P&Z Wonders What To Do About Backyard Bees

Commission opts to study question about bees in town

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David Jones loves bees.

The Payson Planning Commission isn't so sure.

The sad plight of honey bees got an unusual airing before the bemused commissioners -- unsure whether to invoke a grade-b horror movie or a somber PBS nature show.

Amateur beekeeper Jones wants Payson to adopt new rules that will enable small-time beekeepers to have up to 12 hives on a one-acre lot -- complete with a water source to keep the little critters from wandering too far afield.

Jones said honey bees have fallen on hard times -- so having a few hives of workaholic pollinators tucked around in town might ensure that Payson has flowers to gladden hearts in the spring -- not to mention apples in the fall.

Honey bee colonies all over North America have suffered from the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder, in which adult bees simply disappear -- leaving behind a forlorn queen, abandoned larva and stashes of honey. Some experts estimate that populations of wild honeybees have declined by 90 percent in many areas and many commercial operations have been virtually wiped out. Experts can't yet explain the bee holocaust, but suspect starvation, viruses, mites, immune system collapse global warming, wildflower crop failures and a host of other factors.

Some planning commissioners paled at the thought of swarms of Africanized honeybees taking over hives and spreading terror. The hyper aggressive strain of bees brought from Africa to South America spread inexorably north, taking over the colonies of introduced European honey bees -- and sometimes swarming and killing both humans and pets. However, they have a hard time coping with the cold, which has slowed their continued march north.

Jones' plea prompted town officials to check the current code. They were aghast at the results. The current code bans beehives in residential areas, but allow hives without restrictions in commercial zones.

"I was dismayed when I found no other regulations," aid Zoning Administrator Ray Erlandsen.

"You could have a very small commercial lot and still have bee keeping."

"It's just a home business that flies over the back fence, is what it amounts to," mused Commissioner Jere Jarrell.

Jones made his plea for his beloved bees, with the low-key intensity and deliberate focus you might expect from someone used to walking calmly through 70,000-bee swarms.

He said a one-acre lot size, with water on the site, should keep the bees from being much of a bother to the neighbors. He recommended a maximum of 12 hives, mostly because they stack four to a pallet for trucking to blooming fields of crops.

Beekeepers must carefully monitor hives to keep them from being infiltrated by Africanized bees, generally distinguishable only by their aggressive defense of the hive and a willingness to chase intruders for long distances. He said that in seven years of beekeeping, he's had only two hives infiltrated by the so-called killer bees.

He said a 70,000-bee colony can produce 400 pounds of honey if parked next to farmland with crops like alfalfa, but only about 100 pounds from a residential neighborhood.

Jones said a hobbyest beekeeper may only want three or four colonies, but needs to quickly create up to 12 when the bees start to swarm to establish new homes. Beekeepers then generally sell the new colonies.

The bemused commissioners didn't want to come out against either bees or flowers, but also couldn't shake the image of angry swarms of recently stung homeowners.

Commissioner Jarrell observed that 12 hives could contain a million bees. "Am I going to know there's a million bees next door?" he wondered. "Will I be seeing bees all the time."

"Only if you have flowering plants," observed Jones. He compared it to having dogs next door.

"But it's like dogs with rabies," said Commission Chairman Hal Baas of the threat of Killer Bees. "They do kill people -- and we control both."

Commissioner Russell Goddard whether the town could get sued if the bees it allowed in town went on a rampage.

The town attorney assured him the town faced "no exposure."

In the end, the commission opted to just study this whole buzz of issues more carefully and directed town staff to seek out other municipal bee ordinances and maybe some university experts on the strange urges of bees -- Africanized and otherwise.

Jones carefully and quietly allowed as how that was probably a good idea, like he was trying to keep a million bees perfectly calm.

"It's not as if there's a land rush of people wanting to keep bees," he concluded.

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