Urban beekeeping raises Southern California concerns

A hive of bees includes the queen bee marked with a green spot at Mark Kukuchek's backyard bee hive in Bonita. The city of Los Angeles and San Diego County are wrestling with the growth of urban beekeeping.
A hive of bees includes the queen bee marked with a green spot at Mark Kukuchek's backyard bee hive in Bonita. The city of Los Angeles and San Diego County are wrestling with the growth of urban beekeeping. Special to The Bee

The sound of buzzing like a chainsaw and the smell of honey, wax and wood meet Mark Kukuchek as he approaches his beehives, where his queen bees have captivated him for two decades.

“There’s always an eager anticipation to see how the girls are doing,” Kukuchek said. “They’re all working for a common cause.”

He worries about whether his bees will survive the winter. He said he also knows the four hives in his Bonita backyard, which he estimates contain about 200,000 bees, do not meet the county’s setback requirements and officials could shut him down.

Apiaries have bloomed in residential backyards and gardens in recent years, posing new challenges for city and county government leaders nationwide as they consider how to regulate beekeepers. The trend has evolved in the last decade amid concern about the “Beepocalypse,” the nickname given to the massive decline of honeybees since the mid-2000s.

The city of Los Angeles and San Diego County each are wrestling with how to balance the needs of beekeepers and the safety concerns of residents.

In Los Angeles, city leaders are considering whether to allow beekeeping in residential areas. San Diego County officials are studying loosening current restrictions on beekeeping in unincorporated parts of the county.

New York, the city of San Diego and Santa Monica all voted to allow beekeeping in recent years. Sacramento and San Francisco have permitted beekeeping for years. Even the White House now has its own beekeeper.

But not everyone is happy about the rise of urban beekeeping.

Los Angeles City Councilman Bernard Parks, the city’s former police chief, said he would oppose any ordinance allowing beekeeping in the city because of concerns about public safety. He cited the rise in Southern California of Africanized or hybridized bees, which came here from South America and are known for their aggression, and the potential health risk to children, senior citizens and those who may be allergic.

“Why would you bring that dangerous scenario to someone’s backyard?” Parks said. “There are health issues. There are danger issues. It shouldn’t be in a residential neighborhood. There are too many instances where innocent bystanders can be the victim.”

James Comeau, a Spring Valley resident, shares concerns about public safety and how the county will enforce beekeepers’ compliance.

“I am very much concerned that too many bees in too small an area with too many people around them is not a good mix,” he said.

Nonetheless, some city dwellers and suburbanites say they want to learn more about bees and keep hives in their yards and gardens.

Rob McFarland of Los Angeles became interested in beekeeping in 2011, when he watched a beekeeper rescue a swarm of bees in his backyard. McFarland and his wife, Chelsea, founded HoneyLove, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting the health of honeybees and urban beekeeping. They want the city to legalize beekeeping.

“Southern California is really ideal honeybee habitat,” said McFarland, who keeps two hives on his roof. “To be more ecologically minded citizens, it starts literally really in your own backyard.”

In Sacramento, urban beekeeping has been on the rise in recent years, said Nancy Stewart, owner of Sacramento Beekeeping Supplies. The business she started in 1985 sells beekeeping kits, gifts, honey, candles and other items.

“It wasn’t until about four years ago that this just went boom,” Stewart said.

Stewart estimates that the number of bee packages she has sold has jumped from about 200 a season about five years ago to about 500 packages now. Each package contains a queen or mother bee and between 10,000 and 12,000 bees, she said.

The San Diego Beekeeping Society has seen its membership surge from about 100 people five years ago to roughly 1,000 members now, said Kukuchek, the society’s vice president.

He attributes the increase to people being more interested in the origins of their food and more concerned about the environment.

San Diego County officials decided to review their beekeeping regulations after local beekeepers told Supervisor Dianne Jacob the current setback requirements, requiring hives be kept 600 feet from neighboring dwellings, were outdated and unrealistic given the size of their lots.

Also driving the move was concern about the decline of honeybees and their importance to the region’s agriculture. Many beekeepers say they are struggling to keep their bees alive.

A committee of stakeholders, including Kukuchek, and county officials met for months last year to find consensus.

“There is a balance in what we’re trying to do to promote the beekeeping industry but at the same time to make sure it protects the public safety,” Jacob said.

Journalist Marisa Agha is based in Southern California.