Backyard beekeepers are seeking a change in land-use rules

Urban beekeeping: Pride vs. local fears

Backyard beekeepers are seeking a change in land-use rules to allow the practice in residential neighborhoods.

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Tampa Tribune

SEFFNER, Fla. -- It was sweltering outside as Joyce Lang and Miles Carter pulled on head-to-toe jumpsuits and drove out to an orange grove to play with bees.

As Carter puts it, he and Lang are “serious sideliners” when it comes to beekeeping. They enjoy “working the hives,” even while wearing stifling protective gear. They sell the honey the bees produce, but Lang said they are just as interested in the positive effects their bees have on the environment.

“If we don’t have honeybees, to have them here pollinating our fruits and vegetables, we’d only get fruit from China or Chile and the prices would go up,” Lang said.

Lang, Carter and other locals who practice the apiary arts have asked Hillsborough County commissioners to change land-use rules to allow beekeeping in residential neighborhoods. Beehives, like organic gardens and chicken coops, are popping up in more and more urban and suburban backyards.

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which registers and inspects apiaries, says the number of beekeepers in Florida has grown from about 600 five years ago to 2,100 now. They produce a combined 17 million pounds of honey each year.

“This idea of urban beekeeping is not unique to Hillsborough County,” said Tom Hiznay, a senior planner with that county’s Development Services Department. “It’s a growing trend, part of the urban agriculture movement across the country.”

If county commissioners approve the rule changes, homes on quarter-acre lots or smaller will be able to have two beehives; larger properties could have more. A healthy hive can have as many 60,000 bees, Lang said.

Hiznay said his office sent the proposed rule changes to the county’s numerous neighborhood associations. So far, there have been no signs of opposition, he said.

That could change, however, after more details filter out to the public. There have already been a couple of dustups between beekeepers and their neighbors.

Mark Bentley, a Tampa attorney, represented a Brandon resident who lived near a large beekeeping operation. His client said she couldn’t use her swimming pool because hundreds of bees from the apiary were drawn to the water.

Bentley tried to get the county to declare beekeeping an “animal production unit,” which has more-strenuous regulations and larger setbacks from residential areas than general agriculture. Bentley failed to get the designation changed, but he said the experience led him to believe beekeeping does not fit in residential areas.

“It’s fundamental that these bees go the nearest water source and they are attracted to chlorine water,” Bentley said. “That would be a major concern to me as a parent.”

But experts say people who live next door to a beekeeper are no more likely to be stung than anyone else.

“Our managed bees have been managed for a couple of thousand years,” said Jerry Hayes, chief of the state agriculture department’s apiary section. “We’ve bred most of their defensive and aggressive characteristics out of them.”

Plus, Hayes said, the presence of managed bees in an area reduces the chance that their “grumpy cousins,” Africanized honeybees, will move in. The Africanized bees, which have been spreading through the Southeast, have to compete with managed bees for the same resources. Hayes said that when the two breeds mate, the result is milder-tempered offspring.

Carter said managed bees are mostly docile and too busy collecting nectar and pollen to sting humans. The exception is when their hives are perceived to be under attack — hence the stories of tree trimmers who accidentally slice a hive and are chased for blocks by angry bees.

Beekeeping can be expensive. It takes a minimum of $1,000 to get started, the main expense being a honey extractor at $900.

It is true that beekeepers wear protective gear when working their hives, but that’s a precaution because bees are defensive about their home.

Beekeepers don’t go near their hives without a smoker, a metal device that looks like the hat of the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz. The smoker is filled with straw and lit. The smoke pumped out the spout interferes with guard bees’ pheromones — chemical scents that alert the other bees that an intruder is in their midst.

Lang and Carter recently demonstrated for a reporter how they take apart the hives — three stacked wooden boxes — and pull out the wood frames covered with bees making honey and beeswax. The affinity between Lang and the bees is so strong that her protective garb seems superfluous.

“See how nice and gentle they are,” she says, smiling from behind her screened mask. “They’re not hurting anybody. They’re my little honeys.”

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The purpose of this website is to promote honey beekeeping by providing a forum in which current honey beekeepers may become more knowledgeable of best practices and the public can become more, and accurately, informed on the benefits of honey bees. For more info or comments, contact Jeff Crooks at