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How LA homes lost their hives

via Mark Vallianatos
historyofbeesinamerica
The decision by the Los Angeles City Council to consider legalizing bee-keeping on single family properties raises the question: why were backyard bees banned in the first place? While researching some zoning and building code changes, I came across a council file from the 1940s that contained dueling petitions on beekeeping in the west San Fernando Valley. This sparked my interest in how Los Angeles has regulated bees over the years, especially through the zoning code. Zoning is a tool that local jurisdictions utilize to regulate land use. The zoning of residential properties, and what agricultural uses were allowed on single family homes, changed as Los Angeles transformed from the nation’s leading farming region to a suburban and industrial powerhouse.  I’ve tracked down a partial history of the regulation of bee-keeping in the city of LA.  These controls on (and controversies about) bees represent competing visions of the city and how we should live in it. I hope reflecting on when and why LA homes “lost their hives” can provide context that will be useful as the City re-legalizes urban bee-keeping.

J.P. McIntyre and his bees, circa 1880 | California Historical Society

Bee-keeping grew alongside Agriculture in Southern California and the benefits of bees to farmers and the economy were widely recognized.  The keeping of bees was, however, banned within the city limits of Los Angeles on June 10th 1879. A decade later, in 1889, when the city adopted its first home-rule city charter, the power to restrict bees was enshrined in a list of nuisances. The Charter authorized Los Angeles “to suppress and prohibit … the keeping of bees within the city limits, and any and all obnoxious, offensive, immoral, indecent or disreputable places of business or practice.”  (Charter of the City of Los Angeles as Adopted, January 1889).
Was bee-keeping really considered to be that bad? Some of the other activities on the charter’s list of problematic businesses, like bawdy-houses and gambling dens, were regulated out of moral concerns. Others, such as laundries and cattle yards, were considered to be types of businesses that should be limited to certain areas because of the risks (fire, odors, etc) associated with their operations. Bee-keeping fell into this latter type of activity. I was surprised to see, in news accounts from the late 19th century, that the biggest perceived threat from bee hives wasn’t people getting stung by bees. It was the belief that bees threatened the fruit crop fruit by eating and stinging pieces of fruit. Proponents of banning bee-keeping in LA also cited the danger posed to horses by swarms of bees.

This law didn’t stop all bee-keeping in residential areas. As the City grew by annexing surrounding land, exceptions to the bee ordinance were made for newly added districts that were primarily agricultural. In 1915,  the San Fernando Valley was exempted from the bee-keeping ban when it was annexed to LA. The ban itself didn’t seem to be widely enforced in parts of the city where it did apply.  A 1917 Los Angeles Times article on the benefits of back-yard bee-keeping, for example, dismissed the law against bees as “an ancient and still-unrepealed city ordinance.” (‘Back-Yard Bee Keeping Cuts Living Cost Here.’ Los Angeles Times, Jan 28, 1917.)

The legality of the ‘ancient’ ordinance was eventually tested at the California Supreme Court. In 1936, Mrs. Edna Ellis was accused of violating the LA city ordinance by keeping five hives of bees at a residential property on the 4000 block of Sequoia St. The Deputy City Attorney prosecuting the case called bees “a nuisance” and “vicious.” “They are stinging people all over the neighborhood,” he claimed. “Children go outside and get stung. They can’t even pick flowers.” In her defense, Mrs. Ellis told the court: “I love bees. To me, they’re pets… Like cats and dogs to some people. My father kept bees before me and I have been keeping them myself for twenty-five years.” (‘Court Hears Bee Defense: Woman Accused of Keeping Apiary in Violation of City Ordinance.’ Los Angeles Times. June 27, 1936.) Ellis was convicted and appealed the decision, arguing that the ban was unconstitutional. The California Supreme Court accepted her statements about “the benefits to the residents in her community resulting from the cross-pollination of the fruit blossoms and flowers in addition to the commercial value of the bees” but still found that there is “a reasonable basis for the exercise of the police power in prohibiting beekeeping within the city limits,” upholding the law and Ellis’ conviction.  (In re Ellis, 11 cal.2d 571, 1938.)

