SOUTH PORTLAND — The bees dart around Phil Gaven’s arms and behind his neck, hundreds of them buzzing into the hives and then out toward the green meadow of tall grass and wildflowers.
He never flinches.
Gaven, a hobbyist beekeeper for the past three years, knows that the honeybees are far more interested in gathering water and pollen than they are in stinging him, unless he provokes them or threatens the two hives he erected on a friend’s property near Willard Square.
“Hopefully they’ll fill this within a couple of weeks,” Gaven said, putting his hand on the top of one of the hives. The first honey harvest is running a few weeks late this year.
In 2008, as Gaven was getting deeply involved in beekeeping, South Portland became one of just a few communities in Maine to pass an ordinance governing it.
The decision by the City Council was prompted by a dispute between a beekeeper and his neighbors in the Cash Corner area.
There were simply too many hives on the small property owned by Omid Ghayebi, and without enough food and water to sustain them, the bees were hanging out in the neighbors’ kiddie pool and on their lawn.
It was the first time in more than 20 years that South Portland’s code enforcement officer had received a complaint about bees.
The 2008 ordinance contained several provisions, including a limit on the number of hives based on the size of the property.
Beekeepers must pay a $25 annual fee per location, and must ensure that their bees don’t interfere with “the normal use or enjoyment of any property in the vicinity by humans or animals.”
The ordinance authorizes the city to fine a beekeeper as much as $1,000 a day for a violation, although city officials have assured the public that fines would be levied only in extreme cases.
Now beekeeping has joined backyard chicken-raising as a popular hobby in Maine, and some South Portland residents say the city’s ordinance goes too far.
Gaven is leading a push to repeal the bee ordinance, or at least make revisions that don’t scare away would-be beekeepers. He says one main problem is that the ordinance contains technical rules for managing bee colonies.
While the intention was good, Gaven says, the rules sometimes contradict best practices, and could create nuisances where there weren’t any.
“It’s a case of a good idea that doesn’t make a good law,” he said.
Along with his wife and two other beekeepers, Gaven met with the City Council on Monday night.
Some of the councilors, including Mayor Rosemarie DeAngelis, agree with Gaven and favor a major revision to the ordinance. Others, like Maxine Beecher, are more leery.
Beecher said residents have legitimate concerns about bees, and it makes sense for the city to have sensible restrictions and enforcement authority to deal with irresponsible hobbyists.
The issue is expected to go to the council for further discussion, then possible action later this year.
City Manager Jim Gailey told the council that he wouldn’t oppose lowering the fees and fines, but he thinks the ordinance should stay on the books.
“South Portland could be the densest community in the state,” Gailey said, noting that about 23,000 people live within just 13 square miles.
DeAngelis said she will support major revisions.
“This is overworked and overdone and way too much,” DeAngelis said. “The fee structures are absurd, the fines are ridiculous.”
About 1,000 Mainers keep bees as a hobby or sideline business, as do about a dozen large-scale commercial beekeepers.
“Pretty much nationwide, there is about a 10 percent increase each year in the number of hobbyists,” Gaven said. “Our whole concern is that this is an activity that should be encouraged. We shouldn’t be putting up obstacles.”
Lewiston is the only municipality in Maine that prohibits beekeeping. Westbrook has an ordinance governing it, but does not charge fees or assess fines. There are 40 licensed beekeepers in Portland, which does not have an ordinance.
Gaven said the national trend has been toward loosening rules on beekeeping. He provided a list to the City Council of 20 cities, including San Francisco, New York and Denver, that have relaxed or repealed bee ordinances.
Gaven came to Maine from Chicago in 2003. He grew up in the suburbs, in a family that didn’t even have pets. In college, he had a friend whose father kept bees, which sparked Gaven’s interest. He didn’t really get involved until he read a 2006 article in The New Yorker about Colony Collapse Disorder, a mysterious phenomenon in which entire hives of bees die.
Gaven started with one hive at Loveitts Field, and he now has four hives at three locations in the city. In August he will open a store in Portland called The Honey Exchange. He will offer local honey, wax products and honey-based food and drink.
“If you took away the crops that are pollinated by honeybees, it would basically cut a grocery store’s offerings in half,” he said. “Even down to the hamburgers we eat, bees are important.”
Staff Writer Trevor Maxwell can be contacted at 791-6451 or at: [email protected]