The Albemarle Board of Supervisors is pursuing a rezoning to encourage beekeeping by county residents living within the urban ring.
“I raised this issue in the fall when one of our beekeepers in Earlysville … was visited by the zoning inspector and his bees were found to be not in compliance with the zoning for the neighborhood district,” said Supervisor Ann H. Mallek.
“This raised the issue of how beekeeping fits into the overall agriculture scheme of things,” she said.
In March, supervisors adopted a resolution of intent to consider amending the county’s zoning ordinance to stop classifying bees as livestock.
“Bees are also wild critters,” said Karen Hall, outreach coordinator for the Central Virginia Beekeepers Association. “As such, it’s pretty hard to establish set rules. So, it becomes important to deal with each case [of bee laws] on a case-by-case basis. What affects the bees and what affects the people around them is probably best determined by the people around them.”
The resolution is also a part of an ongoing discussion about how the county’s zoning ordinances could be changed to allow more agriculture in development areas.
“We are exploring the possibility of permitting beekeeping as a by-right use in the county’s residential zoning district with supplementary regulations,” Mallek said.
Mallek argued that because bees do not require feed storage or produce manure, they should be considered separately from traditional livestock such as goats, pigs and chickens.
If bees are separated from other livestock under a zoning ordinance, their impact and benefit on developed areas can be considered alone. Mallek said she hopes this will expedite the process of allowing bees to be kept in the county’s urban ring in order to bolster dwindling populations.
“Bees are absolutely essential to the growth of plants of all sorts but especially for food and fruit production in our area,” Mallek said. “[Bees] have been under assault from the chemicals that have been spread all over the country, and their populations are falling significantly.”
Mallek said small-operation beekeepers can contribute to reversing what is referred to as colony collapse disorder. Pesticides, parasites and numerous other causes have been studied as contributing factors to declining bee populations nationwide.
Concentrated clusters of small hives also help keep bees away from chemical pollutants, Mallek said.
Hall said hives achieve higher survival rates when the bees travel shorter distances to find food.
“Beekeeping is very localized,” she said. “Bees fly two to three miles for foraging.”
Hall said it is difficult to establish firm restrictions around beekeeping because their presence is hard to detect. “Typically, most rules that govern beekeeping are primarily nuisance ordinances,” she said.
Mallek said she hopes a change in Albemarle zoning ordinances will allow anyone who might be interested in keeping bees to do so, regardless of their address.
If county zoning ordinances are changed to allow bees to be kept in developed areas, keepers will be required to maintain design standards that conform to the needs of other urban residents.
Mallek said such regulations would include standards for distance between hives and property lines, as well as a requirement for hives to be enclosed by fences, which encourage the bees to fly upward rather than into a neighbor’s yard.
“As long as you have 20 or 30 feet of clearance from a hive, I can’t imagine it would be much of a problem,” said Christian Gromoll, a math professor at the University of Virginia.
Gromoll has been keeping bees in the Albemarle County rural area for almost nine years.
“Bees are of course very important for agriculture and lots of people are concerned that there aren’t nearly as many beekeepers as there used to be,” he said.
The resolution of intent is the first step in the process. The county Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors each will hold public hearings on the matter.
“There’s a lot of information about bee management that others have done that [Albemarle County] is able to benefit from,” Mallek said.
Currently, the city of Charlottesville has no zoning regulations preventing residents from keeping bees.
Laura Covert, with the Urban Agriculture Collective of Charlottesville, spent a number of years keeping bees in the city. She no longer keeps bees due to weather and bee health challenges, but said she never ran into any zoning troubles with beekeeping.
Covert noted that in 2010 the city approved an amendment to an ordinance that would allow miniature goats to be considered separately from other livestock in the city.
“If you look at the city ordinance, there is a separate ordinance that addresses specifically goats,” she said.
Miniature goats can now be kept legally within Charlottesville city limits.
Mallek said she hopes that separating bees from other livestock under Albemarle code would have a similar effect.
If the code is not amended, bees will have to wait until chickens, pigs, goats and other livestock are approved within urban areas.
“I did not want the bees to have to wait for … the more challenging work on goats, pigs and chickens,” Mallek said.