City considers beekeeping ordinance

Liz Welter
Beekeeper Gretch Schmelzer checks on the queen bee on frames enclosed in a hive box in her Sturgeon Bay back yard.

STURGEON BAY - There's a growing movement throughout the state to allow beekeeping in cities, and Sturgeon Bay may be following suit.

The push for an ordinance to allow beekeeping within Sturgeon Bay's city limits began after the Door County Beekeepers Club was founded in 2015. With an initial membership of 30 people, the beekeepers club meetings often attract 80 to 100 people.

"There's a lot of interest in beekeeping as a hobby and a way to help the environment," said Gretchen Recupero-Schmelzer, one of the club's founding members. 

For more than a decade bee populations have been dying off to where a third of the nation's honeybee colonies died last year and, from 2012 to 2013, more than half the nation's colonies died. The deaths are attributed to colony collapse disorder, insecticides and Varrao mite infestations, according to an annual survey of beekeepers by the nonprofit Bee Informed Partnership and the Apiary Inspectors of America.

"Backyard beekeeping helps to build up the honeybee populations, which are truly in decline," Recupero-Schmelzer said. "Besides really liking honey, my husband and I are big gardeners, and it's the bees that do the pollination in our garden and around our neighborhood."

Without pollinators, Door County's cherry growers would lose 60 percent of their crop, according to data from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. While bees are the dominant pollinators, butterflies and some native fly species also help pollinate crops. Other crop losses due to declining pollinators projected by the department include 75 percent loss for Wisconsin cranberry growers and an 80 percent loss for apple growers. 

"With this decline in the honeybee population, we should be doing more to encourage beekeeping," Recupero-Schmelzer said.

Gretchen Schmelzer of Sturgeon Bay in her bee suit with an attached hood (veil).

While many people fear bees, honeybees are docile despite their resemblance to more aggressive yellow jackets and hornets that are wasps, she said.

Earlier in the spring, the Door County Beekeepers Club approached the city about adopting an ordinance to allow backyard beekeeping, said Alderman Richard Wiesner, chairman of the Community Protection and Services Committee.

"Currently, the city allows it on a case-by-case basis," Wiesner said.

The club's presentation to the committee about the importance of bees for pollination, the problems with declining bee populations and the measures needed for backyard hives to be safe convinced the committee to look into an ordinance, Wiesner said.

In May, a draft beekeeping ordinance was discussed by the committee and included rules for a permit, the numbers of hives, acceptable locations, safety measures, and consent from adjacent property owners. 

Water for the bees outside the hive box.

The proposed beekeeping ordinance is on the agenda for the City Council meeting that starts at noon Tuesday. June 6

Since the city has no ordinance regulating beekeeping, Recupero-Schmelzer and the other handful of city beekeepers have conditional use permits for their hobby hives. 

The conditional use permit is expensive, about $300, and involves a public hearing.

An ordinance will make beekeeping a more affordable backyard hobby while also providing regulations, said Mark Lentz, member of the Door County Beekeepers Club. Lentz and other club members looked at the various ordinances adopted by other Wisconsin cities to craft a suitable one for Sturgeon Bay.

The majority of the club's members are raising bees to help sustain the honeybee population, said Lentz, who lives in the town of Gardner. 

While honey is a nice reward for her beekeeping hobby, it's not Cindy Easley's motivation for raising bees.

A partially capped honeycombed bee frame. Tina M. Gohr/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

"I've been doing this for three years, and I don't care if I get honey," said Easley, who lives in Sturgeon Bay but keeps her bees in a rural location on a friend's property.

"It's simply fascinating, watching the bees, how they work together and, in my own small way, I'm helping them to keep doing their jobs," Easley said.

The club's membership includes longtime beekeepers with more than 30 years' experience to many young adults interested in learning about the hobby.

"Together, there is a wealth of knowledge and experience so that we help one another and share resources," Recupero-Schmelzer said. "No one is in this alone."

The county's beekeepers have an ally in their endeavors to sustain their hives. Daniel Ziehli is a state apiary inspector with DATCP and, besides Door County, provides free, voluntary inspections to Wisconsin beekeepers in the southern half of the state.

"When you hear there is an inspector coming to the county, the new beekeepers get a bit worried, but the inspector's goals are to help us become better at what we are doing," Recupero-Schmelzer said.

While colony collapse disorder, pesticides and Varro mites threaten hives and are challenges to understand and control, the problems are not insurmountable, Ziehli said. 

"As I travel the state inspecting, Wisconsin beekeepers do not look at their losses as problems, but as challenges, Ziehli said. "Problems are for those that give up and Wisconsin beekeepers continue to meet the challenges each season and the Door County beekeepers are a good example."