Honeybee colonies worldwide have come under attack in recent years by the mysterious colony collapse disorder and vicious mite infestations. Now, in New Jersey, state regulations aimed at backyard beekeepers could become another threat to the bee population.
The proposed regulations would, among other changes, ban individuals from maintaining hives on properties of less than a quarter acre and place a two-hive limit on beekeepers with anywhere from a quarter acre to five acres of land.
The more than 3,000 hobbyist beekeepers in the state who see themselves on the front lines of sustainable farming say the proposed rules could significantly harm their practice and crush the nearly $2.5 million bee-related economy in New Jersey – a state that claims the European honeybee (Apis mellifera) as the official state insect.
Backyard beekeeping has become a trend, with many suburban and urban farmers raising them and then selling honey at local stores and farmers’ markets.
Lawmakers are taking steps to overturn the regulations, after they were released by the Department of Agriculture. Assemblyman Ronald Dancer (R-Burlington) on Thursday issued a concurrent resolution giving the DOA 30 days “to amend or withdraw the proposed rules and regulations” or the Legislature will issue a concurrent resolution invalidating them. Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May) also introduced an identical resolution in the Senate.
The Department of Agriculture released the proposed rules back in November and opened up a public comment period that just wrapped in late January. According to DOA spokesman Jeff Wolfe, the department was inundated with more than 1,000 comments and will spend the next few months reviewing those and considering potential changes.
“This is a solution looking for a problem” said Bob Kloss, beekeeper and former president of the Northwest New Jersey Beekeepers Association. “They are treating [bees] as if they were hazardous waste.”
Currently, backyard beekeepers follow DOA recommended guidelines and best practices for keeping bees in populated areas, but there are no state laws governing them.
Regulating the Hives
The proposed regulations would create a new registration system for beekeepers who overwinter their colonies (keep them in their hives during the winter months), requiring them to register their hives with their municipality and obtain a unique Apiary Inspection Service (AIS) number, which would have to be renewed annually. It would also require even small beekeepers to take a continuing education course every five years (and maintain and submit records of this course for six years after that), and limit hive sizes and density that would virtually end all urban beekeeping in the state. Hives would be limited to properties more than one-quarter acre – a typical neighborhood lot is around 1/10th of an acre. Residential beekeepers would also have to build “flyway barriers” of solid fence or dense vegetation six-feet or higher around their hives.
Beekeepers in residential areas would also be required to notify their neighbors about the hives. This change, in particular, has beekeepers worried as it could incite unnecessary fear and concern in communities.
In a strongly worded rebuttal to the DOA, Janet Katz, president of the New Jersey Beekeepers Association, wrote “the draft does not represent the Department’s own expertise. The draft is riddled with misunderstandings of beekeeping practice, bee behavior and bee biology, and reflects an exceedingly poor understanding of municipal land use planning and regulation in New Jersey.”
Though hobbyist beekeepers in New Jersey have for decades operated through self-governing groups and adhere to the state’s best practices, they say were ready and willing to abide by some state control. Jim McCauley, the current president of the NWNJBA said at first, beekeepers were encouraged by the interest in a state standard.
“This was supposed to be a partnership between the New Jersey Department of Agriculture and the New Jersey Beekeeping Association, academic associations, and the league of municipalities,” McCauley said. “What they came up with is just restrictive.”
This is not the first time the DOA has attempted to regulate beekeeping in the state. Following a nasty varroa mite infestation and the onset of colony collapse disorder (in which worker bees abandon their hives for unknown reasons), legislation was introduced in 2013 to put the DOA in charge of all beekeeping rules and regulations in the state in an attempt to bring the bee population back to a healthy state. For the most part, their efforts (along with a public information campaign promoting the importance of honeybees for pollination) succeeded, the number of beekeepers in New Jersey skyrocketed from 450 in 2008, to more than 3,000 in 2017.
Soon after however, neighborhood complaints were brought against one rogue beekeeper in Peapack-Gladstone, whose bees were encroaching on the community. Fearing town ordinances banning beekeeping entirely, several organizations of beekeepers appealed to the state government to develop a standard that they all would then adhere to.
As a result, in June of 2017, regulations very similar to the ones currently being proposed were published on the DOA website and received immediate and fierce backlash from beekeepers across the state claiming the DOA did not take into account their expertise. Those draft rules were subsequently pulled by the Division for Plant Industry in the DOA citing a need for more research.
“Of course there will be regulations,” McCauley said “we are very supportive of that. We just want them to be reasonable and not place an undue burden on people.”
When they were re-released in November however, the draft rules remained much the same. And received just as much backlash. David C. Gilley, associate professor of biology at William Paterson University with 20 years of bee research experience, was particularly appalled by their reissue. He submitted a response to DOA that read:
“The rationale for these proposed regulations is poorly supported, seemingly based on fear more than fact, the regulations in their current form confound distinct problems, contain problematic redundancies, will be difficult to fairly enforce, and are not consistent in many ways with honeybee biology. Such regulations will likely cause more harm than good to the citizens of New Jersey, and I do not recommend their adoption.”
Regulations with no sting
One of the issues Gilley raised – enforcement – was also criticized by McCauley and Kloss. Since the draft rules would be an unfunded mandate leaving most of the registration, fee collection, and hive monitoring to be done by towns and municipalities, resource shortages and staffing concerns could mean that beekeepers are left to their own guidelines anyway, putting them right back where they started – albeit with a fear of possible persecution if their neighbors complained.
What’s more, several lawmakers have already come out against the proposed rules. Sen. Van Drew (D- Cape May) and Assemblymen Bob Andrzejczak (D-Cape May) and Bruce Land (D-Cumberland) issued a letter to the DOA in January writing that the regulations would “stifle the growth of hobbyist beekeepers and small business apiarists alike.”
In the resolution introduced last week, Assemblyman Dancer wrote that the new regulations were “not consistent with the intent of the Legislature” and were proposed “without proper consultation with the New Jersey Beekeepers Association and the Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium; and they are overly restrictive and prohibitive.”
As the DOA states, the process moving forward could take several months and involve revisions and more comment periods. Until a proposal is finished, New Jersey beekeepers will continue to abide by the best practices and guidelines as they have for years.