Published June 07, 2012, 12:07 AM

Complaint sets Duluth beekeepers abuzz

DULUTH, Minn. — For years, beekeepers quietly maintained hives throughout the city of Duluth, attracting little attention. But that changed this spring when a neighbor complained about a beekeeping operation in Gary-New Duluth.

By: Peter Passi, The Dickinson Press

DULUTH, Minn. — For years, beekeepers quietly maintained hives throughout the city of Duluth, attracting little attention. But that changed this spring when a neighbor complained about a beekeeping operation in Gary-New Duluth.

The beekeeper, Tabatha Snider, turned to local apiarists for support and ultimately was able to address the neighbor’s concerns. But the incident put other bee tenders on notice, said Theresa Koenig, a member of Lake Superior Beekeepers-Duluth.

“Technically, she (Snider) is like a lot of people in Duluth,” Koenig said. “She’s not legal, but she has been able to keep her hives.”

Duluth City Attorney Gunnar Johnson said zoning allows for bee hives to be kept only on land zoned “rural-residential” or “rural-conservation.” Johnson conceded other bee hives may be operating on property that’s not appropriately zoned for honey production within the city.

“As an enforcement issue, it’s one that’s completely complaint driven,” Johnson said. “If a hive is not causing problems for a neighbor, we generally would not know about it.”

When a complaint is made, however, Johnson said the city is obligated to respond and enforce zoning restrictions regarding permissible uses.

“We never had an issue before Tabatha’s incident,” said Ray Lopez, a beekeeper residing in Woodland.

“The city doesn’t seem to be going out of its way to crack down on bees,” he said. “No one was hunting you down, and no one was really causing issues.”

Snider did not return phone calls from the Duluth News Tribune on Monday. Her experience sent a chill through Duluth’s beekeeping community, said Jon Otis, a Woodland resident and member of the Northeast Minnesota Beekeepers Association, and pushed beekeepers into action. He said local apiarists had been working on a proposal to liberalize beekeeping rules in the city for some time.

“When Tabatha’s situation came along, it kind of pushed up the issue. It put us into hyper-drive,” said Otis, who operates 10 hives, including some within Duluth and others outside of city limits.

Otis said local beekeepers are modeling a proposed ordinance on one recently passed in Madison. But he said there also are other cities to turn to for ideas, including Minneapolis, St. Paul and New York City.

“Our goal is to try to figure out how to make beekeeping in Duluth work for everyone, so that if there’s a problem we can deal with it,” Otis said.

Walters Family Apiary operates 30 hives, including 10 in the Duluth Heights yard of proprietors Mark and Sharilyn Walters.

“We’ve talked with our neighbors, and we haven’t had a problem,” said Sharilyn Walters. “We’ve had incredible support.”

Mark and Sharilyn Walters operate their honey operation with the help of their son and daughter-in-law, Zach and Shannon Walters.

Otis contends it’s only appropriate that Duluth foster an image as a bee-friendly community.

“With all our trees and plants and all the ‘green’ initiatives Duluth has been pushing, beekeeping seems to be a perfect fit,” he said.

Otis said he hopes to bring a proposed beekeeping ordinance forward to the council this summer that would loosen current zoning restrictions on hives.

Koenig said some community education will probably be needed in the meantime.

“Some people aren’t able to identify a honeybee versus a hornet or a yellowjacket,” she said. “Honeybees don’t want to sting because if they do they die.”

Linda Porter, another Duluth beekeeper, agreed that the honeybee’s image has been unfairly tarnished.

“Some people think that anything that’s striped is potentially dangerous and will repeatedly sting them,” Porter said. “That’s not the case with the honeybee.”

She said honeybees will generally sting only as a last resort to protect their nest.

Meanwhile, Lopez extolled the benefits of honeybees as pollinators.

“Since I got my hives, I’ve noticed the apples on my trees are more plentiful and bigger,” he said.

Koenig said that increasing local honey production also helps keep more spending on food local.

“Most people now recognize the need for local agriculture. People want to be closer to their food,” she said.

Duluth City Councilor Emily Larson said she’s sympathetic to what she called the community’s “rogue beekeepers” who are currently operating under the radar and sometimes in violation of local zoning rules.

“I support the idea of people safely keeping bees, and this could be an opportunity to have a worthwhile conversation,” she said.

Passi is a reporter for the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.