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Santa Cruz Beekeeper Fights for Rule Changes

After $700 fine, Donna Gardner hopes to get beehives back

Tom (left) and Donna Gardner didn’t know about a $1,500 permit fee to become a beekeeper in Santa Cruz.

After she gave away all of her bees this past spring, the grief hit Donna Gardner hard. “I spent at least the first two weeks crying and not sleeping at night,” she says of her abrupt end to beekeeping.

For eight years Gardener had carefully cultivated hives in the yard behind her Sunnyside Avenue home, and she’d grown to appreciate the inner workings of honeybee civilization. Each hive had one queen and a few male drones, plus the mortuary bees to remove corpses and housekeeping bees to keep the hive clean. Certain bees tend to the queen, while others take care of the larvae or stand guard to keep out intruders. There are also forager bees that leave in search of pollen or nectar, then return to the hive to do what’s called a “waggle dance” for their fellow workers, providing directions to the location of some flowers in relation to the sun.

“If you ever watch bees going in and out of their hive, it’s mesmerizing. It’s so calming. I love coming home on a warm day, and you can smell the honey, and you can smell the propolis, and it smells really good. I miss that,” says Gardner, who used to give neighbors jars of honey made possible by the neighborhood’s flowers.

But now her hives are wrapped up in the city’s red tape—maybe for good.

Gardner believes the trouble started one day when the bees in one of her three hives started getting aggressive. Although her hives faced away from the street, they were only 9 feet from the sidewalk. She says her husband Tom came home from work early, put up a sign saying that their bees were angry, and stood watch, imploring people to walk down the other side of the street. Gardner called a beekeeper friend who picked up the hive that night after the bees went to sleep and brought it back to his property. Gardner says two people, including a neighbor, got stung that day.

It wasn’t long after that incident that the Gardners got a notice in the mail telling them that they were violating city law. Santa Cruz city rules state that bee hives must be at least 20 feet from the property line, and that residents may have no more than two hives. Additionally, each beekeeper is required to obtain a permit. The cost of each permit, Gardner would learn, was more than $1,500.

By the time a notice of violation arrived in the mail, Gardner was down to just one hive. Another one of her hives had gotten aggressive, so she gave it away. The notice warned her to take “remedial action” and get rid of the hive, or else she would get fined. She gave the last hive away. So Gardner was surprised earlier this month, when an invoice still arrived from the city for $615 or $738—it wasn’t clear which—for costs associated with the inspection. 

The cost of appealing the fee is steep enough that she wonders whether there’s any point in bothering to file one.

Bees play an important role in ecosystems around the world. Researchers have found that one-third of crops require help from pollinators like bees in order to grow. With bee populations falling, environmentalists have begun to panic. But there’s some disagreement over the importance of honeybees in particular. Although several bee species have landed on the endangered species list, the honeybee is not one of them.

After learning about the regulations, Gardner searched the city’s website for a permit, only to learn that it wasn’t available online. She stopped by the Santa Cruz Planning Department, where Gardner says the planner needed her help to actually track down the permit, reinforcing her view that the requirement is an arcane frivolity.

Ralph Dimarucut, a management analyst with the city of Santa Cruz, says he can appreciate that sense of frustration. He says the feedback is helpful and promised to pass it along. “We just want to make it as easy as possible,” he tells GT.

In general, it does not appear that many bee hives are getting tagged. Santa Cruz Planning Director Lee Butler says there have been three instances where bee hives were hit with notices of violation since 2010.

Embarking on a new mission to convince the city to loosen its bee rules, Gardner enlisted the help of her neighbor Nicki Nelson, a lawyer. Together, they crafted Gardner’s dream ordinance. Gardner is suggesting changes including and end to city fees, and that a hive need be only 6 feet from the property line. Nelson says that since looking into the issue, she’s found Santa Cruz’s bee ordinances to be far stricter than other communities nearby.

Nelson and Gardner reached out to City Councilmember Drew Glover, who founded Project Pollinate, an advocacy organization focused on preserving pollinators. They set up a meeting later this month with Glover, who says he first learned about cumbersome restrictions from the Santa Cruz Bee Guild. “The question is, ‘Why is the city putting up barriers or making it more difficult?” asks Glover, who says he hadn’t brought up the issue at the city yet because he’s been focused on topics like homelessness.

Butler says the planning department has a plan to update its beehive regulations, although that item doesn’t have a specific timeline. “It’s in the queue,” he says.

Gardner is eager to start a community discussion about pollinators. She also hopes she gets the opportunity to be a beekeeper again.

“This was my teeny, tiny, little thing that I felt like I could do for good,” she says. “And the benefit was I got honey.”

News Editor at |

Jacob, the news editor for Good Times, is an award-winning journalist, whose news interests include housing, water, transportation, and county politics. A onetime connoisseur of dive bars and taquerias, he has evolved into an aspiring health food nut. Favorite yoga pose: shavasana.

5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Gary

    July 22, 2019 at 4:27 pm

    An unfortunate story, especially as they’ve had been there for years. Sound like great neighbors, with a cool front yard.
    The google street view is very illuminating. Small beehive in 2011 .. turns into two impressive large hives in 2015, and in 2019 hives are mostly gone, with a building going in to the left.

  2. Michelle Davis

    July 19, 2019 at 9:51 am

    I had no idea about this ordinance! I came to this article via Council Member Glover addressing it in his newsletter. I am all for revamping this ridiculous rule. Thank you for the info.

  3. Jessica Golding

    July 18, 2019 at 8:44 am

    I’ve been fortunate enough to have Tom and Donnas honey, and have come to their home with my young children. They have inspired me with their hospitality and generosity and my girls never were stung during many long visits in their yard. They are a couple of good people that represent what’s good about humankind. Please let them keep up the Good Times with their beekeeping!

  4. Nicki Nelson

    July 17, 2019 at 8:07 am

    Great article about the bees! Thank you!

  5. Chelsea Wagner

    July 17, 2019 at 6:57 am

    So the real issue was that her husband stood outside on the side walk and warned people that their bees were angry. Because of that kindness people learned they had bees and from that the city got complaints. And they got billed for the cities time sending them a notice. Next time just deny any knowledge and just say there is a wild swam of bees so look out.

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