One day at school, my friend Bill went to smoosh a bee at the classroom window, put his hand through the glass, and had to be taken to the emergency room. Another friend of mine growing up, Patrick, is allergic to bees and always had a bee sting kit nearby case of emergency. Nobody I knew kept bees in the suburb where I came from – bees were fraught with danger. I can summarize the extent of my knowledge of bees growing up in a single sentence: Leave them alone and they’ll leave you alone.
In college I had a good friend from Rochester, New York. I learned his parents kept bees and thought, “What an odd and interesting hobby.” Mark didn’t live on a farm; he was from a nice house in the suburbs. It stuck in the back of my mind for many years.
Skip ahead to 2007 and I am working an impossibly boring job. Hearing how little I had to do, a friend gave me her entire-year stack of New Yorker magazines. I read them all cover to cover; even the fiction. In one there was an article about Colony Collapse Disorder. Commercial beekeepers were seeing hives die out at rates of 70, 80, 90 percent and nobody was sure where the bees were going. They were mysteriously gone from the hive. Weirder still, bees from other colonies usually rob the dead hive’s leftover honey within days. They were staying away from collapsed hives.
The New Yorker article did not solve the puzzle about Colony Collapse Disorder. Another piece written around the same time said “scientists say that definitive answers for the colony collapses could be months away.” It is now three years later at it has yet to be fully explained. But while I was reading I learned a lot about diseases and pests that affect honeybees. I also learned a great deal about bees and beehives. I was fascinated and went to the library to learn more. And I started thinking about Mark’s parents from Rochester and how my home town, South Portland, Maine, isn’t so different; except there was about to be one new difference.
First, a confession: If I’m thinking about doing something, the best way to get me to do it is to tell me I can’t.
About the time I was learning about bees there was an article in my local paper. A guy had some beehives in his yard and his neighbor didn’t think it was a great idea. So the neighbor called City Hall to find out what the law was regarding beehives. It turned out there was no law at all. Egad!
I’m going to try to be as objective as I can. In truth, the guy with bees had too many hives for his small lot. But once the worried neighbor got to know the beekeeper and learn about the hives and the bees he stopped worrying. They worked it out between them. But the ball was rolling and some people in the City Government felt we needed to have a law to regulate beehives. Most towns don’t have any laws regarding beekeeping and some other towns have a simple rule: You can’t. When the buzz got around that South Portland was trying to write a law somewhere in between, it created a hot debate. Beekeepers from all over the country wrote letters to our City Council saying essentially, “The bees are in trouble. Please don’t pass any law that would make it harder for people to keep bees.” While the debate raged on I was busy ordering hive parts and setting up my hive with bees. After a few months of debate the City has six pages of law on its books about what beekeepers can and can’t do. Most of what the law requires me to do I would have done anyway.
The original guy with the beehives got tired of the entire hullabaloo and moved his hives to properties outside of the city limits of South Portland. When the ordinance was voted into law I went down and paid my fee to register as a beekeeper. For the first two years I was the only one. I felt a bit special – a whole law just for me. Last summer the number leapt to five of us and I’ve had to relinquish my title as South Portland’s Only Registered Beekeeper.