Daryl Altman and her husband, Robert Shepard, cared for thousands of honeybees in their backyard hive for over a year. But according to the couple, it was the Village of Lynbrook that stung them.
Altman said that she and Shepard learned about beekeeping for a year and joined the Long Island Beekeepers Club before taking on a hive of their own in April 2016. The experience ended, however, on June 26, when an inspector from the village and a professional beekeeper confiscated the hive and vacuumed up some 20,000 bees. Officials said the hive violated village code, and fined the couple $308.50.
“We were at work,” recalled Altman, an allergist in Queens. “There was nothing we could do. They were taking our hive.” Shepard, a clerk for the Town of Huntington, got a call at work from a neighbor, who told him that the hive was being cleared. Altman said that most of their neighbors loved the beehive because it provided them with free honey.
Village Attorney Peter Ledwith said that the hive went against article 185-7 of the village code, which reads, “grounds, buildings and structures shall be maintained free of insect, vermin and rodent harborage and infestation. Methods used for exterminating insects, vermin and rodents shall conform to generally accepted practice.”
Altman and Shepard received a notice from the village in May demanding the hive’s removal, and it informed them that a neighbor had complained that the bees were spreading onto their property and into the adjoining garage. The couple hired Lee Snead, a Bellport attorney, to represent them. Snead provided the Herald with letters he sent to Village Hall before action was taken and said that he never received a response. Ledwith explained that the letters were not addressed to him, but regardless, village officials were determined to take the hive.
“If you have something that involves insects and it’s infesting other areas, you have to clean it up,” Ledwith said. “It’s a general thing, but infestation means exactly that — infestation.”
Altman and Shepard said that the hive could not be considered an infestation because honeybees are used for agriculture. Altman added that they are docile, and that she and her husband were not selling the honey for profit. “My gripe is with the Village of Lynbrook on a number of counts,” she said. “Honeybees are harmless. They don’t spread human diseases. They are not aggressive. I don’t see how it represents an infestation.”
Ledwith said that the building department had a warrant from Acting Village Justice Thomas Atkinson to enter the property. Building Inspector Terry Daly went to the house with a member of the Lynbrook Police Department and Walter Blohn, a professional beekeeper who works for the Queens County Farm Museum.
Daly and Blohn deemed the hive dangerous because bees were swarming there. Ledwith said that Blohn found three queen bee larvae in the hive, and explained that when those larvae are present, it is common for the bees to swarm and find new places to build more hives.
After vacuuming the bees, Blohn took the hive with him so he could extract the queen bee larvae. He then returned the hive’s remnants to Altman and Shepard. “They returned the wooden boxes the hives were in, but the honey and the bees were gone,” Altman said. “We can’t use the equipment anymore because it can be contaminated and kill the bees.”
Altman said she was also upset because Blohn — whose brother, Rich, is a master beekeeper for the Long Island Beekeepers Club, where Altman and Shepard purchased the bees — said they didn’t know what they were doing. “He said we’re not beekeepers, we’re bee-havers,” she said. “That was insulting.”
According to Altman, she and her husband have studied the process of caring for bees and maintaining a hive, and attended workshops. She said they wanted to work with bees after they learned about how beneficial they are to the environment and food production. Altman added that she and Shepard are exploring their legal options with Snead.
Ledwith acknowledged that bees are exempt from infestation laws in New York state because they are considered producers, but added that the only time the exemption is legitimate is when they are kept on a farm. He said that the opinion of the state’s Agriculture and Markets Department is that if the hive were producing honey commercially, or if the bees were intended to pollinate a farm no smaller than five acres, they would be permitted. Ledwith expressed confidence that a judge would agree.
Though they can’t get their bees back, Shepard and Altman plan to continue fighting. Altman said they would also resume educating others about beekeeping on their website, www.suburbansweet.com.
The couple also posted a photo on Facebook of the remains of their hive with a note about what happened. “This was our beautiful beehive,” it reads. “The Village of Lynbrook took it without our consent, vacuumed the bees, stole the honey and dumped this contaminated, useless mess on our doorstep. Shame.”