Alderman Christopher Hernandez said that before a resident recently approached him about urban beekeeping in the city of Waukesha he admitted he didn't have much, if any, knowledge on the topic.
"It was a whole educational process for me," he said.
But he soon realized the advantages to beekeeping, including benefits to the environment, the economy and in education.
"It's a big trend going on right now," the District 3 alderman said at the Feb. 8 ordinance and license committee meeting.
That's why he brought a request forward for Waukesha to develop a beekeeping ordinance, following in the footsteps of other cities such as Milwaukee, Madison, Wauwatosa and Greenfield that passed similar legislation in recent years.
The village of Shorewood also just adopted its own beekeeping ordinance, a proposal that would allow beekeepers to harbor, keep and maintain a colony or hives of honeybees on their properties.
With Waukesha's ordinance and license committee recommending passage of the ordinance on a 3-1 vote, the council is expected to vote on the issue on Thursday, Feb. 18. Alderman Daniel Mansion voted against the ordinance at the committee level.
Waukesha's proposed ordinance modeled other cities that already allow urban beekeeping, and received input from the president and vice president of the Milwaukee Waukesha Beekeepers Association.
City Attorney Brian Running said that while honeybees — the only type of bee residents would be allowed to maintain under the ordinance — are relatively docile compared to hornets, the legislation makes an effort to require barriers between bees and neighboring people and pets.
Follow the rules
The location of the hives is one such guideline.
The hives, as proposed, would be allowed only in backyards and would have to be at least 25 feet from the public right-of-way. The hives must be at least 10 feet from a boundary of the property unless the neighbor on the other side of that boundary gives written allowance.
The city would also require flyway barriers, which Running said is a way to "make sure when bees leave someone's yard they aren't going to be buzzing by at head level." Running said barriers must be at least 6 feet tall.
The number of hives a beekeeper can maintain would depend on the size of a property. Parcels one-quarter acre or less could have a maximum of two hives, four for parcels between one-quarter and a half acre, six for parcels between one-half and 1 acre, and eight for parcels larger than an acre.
However, the proposal also says that if hives on any parcel size are at least 200 feet in any direction from all boundary lines, there is no limit to the number of hives. Water must also be provided where the hive is.
City staff would provide yearly checks to ensure owners follow the requirements.
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When is it unreasonable?
The proposed ordinance says the hives or colonies must not cause a public nuisance, cause an unreasonable risk of physical harm to any person or domestic animal or unreasonably interfere with normal activities of persons or domestic animals, as well as the normal use and enjoyment of any private or public property.
Running said this could occur if the bees are becoming aggressive, not staying in the hive or swarming in a tree next to the property line.
"That's an unreasonable risk because now the danger of the sting is outweighing the practical benefit," Running said. "The general theme is we just don't want them to become a nuisance or a danger to health."
Becoming an expert
The proposed ordinance would require beekeepers to receive a two-year $50 permit. However, the committee recommended the fee be waived for those who take a certification course.
"I think it's worthwhile in requiring some sort a certification to make sure your hives will be maintained," Running said. "The purpose behind (the course) would be to let people know what they're getting into, because it does take a certain amount of commitment to maintain the hives."
The University of Wisconsin-Extension offers a class, where the cost could range up to $150, and beekeepers at the committee meeting said those classes fill up fast and have to be reserved years in advance. Andy Hemken, who operates Hemken Honey Co. on his village of Big Bend property, said he also holds classes.
Running said the city doesn't want to make it difficult for people to participate in a growing hobby. That's why urban beekeeping isn't being restricted to just residential properties, as beekeeping would be allowed on all sites. But commercial properties must follow zoning laws.
"We considered only (allowing beekeeping) in residential zones and not allow on commercial properties at the risk of it growing too large a scale," Running said. "But we didn't think that was that enough of a threat, and considering the state of the honeybee population in the world and their importance to the ecosystem, we probably shouldn't put a limit on it."
Hemken said the initial setup would cost about $350 for honeybee hive equipment as well as at least $75 for the necessary clothing.
"It's a significant investment," Hemken said.