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Buzzing Bees Split Community

There's a buzz going on among neighbors in Fairfax and the source is two backyard beehives. On one side, the honey bees are a threat to the suburban lifestyle of backyard gardens, barbecues and games of tag. To the beekeeper, it's the preservation of a species, plant life, a hobby and a soothing interval in a hectic day.

Ilaine Upton, a.k.a. the honey beekeeper, stood in her backyard among the bee traffic, coming and going. She is an attorney in the City of Fairfax.

"It's a very pleasurable hobby. There's something to us that's really relaxing about the bees, I like to bring out my coffee and just watch them," Upton said.

She also is growing 13 different fruits and vegetables in the yard and is concerned about the purity of the food she eats, the mites that are threatening the honeybee on a national level, and the honey she eats.

"This has been a lifelong dream of mine to have fruit trees. A lot of the American honey you buy in stores is from China and they used pesticides. I'd rather grow my own," she said.

Bordering her backyard is the LaCroix residence, about 25 feet from the two hives. Sandi LaCroix is worried about her children, neighbors and her husband getting stung. She feels her rights are being violated.

"I can't really sit in my backyard and have a barbecue. I think [the Uptons] are very much into nature, the things they [Uptons] like to do are indicative to things on a farm. I'm not against nature but I don't believe raising bees in a quarter-acre subdivision is appropriate. This is infringing on me," she said.

Her husband, Gustave thinks it's a nuisance. He was stung once.

"You can't control a bee. The children I worry about, and the dogs — I see them chomping at them. We used to eat our dinner outside, we don't do that anymore. This isn't an agricultural district," he said.

UPTON INSISTS the bees pose no problem to anyone unless they're stepped on or tormented.

"The bees will not sting unless you corner them or do stuff around the queen," she said.

One child around the corner in the Twinbrook neighborhood where the hives are located, got stung and was allergic to them. He had to go to the hospital but is all right.

The buzz reached the office of Supervisor Sharon Bulova (D-Braddock) and she tried to resolve it diplomatically. The Fairfax County code allows "up to four hives may be kept on any size lot in Fairfax County," according to her letter to the Board of Supervisors. She then urged the board to "strengthen the regulations on keeping bees." Mainly, "look at the regulations dealing with lot sizes and minimum distances so as to provide the best environment to maintain healthy bee populations and peaceful neighborhoods," the letter said..

"I wanted to see if we could resolve the matter on a neighbor-to-neighbor basis," Bulova said.

Her motion to the board died for lack of any supervisor seconding the motion, which surprised her.

THE BEES are in trouble though, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture research entomologist John Harbo. The feral mite and the varroa mite is "the number one beekeeping problem right now," he said.

The varroa mite is a parasite mite, according to Harbo.

"There is some evidence it is killing the bee hives. The problem is still very serious," he said.

This is one thing Upton is worried about, and their contribution to pollinating plants.

She is aware of the fear as well.

"They're not aggressive, I would not want to keep a nuisance," she said.

Upton's son Nick isn't a bee person either.

"I don't bother them, they don't bother me," he said.

Gustave LaCroix just wants to live in his neighborhood, doing suburban-like things without the threat of bees.

"When you go out and get your paper, you're greeted by two drones. It's going to get more active as it gets hotter. Our school bus stop is right up at the top of the hill. If those fruit trees are bearing fruit in September, that's going to be trouble," he said, "honey is right up at the Safeway."

THE LACROIXS have passed around a petition, while Upton is planning a counter-petition to those who are pro-bees and pro organic food. She is a member of the Beekeepers Association, which has 60 members in Northern Virginia, and has them on her side too.

A resolution to the problem is not clear cut. Bulova's resolution is to maintain healthy bee populations and peaceful neighborhoods. The LaCroixs can see no resolution except getting rid of the hives entirely. To Upton, who has invested more than $500 already and is trying to get an extractor needed for the honey, a tall fence is a possibility. "People are afraid of a lot of things, it's like, if people are afraid of dogs would I have to get rid of my dog," Upton said.