Backyard bees banned in Winters

Keeping backyard bees is illegal in Winters, California.

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Doneice Trotter never thought that she would become a beekeeper. Then she graduated from college, and began searching for a job. Her family’s business, Henry’s Bullfrog Bees, seemed like a good place to start.

At first she was afraid of the bees. Trotter recalls that when she walked out among the bee boxes, it seemed to her that the bees could sense her fear.

“When I was terrified the bees kind of knew,” she said. “They let you know when they’re upset.”

After years as an apiarist, Trotter has gotten over her fear. She can sense that the bees are calmer around her. That doesn’t mean that she never gets stung. She has worked with bees long enough to categorize their stings. A sting on the chin is not too bad, she says, but a sting on the forearm elicits searing pain.

This time of year Henry’s Bullfrog Bees is busiest: pollination season. They deliver the bee boxes to local farms, moving by night when the hives are less active.  The bees then forage for nectar, and in the process fulfill their role as pollinators.

The bees help agriculture prosper, and people collect the delicious and valuable honey. This is the partnership that humans have forged with bees for millennia. Ancient art from around the world provides some insight into the ways civilizations honed their technology to advance a beekeeping industry.

Seven thousand year-old Spanish cave paintings depict figures gathering honey from a hive in the hollow of a tree. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics show people calming bees with smoke, a technique that is still used today. In Greece, beekeeping was so widely practiced that there were laws regulating hives as early as 594 B.C.E.

Beekeeping is still a common practice, and Yolo County has its own modern version of the Ancient Greeks’ beekeeping laws. These ordinances can be found in the Yolo County code, and apply to all unincorporated land in the county.

While there are some restrictions on commercial beekeeping, non-commercial beekeeping can be practiced in lands zoned agricultural, residential, commercial and industrial.

In order to keep these operations small and make sure that the bees stay close to their box, non-commercial beekeepers may only keep two hives and must provide a source of fresh water within 15 feet of the bees.

In some situations the county can cancel a residential bee operation. If an immediate neighbor of an urban beekeeper came forward with medical documentation of a bee allergy, the county would revoke the beekeeper’s privilege to host hives.

The county can also step in if a hive becomes aggressive. Trotter had some insight into what can cause this, but she says that there is not always a clear answer. When the apiarists at Henry’s Bullfrog Bees get an aggressive hive, one step they take is to remove and exterminate the queen. The queen’s temperament can determine the entire hive’s, as an aggressive queen can produce aggressive offspring.

The county also considers it to be a problem if the bees are swarming on somebody else’s property. When bees have an adequate water source they usually won’t go searching beyond their territory, but if they do not have an adequate water source they will venture out in order to survive. If they begin spreading out beyond the beekeeper’s property lines to search out swimming pools or sprinkler systems, this could pose a problem to neighbors. In cases like these the county also reserves the right to revoke beekeeping privileges.

Unlike Yolo County, there is no law on the books related to beekeeping in Winters. Dave Dowswell, a community development consultant to the city of Winters, explained that while cities typically mention beekeeping in a municipal code, Winters does not address it. The city has interpreted this to mean that it is not allowed.

Trotter had some thoughts on the city’s current code.

“I think people should be able to keep backyard hives,” she said, and she believes that most people probably wouldn’t even notice if their neighbor had a well-kept hive.

But Trotter added that she can see the danger of unregulated urban beekeeping.

Apiarists in Yolo County are required to have their hives checked for mites and diseases yearly, but an unregistered backyard beekeeper cannot be held to the same standard. If an unchecked hive gets mites, a raider bee could invade a healthy hive and bring not only the mite, but any of the 12 diseases that mites carry.

“The bees are suffering, and the more people who want to tend for them and care for them the better,” Trotter says, but she added an important message for any backyard apiarists.

“Make sure you check your hives.”


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