Urban Bees in Missoula: Neighbors Against Neighbors While Drafting New Rules

Editor’s note: Make it Missoula has partnered with the University of Montana’s Online News class, taught by Jule Banville, to create a new Citizen Journalism feature that’s all about local views and issues. We’re excited to provide these students with a platform so they can objectively explore and report about the topics they think reflect the lives and times of Missoula and its citizens.

By DANIEL VIEHLAND

In early summer, Devette Mercado noticed a small gathering of dead bees in her above-ground pool on Missoula’s Westside. At first, she didn’t think much of it.

“Then we started getting more bees and we kinda shrugged,” she said. More of them arrived and “they started clustering in the corner of [their] pool.” One afternoon, she counted at least 20 bees in each pocket.

When Mercado mentioned her problem to a neighbor, he said he’d noticed a similar problem with his birdbath. He traced the bees to Christian Russell, who lives two doors down and was keeping two hives at the time. Mercado’s problem had begun right after her neighbor drained his birdbath to keep the bees away.

Mercado said, at that point, she went over to talk to Russell.

For his part, Russell said he worked hard to find an acceptable solution. He said he doubled the amount of fresh water he put out for the bees – they need water to cool their hives — and agreed to remove half his bees. He also agreed to come visit the pool the next week and see the bees for himself.

Christian Russell, a hobbyist beekeeper, holds a section of honeycomb from his hive. Photo by DanielViehland.

In addition, he got a call from the city of Missoula and the Montana Department of Agriculture, which gave him some tips he said he followed. Unfortunately, it didn’t solve the problem. Bees, according to the beekeepers Mercado consulted, have a very good memory. And the bees from the remaining hive continued visiting Mercado’s pool.

Things came to a head on July 4, when Mercado threw a pool party. Her pool was unusable, she said, and dead bees littered her picnic table. As a last resort, she folded up her pool early, soaking up the more than $300 she said she spent in chemicals and water she put into it.

Russell recalls Mercado’s whole family coming over to his house to talk to him about the bees. At that point, he said, he lost his temper.

He’s lost out, too, since he invested around $300 for each hive. “I resented the fact that, when I [said] I got rid of one of the beehives, [my neighbor] didn’t seem to care,” Russell said. The neighbors haven’t spoken since.

The incident put the question out there for the city of Missoula: What are the rules when it comes to urban bees?

Mercado didn’t know, so called up her city council representative, Pam Walzer. Walzer didn’t know, either, and started looking into it. She found others had expressed similar concerns about keeping bees in town, particularly in proximity to people with allergies. Walzer discovered that, while there was language in the animal ordinance concerning bees, it was in the wrong section, making it essentially unenforceable.

“I’ve tried to put together some information and input from others — experts and beekeepers,” Walzer said. “It wasn’t a very strong response, other than from Animal Control, which had given me several ordinances from other cities to look at.”

Other cities’ ordinances, including those in Utah, Wisconsin, and Florida, generally require registration of hives, posted notice of bee hives in the vicinity, a supply fresh water, and “flyway barriers,” or barriers at least 6-feet-high that force bees to fly over the heads of their human neighbors. Most ordinances also create restrictions on the number of hives allowed, determined by the size of the lot. Russell’s beehives met all of these criteria, except, according to Mercado, the requirement to keep fresh water.

Although Russell disputes that, he says he now has no ill will toward his neighbors. “I understand where they are coming from,” said Russell. “My plan is to move it to someone else’s house. If that doesn’t work, I’ll probably move it down to the Bitterroot.”

But the bees, in his experience, are not aggressive. “I have them all over my yard. I never get stung and I open the hive in shorts and a T-shirt,” he said. And in fact, when a stranger recently approached the hive, it buzzed along with few signs of interest from the bees.

The bees came to his yard after his son began keeping them as part of his senior project for Hellgate High School and the topic sparked Russell’s interest. He put in the first hive three years ago, and added the second hive last year.

Russell explains how bees interact around the hive. Photo by DanielViehland.

“Their whole lifestyle is fascinating,” Russell said. “How they make honeycomb. They do it in the dark, they remember faces and smells.” But it might be an interest and hobby cut short if he moves the bees and waits for the city of Missoula to enact the proper laws.

Walzer started to draft an ordinance specifically addressing beekeeping, hoping to include it in the council’s recent round of updates to Missoula’s animal control laws. She didn’t get far: After a discussion in a committee, she decided a rewrite was in order. “I got a lot of great input but I realized, because I’m not a beekeeper, I made some errors. Nothing we can’t fix, but that needed to be corrected,” Walzer said.

A group of local beekeepers have stepped in to help clear up some behaviors about bees. For example, Walzer learned honey bees were generally docile and that most stings come from other insects, such as wasps and yellow jackets.

She hopes to have the ordinance revised and passed by the end of winter, before bees return to activity in the spring. New rules will most likely include a registration process for hives, as well as regulations to keep hives from becoming a nuisance.

“I feel good that we can come together to draft a good ordinance that can keep non-beekeeping people happy along with beekeepers,” Walzer said.

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Daniel Viehland is a senior majoring in journalism and political science at the University of Montana.