A proposal that would boost hobbyists who do so-called backyard beekeeping in residential areas is drawing opposition from county agriculture officials, who argue it could lead to more people being stung and cause complaints that the county does not have the time or personnel to handle.
Half a dozen people — five from Los Osos and one from a rural area near Arroyo Grande — asked the agriculture commissioner in June to change the county ordinance that limits beekeeping in areas classified as urban.
The current ordinance calls for hives to be at least 200 feet from the street, which makes it all but impossible for hobbyists to have hives in their yards if they live in a highly settled area. The would-be beekeepers want that changed to 25 feet.
The ordinance applies only to unincorporated areas, which are outside city limits.
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The county — which already had been responding to complaints — say it has seen an increase in calls, and it fears an even greater jump because it believes backyard beekeeping is becoming trendy.
Staff time spent investigating complaints has risen 31 percent this year, according to Brenda Ouwerkerk, chief deputy agricultural commissioner. She said apiary program costs have risen to $15,531 in 2010 from $3,942 in 2006.
Citizen complaints fall into four areas, Ouwerkerk told The Tribune:
Swarms. When hives get too crowded, bees create a swarm — a ball of bees surrounding and protecting the queen.
It is a natural phenomenon that occurs in healthy, robust hives, she said. The bees remain in “a holding pattern” for a day or two.
While they are usually not aggressive unless provoked, they look scary.
Foraging bees. Again, these are not generally aggressive and usually are looking for water or checking out the backyard plants and flowers.
But they can ruin a birthday party or barbecue.
Stings. In 2006, there were 88 visits to emergency rooms for bee stings, and in 2007, there were 79.
At least 15 of those were allergic reactions in people who were at risk of dying from a bee sting.
Bee frass, which is a polite way to say bee poop.
The yellow insect excrement rains on people and property alike and is extremely difficult to remove from, say, windshields.
In opposing a change to the county ordinance, Ouwerkerk stressed that the Agriculture Department is not questioning the value of beekeeping, which she said is considerable.
She added that “the art and science of beekeeping is fascinating.”
The question at hand, she said, is “where you put it.”
The agriculture commissioner and beekeepers made their case to the county Health Commission last week in an informational session. The commission took no position.
At the moment, the ordinance remains status quo, Ouwerkerk said.
However, a proposed change could wend its way to the Board of Supervisors, should it gather enough support.
Beekeeping is forbidden in Paso Robles, Pismo Beach and San Luis Obispo.
In Atascadero, it is not allowed in residential single-family and other zones.
In Arroyo Grande and Grover Beach, the setback requirements are 400 feet from dwellings and 300 feet from public roads.
There are no restrictions on beekeeping in Morro Bay, according to the agriculture commissioner’s office.