“Model City Ordinances and How Seattle Got Them”

As cities like Los Angeles consider legalizing beekeeping, Seattle’s beekeeping ordinances serve as a model for safely keeping bees in residential areas. The same goes for our individual beekeeping practices.

Not so long ago, there were no beekeeping ordinances in Seattle, and in fact, a petition was submitted to the City Council in 1971 to ban beekeeping in Seattle altogether. This was  a result of one beekeeper’s actions – he  did not maintain his hives nor good relations with his neighbors.  For a bit of history in the origins of beekeeping laws in Seattle, as well as the role Puget Sound Beekeeper’s Association played in creating them, I encourage you to read the below account from one of our past pillars of the beekeeping community, P.F. (Roy)  Thurber*.    I also request you to register your hives with the State (It’s the Law!)  – and follow your local beekeeping ordinances.

*Roy Thurber (1916-1984) was considered a pillar of the Puget Sound Beekeepers Association and the beekeeping community at large. He served as President and officer of PSBA,  was a prolific writer –submitting articles to both the “PSBKA Newsletter” as it was referenced back then,  as well as American Bee Journal.  A scholarship exists in his name at WSU – Dr. Steve Shepherd (Our February meeting speaker from WSU) is holder of the Roy Thurber Endowed Chair. Roy was awarded the Western Apicultural Society’s award for “Outstanding Service to Beekeeping” in 1981.

Below (in italics) is a an article written by P.F. Roy Thurber sometime after 1978 – reposted here with permission from his daughter, Karen Fortier.

“Model City Ordinances and How Seattle Got Them” – a section from Chapter 1 – Management found in “Bee Chats, Tips, and Gadgets” by  P.F. (Roy) Thurber

From time to time situations arise when angry people frightened by ill-considered actions by beekeepers decide that bees should be banned.  While it is believed that generally the beekeepers’ actions result from ignorance, we cannot really assume that all beekeepers are good considerate neighbors although they should be.

Several years ago our neighbors to the North in one of the cities of British Columbia through concerted action by the local bee association and its allies in the garden clubs and similar groups were able to head off an attempt to ban bees. Honolulu beekeepers were  not so fortunate. Their bee association had fallen apart for several reasons, not pertinent to this article, and when the matter of banning bees arose, there was no bee association to resist and enlist the other organizations who might have rallied to assist the beekeepers.  Now all residential areas on the island of Oahu, on which the city of Honolulu is located, is off limits to bees. Beekeepers have either had to move their bees, get rid of them, or hide them. Actually, I am informed, many were hidden.  This is relatively easy if one has a home up on posts (built that way to keep the house cool).  All you do is paint the hive a dark color and move it under the house. Some bees are of course in attics, too, but wherever they are is not discussed as the building department inspectors are to be reckoned with.


In Seattle, we had an unusual situation because early in the 1960’s the bee association made a study of our swarming situation and after a lot of work came up with what was believed to be a model bee ordinance. Regrettably, the city council would not buy the ordinance as written. No one on the council knew anything about bees and so part of the proposed ordinance was deleted. Since there was no problem for several years, the ordinance was never invoked. That is not to say there were never complaints, but the beekeepers often assisted by members of the association were able to come up with solutions without putting the ordinance to the test

About 1967 a series of complaints started, and they all involved the same beekeeper. Beekeepers dropped by to see if they could help him improve his practices and hint he should improve his public relations. He was not receptive to the ideas. The president of the association dropped by and was told in effect to mind his own business. The beekeeper was not interested in the effect his action might have on other beekeepers in Seattle. The local apiary inspector was unsuccessful and so was the Chief Apiary inspector for the State. Finally, the beekeeper’s neighbor petitioned to the city attorney. The beekeeper was cited and then held in contempt but still the problem existed. Finally, in 1971 the beekeeper’s neighbors got up a petition to ban bees from the city.

Exactly how the beekeeper association got wind of the petition to ban bees, I do not know, but someone got hold of the Chairman of the Puget Sound Beekeepers Swarm Control Committee, and he called me for help. I alerted our president and then arranged a meeting with the Seattle City Community Development department. Rather than overwhelm the city officials, a committee of four met with the concerned officials. The four were: The state apiary inspector for this area, the then president of the association, a former president of the association who had been on the original study group in the early 1960’s, and myself, a former president of the association. During the preliminary discussions, we found that the city officials did not really want to ban bees and they certainly did not want to take on the State Department of Ecology, the Sierra Club, the garden clubs, the Arboretum Society, and others including the Puget Sound Beekeepers Association. What they wanted was some way to control the particular beekeeper and at the same time have a tool to use in any future situations that they anticipated would possibly occur due to the young peoples’ preoccupation with natural foods including honey from their own hives.

