supervisors for adoption consideration in six to eight months.

Bonita beekeeper Mike Kukuchek, who is the vice president of the San Diego Beekeeping Society, told the supervisors that requeening will provide a new colony each year. He noted that the lifespan of worker bees is 30 to 40 days. "Our bees are under attack from colony collapses or other dangers," he said. "We must do everything we can to promote beekeeping and help our bees."

Christian Marcotte said that a minimum lot size of one or two acres would be detrimental to non-commercial operators. "What we have here is fear of bees based out of ignorance," he said. "People with simple precautions can make sure that no incident occurs."

James McDonald, who owns a bee removal service, noted the importance of domestic hives. "They're requeening and they're diluting the gene pool of Africanized bees," he said. "Responsible beekeeping is really safe and really good for ecology and the environment."

The husband of Bonita resident Diane Carter is allergic to bees, and he was recently hospitalized after being attacked by feral bees. Carter supports domestic beekeeping as a counter to feral hives. "It's a nice safe alternative," Carter said. "I think it's a good idea."

The San Diego Beekeeping Society activities include domesticating feral hives of European bees. "Otherwise you have to pay to have it removed," Carter said.

"If we don't have a healthy hive population the Africanized bees will move in," said Frank Golbeck of Fallbrook.

"A lot of our feral bees will come in and become Africanized," said commercial beekeeper Alan Mikolich.

Jamul beekeeper Kim Hamilton lost her hives after the October 2007 Harris fire destroyed the bees' habitat. "What we saw as things began to grow back were feral bees," she said. "The only way we're going to have a shot at re-establishing a healthy population of domestic bees is to encourage it."

Lyle Kafader had beehives when she lived in the City of San Diego, but she has lived in Fallbrook for just over a year. "On my acre and a half of land I could not keep my two beehives that I previously kept in my back yard in Point Loma," she said.

"Beekeepers don't want to keep mean bees," Kafader said. "No beekeeper wants to keep Africanized bees."

City of San Diego beekeeper Guy Mock suggested hive elevation standards, noting that bees don't fly in a straight line. "Bees usually fly up and away from their hive," he said.

"For the health of the hive they have to be elevated," said Horn, who engaged in beekeeping activity on his Valley Center farm prior to his election to the Board of Supervisors.

Mikolich suggested the use of public land for domestic beehives. "If the county really wanted to help they could open up public lands to beekeepers," he said.

While hives near public areas of parks would likely not be appropriate, open space areas could be candidates for beekeeping operations and would reduce the chance of Africanized bees settling in those preserves. "I think it's a good route for us to go as a county," Horn said.

The county has acquired more than 500 acres for the future San Luis Rey River Park, which will have both active recreation and open space, and approximately 850 acres will be acquired as part of the California Department of Transportation mitigation requirements for the widening of State Route 76. "There's no reason why we couldn't put some hives in there," Horn said.

Dave Roberts hopes that the state will adopt the same mindset. "Beekeeping is extremely important not only to the county but also to the state," he said.

"There's an answer here somewhere, and I believe we're working toward it," Cox said.

"We want responsible beekeeping," Dave Roberts said. "With this tiered ordinance we can really do what both groups are trying to say."

"We're balancing public safety with promoting the bee industry and responsible beekeeping," Jacob said.

"I sure don't have all the answers," Jacob said. "I want to make sure that we come back with something that works."

"We have an opportunity here to revise the regulations and engage people for the benefit of the whole county," Golbeck said.

"I think that was a great outcome," Golbeck said of the tiered ordinance. "We're going in the right direction."

"I think we'll be able to work out a good tiered option," Kafader said. "I think the tiered option is really the smartest way to go."


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