NOT THE BEES!!!!—At least that’s what some local governments are saying in response to the growing urban beekeeping phenomenon. Just last month, Wisconsin’s Racine County informed Debi Fuller that she could no longer maintain beehives on her property, even though the county’s zoning board initially OK’d Fuller’s request to construct the hives. Their reason for reneging? Fuller’s neighbors were afraid of getting stung by rogue bees.
That fear is understandable, but Fuller promises it is unfounded. “They’re extremely docile. My husband, our dogs—we’ve never been stung. Not even once.” Indeed enthusiasts echo this sentiment. Bees, they argue, pose little threat when tended to by an experienced beekeeper; they will attack only when provoked. While bee temperament varies by species, beekeepers often prove effective at mitigating aggression.
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Still, these assurances often ring hollow for many homeowners whose perceptions of bee conduct may not comport with reality. These individuals may want to reassess their view, given urban beekeeping’s beneficial impacts. Beekeeping helps combat the alarming decline in bee population over the past eight years. That decline poses a sharp risk to the agricultural industry as honey bees are an extremely important cog, providing $15 billion worth of crop pollination annually. Urban beekeeping also provides a cheap and accessible supply of bee products—namely honey—to small local industries like restaurants and craft shops. On an individual level, some beekeepers see their hobby as a welcomed escape from hectic urban life. Burdensome regulation on urban beekeeping negates these benefits.
More importantly, though, overregulating urban beekeeping jeopardizes two essential individual liberties: an owner’s right to use their property as they see fit, and an individual’s right to economic liberty. In 2013, the Institute for Justice launched its National Food Freedom Initiative to protect Americans’ right to grow, raise, produce, buy, sell, share, cook, eat and drink the foods of one’s choice. A misinformed understanding of bees and the nuisance they pose could lead to the unjustified alienation of the constitutionally protected right to food freedom.
Racine County’s recent bee ban may produce such a result. As Fuller lamented, “I’ve been placed in a position where I have to defend my property rights.” What really stings is the fact that she faces more than $300 in fines. Her position is unenviable if her bees truly pose no risk to her neighbors. Beekeepers throughout the country may face similar problems due to misconceptions about the inherent menaces of beekeeping.
In light of this risk, it is important to make sure local governments regulate urban beekeeping from an informed position. Doing so will eliminate credible bee-related threats while ignoring empty ones. Striking this balance is essential to protect the constitutional rights of individuals on both sides of the urban beekeeping issue.
— Will Martin
Will Martin is a law student at The University of Minnesota and a clerk at IJ’s Washington office