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Complaints prompt Cambridge to evict synagogue’s bees

Rabbi Liza Stern checked on her bees, mostly dormant now with the cold, which she keeps on the roof next to her synagogue in Cambridge.
Rabbi Liza Stern checked on her bees, mostly dormant now with the cold, which she keeps on the roof next to her synagogue in Cambridge.JOANNE RATHE/GLOBE STAFF

CAMBRIDGE — The story of the rabbi, the bees, and the city of Cambridge began in June, when Liza Stern installed four hives on the roof of the children’s school attached to her synagogue.

Rabbi Stern failed to mention to her abutters that they would now have tens of thousands of flying insects as neighbors. But it was no matter, for the bees made the announcement for her.

Almost immediately, the bees in one hive decided that was the perfect time to “swarm,” and thousands of them — half the bees in the hive — took off into the neighborhood looking for a place to set up shop with their new queen.

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As the insects scouted around Cambridgeport, neighbors began noticing that something rather weird was going on, even by Cambridge standards.

When they figured out that the bees were coming from Congregation Eitz Chayim on Magazine Street, the neighborhood began buzzing. And after a summer where the bees produced lots of honey and lots of complaints, the city weighed in with a curious pronouncement: The bees must go because “livestock, including bees, are not allowed in the city.”

Now Cambridge, a city that prides itself on tolerance, is being forced to address the question of what it’s willing to tolerate when stinging insects are involved.

The city has no specific laws pertaining to beekeeping, and there are at least a dozen amateur beekeepers in Cambridge. But after complaints from Eitz Chayim’s neighbors that the bees had invaded their yards and porches and increased the dangers of being stung, the city took action. Ranjit Singanayagam, the commissioner of inspectional services, said the decision is simple: bees are not a listed use in the zoning ordinance, and are therefore prohibited.

Stern, who has kept bees behind her home in Newton for several years, is preparing to fight the Cambridge ruling. On Thursday the two sides will go head-to-head when she takes her appeal before the city’s board of zoning appeals.

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“I say bees are part of nature, and let me educate you a little bit so you don’t have to be so afraid of bees” Stern said. “You don’t get rid of your dog because people are afraid of them. You do what you can to respect people’s concerns, irrational or rational.”

But some neighbors say that she has done nothing to respect their concerns, short of informing them that there is an EpiPen at the synagogue in the event someone has an allergic reaction to a sting.

“We support the concept of beekeeping, and the benefits it brings for the environment, but only if it’s done safely,” said Robert Goss, a neighbor who contacted the city after hearing concerns from several neighbors. “We have children and pets, and it can be fatal. And her answer is, ‘Well, we have an EpiPen.’ ”

In urban areas throughout the country, the issue of beekeeping has risen along with the urban agriculture movement. But initial resistance to the concept has, in recent years, turned to acceptance in many large cities. In 2010, New York City overturned its longtime ban on beekeeping, and in December, Boston adopted an urban agriculture ordinance that allows for two beehives on a lot, provided they meet certain restrictions and setbacks.

Stern said the bees are educational for the children who attend the school attached to the synagogue and that they provide the congregation with a connection to honey, which has ancient symbolism in Judaism.
Stern said the bees are educational for the children who attend the school attached to the synagogue and that they provide the congregation with a connection to honey, which has ancient symbolism in Judaism. Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff

For Eitz Chayim, which bills itself as a “Home for Wondering Jews,” Stern said the bees do even more than “have a positive impact on the world.”

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She said they provide an educational component for children at the school, and offer a palpable connection to honey, which has an ancient symbolism in Judaism. For the Jewish new year, Stern presented homemade honey to the congregation, a tradition to symbolize a sweet new year.

The neighbors who oppose the hives say they respect all of this. But they say that the hives, how they were installed, and the impact they have had on the neighborhood are far from harmonious.

“It’s really inappropriate because they never polled the neighborhood before attempting this foolish thing,” said Richard Bonarrigo, who lives next door to Eitz Chayim and said he spent the summer battling hundreds of bees who had taken up residence under his porch.“I was forced to become a bee slayer with my vacuum cleaner.”

When his apple tree was in blossom, he said he could hear the buzzing while standing in his kitchen.

But in a neighborhood where the local Whole Foods is the center of activity, there are many who support the introduction of the bees. Olivia Fiske, who lives directly across the street and is an old friend of Bonarrigo’s, wrote a letter to the congregation supporting the hives.

“It’s nature in the city,” she said. “I don’t have any problem with it.”

Sadie Richards, a founding member of the Boston Area Beekeepers Association, which has hundreds of active members, said the positives of beekeeping far outweigh any negatives.

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“The approach we take is that in and of themselves, honeybees pose no greater threat than the animals that already exist in the urban environment,” said Richards, whose group educates the public, and beekeepers, on how to live harmoniously with bees.

Several members of her group are planning to attend the hearing, and she said the hope is that Cambridge will develop a system of guidelines for urban agriculture, similar to those established in Boston and Somerville that will allow the practice to grow and thrive safely.

Right now, with the chill of fall upon us, the bees have mostly gone dormant.

On Tuesday, Stern climbed out of an office window onto the flat roof where the bees are kept and, without any protective gear, lifted the lid on one of the hives. And in that moment she managed to accomplish something she could not in June: she didn’t draw any unwanted attention.

Jars of honey made from bees on the roof of Eitz Chayim were given to congregants for the Jewish New Year.
Jars of honey made from bees on the roof of Eitz Chayim were given to congregants for the Jewish New Year.Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Billy Baker can be reached at billy.baker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.