Beekeepers: Not Our Problem if You're Allergic

Earlier this year, a reader wrote The Ethicist at the New York Times Magazine with this conundrum: Her daughter raises bees. A family that moved next door has a daughter who's allergic to the stings. What's to be done?

The Ethicists' opinion was to scratch the honey making. The hobby might be sweetly rewarding, but not worth having a dead girl on the conscience.

Mark Emrich, president of the Washington State Beekeepers Association, thinks that's flawed logic.

"As far as actual documented honeybee bites, it's practically undocumented," Emrich said by phone on Tuesday. Honeybees die when they sting people, making them very reticent to do so.

"You have to either be attacking their hive or putting your hand directly on them," he said.

But an attempt by beekeepers to codify that statistical rarity and protect beekeepers from being sued by anyone nearby with a bite and welt is backfiring.

Senate Bill 5696 was written to shield apiarists -- as beekeepers are technically known --- from legal liability if someone on their block happens to get stung by one of the little suckers.

Emrich told lawmakers at hearing in February that the proposition was "a comfort bill for inner-city beekeepers."

The hobbyists fear that if, "God forbid, someone is bit by a yellow jacket or a hornet or a wasp within a mile, someone is going to serve them papers."

The bill arises out of a actual situation in which a beekeeper in Issaquah was so fearful he'd get sued that he had to give his bees away, Emrich said.

Too bad for the beekeepers, though, the aptly named Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, is allergic to bees and says he had a nasty encounter with honeybees in his apple grove.

Honeyford, who sits on the committee, amended the bill to allow anyone living within a quarter mile of a beekeeper to demand setbacks from their property.

Emrich says at this point, the bill would hurt beekeeping more than help it, as it will make a neighbor's right to force beekeepers to quit their hobby law.

"People want to help promote bees," he says, "but sometimes they just end up hurting it."

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