There is no reader question this week. Helena has a topic she’d like to address.
It’s increasingly common for people to keep chickens and bees in their backyards (not to mention rabbits, goats, and pigs). But it isn’t always appreciated by one’s neighbors. I interviewed some urban farmers and got the scoop on their three biggest etiquette challenges.
1. Should you ask neighbors’ permission to keep critters?
Absolutely not, insists Cameo Wood, owner of Her Majesty’s Secret Beekeeper. Misplaced fears may lead them to refuse. For instance, people often wrongly claim they are allergic to bees, says Wood, though this is true only of .01 percent of the population.
One beekeeper she knows made the mistake of consulting the neighbors first. “[They] said everyone in their family would go into anaphylactic shock if stung. They said she was basically trying to kill their family, and they were going to call the police and the fire department and throw ant bombs into her yard.”
People are also afraid that bees will infest their gardens or worse, swarm and attack. In fact, bees typically like to forage further afield than next door, says Wood. And, explains Andrew Coté, who has 35 beehives in Manhattan and Brooklyn, bees look scary when they’re swarming in a giant clump while searching for a new place to build a hive, but they’re actually at their least dangerous then. “Since they have left their old hive, they have nothing to defend.”
Bees aren’t the only species to be misunderstood. Esperanza Pallana, who keeps rabbits and chickens and other poultry in her Oakland backyard, says: “A lot of people think birds are dirty and carry disease.” One of her ducks escaped, only to materialize inside the local 7-Eleven. A panicked employee called the police. “People are so disconnected from animals and nature, they don’t know what may or may not harm them,” says Pallana.
The answer is to keep your urban farm on the down-low while installing it. Once people realize that your chickens haven’t given them avian flu and your bees aren’t interested in mauling their toddler, they’ll be more likely to accept your activities.
2. How do you avoid upsetting the neighbors if you’re slaughtering livestock in your backyard?
Slaughtering a rabbit is like watching porn. Your neighbors may not have a problem with it on an intellectual level, but they certainly do not want to see—or hear—you doing it. K. Ruby Blume, founder and director of the Oakland Institute of Urban Homesteading, says she kills rabbits in parts of her yard that the neighbors can’t see into and puts up a tarp if necessary. Thankfully, if you do it right, slaughtering shouldn’t create a lot of noise or smell. According to Pallana, “If you hear the noise of an animal in pain, something has gone terribly wrong.”
3. What’s the best way to placate neighbors who complain?
Make concessions if you can, even if you think their complaint is unjustified. That makes them feel heard. A neighbor of Blume’s was convinced her bees were ruining his barbecues and invading his house. In fact, the troublesome insects were wasps. Nonetheless, Blume mollified him by turning her hive to face away from his yard (bees fly in the direction their door faces).
Distribute the fruits of your labor. “I give people honey and eggs,” says Pallana. “If I have meat, or preserves and pickles, I will share them.”
Or, once your farming is going nicely, invite the neighbors over and give them a tour. Thomas Kriese, creator of the blog Urban Chickens, received complaints about noise when he first got his two birds. “They sing an egg song when they lay an egg. It can be just a couple clucks or a real ‘ca-caw’ that is audible over several yards.” Eventually, people got used to the noise, but visits definitely helped improve neighborly relations, Kriese says. Letting kids pet your chickens or giving them an impromptu lesson about where eggs come from can help placate their parents.
Follow the urban farmer’s code of etiquette and eventually, your neighbors may even come to enjoy pitching in when you’re out of town, says Kriese. “It’s much easier to get a chicken sitter than a dog sitter.”