Fundamental principle: every landowner can have reasonable use and enjoyment of his/her property subject to any specific restrictions e.g. in case of tenant, tenancy agreement, terms of planning permission, etc. However, a landowner cannot exercise this right [in the case of a beekeeper, the beekeeper] if to do so would unreasonably restrict his neighbour's enjoyment of his/her property. It follows that beekeeping is no different from any other activity of mankind; you look to the effect of the activity on the neighbour and if it is, or becomes, inappropriate, the law will intervene. There are few reported law cases concerning bees and neighbours but here are some cases [both from UK and overseas] which have considered liability between the beekeeper and his neighbour.
O'GORMAN v O'GORMAN [IRELAND] 1903
Beekeeper kept twenty colonies close to his neighbour's boundary. Neighbour kept horses close to boundary. Beekeeper disturbed his bees, sometimes deliberately, and bees went beserk, neighbour thrown by a petrified horse and killed. Beekeeper behaved unreasonably and was liable.
PARKER v REYNOLDS [ENGLAND] 1906
Beekeeper [Mr Parker] kept ten hives close to neighbour's boundary and within twenty feet of neighbour's house (so close that bees sometimes took a shortcut through the house on the way to forage).Neighbour [Mr Reynolds, who was also a beekeeper!] and family got badly stung. Mr Parker was required to move his hives.
ROBINS v KENNEDY & COLUMB [NEW ZEALAND] 1931
Bees kept in unreasonable number and did damage to a neighbour. Beekeeper stopped. The position would probably have been different if the beekeeper had had only a few hives. A point to note is the fact that if someone gets stung that does not automatically make the beekeeper liable. Liability occurs when the number of stings and/or disturbances to the neighbour is so great that his use and enjoyment of his property is materially affected.
JOHNSON v MARTIN [ENGLAND] 1950
[A case the beekeeper won!]
The thrust of the plaintiff's argument was that use of land for beekeeping was unreasonable and that it should be stopped. The Court found, however, that the bees in question were kept in a proper manner so the beekeeper was not liable for injury to goats on adjoining land or to their owner. The Court further confirmed that, as a general principle use of land for beekeeping was reasonable.
INGAMELLS v PICKFORD [ENGLAND] 1986
Another case where the beekeeper kept his bees in a perfect manner but his neighbour had been stung on average two stings per year. Action by neighbour failed because her use of her property was not sufficiently disturbed by just two stings per year.
Taking a Practical Approach
The expense of going to Court is likely to be prohibitive, whatever the outcome. Good relations with neighbours, as well as the good name of beekeeping, demand that beekeepers get on with neighbours, indeed all land users. It is likely to be useful to clear any bee activity with your neighbour first and if not cleared, it is probably best to keep your bees elsewhere. Even if the neighbours have initially accepted the presence of bees the beekeeper should always move his bees away if he later suspects the neighbours are becoming concerned.
Sensible location of hives, filled with nice bees, in reasonable numbers, is vital. The test I apply is this. Assuming I was the neighbour and I was wandering permanently around my garden in a swimsuit, would I be happy to have bees next door? Probably a higher standard than the law requires! Just as the beekeeper must be reasonable to his neighbour, so must the neighbour, and activities such as the poisoning of bees and setting alight of hives should, as a final resort, be referred to the relevant authorities.
Environment Act 1990.
Environmental Protection Act 1990 ("EPA"), section 79, states that a statutory nuisance may include "any animal kept in such a place or manner as to be prejudicial to health or a nuisance". Actual nuisance does not have to be shown, it will suffice if the activity complained of interferes with personal comfort.
Section 80 of EPA enables a local authority which is satisfied that a statutory nuisance exists or is likely to occur or recur to take various steps including the issue of a notice requiring the abatement of the nuisance or prohibiting or restricting its occurrence or recurrence. In this type of situation it will be seen that the authority can, in an extreme case, severely restrict or even close down, the beekeeper's beekeeping activities. A beekeeper receiving an abatement notice may appeal against it within a period of 21 days of service on him of the notice.
Finally, under section 82 of the EPA any person, (this includes the beekeeper's neighbour) can apply directly to a magistrate's court. The court has wide powers including to issue an abatement notice.
A beekeeper threatened with a statutory abatement notice, whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation, may be best advised to take his or her beekeeping activities elsewhere, given the likely costs of any action whatever its outcome.