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Sterling Heights

March 29, 2013

Questions buzz around destruction of bee colonies

By Brian Louwers
C & G Staff Writer

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Sterling Heights resident Timothy Fitch suspects someone used pesticide to destroy his 700,000 honeybees in seven backyard hives near Van Dyke and 16 Mile Road in early March.

STERLING HEIGHTS — Timothy Fitch spent a decade learning about bees. He learned how they live, how they make honey and what kills them.

That’s how he knows that whatever wiped out his colonies of about 700,000 honeybees in early March wasn’t natural, but malicious.

“On March 8, I went outside and I was looking at my hives and I noticed there was no bee activity, and we had two days in a row of wonderful weather,” said Fitch, of Sterling Heights, 27, who this year entered his third year of actually keeping bees. “As a veteran bee keeper, you learn behavior. You learn what to expect, and I knew something was wrong.”

Fitch said he checked a tray at the bottom of one of his seven Langstroth hives and found accumulated honey. Knowing thriving bees wouldn’t have permitted that, he opened the top of the hive and found the bees dead.

The way they died, Fitch said, offered clues about the cause.

He said the bees didn’t freeze. He explained that colonies of bees have ways to maintain consistent internal environments despite extreme external temperatures. He said bees cluster to generate warmth when the mercury drops, and that his dead bees were found scattered about the hive.

A disturbing phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder causes bees to abandon hives, but his bees were killed where they were found. 

So Fitch’s suspicion turned to pesticide. He now believes it was sprayed on the hives by a malicious destructor.

“It could have been something as simple as Raid,” he said, explaining how accumulated fumes in the enclosed hives would have left the bees as he found them — dead where they worked, some with their “tongues” hanging out.

“I don’t know who did it,” Fitch said. “I think it was an extremely careless and cruel act. I think whoever did it did not think it through.”

Had the bees survived the pesticide attack, Fitch said the honey — which he said is a natural preservative — would have been contaminated and potentially consumed by his family, friends and neighbors.

The attack also left the seven constructed hives unusable by Fitch or any beekeeper because of the potential chemicals absorbed in the porous wood.

Fitch said he called Sterling Heights police to report the damage, and he estimated his total loss at about $14,000 for the hives and the Italian honeybees. He also lost about 50 gallons of honey left contaminated and unusable.

He said he was happy with the police response, but there were no suspects in the crime.

And now, he’s not sure what to do next.

“At this point, I don’t know whether I’ll continue. But I’ve had a real outcry of support and encouragement from my community, and even from far away on other ends of the state where people have heard about it,” Fitch said. “I do want to; however, I hesitate with concern of a reoccurrence of what happened.”

Jessica Fitch said she was, at first, a little uneasy about her husband’s plans to keep bees in the yard but that it quickly became a non-issue for her when she learned more about it. The family — including the couple’s two small children — and their  neighbors have since enjoyed natural honey and products made from beeswax.

She, too, was at a loss about why someone in the community would destroy the family’s bee colonies.

“I think the thing that bothered me the most is that we were never rude to anybody who asked about it,” Jessica Fitch said. “I don’t know why people don’t talk to anyone anymore.”

There is another angle to the Fitch family’s bee story.

Before the colonies were destroyed, Timothy Fitch was contacted by the city about an alleged zoning violation.

He said he was first contacted last August about the bees and six laying hens he had in a backyard chicken coop. The case was handled through the Sterling Heights Zoning Department after a complaint was filed.

Correspondence went back and forth. Documents show the city claimed it was illegal to keep “livestock” on properties smaller than eight acres. Fitch countered that the activity was protected under the Michigan Right to Farm Act, but the city claimed the provision doesn’t apply to cities with populations greater than 100,000, which would include Sterling Heights.

The case went to the next level in early January, when Fitch learned he had a bench warrant for his arrest. He said the complaint was made in August, but that the citation was dated in October and filed at the court in December.

Fitch said a judge eventually granted him a $1,000 personal recognizance bond ahead of a formal court hearing. He maintained the city has no ordinance governing beekeeping and said attorneys also agreed to drop the bees from the case.

But Sterling Heights Community Relations Director Steve Guitar said Fitch was ordered to do away with both the chickens and the bees.

“It’s a land use issue,” Guitar said. “Those are not permitted in a residential zoning. The bees were also covered with that order.”

For the moment, Fitch suggested that the city’s case is moot.  The chickens are gone, and now so are his bees.

“At the end of the day, they got their way. And I’ve got nothing,” Timothy Fitch said.

He added that he’d be willing to take his advocacy for bees to the next level — possibly by addressing beekeeping and its benefits before the Sterling Heights City Council — if the city attempted to put a new law banning bees on its books.

For the record, Timothy Fitch said he is allergic to bee stings.

“Bees are essential to the life of every living being on the planet. They’re essential pollinators for the crops, for the foods we eat. They’re naturally docile and not aggressive,” he said. “I think there’s a great misunderstanding. We are losing the bees at a rapid rate and people need to have real concern. There needs to be outcry for research, and people need to just overall have a better understanding of the bee, its role, and a lot of the misconceptions need to be dispelled.”

The zoning case remains pending in the 41-A District Court. The next court date was set for April 12.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Brian Louwers at brianlouwers@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1089.