The meeting lasted for several hours, and it soon developed that there had to be two, not one ordinance. One would have to spell out where bees could be kept and how many hives could be kept. This was a matter of amending the present zoning ordinance relating to bees. The second ordinance had to define when were bees a nuisance and what should be done if they were found to be a nuisance. Since the original meeting could concern only the matter of the zoning, we put our efforts to hammering out that ordinance. We left the meeting feeling we had not only had sympathetic treatment but had made friends. Shortly thereafter, we received copies of the officials’ proposed ordinance. The spirit or intent was good, but the officials, not knowledgeable on bee behavior, had come up with proposed zoning which would not solve the anticipated or existing problems. Our little committee came up with some changes and went back for another meeting. We explained the way bees flew and behaved, and explained why our changes would work and why their proposals would not. Our suggestions were gracefully received.

Meanwhile, the leader of the group who had petitioned for the ban of bees had been contacted. Since I was the only one who was retired, that task fell on me. I told the gentleman that, while he had a problem, we wanted to solve not only his group’s problem, but wanted to work out methods to prevent similar incidents. Bless that man. He decided to let us work out the solution, and furthermore, he largely convinced his group to go along with the beekeepers. Considering the long period of time and degree of neighborhood aggravation, he had a difficult task. Amazingly, when the first city council hearing was held, he was able to keep all but one or two of his group from continuing their demand to ban bees citywide. Actually, he introduced three spokesmen for the beekeepers and stated that he and his group thought that the recommendations of the zoning people and the beekeepers would probably, if a companion nuisance ordinance were passed, solve the problems existing and future.

 Despite a united front of the complaining group, the beekeepers and the zoning representative of the city, the city council sub-committee wanted to change the wording. Respectfully, the beekeepers again explained that they should not make changes without informing themselves on the subject of bee behavior particularly in the subject of flight. The sub-committee decided to go along. They recommended the zoning proposal unchanged to the full city council where it was passed with some amusement and favorable newspaper publicity.

The nuisance ordinance was a different proposition. A different sub-committee of the city council was now involved and they would not go along with the recommendation of the beekeepers. They felt our recommendations were too generalized. They wanted improper techniques spelled out. They wanted to list all the things a person could do wrong with bees and forbid those things. The beekeepers protested that many books had been written on bee management and you could not write an all –inclusive ordinance. The sub-committee chairman was not convinced and another member wanted to license bees. Finally, the meeting adjourned because the subcommittee wanted to get advice from our bee expert, Dr. Carl A. Johansen at Washington State University. Everyone left the meeting unhappy. The complaining group and their leader were muttering that bees should be banned and I mouthed off that I wondered, did we have to tie licenses around the nonexistent necks of bees. Unfortunately, the man behind me was a radio news reporter and I got quoted. Boy did I catch it at home.

 When Dr. Johansen got the letter from the City Council, he ducked and said he did not feel it would be appropriate for him to enter into the matter concerning the internal operation of the city. I also got a letter because he felt that we, although unintentionally, had put him on the spot and no matter what he recommended he would step on someone’s toes. Since Dr. Johansen had passed, there was another meeting and all tried to hammer out an ordinance. The beekeepers present tried to stress that bad tempered bees should be requeeened. Well, the sub-committee argued that bees could raise their own queens, etc. Finally I got my mouth in gear. I said that sure the bees could raise their own queens, but that randomly mated queens often produced bad tempered bees but good breeder raised queens headed good tempered colonies. They decided to go along with the idea that colonies showing any hostility should be requeened. The matter was turned over to the legal assistant to the committee. In a day or two, I received the draft, made a couple of minor changes after consultation with other beekeepers involved, and sent it back with an invitation for the legal assistant to call me. When the assistant called me, we decided to broaden the ownership from individuals to firms or corporations. We changed the words owning or possessing bees to “having bees” (this so people with bees living in attics or in walls could be required to trap them out or destroy them). We also again reaffirmed the state law that bees have to be registered annually. With these minor changes, the nuisance ordinance was passed.

The ordinances are, I believe, sufficiently broad to protect the public in Seattle or in any other city and yet actually they will affect only the beekeepers who cannot or will not take care of their bees. I am sure that there will be many people who will continue to have too many hives or hives too close to property lines. But, if he is a good beekeeper and keeps in good with his neighbors, he will never be required to comply because he will not be subject to a complaint. Furthermore, Seattle and other cities will encourage beekeeping by giving the bees a legal status within the community. After all, the ordinance provides for bees in the city.

 Since many organizations may find need of model bee ordinance, the ordinances are quoted here verbatim.  (Omitted for this blog post – see current ordinances here).  Better get them passed now rather than later in a period of strain or tension. After all, you may not find the head of the complaint group to be a cooperative compromising good neighbor well able to control the other aggrieved complaining neighbors. Also, you may run into a hostile city council.

 Original Ordinances were introduced by Gary Grant – 2/7/78,  Passed 3/20/78