Beekeepers say proposed regulations from the New Jersey Department of Agriculture are unnecessarily stringent and will discourage beekeeping at a time when it should be encouraged.
But the department said it is simply following the lead of 2015 legislation directing it to develop statewide regulations in a way that balances the needs of beekeepers with the needs of their neighbors.
“There is no evidence that there is such a general problem with honeybees that such drastic new barriers to keeping bees should be adopted,” Janet Katz, president of the New Jersey Beekeepers Association, wrote in comments to the agriculture department.
She said most of the 3,500 hobbyist and small commercial beekeepers in New Jersey would be prevented from keeping bees “in some or all of the places where they now have bees,” if the regulations are finalized, unless they can get waivers.
The South Jersey Beekeeping Association especially opposes regulations allowing no beekeeping on less than a quarter-acre, and limiting those with as many as five acres to two honeybee hives, said President BethAnn Hall, of Galloway Township.
She has 4.1 acres and has seven hives, but would be restricted to two hives under the new regulations, unless she applies for and receives a waiver as someone who has had bees on her property since before July 2015.
Anyone living on property not already designated agricultural would need a waiver to keep bees, no matter how large their property is.
“There is no scientific basis for this,” said SJ Beekeepers Association First Vice President David Elkner, of Hamilton Township. “Where are they getting their numbers from?”
Elkner runs Bee Cool Pollination and has about 110 hives on multiple properties in four counties in South Jersey. He is overwintering 30 hives now on his five-acre residential property, but would be allowed to have only two there under the regulations.
A co-sponsor of the legislation, state Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, said the legislative intent was to encourage beekeeping at a time when the population of honeybees has been falling due to diseases, mites and other factors.
Bees are vital for the pollination of food and horticultural crops, he said.
“The whole purpose of the legislation seems to have been lost in the regulations,” Van Drew said. “It sounds like they are clamping down on beekeepers and beehives. The legislation was diametrically opposed to that.”
The regulations are more restrictive than the Best Practices recommendations the Agriculture Department had long promoted, Elkner said.
Best practices suggested no more than three hives be kept on a lot of a quarter-acre or smaller.
It is the first time the state has developed rules for beekeeping. It is doing it now because of the package of bills designed to extend “right to farm” protections to beekeepers and to have one set of statewide rules rather than allowing each town to make its own.
Joe Zoltowski, the Department of Agriculture Plant Industry Division director, is overseeing the rulemaking process. He said the department will look at comments from all interested parties before making any of the proposed regulations final.
“When they wrote the laws, they wanted us to look at both sides of the story and come up with an answer,” Zoltowski said. “We’re walking down the middle of road. We are allowing beekeeping, but want some restrictions. We don’t want to restrict them completely.”
He said the rules discourage beekeeping on less than a quarter-acre because most of the complaints about bees come from suburbs where people are keeping too many hives on a small property. Typical complaints include bees invading a pool area to drink the water, and stinging people when they get stepped on, he said.
Also in the regulations is a requirement that beekeepers keep a gallon of water near each hive for the bees to have a ready source of water.
Van Drew said the legislation was not supposed to discourage beekeeping, but to encourage it.
He said he may have to write corrective legislation if the agriculture department persists in its restrictive approach.
Part of the reason for the restrictions may be the participation in the consultation group that formed the new rules by residents of an unnamed municipality that shared their experience with “lengthy local hearings concerning one beekeeper,” as the rule proposals said — that is, people who were affected by the poor management practices of one beekeeper may have had an outsize voice in determining the rules.
Elkner said the vast majority of beekeepers are careful and considerate of their neighbors, and their bees are docile and focused on nectar, not people.
The Agriculture Department released the proposed regulations in August, then pulled them back after a strong negative reaction from beekeepers.
Then in November, the department released almost the exact same regulations again.