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The buzz on backyard bees: Urban apiarists struggle with statewide standards

Keeping bees in the city? With urban farming practices of all kinds on the rise, more city-dwelling beekeepers are cultivating hives and honey, but it's tough to comply with new statewide recommendations on the practice. Rapid Growth reports on the sticky situation urban apiarists find themselves in these days.
While it's no secret that urban farming has taken off in Grand Rapids, some city dwellers are trying their hand at cultivating beyond vegetation. In backyards throughout the city, beehives are popping up, yielding a fascination by neighbors and an impressive honey crop for their apiarists.

However, despite beekeeping's growing popularity in residential areas, recent regulation could complicate the hobby in urban areas. Small lots and negative perceptions have forced many beekeepers underground, so to speak, culling their insects in secret while they hope for a change in regulation in the future. A few apiarists discussed backyard beekeeping in Grand Rapids, the updated statewide standards, and their love for a craft that benefits themselves and their communities.
"I've always just been kind of a hobby guy," says Brad, a downtown Grand Rapids resident who cultivates two beehives in his backyard. "I love doing things that are a bit of a challenge."

After being introduced to the hobby by a fellow beekeeping friend three years ago, Brad began connecting with helpful local resources, chatting with the Kalamazoo Bee Club and purchasing his first package of bees from a beekeeper in Holland. Much like many apiarists in Grand Rapids, Brad's journey to keeping bees began long before this year's new rules were adopted.
Though no permit is required for beekeeping in Grand Rapids, Brad notes that the new restrictions in the Generally Accepted Agriculture and Management Practices for the Care of Farm Animals (GAAMPs) could complicate farming bees in the city. Published by Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) in January 2015, these GAAMPs are suggested guidelines by the MDARD that can assist farmers in defending themselves against potential legal complaints. Though the guidelines are intended "to provide uniform statewide standards," urban farmers find it difficult to comply with these general rules. Brad and others with small lots are unable to comply with the 200 ft. boundary or six foot high barrier around hives, and typically farm their bees in secret.
"I wish it was different," says Brad, who argues that the danger to surrounding neighbors is minimal. "Bees are very docile creatures," he says, noting in particular that the Italian honeybees he keeps are particularly passive. "They are not at all aggressive in Michigan." Despite the obstacle of some negative perception of danger, Brad continues to successfully farm his bees, giving away honey to friends and family each fall.
Henry, the son of a Canadian honey bee farmer who has kept bees in a variety of spaces in Grand Rapids since 1992, agrees that the 200-ft. boundary is almost impossible for urban beekeepers. "It's hard to get them in the city with that kind of dimension," he says.

Whether farming his own bees in spaces from his own garage to family members' backyards, Henry has never before complied with the 200-ft. boundary or six-foot-high barrier rule, and hasn't had any issues with neighbors or the public. In fact, with one hive butting right up against a neighbor's property, that neighbor was enthusiastic about the potential pollination of her flowers. "My next door neighbor is excited to have them there," he says.
Instead of relying on the 200-ft. regulation, notes Henry, "the beekeeper himself has to be smart," stressing that discourse with one's neighbors about the potential danger of bees is much more vital than a strict distance. "You have to work with your neighbors," he adds, noting that, in almost 25 years of keeping bees, he has always informed nearby residents of his flying friends.
Most importantly, Henry concludes, is the direction of the bee's flight path. The MDARD states: "Hives must be oriented so that a direct line of flight from the hive entrance does not impact living areas on neighboring properties," and he agrees, arguing that the angle of the bee's flight is much more important than a particular distance. As bees enter and exit the hive, they must have a safe, unfettered path that is not in the way of neighbors who might accidentally disturb them.
Despite the challenges that local urban apiarists may face with statewide standards, they are excited to keep bees in a community ripe for the hobby. "There's so much agriculture compacted in such a small area," says Brad, explaining how his bees have a large variety of food to choose from in their one-mile flying radius. This variety also benefits the 15 gallons of honey, on average, that Brad collects each October. "I think it tastes better," he says, in comparison to honey cultivated from primarily clover-fed bees on large farming operations.
This honey also has the power to influence the community, as backyard apiarists such as Brad commonly give away their spoils to their neighbors. "It's really good quality honey," he says. And, hopefully, Brad's children will one day give in to his suggestions and decide to sell their honey at local farmers markets.
Though urban apiarists across Michigan struggle to find their place among newly adopted rules, they still aim for success, and future change, for backyard beekeepers. By once again combining urban and rural practices, local urban farmers exhibit the unique environment of a community dedicated to both.
Note: The city of Grand Rapids did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this issue.

Lauren Fay Carlson is a freelance writer and editor, Aquinas alumna, and Grand Rapids native. Her work can be found at www.emptyframecreative.com, and she can be reached at lauren@emptyframecreative.com for story tips and feedback.

Photography by Adam Bird
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