Beekeepers feel sting of possible village ban

To bee, or not to bee?

That was the question buzzing around Village Trustees Monday at a meeting that occasionally felt more like a class on backyard beekeeping.

That question still has no answer after nearly 20 residents spoke about a possible Skokie ban on the hobby. All but two of them waxed passionately about the positives and why the village should not create a ban.

Mayor George Van Dusen said the comments would be considered when drawing up an ordinance for a future vote by trustees.

Skokie Health Director Dr. Catherine Counard, who recommended a backyard beekeeping ban, said Skokie has small lot sizes and is densely populated. That can create a nuisance for neighbors, she said, and even be a danger to those with allergies to bee stings.

“Even though I’m a biologist, even though I care about honeybees, I just don’t think it’s a good idea,” she said. “At the moment, it amounts to a hobby for a few individuals with uncertain benefits to the community.”

The beekeeping community, though, sees many benefits. On top of making honey, bees pollinate gardens, boosting the local ecosystem in the process. Local beekeepers also say they’re combatting the dwindling number of bees worldwide.

Counard in her research said there is no evidence – at least not yet – that backyard beekeeping is having some of the positive impacts that the beekeeper hobbyists claim.

After reviewing hundreds of articles, she said, she found no viable science “substantiating the claim that backyard beehives in urban areas contribute to the health of beehives in the country, that they’re important to our food production or that they help to address colony collapse.”

Interest in backyard beekeeping in densely populated areas like Skokie has spiked only in the last few years, she said. “Prior to last year, we didn’t really hear from anyone who was interested in beekeeping.”

Many area suburbs like Skokie have never dealt with the issue because it hasn’t come up, but Chicago, Evanston and Highland Park are among communities that allow backyard beekeeping.

“This is a new experiment that we’re engaging in – introducing honeybee hives into densely populated urban areas where they really haven’t existed previously,” she said. “We have to be cautious about this.”

Nearly half of Monday’s speakers were not from Skokie but from Evanston, Chicago and Highland Park where backyard beekeeping is legal. Honeybees do not pose the same threat as yellow jackets, they said, and do not attack people.

After spending time and money to become a beekeeper, Theo Watanable of Skokie said she learned that honeybees have been domesticated and bred for docility for 4,000 years. They’re responsible for pollinating so many crops, she said, and their numbers are dramatically in decline.

“Don’t eliminate beekeeping in Skokie,” she implored. “I ask you to regulate it as other towns do successfully.”

Other speakers noted that the Chicago Botanical Gardens in Highland Park and other nature facilities have multiple bee hives that are visited by families and do not pose a danger.

“I think a sounder course of action is to develop good regulations rather than an outright ban,” said Skokie resident Judy Mendel.

David Hartmann, of Skokie, inferred that there have been more dog attacks against people in Skokie than bee attacks.

“The honeybees have been an integral part of Skokie’s ecosystem,” he said.

Barbara Rosen of Chicago, a beekeeper, said trustees need to become more educated about honeybees before they ban them.

A professional Chicago beekeeper echoed that honeybees are not dangerous. “They don’t care about us, they care about food,” he said.

Skokie resident Evelyn Shavitz declared that she is 92 years old and still raises bees. “And I’m not one bit afraid of them,” she said.

Two Skokie neighbors who spoke Monday, though, are afraid of them. One of them said his son is allergic to bee stings and he is concerned about bee hives being kept nearby.

“I have a choice of not to go to the Botanical Gardens where the bees are,” he said. “I don’t have a choice at home.”

Counard is recommending bee hives can be kept in Skokie at facilities such as apiaries run by government agencies.

But that would not appease most of Monday’s crowd, which wanted regulations, not a prohibition.

“If it was allowed, I would absolutely require that neighbors approve it,” Counard said. “It could not be done without your neighbors saying it was OK. It has to be strictly controlled if we were going to do it.”

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