Bee keepers’ liability – who owns a swarm of bees?

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‘A swarm in May is worth a bale of hay’.  So goes the old country saying.

Now is the time when bees left to their own devices will issue a prime swarm and really there is nothing finer in nature.

But if it is ‘worth a bale of hay’, who pays who?

Honey bees and other insects are animals in the sense that they are non-human. They are, essentially, wild and the swarm is an expression of that independence or wildness. As the swarm is seeking a new home it may fly a significant distance to find one.

And yet as animals that are kept and farmed for honey, among other by products, civil liability under the Animals Act can attach to a keeper if the bees have characteristics known to the keeper not normally found in species and which make them dangerous.

The temper of bees can vary enormously and decision making by a bee keeper may unnecessarily increase the risk of damage or injury to neighbours and others.

However, the common law expects most people to be reasonably robust and to put up with the occasional sting under normal circumstances and, in this country, it is difficult to conceive a scenario where the restrictive definitions for liability under the Animals Act could conspire to make a keeper liable for third party injury because the risk is such a low one. That said there is a case reported in Ireland of a Beekeeper being held responsible for a death.

If the law recognises the possibility of a keeper being liable however, it must follow that some bees are possessions or ‘owned’. The distinction seems to be whether they are hived or put in a box and indeed that distinction is reflected in the fact that hives of bees are regularly sold by bee keeping suppliers or from bee keeper to bee keeper. whereas nobody expects to pay for a swarm.

When the swarm first issues from the hive it will predictably move a relatively short distance from its original site. At this stage there must be an argument that the bee keeper remains potentially liable for these bees and certainly most bee keepers would wish to claim ownership of the swarm at this stage.

So the answer to our question may be that a swarm in May is only worth a bale of hay between neighbours.

A version of this article appeared in the East Anglian Daily Times on 19 May 2015.

Dermott Thomas is a business solicitor specialising in litigation and dispute resolution at Barker Gotelee, Suffolk Solicitors.

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Dermott Thomas | Friday, August 22nd, 2015