To bee or not to bee — Fremont is encouraging urban beekeeping, but research suggests that’s misguided

Bee nest

FREMONT, Calif. — The city of Fremont recently relaxed its regulations on urban beekeeping, but experts warn that the new guidelines may harm efforts to conserve biodiversity more than they help.

Under the new beekeeping ordinance, which the Fremont City Council unanimously approved Tuesday night, residents no longer need a beekeeping permit from the city and can keep as many hives as they want as long as they adhere to other conditions laid out. At a community meeting last month, city staff said the intention was to craft an ordinance that was friendly to pollinators, allowed the city to abate nuisance situations and afforded advocates enough leeway to promote beekeeping.

“We’re trying to get this right for the community and encourage urban beekeeping when we can, but also to have an ability to enforce, if required, nuisance situations,” said Fremont Police Captain Matthew Snelson.

Urban beekeeping, along with other forms of animal agriculture, was banned by cities throughout the U.S. as part of urban sanitation efforts in the 1920s, but the hobby experienced a global resurgence around 2008. Researchers attribute the rise in popularity to media attention around colony collapse disorder and the public desire to preserve the ecological service that bees provide: pollination. Cities began lifting the bans and the honeybee population in some areas rose dramatically, but a growing body of research, such as the kind conducted by Carly Ziter in the city of Montréal, is indicating that the rise in beekeeping isn’t having the intended effect.

“It’s counterintuitive to many people, but urban beekeeping, which focuses on a single non-native species, the honeybee, can be really detrimental to that conservation effort,” Ziter, an assistant professor of biology at Concordia University in Montréal, told the East Bay Echo.

Ziter’s recent research examined how the increase in urban beekeeping impacted wild bee species on the island of Montréal, where the number of honeybee colonies grew from 238 in 2013 to just under 3,000 in 2020. Ziter and her colleagues found that “the number of wild bee species was lower in areas with higher numbers of honeybees.”

“Basically, the sites with the largest increase in honeybees over the years have the fewest wild bee species left,” Ziter said. “And this is consistent with research in other cities that’s increasingly showing these negative effects of high densities of urban hives.”

There are several reasons for this, including the fact that “there simply aren’t enough flowers to go around in many urban areas” and disease can spread from managed hives to wild bee populations, Ziter said.

Ziter added that beekeeping isn’t necessarily an issue, but it is often misrepresented as a solution to biodiversity loss.

“Just as we don’t keep chickens to save the birds, we shouldn’t look to beekeeping to save the bees,” Ziter said. “So the issue is not that we should never have urban honeybees or that beekeeping is inherently bad, but it’s really important that our actions match our goals or motivations, that they are evidence-based.”

Researchers at Nagoya University in Japan conducted a review of urban beekeeping regulations in eight countries and found regulations have largely been crafted with a focus on nuisance situations and public safety rather than biodiversity conservation or output of hive products, such as honey and wax.

Cities like Toronto have been leading the way in supporting not just bees, but also other pollinators like birds, beetles and butterflies, through evidence-based pollinator protection plans. Toronto’s pollinator protection strategy includes measures like planting pollinator-friendly plants at city parks and facilities and encouraging every school to have a teaching garden that doubles as pollinator habitat.

For cities interested in biodiversity conservation, Ziter recommended crafting policies that explicitly address beekeeping as a major threat to urban bees, including keeping a registry of hive locations, limiting the number of hives in close proximity, and requiring training and a permit before approving urban beekeeping.

For people who are interested in biodiversity conservation, Ziter said they can turn their yards into pollinator habitat with a special focus on planting flowers that bloom earlier in the spring or later in the fall when food is usually scarce for pollinators. It’s important to “get outside and observe,” too.

“Start noticing different species,” Ziter said. “Understanding biodiversity and learning about the species around us is one of the most important first steps that we can take in terms of advocating for and protecting it.”

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