As World War II drew to a close, LA planners tried to balance the San Fernando’s Valley’s agricultural heritage with pent-up demand for space for housing and industry. It was on this shifting terrain that arguments about bees started to define what types of residential properties were suitable for keeping hives. In April 1945, 13 residents of Canoga Park sent a petition to the Los Angeles City Council requesting a law “prohibiting stands of bees in the west end of the San Fernando Valley. Bees in this locality are not only a nuisance and danger, but they cause a great deal of damage to crops such as peaches, grapes and others. .. As they ripen, the bees sting the fruit and cause them to rot. It is dangerous to try to gather fruit with so many bees around. At present, people who live in the city, but who own vacant acres, are putting in bees just to annoy those of us who really make our homes out here.” (Council File 19744, April 23, 1945).

Los Angeles City staff and the Council’s Public Health and Welfare Committee considered this request. They concluded that it was unreasonable to outlaw bee keeping in agricultural parts of the valley and that “expert testimony does not support the contention that bees really damage fruit.”  (May 5, 1945 letter from Chas Senn, Director of Sanitation to George M. Uhl, MD, Health Officer). In early April, 1946, the City Council, did direct the City Attorney to draft an ordinance to prohibit keeping bees in congested parts of the San Fernando Valley. This move prompted another group of Canoga Park residents to send a competing petition to Council: “we the undersigned residents of said district, ask that the keeping of bees in the west San Fernando Valley should not be outlawed for the following reasons: Said district is sparsely settled and is mostly devoted to agriculture and bees do not constitute a nuisance. The bees render a great service to agriculture, trees and flowers by pollination, which fact is well known and the plaintiffs could not suggest a better substitute. However, there are also wild bees, which could not be outlawed. It is well know that bees do not spoil fruit. First fruit must be pecked by birds before a bee could feed on it.  We the undersigned are convinced that the bees are harmless and useful and therefore we ask that no ordinance against keeping bees should be enacted.” (Council File 23159, April 23, 1946.)

The LA City Council soon passed an ordinance, effective June 1, 1946, that split the difference between the anti-bee and pro-bee petitions. The City’s anti-beekeeping law was amended to forbid the keeping of bees on any premises within 300 feet of another dwelling or within 100 feet of an exterior boundary. This would allow bees to be kept at a single family house only if it had a huge lot. Agricultural zones and the Residential Agriculture zone were exempted, allowing bee-keeping to continue in parts of the Valley with rural zoning.

By shifting the law from a blanket prohibition on bee-keeping (with an exception for the San Fernando Valley) to a zoning-based system, planners could allow different animal and agriculture-related uses in different residential zones. In 1950, for example, a new Residential Suburban zone was created to be a hybrid between the R1 and RA zones. Residents of RA or RS zoned homes could raise “poultry, fowl, bees, rabbits, chinchillas, fish, or frogs;” but if you lived in a house zoned R1 (the most common single family zone) you were limited to poultry, rabbits and chinchillas, plus goats, horses and cows if your lot was at least 20,000 square feet. (Ordinance 97359, 1950).

At some point between 1950 and 1980, bee-keeping was eliminated as a legal use in the RA and RS zones. I haven’t yet run across the ordinance that made this change. Today, bee-keeping is only allowed in the City of Los Angeles in agricultural zone and in most manufacturing zones. Hopefully this will change soon, and hives of bees, governed by sensible regulations, will be permitted in backyards throughout the City for the first time in 135 years.


Mark Vallianatos works and teaches at Occidental College and is on the Zoning Advisory Committee for the City’s re:code LA process to revise Los Angeles’ zoning code. Mark can be reached at mvalli@oxy.edu 


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