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Thursday, June 14, 2012 07:17 pm

Don’t worry, bee happy

Springfield moves to regulate honeybees

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Sangamon County board member Tim Moore is a Republican who favors government regulation, at least when it comes to honeybees inside Springfield city limits.

“The current ordinance is very vague about what is required of beekeepers, and is really an old ordinance that says that apiculture (a fancy name for beekeeping) is not allowed,” says Moore, who has a hive at his house and doesn’t want a reputation as a renegade beekeeper.

Who knew? Certainly not Michael Higgins, owner of Maldaner’s restaurant in downtown and Springfield’s best-known beekeeper, who got notice from publications across the nation, including Food Network magazine, when he installed hives on the roof of his restaurant last year.

“Am I supposed to have a permit?” Higgins asked. “Do I think there needs to be regulations? Here’s the deal: Before I put my bees up on the roof of Maldaner’s, there were plenty of bees downtown. People don’t realize it. Bees are everywhere. They’re in your neighborhood. They are a naturally occurring, wild thing. … I don’t disagree on some type of ordinance, no more than five hives in an urban setting – I can see someone loading their backyard up otherwise. I don’t see a problem as long as it’s like anything else, as long as it doesn’t get weird and bizarre.”

Whether that will happen depends on the Springfield City Council, which has a checkered history when it comes to handling Mother Nature. After all, an attempt to control starlings and pigeons in downtown by giving a no-bid, six-figure contract to a purported bird whisperer who claimed a secret method to make birds go away did not end well. The alleged whisperer quit four years ago after it turned out that he had a history of using poison, and council members grew concerned by reports that he had been using a rifle downtown.

But birds, as everyone knows, are different than bees, and Ward 6 Ald. Cory Jobe says it’s just a matter of regulating what’s already going on before anything gets out of hand.

“There are several residents in the city who are keeping bees,” said Jobe, who is sponsoring the measure along with Ward 3 Ald. Doris Turner. “A lot of municipalities are doing this. We just never have. It’s really to keep a better handle on the situation: If you do want to practice the hobby, here’s some guidelines.”

Moore, who said that Higgins’ hives got him thinking and ultimately prompted him to ask aldermen to regulate beekeeping, said he is concerned that regulation, done improperly, could be excessive.

“People don’t know the difference between a bee and a wasp, so they regulate everything that flies,” Moore said.

The proposed ordinance would require hives to be registered with the state Department of Agriculture, which is already required by state law, and lots of 10,000 square feet or less can have no more than four hives. Beekeepers must use “adequate techniques” to handle bees, including replacing queens when necessary to keep a hive in good health. Queens, it seems, can be much like politicians, and hives with queens who have stayed too long become unproductive and prone to mites and other problems. The ordinance also says that beekeepers must provide hives with adequate space to prevent bees, which tend to abandon hives and swarm if they’re overcrowded, from stinging.

Wild bees would be exempt from the ordinance and so could do as they wish, as long they aren’t threatening to sting anyone.

Whether there would be a registration fee hasn’t been decided yet, Moore said. If the city does decide to impose a fee, he said, it should be small, perhaps $5, with proceeds going toward educating people about bees.

“There’s no cost to the city on this,” Moore said.

Higgins said there should be no fee. Like most hobbyists, he said that he gives his honey away, and charging a fee would be akin to charging backyard gardeners for growing tomatoes. The bees themselves, he said, are already free and always will be.

“They come and go, I just provide them a hive,” Higgins said. “I’m not exploiting them. I don’t have them in a sweatshop.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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