Val Mayo’s grandfather shared many stories about his rural home in Lesotho, but one memory stands out: his tales of tending to his beehives. Six years ago, Mayo decided she’d follow in his footsteps; she bought a few hives and began producing dozens of pounds of honey at her Hyde Park home.
Unbeknown to Mayo at the time, Boston’s zoning code prohibits beekeeping in certain parts of the city — including her neighborhood. Though the rules are rarely enforced, they’re a source of anxiety for beekeepers, including Mayo, who was disappointed when she learned about the restrictions.
“I do this because I love the bees,” Mayo said. “It helps me connect to the earth and the environment.”
Now, at the urging of Mayo, 63, and other local beekeepers, City Councilor Ruthzee Louijeune wants to end those restrictions. At the council’s meeting on Wednesday, Louijeune introduced a proposal to strip the beekeeping ban out of the city zoning code so that anyone can keep bees in any neighborhood. The ordinance, which needs approval from the council, the mayor, and the Zoning Commission, would also raise the maximum number of hives allowed from two to three.
“Our zoning code is a nightmare for people to understand and really get right,” Louijeune said. With the proposed changes, she said, “the only reason why you would need special permission is if you’re trying to do something a little different, or you need permission for more hives.”
The current ban dissuades potential beekeepers from trying out a hobby that reaps ecological benefits for Boston’s urban landscape, enthusiasts said.
And for Black beekeepers such as Mayo, the zoning code is just another barrier.
Historically, Black residents are less likely to own property or to be able to afford the hobby’s steep equipment and training fees; they’re also more likely to live in urban areas with beekeeping restrictions. Mayo is one of the only Black beekeepers she knows of in Boston.
“It can be isolating,” Mayo said. “These bee clubs are predominantly white because they’re in areas where they have homes, they have land, and are suburban or rural.”
Beekeeping has long been forbidden in most parts of Boston under the zoning code, which has historically grouped beekeeping with the farming of other livestock such as hens. So it’s allowed in a few districts that historically have had sizeable butcher shops, including Chinatown and parts of South Boston, West Roxbury, Allston-Brighton, and Dorchester. In large portions of Back Bay, South Boston, the North End, and downtown Boston, beekeepers can operate under certain conditions.
In 2013, the city simplified zoning rules related to urban agriculture and tried to make them easier to understand, but beekeeping still required a zoning variance in most neighborhoods.
Bill Perkins, copresident of the Boston Area Beekeepers Association, who estimates that 120 clients purchase bees from his farm shop Agricultural Hall each year, said some prospective hobbyists back out when they learn of the restrictions.
“The beauty of these winged angels is really a universe in of itself,” Perkins said. He said he hopes allowing beekeeping will “open up that world to people.”
Enthusiasts say bees are docile unless threatened, and that it’s common practice for beekeepers to consult with neighbors in the case of allergies or phobias. Bee stings are uncommon, and fatal bee stings are rare. Between 2008 and 2015, hornet, wasp, and bee stings accounted for 1.4 deaths per 10 million Americans each year, according to a study published in “Wilderness & Environmental Medicine.”
Boston’s beekeeping regulations would still apply if hives were allowed citywide. Hives can’t be larger than 20 cubic feet; and beekeepers must place hives 10 feet from sidewalks and 5 feet from abutting properties without fencing or other barriers.
In honoring her grandfather’s legacy, Mayo has taken a more pragmatic, hobbyist approach to beekeeping. To get started, she took classes, read books, and sought out beekeeping mentors.
Mayo imagines that her grandfather wasn’t overloaded with the same questions, worrying about what to do next. He “just did,” she said.
“For him, it wasn’t a hobby,” she said. “It was just a way of life.”
Mayo’s hives have not always thrived. When starting out, she’d sense something amiss with the strange quiet in her backyard and open one of her hives to find a section of dead bees. Once, thousands of wax moths destroyed 20 to 30 frames of honey left in her cold pantry.
She was like a new parent at first, she said. “You worry about whether you’re doing the right thing.”
“Then after a while, you use your intuition, classes, what you’ve read, and mentors,” Mayo said. “You just do your best, and keep in mind that you’re trying to do what’s best for the bees.”
Mayo estimates she’s spent thousands of dollars on conventions, equipment, and even a master’s beekeeping certificate from Cornell University.
But there are some things books can’t teach. When her beehives present a challenge, Mayo sometimes “sits there quietly and asks [her grandfather] for guidance.”
On a chilly Monday afternoon, Mayo showed visitors around her small apiary, pointing out the different types of hives in the space. A warré hive looked like red, orange, and yellow boxes stacked to form a house-like structure. A long, horizontal hive, called a top bar, was equipped with a viewing window. Another group of red and yellow hives, called langstroth hives, looked like fancy filing cabinets.
As Mayo spoke, some bees, taking refuge from the cold temperatures, escaped their hives and zig-zagged around the space. The buzzing crescendoed. “They’re getting agitated,” she said, ushering guests from the space.
Karyn Bigelow, who runs Beekeeping While Black, an online platform to build community among Black beekeepers, said the stereotypical image of beekeeping as a white person’s hobby can deter Black would-be keepers. It wasn’t until she started keeping bees during the pandemic, and sought out online groups and Black elders not affiliated with the predominantly white beekeeping associations, that she realized she wasn’t alone.
“I was so embarrassed to tell people because ... I had this feeling of, ‘Black people don’t [keep bees],’ ” Bigelow said. “It was isolating.”
Mayo said the ordinance won’t be enough to attract more Black beekeepers, but perhaps slowly, as more Black people add hives to their yards, their presence will grow.
“What changes is if they see people of color involved in beekeeping,” Mayo said.
Mayo’s off to a good start, spreading her apian gospel to her next door neighbors, Jim Kirker, 67, and Sheila King, 60. King has, in turn, helped Mayo run beekeeping presentations for libraries, schools, and companies. At last month’s Open Streets event on Dorchester Avenue, the pair operated an informational exhibit on beekeeping, attracting kids of all ages throughout the day.
“It was a surprise to me that there was so much interest,” King said. “They really listened to what we had to say, and had so many questions.”
Mayo said she hopes that one day, one of her grandnieces or grandnephews will follow her into the world of bees as well.
“This is kind of an homage to [my grandfather], to continue this tradition of beekeeping,” Mayo said. Whether it’s another family member or a mentee she takes on, Mayo “hopes someone else will, too.”