As more suburban households take up beekeeping as a hobby, Raynham is considering rules aimed at avoiding the sting of future conflicts between hive owners and their neighbors.
The May 19 Annual Town Meeting will take up a proposed zoning bylaw requiring hives to be located at least 10 feet from property lines and buildings and 20 feet from sidewalks, roads, schools, day care facilities, and playgrounds.
In tandem with that plan, the local Board of Health is considering new regulations requiring beekeepers to obtain an annual permit from the town, show proof of taking a beekeeping course, and notify abutters prior to installing hives.
“This will hopefully give citizens in town a better feeling about this,” Raynham’s health agent, David D. Flaherty Jr., said of the presence of bee hives in their neighborhoods, “and help to maintain a high level of quality for beekeeping activity in the area.”
Rick Reault, president of the Massachusetts Beekeepers Association, said many communities have discussed adopting beekeeping rules, but he believes no more than a handful have adopted them. At least one community — New Bedford — bans beekeeping.
Reault said the association generally opposes local regulations, favoring that beekeepers instead be asked to voluntarily adhere to his group’s recommended “best management practices.” But he said it would not oppose regulations that are geared to those practices.
The Raynham zoning proposal is a revised draft of an original, more restrictive proposal that was opposed by John Grace, a local beekeeper. That plan called for hives to be set back 50 feet from property lines and 100 feet from the street or sidewalk, and for fences to be built near to the hives.
“I said to them, do the science, this is not going to work. All it’s going to do is incur costs for beekeepers,” said Grace, who is a board member of the Bristol County Beekeepers Association.
Grace said forcing beekeepers to place their hives far from the street or property line or to build a fence would have no effect on bees, which typically fly a few feet from the hive and then shoot upwards, traveling as far as 5 miles to forage for nectar or pollen.
John Charbonneau, the town’s director of planning and development, said that officials decided on the less restrictive proposal based on their own research. That conclusion was reinforced by the input they received from Grace, who supports the restrictions as revised.
“My only goal was to come up with reasonable zoning regulations, not to punish responsible beekeepers but to make sure people keeping bees are good neighbors,” he said.
The Raynham proposals were spurred by an incident last year in which a resident complained that his neighbors’ honey bees were constantly buzzing in and around his swimming pool, and that the neighbor would not do anything about it.
Flaherty, who investigated last year’s incident, said he realized at the time that “I had no regulations to fall back on” to force the hive owner to correct the problem. His only recourse would have been to file a nuisance complaint in court, which he said is costly.
As a result of the incident, the Board of Selectmen — which in Raynham also serves as the Board of Health — asked Flaherty and Charbonneau to look into creating a bylaw and regulations to address future incidents.
But officials said the restrictions are also a response to the growing interest in beekeeping.
“With beekeeping becoming increasingly popular among residential homeowners, the town recognizes the need to be proactive and take some measures to make sure people are being reasonable to their neighbors and responsible beekeepers,” Charbonneau said.
Wayne Andrews, an entomologist and a longtime beekeeper, said that in this region and elsewhere in the state, “We have seen a substantial increase in the numbers of new beekeepers” the last few years.
A board member of the Bristol County Beekeepers Association, Andrews said 65 to 70 people are enrolled currently in the school it runs for new beekeepers. As recently as a few years ago, only eight or nine people would enroll in the school, whose teachers include Grace and Andrews.
Reault estimated the state has seen about 1,000 new beekeepers a year for the past six to eight years, though many drop out due to the difficulty in keeping bees alive. He estimated there are 5,000 to 10,000 beekeepers statewide, the vast majority of them hobbyists.
Andrews said that in addition to the raw honey, many of the new beekeepers are drawn to the hobby by a desire to help support honey bees, whose population has seen a steep decline in recent decades due to such factors as disease, loss of habitat, and pesticides.
“A lot of people want to help. It’s a good outdoor activity and it’s good for ecology,” he said, citing the crucial role that bee pollination plays in providing food for humans and animals.
Grace has maintained one to two hives in his yard the past 2½ years, making him host to as many as 120,000 honey bees at any one time. He said the presence of so many bees does not pose a hazard even in a residential neighborhood, noting that honey bees, which die when they sting, are not aggressive.
“All summer, they are out collecting nectar and pollen. They don’t bother us — they come and go,” he said. “And in the winter, they all huddle together, shaking and shivering to keep the queen warm.
“I have two girls, 4 and 5, and they play in the backyard. They love watching the bees,” he added, noting that neither has ever been stung. He himself is stung an average of about four times a year. “It’s always me doing something stupid,” he said.
Grace said he believes the town’s existing nuisance rules are sufficient to address any irresponsible behavior by beekeepers. But he said he appreciates that officials need to take some action to respond to resident concerns, and that the current proposed restrictions are fair.
“We have to meet somewhere,” he said.
John Laidler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.