New Florida law creates buzz about where beekeepers can operate

Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill in to law earlier this month that voids local government restrictions on where beekeepers can set up shop. The law gives Florida apiary inspectors the job of writing new rules after getting input from local governments. The law goes into effect July 1.

Photo by LEXEY SWALL, Naples Daily News // Buy this photo

Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill in to law earlier this month that voids local government restrictions on where beekeepers can set up shop. The law gives Florida apiary inspectors the job of writing new rules after getting input from local governments. The law goes into effect July 1.

— Emily Lake doesn't like to admit it: She once would run if a bee got too close when she was working in her garden.

A beekeeping class last year turned her around. Now she keeps a box full of bees in her front yard in Goodland and waxes enthusiastically about the natural benefits of bees to anyone who will listen.

"There can't be anything better than bees around," Lake said.

That sentiment is why backyard beekeepers are buzzing about a law Gov. Rick Scott signed earlier this month. It voids local government restrictions on where beekeepers can set up shop. Instead, the law gives Florida apiary inspectors the job of writing new rules after getting input from local governments. The law goes into effect July 1.

Of course, bee love isn't universal. Despite being prolific pollinators that boost backyard gardens and fruit tree production, bees' stingers get most of the attention. Fear that neighborhood complaints would shut them down has sent many backyard beekeepers underground.

The new law does away with the threat of local bee police enforcing irrational neighborhood beekeeping prohibitions, said Don Murray, president of the Beekeepers Association of Southwest Florida.

"The people who write these laws don't understand bees and just kind of give it a blanket no-go," Murray said.

East Naples Civic Association President Chris Hagan said beekeeping is inappropriate for a residential neighborhood and shouldn't be allowed without, at least, a public hearing process and vote by a city council or county commission.

"It would be like allowing someone to have a chicken coop in their back yard," Hagan said.

The law doesn't mean beekeepers will be able to claim just any spot, said David Westervelt, acting assistant chief of apiary inspections for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Generally speaking, Southwest Florida zoning laws allow beekeeping only on agricultural land, making the cities of Naples and Marco Island and even the wide open spaces of Golden Gate Estates off-limits for beekeeping hobbyists.

Inspectors recognize that there are bad places to put a bee hive, like next to a playground where an errant ball could upend a hive or where a bee box could be mistaken as a place to sit, he said.

"I won't say we're going to restrict some areas, but we'll have to look at it on a case-by-case basis," Westervelt said.

Generally speaking, Southwest Florida zoning laws allow beekeeping only on agricultural land, making the cities of Naples and Marco Island and even the wide open spaces of Golden Gate Estates off-limits for beekeeping hobbyists.

Code enforcers say they rarely, if ever, make an issue of an illegal beekeeping operation unless it generates a complaint. Only two beekeepers, one in Naples Manor and one in Golden Gate Estates, have gotten the boot in Collier County since 2008.

The biggest bash on backyard beekeepers is that their bees will become a stinging nuisance next door, but the opposite is true, Murray said.

Properly managed bee hives are home to docile European honeybees, which have better things to do than seek out a sting target.

"You're not going to get stung by a bee out there flying around doing its job," Westervelt said.

The grumpier Africanized wild bees are the stingers in the bee family. Having more managed hives means more European honeybees to outcompete Africanized bees for food and push them out of an area, he said.

Beekeepers switch out their hives' queen bees periodically, a process called re-queening, to make sure European honeybees stay in control of the hive and dilute the Africanized bees' gene pool.

Legalizing backyard beekeepers encourages hobbyists to get the required registrations with the state, triggering inspections to ensure beekeepers are using best management practices at their hives, from re-queening to pest management, Westervelt said.

In the weeks since Scott signed the beekeeping law, Westervelt's state office has seen a rush on new registrations, he said. Instead of the usual one or two registrations per day, the office is handling between seven and 11 a day, he said.

Florida has 2,600 registered beekeepers. Collier County has about two dozen registered beekeepers; Lee County has more than 100, according to state records.

Florida has 2,600 registered beekeepers and probably another 2,600 that aren't registered, Westervelt said. Collier County has about two dozen registered beekeepers; Lee County has more than 100, according to state records.

Bill Perdichizzi started beekeeping two years ago after he found a pile of bee-covered honeycomb on the ground at his Marco Island home. It had gotten too heavy and fell out of a tree, he said.

Perdichizzi decided to move the bees into a hive box in his backyard, where he has a small orchard of tropical fruit trees. Neighbors make no bones about it, he said.

"I don't keep it a secret," he said. "I think it's a worthwhile hobby."

Lake, the Goodland beekeeper, also has gotten no grief from neighbors worried she is breaking the rules, she said.

"The main rule on Goodland is to mind your own business," Lake said.

Besides, she sees her bees are a no-lose proposition. They make honey, they make gardens grow and they put fruit on the trees.

"Come on, what are you going to put in your margarita if you don't have a lime?" Lake said.

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