Bridgewater’s Board of Health is expected to decide this week whether the town should become one of only a few communities statewide to regulate beekeepers.
The town’s health agent, Eric Badger, drew up a proposal after an Oak Street resident, Tony DeSilva, who has a severe allergy to bee stings, complained about hives next door.
Badger said his proposal, scheduled to be considered by the health board Wednesday, mirrors a bylaw on the books in Chicopee and would set standards for how close hives can be placed to property lines and require posted warnings regarding the presence of beehives.
“We have this gentleman who is within 30 feet of the hives,” Badger said. “He’s afraid to mow his lawn.”
Once the complaint was lodged, health officials had to take action, Badger said. “We have an obligation to protect the public health of the community, whether it’s one or 100,” he said. “We’re not trying to force anybody into anything, but if we ignore Mr. DeSilva’s complaint and he ended up in the hospital, we’d be responsible.”
Badger’s proposal calls for hives to be no closer than 50 feet to property lines. Other setbacks include distance minimums of 100 feet from public roads, 100 feet from residential buildings, and 500 feet from swimming pools. While Chicopee’s ordinance limits the number of hives based on the size of the property, Badger’s draft did not include such restrictions.
“It also doesn’t include fees or fines,” he said. “We just want the hives registered to let us know where they are.”
DeSilva would not comment for this story.
Ida Liao, the neighbor with bee hives, said she purchased two hives in April and placed them in her yard about 50 feet from the property line. The only one near DeSilva’s yard was a hive delivered for a relative and is now gone from the property, she said.
Liao said she brought in the bees for health reasons. “I have pollen allergies that have been getting worse,” she said. “People at my church said homegrown honey would help them.”
Liao’s husband oversees the hives, she said, adding that, since DeSilva’s complaint, they have arranged to have a 6-foot fence installed between their property and DeSilva’s.
Badger said he has received positive reaction since news of his beekeeping regulation has begun to circulate. “We also have a couple parents whose children are allergic to bees and carry Epipens,” he said. “They’re happy about the regulation.”
But Dan Conlon, president of the Massachusetts Beekeepers Association, said the effort to regulate beekeepers could well draw public resistance, too.
“Regulations and bylaws are not common,” Conlon said. “I think there are only two other towns with restrictions. Generally honeybees are treated as a benign nuisance.”
Conlon said beekeeping isn’t a problem in rural areas, such as in Western Massachusetts. A professional beekeeper, Conlon manages 800 hives. He said beekeeping is becoming increasingly popular in more urban areas, which may ultimately prompt situations similar to the one in Bridgewater.
“If I had neighbors on all sides, I’d probably not keep more than a hive or two,” Conlon said. “I think it has to do with being a good neighbor. People should talk to their neighbors before bringing bees in.”
Conlon and Ann Rein, president of the Plymouth County Beekeepers Association, both said they don't like the idea of regulating hives.
“I’m speaking for myself and not the Plymouth County association, but I don’t know how they can regulate,” Rein said. “There are beehives everywhere in the wild.”
“We have to come up with ways of guiding people, but I hate the idea of regulation,” she said. “I understand people’s fears, but honeybees are benign creatures.”
Bridgewater resident Lori Tunewicz-Gavin, who keeps bees as a hobby, said people should be more educated about them. “My hives are very close to my property line — about 10 feet — and my neighbors have never been stung. If you’re not meaning any harm to them, they’re probably not going to harm you,” she said.
Tunewicz-Gavin said the Oak Street homeowners should try to work out the problem. “It seems like a neighbor dispute — not something you handle with bylaws,” she said.
Conlon said area beekeepers and members of county beekeeping associations will probably weigh in on the issue when Bridgewater’s health board meets Wednesday. He said he hopes Bridgewater health officials are at least open to suggestions before enacting a regulation.
“I recommend they talk to the beekeeping associations,” he said.
Conlon said honeybees are critical to farming, because of pollination. “Yes, a person could get stung by a honeybee, but we’re very dependent on having them in the environment,” he said. “I’m not in favor of regulation.”
Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the Plymouth County Beekeepers Association’s president. She is Ann Rein.