On June 10, 1879, Los Angeles lawmakers banned beekeeping within city limits. According to Mark Vallianatos, who teaches environmental policy at Occidental College, their rationale was frankly preposterous. Having noted the affinity between bees and fruit trees, they reasoned that bees attacked and damaged fruit, and concluded that outlawing bees was the best way to preserve crops.
Soon enough scientists debunked this ridiculous theory — bees are vitally important pollinators — and by 1917, the Los Angeles Times was calling the no-beekeeping policy “an ancient and still-unrepealed city ordinance.” Yet urban beekeeping remains illegal to this day.
That prohibition may, at long last, soon end. In September, the City Council passed a draft proposal to allow beekeeping in single-family residential zones. A final vote is scheduled for Wednesday, just in time for this autumn’s honey harvest.
The traditional argument against urban beekeeping is that it’s unsafe: Bees sting, allergies abound. One family’s pastime is a neighbor’s ruined afternoon.
But let’s get one point out of the way: Bees are far less of a nuisance than their similar-looking cousin, the wasp. Whereas wasps sting aggressively, bees only sting defensively, and die when they do so.
Regardless, the obvious rebuttal to the danger argument is that bees already live in Los Angeles — in trees and in the nooks and crannies of the city’s buildings. L.A. County Agricultural Inspector Ariel Verayo estimates that there are roughly 10 bee colonies per square mile.
Besides, hives maintained by beekeepers are less dangerous than wild hives; beekeepers effectively tame hives through re-queening — the process of removing an aggressive queen and manually adding a docile queen.
And other cities, including New York, Washington and Paris, have legalized beekeeping without unleashing an epidemic of stings. You can find urban hives at the White House, Chicago City Hall, the InterContinental hotel in Times Square, Boston’s Prudential Center, Denver’s Wells Fargo Center, the Airbnb headquarters in San Francisco and the Sheraton hotel in New Orleans. If the City Council approves beekeeping in L.A.'s commercial zones, One Cal Plaza will join the list.
Whatever the risks of urban beekeeping, there are tangible benefits too.
Bees contribute more than $15 billion to the U.S. economy annually in their role as pollinators of more than 100 fruit and vegetable crops. That number balloons to $100 billion globally. I won’t pretend that bees will put a dent in L.A.'s unemployment rate or add significantly to the state’s gross domestic product. But legal beekeeping would spur job creation, allowing skilled professionals to make a living by installing and maintaining beehives for residences, companies and schools.
Urban beekeeping is good for the planet too. “Colony collapse disorder,” the modern bee plague, seems to have ended as mysteriously as it began, lasting from 2006 to 2011. Yet 1 in 3 beehives still fails each year, as bees remain under threat by a triad of killers: agricultural chemicals, infectious disease and habitat loss.
While scientists, politicians and businesspeople figure out a viable solution to the former two problems, urban beekeepers can help fight the latter. Beehives in urban environments are actually more productive than hives in surrounding rural areas, perhaps because urban hives endure winter weather better than their rural counterparts.
Bees don’t attack fruit, as L.A. lawmakers once believed, and — scare stories to the contrary — don’t attack people either, especially if beekeepers are in charge of the hives. The city should fix its 19th century mistake, and legalize urban beekeeping.
Noah Wilson-Rich is the founder of the Best Bees Co., a full-service beekeeping operation that delivers, installs and manages beehives for residents and businesses in select markets throughout the country. He is the author of “The Bee: A Natural History.”