Beekeeping Long Illegal in New Bedford

A New Bedford ordinance crafted in 1976 forbids beekeeping. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

A New Bedford ordinance crafted in 1976 forbids beekeeping. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

City looking into changing this decades-old ban

By JOYCE ROWLEY/ecoRI News contributor

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — When entomologist Michael Patnaude wanted to pursue beekeeping at his home in the city’s North End last spring, he found a 1976 city ordinance forbade it.

Back then, the City Council considered imposing a 100-foot restriction between beehives and abutting property lines to address residents’ complaints. However, the Planning Board unanimously recommended a total ban on beekeeping, with some members claiming it was a danger to residents.

As a result, the council passed a law that “no person shall knowingly maintain or allow to remain a colony of honey bees in hives, other receptacles, trees or other lodging places within the city limits.” However, there is no penalty for doing so.

The current City Council is keeping the door open to a change. The council’s committee on ordinances is scheduled to discuss Patenaude’s proposal at a Sept. 17 meeting.

Patnaude, who has both a master’s degree from the University of Rhode Island and a Ph.D. from the University of Florida in medical entomology, has always been interested in insects. Since he began working with bees at Smithers Visciente, a Wareham environmental toxicology laboratory, Patnaude said he has been getting increased requests for experiments seeking data on bees.

In fact, he now has a hive at work. If the city’s beekeeping ordinance is changed, a hive at home would be for pleasure, he said. Patnaude said concerns about safety may be unwarranted.

“Bees are not all that aggressive,” he said. “If there are buffer zones in front of the hive and the flight path, that should be adequate. Generally, if someone is highly allergic, they’ll have an EpiPen.”

The nearby town of Rochester recently modified its ordinance to require 20-foot buffers in front of hive entrances, which must face the interior of the property, according to Patnaude. Also, beekeepers must have an on-site water source to deter their bees from using neighbors’ pools and birdbaths.

“When I look out at my garden in my backyard, there are bees. They must have a hive nearby,” Patnaude said. He maintains that a responsible beekeeper will not create a problem for the neighborhood.

Mass bees

“There’s been a tremendous interest in beekeeping as a hobby,” said Rick Reault, president of the Massachusetts Beekeepers Association. “Because of heightened awareness of colony collapse disorder, Massachusetts has been getting about 1,000 new beekeepers a year for the past six years.

“What we’ve done is to draft and adopt best-management practices so that cities and towns, instead of banning beekeeping, can adopt BMPs in order to promote responsible beekeeping.”

He credited Tom Fiore, a lawyer and member of the Middlesex County Beekeepers Association, for helping to craft the document.

Reault, owner of Tyngsborough-based New England Beekeeping/Carlisle Honey, has 500 hives, mainly in the Merrimack Valley but also serving Plymouth County cranberry growers.

“Honeybees are docile,” he said. “They’re interested in foraging and pollinating flowers.”

A honeybee’s body is built to collect pollen through hairs, Reault said. Static electricity created from the positive charge from flying and wing flapping and the negative charge of certain flowers make honeybees excellent collectors of nectar and pollen, making them a primary source of plant pollination.

Bees in the city

“There are still a lot of misconceptions about bees,” said Paulette Renault-Caragienas, director of health and human services in Somerville, where beekeeping is permitted as part of the city’s Urban Agriculture Initiative. “When people see bees on a flight path going to and from the hive, they assume the bees are coming at them. But honeybees don’t sting.”

Somerville’s “ABC’s of Urban Agriculture” helps residents differentiate between honeybees and  more aggressive bees such as yellow jackets, paper wasps and hornets. The program has been underway for two years, with six permits issued for beekeeping and no complaints, according to Renault-Caragienas.

Would-be beekeepers in Somerville are required to watch a beekeeping video prior to receiving a permit. They also are strongly encouraged to attend bee school.

In Massachusetts, each county has a beekeepers association that offers six-week bee schools, with information on how to create and maintain a hive. Bristol County Beekeepers starts its bee school Sept. 2 in Dighton.

For Patnaude and many beekeepers, the experience is much more than just having bees to raise honey.

“The smell inside of the hive, it’s like freshly baked cookies or fresh-baked bread. It’s fantastic. I can’t describe it,” Patnaude said.