Along James City County’s roads, rolling hills and gullies give way to expansive farm fields and scrubby, sandy beaches.
Its rural lands and farms — which have drawn some to move to the county from elsewhere for years — have slowly dwindled down over the decades, taking traditional agriculture and farm life with them.
But one traditional piece of agriculture is not dwindling in the county — mostly because it was never allowed: Beekeeping.
Beekeeping is not entirely prohibited in James City County, but it is only allowed in areas zoned general agricultural, low-density residential, rural residential and public lands. Those areas make up a little more than 63 percent of the county’s land.
The zoning ordinance is “exclusive in nature,” Zoning Administrator Christy Parrish said.
“If a use is not specified in a zoning district, it shall be prohibited in that district,” Parrish wrote in an email.
At a recent Board of Supervisors meeting, a group from the Williamsburg Area Beekeepers said the zoning ordinance is prohibitive, and asked supervisors to consider changing it.
For Andy Westrich, a master beekeeper at the Hampton Apiary, the exclusive zoning ordinance seems unusual.
The county’s zoning ordinance also contrasts with that of its neighbor, Williamsburg: The city’s ordinance doesn’t mention beekeeping, and therefore, it is allowed.
Westrich has eight hives in different residential yards throughout Hampton, as well as some at the St. George Brewing Co., which is in an industrial area. Westrich said he had heard recently about the Williamsburg Area Beekeepers’ concerns.
“All of my bees are in backyards,” Westrich said, adding that Hampton doesn’t specifically have any ordinance addressing beekeeping one way or the other. “As far as an ordinance that says if something isn’t explicitly said [in the zoning ordinance], then you can’t do it … almost nobody says that.”
Honey bees are credited with pollinating about one-third of everything humans eat, Williamsburg Area Beekeepers President Michael Garvin said at the July 9 board meeting.
“The honey bee is one of our greatest natural resources,” Garvin said, about a dozen people standing behind him in support.
Colony Collapse Disorder has threatened bees and pollination since the winter of 2006-2007, when some beekeepers reported “unusually high losses” in their hives, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Colony loss rates have declined since it spiked a decade ago, but colony loss is still a concern, according to the EPA.
In response, some beekeepers have worked to keep honey bees from declining further, and new beekeepers have joined the effort.
Safety in residential areas
James City County’s zoning ordinance only allows bees in areas considered more rural, with lower-density housing.
So, is beekeeping a hazard in higher-density areas? Or are there risks to beekeeping?
While bees can sting, Westrich emphasized they typically are not interested in becoming aggressive with humans or pets unless provoked.
“Most bees, honey bees, bumble bees… all of those bees really have no want and desire to go out and touch someone,” Westrich said.
City of Williamsburg spokeswoman Lee Ann Hartmann said beekeeping is allowed within the city, which has around 15,000 residents in about nine square miles, according to census data.
Garvin said there are several Virginia localities that have ordinances specifically addressing beekeeping in urban and suburban areas, including Fairfax, Prince William, Newport News, York County, Norfolk and Virginia Beach.
“All these show that people are interested and [they’ve] decided to support the beekeepers,” he added.
The Williamsburg Area Beekeepers asked the James City County Board of Supervisors to consider making an ordinance specifically regulating beekeeping, including size and number of hives.
Parrish said changing the regulations in James City County would require an amendment to the zoning ordinance to allow beekeeping.
“It’s like the chicken keeping ordinance we did a few years ago,” Parrish said. “The zoning ordinance was amended to allow chicken keeping in more residential-zoned districts… As of now, beekeeping still falls under general agricultural.”