Hive Anxiety

To bee or not to bee? Denver's zoning department just answered that question.

At the end of last summer, however, Johnston drove through the Mousetrap and on to Glenwood Springs for the annual meeting of the Colorado Bee Keepers Association, of which he is the reluctant president. In the old days, he says, the annual meeting was little more than an excuse for camaraderie and a scenic family vacation. These days the meetings are meatier. Association members have begun to wonder whether their annual honey booth at the Colorado State Fair is really enough promotion to heighten bee awareness. And if bees are to be kept around, where can they find prospective beekeepers?

Among the unlikely candidates was Ann Shurtleft, a fiber artist from Pagosa Springs, who attended the meeting in search of tips on how to keep bears out of the hive in her backyard and to reach out to other bee enthusiasts with multiple sclerosis. Self-administered stings, Shurtleft insists, are the only things that have kept her from becoming a complete cripple.

"I've had MS for eight years," she says, "and I've been at the point of desperation. I'm not into pain and suffering, but before the bees, I could barely walk from the couch to the bathroom, and I live alone. I would have tried shark bites."

Instead, she obtained six honeybees and, lifting each one with tweezers, allowed each bee to sting her on the leg while she uttered "a few choice words," she recalls. "Two and a half hours later, I could walk." Now she takes forty stings every other day and feels well enough to have become a bee activist. "If you're not very concerned about the fate of bees, you should be," she warns. "Bees are a national resource, but no one seems to bother thinking about it."

The Boy Scouts of America, for example. "They've canceled the merit badge in beekeeping," says Jerry Webb, proprietor of the Beekeeper Company in Littleton. "Why? That's what I want to know."

Webb has been keeping bees since sugar was rationed during World War II, and he prides himself on 35 years of teaching bee-related skills at grade schools, community colleges and the Denver Botanic Gardens.

"Really fine people are beekeepers," he explains. "It is so rewarding. When you're working with bees, you gotta be thinking bees, and it keeps you focused. You never, for instance, see an old-time beekeeper with arthritis. I'm 67 myself, and I play tournament racquetball.

"Say you spent the initial $350 to get set up with bees," he continues. "From now on, at parties, you're gonna be doing all the talking--not about children or politics, but about bees."

So evangelical is Webb on the subject of bees that--really, this is just a rumor--he teaches backyard beekeepers to hide their hives so that they will not run afoul of that other Webb, his honor Wellington. "For that matter," he says, "my CPA is the mayor of Littleton, and I can't get him to see why it should be legal to keep bees in that city, either. All it takes to wreck things for beekeepers," he adds darkly, "is one neighbor who doesn't know the difference between a honeybee and a yellow jacket."

The beekeeping Webb insists that 95 percent of all stings come from an insect other than a honeybee, which is usually far too busy with its complicated honey-making lifestyle to bother with human beings unless they're beekeepers, in which case they can't avoid getting in the bee's way. Nevertheless, he says, most municipalities in and around Denver have included bees in zoning ordinances that prohibit such "nuisances" as barking dogs and improperly parked trailers.

Webb has been proposing various exceptions for years--most of them involving six-foot-high screen fences, no more than two hives, and the written consent of neighbors. Still, he had never heard of an exception being granted until the Daniel Marion case came before the Denver Zoning Board last fall.

Marion, a high-school art teacher and part-time forensic reconstructionist, had no idea that bees could be so political when he installed his hive in a neighborhood near City Park last summer.

"I just use a lot of honey," Marion explains, "and prices were going up. From what I read, I soon found out that bees were not dangerous but rather beneficial."

Besides, Marion found he enjoyed putting on a bee suit and checking up on his hive's occupants. "They settled in directly," he recalls. "They would fly off to City Park or the Botanic Gardens for nectar. In the first season, I produced sixty pounds of honey."

And a corresponding load of controversy. A neighbor complained to Denver zoning authorities one mild afternoon when some local boys spied Marion's hive and began throwing rocks at it. The bees boiled up briefly, and Marion was summoned to defend his hobby in court.

First, though, he did a bit of research. Rather than make a case that beekeeping was a "common and customary" use of a backyard, as other would-be honey producers had done, he planned to argue that his bees had been caught up in a case of mistaken identity.

"My neighbor said my bees were hanging around dumpsters and building nests in his garage," Marion recalls. "Bees would not do this. This is something a wasp or yellow jacket might do. Bees do not like grease or hang around it. They have work to do."

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