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Backyard Beekeeping Picking up Buzz

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By Emily Alpert Reyes

beekeeper(MCT)—When Max Wong first “outed” herself to her neighbors, she wondered when the police would be knocking on her door. Until then, she had kept her passion a secret.

But Wong says most of her neighbors in the Mount Washington neighborhood of Los Angeles were simply puzzled. Beekeeping? Illegal? In Los Angeles?

“It’s the yummiest way of breaking the law,” says Wong, one of the backyard beekeepers who are pushing for Los Angeles to allow apiaries in residential zones. In a city so proud of its orange trees and urban greenery, “beekeeping should never have been illegal,” she says.

Under Los Angeles codes, beekeeping isn’t allowed in residential zones like her Mount Washington yard, according to city planning officials. Backyard beekeeping has nonetheless blossomed as Angelenos worried about honeybee health or devoted to urban farming have started tending hives at home. Now backyard beekeepers want Los Angeles to follow in the footsteps of New York and Santa Monica, spelling out rules to let people keep bees in residential neighborhoods.

If Los Angeles gives backyard beekeepers the stamp of approval, “they can come out of the closet, so to speak,” says William Lewis, president of the California State Beekeepers Association. “They won’t need to fear that a neighbor will force them to move their hives.”

The City Council took its first step last week toward exploring the idea, asking staffers to draft a report. At a news conference before the meeting, Councilman Paul Koretz argued that urban beekeeping was especially needed in the face of colony collapse disorder, which has devastated agricultural hives that pollinate avocados, almonds and other crucial crops.

“If you care about blueberries,” Councilman Mike Bonin added, “you care about this.”

Not everyone was convinced that new rules were needed. Southern California beekeeper Dael Wilcox argued that backyard beekeeping wasn’t actually illegal, just not spelled out in law, and that the city should keep it that way. So far, complaints about managed hives have been so rare that the city doesn’t track them in their own category, Department of Building and Safety spokesman Luke Zamperini says.

Other beekeepers countered that regulations would get rid of any “gray area” and ensure that hives were tended safely. Santa Monica approved such rules three years ago, restricting backyard beekeepers to no more than two hives and regulating how and where the hives could be placed near property lines. New York set forth its own rules even earlier, much to the chagrin of locals who argue that Los Angeles should have led the way.

“We should at least keep up with New York City on things like this, if not surpass them!” says Arroyo Seco Neighborhood Council President Nina Zippay, whose group backs urban beekeeping.

Beekeeping seems to have boomed in recent years. Lewis says that when he started keeping bees in the Los Angeles area, fewer than a dozen people showed up at local beekeeping meetings. Last month the number was near 70, he says. Rob McFarland, co-founder of the Los Angeles beekeeping nonprofit HoneyLove, estimated that Los Angeles beekeepers number “somewhere in the thousands.” Swelling interest in sustainability has driven the trend.

“If we can protect honeybees,” McFarland says, “we can go a long way in protecting our ecosystems.”

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