Novato's Beekeeping Laws Need Updating
By CC Trifoso
For years, Novato beekeepers have been frustrated over the city’s regulations against backyard beekeeping. The city ordinance states that “beekeeping is currently not an allowed use in the City of Novato”, but that they plan to call hearings in regard to “providing allowances for residential and commercial beekeeping.”
Novato mayor Josh Fryday shared concerns about how to better support backyard beekeeping.
“The idea for amending the city’s codes to allow beekeeping came from one of our city council members,” said Fryday. “In reviewing proposals for the city’s new General Plan, which is the document that sets forth policies for the future of our town, a council member stated that a few residents had indicated a desire for backyard beekeeping, so a program statement was added to the draft General Plan which calls for amending our zoning regulations to allow beekeeping.”
The majority of Novato’s Planning Commission agrees that beekeeping should be permitted, but should be subject to standards similar to the city of Los Angeles. The Los Angeles ordinance states that beekeeping is allowed in any zone, but that you can only own one hive in every 2,500 square foot lot area, the person who owns the bees must register as a beekeeper in the city of Los Angeles, the hive cannot be placed in the front yard and must be a minimum of five feet from the property line and 20 feet from a public road, that there must be a six foot fence between the hive entrance and property line, and a water source must be present on the property. Now these regulations may work for the close-knit city of Los Angeles, but Novato has open fields and houses that are placed farther apart, so are these regulations fair to Novato beekeepers?
Bonnie Morse from Bonnie Bee and Company has been closely working with bees for 11 years. Along with her husband Gary, they are extremely experienced in everything bee. They run a website selling nucs, small honey bee colonies created from larger colonies; give beginner and intermediate classes on beekeeping, and give consulting advice on having honey bees. She was heavily involved in the San Rafael backyard beekeeping ordinance and helped encourage the city to change their stance.
On the Novato issue, Bonnie said, “When you start trying to regulate beekeeping, or anything, with such specific requirements, you remove the ability for beekeepers to use common sense to take care of their bees, and sometimes, take away tools that can more effectively achieve the desired results. [For] example, say you have a beekeeper who has maxed out [the] legal number of hives per lot area. If there’s a swarm in the city, would it be better for that beekeeper to collect that swarm or follow the letter of the law and leave it where it could truly become a nuisance?”
Back in 2014, San Rafael passed their backyard beekeeping ordinance. Their ordinance simply states that beekeeping is allowed in all zones by right, with no restrictions. Apparently, the City Planner had been asked to look into changing the ordinance about a year earlier. Then, only one week before the city was voting on the ordinance, the beekeepers of San Rafael were informed that a vote was happening. But they rallied. They got over 450 petition signatures and about 50 people came to the meeting to voice their support. With the community’s support, beekeepers were able to get backyard beekeeping legal in San Rafael.
Bonnie recalled the experience, saying, “[It’s] amazing what you can get done in six days with a little inspiration.”
On the plan for Novato’s regulations, Fryday stated, “We will probably have some numeric limit on the number of hives that can be kept simply because we don’t want to allow a very large, commercial beekeeping operation in a single-family neighborhood. We discussed some possible regulations, such as orienting the hive entrance away from an adjacent home with a hedge or fence in between to cause the bees to fly up and over adjacent homes, and to require on-site water. We would not require a beekeeper to register or obtain any type of permit.”
Earlier this year, the city staff shared ideas for regulating beekeeping with local beekeepers, then in February shared feedback with the Novato Planning Commission and City Council. Fryday shared that staff is currently writing the ordinance for a vote in the fall.
Chantal Philipona is a local beekeeper who started her beekeeping journey a few years ago after she became intrigued through a friend’s hives. To her, the most fulfilling part of being a beekeeper is taking the time to watch them, to know that you are helping them and giving back to the environment, even if it’s little, because you have to start somewhere.
On the issue of making Marin and Novato citizens more aware of the backyard beekeeping lifestyle, Philipona said, “I think we need to do a lot more. I think it is very important to encourage people who want to have bees or know about bees to be part of a society because there are people who’ve been in there for much longer than you that can help you.”
So Novato citizens, if you want to help, get more informed! Honey bees aren’t dangerous, and most people are too wrapped up in the safety aspect to get involved in the discussion. You have a right to be nervous, but don’t be scared for the wrong reasons. Those pesky bees that hang out at your barbeques are yellow jackets. So, unless you’re producing pollen, honey bees won’t bother you. Annoying neighbors can be swayed when you describe how honey bees won’t cause any disturbance or harm.
“Unless you are aware of a honeybee nest, you are unlikely to realize they’re there,” Bonnie added. “Lots of street trees, trees along trails, etcetera in Marin have honeybee colonies. Most people don’t even know they exist because they don’t bother to look up.”
Having this ordinance approved would be so meaningful to beekeepers, the Novato community, and the Earth. Ever since 2009, Marin county beekeepers have lost 46 percent of their hives every year due to problems like Colony Collapse Disorder, a phenomenon that occurs when the majority of worker bees in a colony disappear and leave behind a queen; parasites and diseases, such as veroamites and foulbrood; and pesticides, such as neonicotinoids. Bees are main pollinators, and without them food supply would dwindle. Having backyard beekeeping legalized in Novato will help encourage people to start their own hives and ultimately contribute to the bee population, fertilization, and pollination growth. If you’d like to contribute, if you own a hive or not, please come to the city council meetings and show your support.
It is important that beekeepers’ voices are heard and that they are allowed to discuss their craft and legal issues without being ignored. Why keep them hiding in the shadows when they have so much to offer the community?