Our symbiotic relationship with nature still vibrates in the blood of many modern men and women—and that rapport couldn’t be more distinctive than with a beekeeper and his bees. Humans and bees have lived together for thousands of years. Bees are even mentioned in the Roman Empire’s Code of Justinian. We have provided the bees managed, protected colonies, and the bees have provided us with honey and wax. Despite being cultivated by man, these semi-livestock animals have an essentially unchanged wild nature, though we humans have drastically expanded their “hive” and sense of civilization.
As the popularity of beekeeping continues to expand, it’s important that budding beekeepers understand the responsibilities in tending roaming, semi-wild livestock, particularly if you have neighbors in close proximity. You may think that if bees do harm someone, how can the bees be traced back to you, anyway? It’s not like you are keeping cows and goats that could wander off, leave footprints around the neighborhood, and pose for social media as they munch Mrs. O’Leary’s petunias. However, if you don’t properly manage your bees and work within the legal framework of your area—particularly if you’re still located in an urban or suburban area—you could face trouble.
Understand State Beekeeping Laws First
A good place to look when trying to understand the beekeeping laws where you live is to first look at the state code. You can find the state code, as well as local ordinances, in your library or online. In the Commonwealth of Virginia, where I live, Title 3.2 Chapter 44 is devoted to beekeeping. That chapter establishes authority for a state apiarist. Think of him like the captain of a ship, with powers to quarantine in the event of disease, to inspect foreign bees and beekeeping paraphernalia entering this state’s environment, and to educate the “crew” of beekeepers in the state.
Search your own state’s code to determine what laws, if any, pertain to your proposed beekeeping hobby. The state has an interest to protect and benefit the public. Work with the state apiarist: Success or failure in the sectors of agriculture associated with beekeeping are partly his responsibility. Be forewarned that the state takes its role as guardian seriously. In Virginia, a beekeeper in violation of the particulars of Chapter 44 can he held criminally liable for a class 1 misdemeanor.
Local Beekeeping Laws Are Important, Too
Your local government may also have concerns about how beekeeping affects your community, on a neighbor-to-neighbor basis. The more people are in your area, the more your community may be affected. Bees can sting and swarm and they naturally roam, meaning there’s a chance they can hurt people off your property.
Not all communities have ordinances that specifically address beekeeping. Take the Hampton Roads, Va., metropolitan area as a sample. In Newport News and Hampton, there is no specific mention of beekeeping, but there are general ordinances regarding livestock and wild animals. Poquoson has an ordinance regarding farm animals in general but not bees in particular. Norfolk has an ordinance regarding nuisance animals and “wild, exotic or poisonous animals.” York, Virginia Beach and Suffolk specifically regulate beekeeping under their residential zoning ordinances. Also consider whether your locality (or state) will tax your hives. In cases where the ordinances are unclear, ask advice from your city or county administrators about how the locality would view your hobby.
Other Legal Considerations
In addition to researching the codes, you will want to consider whether there have been any court cases in your jurisdiction pertinent to beekeeping. I haven’t found any controlling cases directly addressing beekeeping; however, I have reviewed court cases similar to the question of liability for beekeepers, articles about a case from Hawaii settled this year, and helpful books on beekeeping and tort liability, and I can offer you these points to consider:
- Bees are only semi-domesticated at best. Rules of strict or absolute liability likely would apply in clear cases where your bees are linked to an injury suffered by someone else. The Hawaii case even found the beekeeper liable where it was not clear that the injury was actually caused by the defendant’s bees.
- Exercise prudence when siting hives. You can avoid liability by directing the flow of bee traffic away from the flow of human traffic and human congregation. Safety and responsibility prevail over cuteness and aesthetics. You expose yourself to liability with each action you take that is not generally recognized as wise and considerate.
- Protect your visitors. Pay special attention to the guests and other people (like workers) you invite onto your property, for you have a special duty to protect them from harmful encounters with your semi-wild animals.
If you’re unsure the liability bee bring to your farm—for example, if you run an agritourism operation or live within the city limits—you’d be wise to consult a lawyer for your specific situation. If after reading this, you choose to keep bees, I wish you wisdom, safety and many jars of honey.
About the Author: Anthony Rago is a graduate of Liberty University School of Law, an associate member of the Virginia State Bar and a tax representative for a state taxing agency. He lives in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia.