Ashlanders abuzz over beekeeping

As the Ashland City Council considers whether to loosen regulations on backyard chickens, some residents are pushing for rule changes to welcome another group of creatures into town — bees.

The concept of allowing more hives is alarming to some residents who fear being stung or who worry about the fraction of the population that can have a severe anaphylactic allergic reaction to bee venom and die.

The Ashland Municipal Code requires beehives to be more than 150 feet from any neighboring home, street or sidewalk. That makes hives illegal on most lots.

The code requires chickens to be kept more than 75 feet away from neighboring homes. City Council members are considering whether to lower that buffer zone to 20 feet. They likely will take up the chicken issue in April amid requests from some residents that they also loosen rules on other poultry, rabbits and bees.

Jacksonville-based bee expert Sarah Red-Laird, the founder and executive director of the beekeeping education service Bee Girl, said Ashlanders should not fear hives in town.

Bees from wild colonies in Ashland already visit backyards and gardens, she said.

"A really important thing to know about bee-keeping in urban settings is that 90 percent of stings come from wasps," Red-Laird said. "Only 10 percent of stings are from honeybees. Bees only sting defensively when something gets into their hive or if you accidentally squish one."

Red-Laird said 2 percent of the world's population can have an anaphylactic reaction to bee stings.

People often think they are allergic to bees when they are not because they have experienced localized pain and swelling after being stung — a normal physical reaction.

Red-Laird said she thinks the City Council should drop the bee hive buffer zone rule altogether and leave it to her organization and other groups such as the Southern Oregon Beekeeper Association to educate people who want hives.

There are steps people can take to minimize bee impacts. For example, facing a hive's entrance toward a 6-foot tall fence will cause the bees to fly up above people's heads as the insects go to and from foraging missions, she said.

Red-Laird said people also need to know how to prevent bee swarms.

When a bee hive's population grows, a queen and group of followers may leave the hive to find a new home.

"There can be thousands of bees hanging on a tree branch. The bees are in their most docile state because there is no honey or baby bees to protect. But it can be overwhelming to see," Red-Laird said.

To reduce the chance of a swarm, it's best to split the hive in half by putting the colony's original queen and her followers in a new hive. Emerging queens in the old hive will fight to the death until one becomes the new queen, she said.

One Ashland resident, who asked not to be named, has her own hive of bees in town that she captured after a friend's hive produced a swarm.

The swarm had clustered on a rose bush, so the woman — wearing protective gear — snipped a branch off and put the swarm's queen and followers into a hive.

The woman said her neighbors can see the hive, which abuts a tall wall of climbing roses, but have not complained. The hive is illegally inside the city's 150-foot buffer zone.

The woman said she has had no problems with the bees and she gardens within 10 feet of the hive. The bees have created a "highway" through the air as they go to and from the hive. The woman said the bees will collide with her if she stands in their way, but then they continue on their business.

With bees nationwide affected by colony collapse disorder, herbicides, insecticides, pollutants and other challenges, the woman said she is glad to host bees.

"I am so thrilled that by the grace of nature, bees are here and thriving in this backyard," she said.

At Southern Oregon University, graduate student Ryan King plans to install three hives inside the fence of the campus community garden by the end of May. He hopes to research colony collapse disorder and educate students of all ages about bees.

"It will be an asset. This will be an attraction for incoming students," King said.

The hives will be well away from neighboring residences.

King said it wasn't easy to get permission to install the hives.

"The association many people have with bees is that they're aggressive and they will sting you," he said, adding that honey bees are actually not aggressive.

He's spoken to the campus facilities manager, SOU administrators, the chair of the biology department, the Southern Oregon Beekeepers Association, Red-Laird and others during his project.

"The initial apprehension turns to curiosity," said King, who previously worked at a Eugene alternative high school that has bee hives on campus.

School district officials there originally had concerns before allowing the hives, King said.

Students wore heavy duty protective bee suits and employed smoke to calm the bees when they had to work with the hives, he said.

King said to deal with the issue of bee venom allergies, there will be a first aid kit stored at the campus garden site that will include antihistamine and EpiPens — automatic injector devices that deliver epinephrine to combat anaphylactic allergic reactions.

There also will be signs to warn people that the hives are at the garden, he said.

King said the idea of having more hives in Ashland may frighten some people, but bees already are among us. He said the city's 150-foot bee hive buffer zone rule doesn't make a lot of sense from a purely scientific standpoint.

"Bees have a two-mile flying radius to collect nectar and pollen. Anyone within two miles of a bee hive is around bees," King said.

For more information on bees, visit Red-Laird's website at or the Oregon State Beekeepers Association website at The latter website also has information on the Southern Oregon Beekeepers Association.

Ashland Daily Tidings staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or

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