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Bees causing a buzz on Big Island

HILO, Hawai‘i —The Big Island will be abuzz on Tuesday, April 2, about a proposal to allow bees to be kept on residential and other properties.

County Council Bill 144 would revamp how the county regulates apiaries and beehives, removing a swarm of prohibitions that beekeepers have long felt were needlessly constricting.

“Right now, bees are only allowed to be kept on agriculturally zoned land,” said Harry Holm, president of the Big Island Beekeepers Association. “What this bill says is that you can have a beehive basically anywhere on the island, as long as you follow certain guidelines.”

The bill lists 17 different zoning districts on the island that would be updated to allow apiaries, including single-, double- and multi-family residential; resort-hotel; village commercial; the downtown Hilo commercial district and more.

Regulations regarding beehives — largely a series of best practices that Holm said are widely accepted by beekeepers — have been given their own section in the Hawai‘i County Code, decoupling them entirely from county zoning.

“It’s not like the bees can tell what zone they’re in,” Holm said.

The main restriction in the bill for home beekeepers is a 15-beehive limit for lots smaller than 20,000 square feet, although the bill includes language allowing for exemptions.

Holm said the number is fair: People who keep bees as a side job likely only have two or three hives, while people with more than 15 hives are likely full-time beekeepers and probably have larger lots to work on anyway.

While Holm said the bill isn’t his ideal — “Personally, I didn’t want any limitations at all,” he said — a committee comprised of beekeepers, the county planning director, the corporation counsel and more arrived at what he thought were amenable terms for beekeepers and their neighbors.

Holm, who said he has spearheaded various versions of the bill over the past six years, said apiaries also are currently required to be more than 1,000 feet from a “major road,” a term which goes undefined, to the consternation of beekeepers. The bill amends it so that apiaries must be 25 feet from any property line, or 15 feet if behind a barrier.

“But also there’s something in the (code) where bees are considered pets,” Holm said, which he added was “silly.” The bill instead includes bees in the code’s section on livestock.

“The goal is to remove these issues and allow people to keep bees freely,” Holm said.

Garnett Puett, owner of Captain Cook Honey Co., said the “antiquated” restrictions in the county code are in part holdovers from an era before Big Island beekeepers bred a more docile, less aggressive breed of bee.

“It’s not a question of danger anymore. It’s more just a question of nuisance,” Puett said.

Puett added that beekeeping has changed in the public eye, with rooftop apiaries an increasingly common sight in urban centers the world over.

“I think people have got used to seeing bees being kept in public spaces,” Puett said.

“It’s never made sense,” Holm added. “You can own bees in San Francisco … Manhattan, Los Angeles, but not Hilo?”

Holm said the bill has taken years and several county administrations to develop, with much progress lost whenever new administrations took over. He said Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz, who is introducing the bill, took up the cause not long after taking office in 2018.

While seemingly innocuous, Holm said the bill is important for a hidden industry of considerable value: The Big Island supplies about 25 percent of the queen bees bought by beekeepers on the U.S. mainland, and about 75 percent of those bought by Canada beekeepers.

“We don’t really have winters, so we can produce year-round,” Holm explained, contrasting the Big Island with Canada’s extremely short bee season.

Because of bees’ importance to agriculture, Holm said the value of Big Island bees could be placed in the billions of dollars. And because of significant restrictions on transporting bees — they can’t be imported into the state, he said — as well as the general frailty of bee populations, there are major ramifications for keeping the Big Island apiary industry running as smoothly as possible.

The County Council’s Policy Committee on Health, Safety and Well-Being will discuss the bill at 10 a.m. on Tuesday.

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Reporter Michael Brestovansky can be reached at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.
Source: The Garden Island

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