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Tiny European honeybees certainly aren't pets, but are they farm animals?

That's how Howard County zoning enforcement officials classified them after retiree Sam Peperone complained nearly two years ago about his backyard neighbor's beehives in Columbia. A swarm of the honeybees buzzed around the water dripping from his air conditioner in April 2008, and the federal retiree feared his grandchildren could be stung and his home's value diminished, he said.

But instead of eliminating Dan and Jeri Hemerlein's hives, Peperone's complaint has stirred up a community of bee enthusiasts to press the county for a change in the zoning law, and it looks as if they might succeed. The beekeepers never imagined the county would take such a strict stance, several said, and if the policy is not changed, it would harm bees just when they need help the most.

"Bees are gentle vegetarians," said Allen Hayes, president of the Howard County Beekeepers Association. "The president of the United States doesn't mind having honeybees in his backyard, and he has a lot of friends over." Howard has 84 registered beekeepers, Hayes said, and there are 900 throughout the state.

Maryland State Apiarist Jerry E. Fischer Sr. said there are 43 registered beekeepers in Baltimore City. "Of those, 22 live in rowhouses; 12-14 feet wide with a concrete slab backyard," he said, and no problems have been reported.

"We all know a bee is an insect. They're not an animal," he said.

Hayes, Fischer and other honeybee advocates said the insects don't sting anyone unless attacked, and more than 90 percent of stings come from more aggressive yellow jackets or wasps, not industrious honeybees. More important, Hayes and others argued, is the fact that honeybees, which are vital to plant pollination that produces food for humans, are under major stress now with entire commercial hives dying from an undetermined malady.

"One-third of the human diet comes from insect-pollinated plants, and bees do 80 percent of the pollinating," said Christina Glorioso of Ellicott City, who said she took a course in raising bees this year after seeing the Howard County Beekeepers display at the annual county fair. Her neighbors have also become involved and don't object, several said.

About 100 people from the metropolitan Baltimore area devoted to raising bees and harvesting their honey - including Hayes and Glorioso - descended on a county planning board hearing on the proposal Nov. 5, while only Peperone and three others testified in opposition to changes proposed by two County Council members that would make it much easier to raise honeybees in residential areas of the county.

The proponents argue that Howard's requirement of a 200-foot setback from an adjoining property line for beehives is unrealistic and wrong. Since the hives are now considered "animal shelters" under the county's interpretation of the zoning laws, they aren't allowed in large areas of the county where farming is also not permitted, like Columbia's New Town zoning district and in dense, mixed-use development zones.

The proposal by council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat, and Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican, would cut the setback to 25 feet, or to 10 feet with a fence, and would allow apiaries in Columbia and mixed-use zones as an accessory use. County planners support the idea, with amendments. The board is to discuss the issue Jan. 7, and a bill will later be submitted to the County Council.

The Hemerleins, who live on a fenced, secluded 3.5-acre remnant of a Civil War-era farm in Hickory Ridge surrounded by townhouses and 1980s tract homes, believe any restrictions on hives are unwarranted.

"The zoning law has been misapplied in this situation," said Dan Hemerlein, who with his wife raised three children in their 19th-century farmhouse during the past 15 years. Their property is not legally part of Columbia, though it is surrounded by the planned town. The couple also has 17 chickens in a coop more than 200 feet from their property line.

They use and occasionally give away honey from their six hives, each of which is equipped with a water jar to keep the bees from roaming too far, but they don't sell it, they said.

Peperone said the swarm that descended on his property, out of sight but just across the trees from the Hemerleins' farmette, frightened him.

"To me, it's incredible that a serious proposal is being made to allow beehives in any backyard, no matter the size," he said. "My grandchildren can't play in the yard," he said.

The River Hill village board and Greg Schwind, who represents Hickory Ridge on the Columbia Association board of directors, testified in support of Peperone and Jim and Nancy Pilotte, urging caution against relaxing the rules too much.

Jim Pilotte, Peperone's nearest neighbor, said his grown daughter has a "strong allergic reaction" to bee stings, as does a friend who often visits. The hives, he said, "are just too close," noting that because they are located at the edge of the Hemerleins' property, they're closer to his house than to theirs. The Hemerleins said the location is determined by what's best for the bees - full sun and protection from the wind. Their home is surrounded by tall trees.

William Bolduc, whose home backs to an open side of the Hemerleins' property close to the hives, said the bees are no bother.

"If anything, I've gotten an education out of it," he said. "It has not affected one iota of my life, or my wife's. You never see the bees."

On a recent warm Sunday, the Hemerleins showed the hives to visitors, walking among the bees flying in and out without being stung. Their two dogs ran nearby.

"We're doing more exploring of older ways of beekeeping," Jeri Hemerlein said, without using chemicals.

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