Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Bee Season

One of the more memorable new arrivals in the library this semester was The Emergency Sasquatch Ordinance: And Other Real Laws That Human Beings Have Actually Dreamed Up, Enacted and Sometimes Even Enforced. Compiled by Kevin Underhill, the editor of the legal humor blog Lowering the Bar, this new title brings together silly, strange and just plain useless laws on the books in the federal code, the 50 states, several municipalities, and even foreign countries.

Unlike other resources pointing to "dumb laws," many of which turn out to be either unsubstantiated or no longer in force, Underhill's book provides clear citation information for each law described, along with the editor's humorous commentary. The included laws range from quaintly outdated, to just plain odd. Out of more than 200 entries, though, none is stranger than a series of translated German statutes which regulate the ownership of runaway bees.

As it turns out, fugitive bee swarms, or "Bienenschwärmen," take up no fewer than four sections of the German Civil Code (Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch, or BGB for short). Most importantly, the owner of the swarm must "pursue it with undue delay" or risk losing his claim to the property (§ 961). It's okay to trespass on other people's property during the pursuit (§ 962). Things get a little tricky if the owner's swarm intermingles with someone else's, so thankfully a few more sections of the BGB address the finer points of separating multiple swarms (§§ 963-64).

They may seem a little far-fetched and oddly specific, but these sections of the BGB are 100% real. To confirm the existence of a fantastical statute from a non-U.S. jurisdiction, researchers might begin at Foreign Law Guide for an overview of a country's law sources. Foreign Law Guide's entry for Germany points to a translated website for statutes, where one can read the bee-related laws in English. Foreign Law Guide will also point to published translations of key statutes, such as The German Civil Code (1994), which may be available in the library’s print collection.

Native speaker? The go-to source for German legal research at Duke is Beck Online, a German-language database for primary and secondary law sources. Although the Goodson Blogson isn't proficient in German, a search in the Suche: box for "schwarm 961" will bring top results from the [Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch] | Bund; from there, researchers can navigate to the subsequent three sections of the Civil Code.

The United States Code is comparatively silent on the finer points of bee swarms, although some U.S. states and territories do have similar statutes to the German laws. For example, The Laws of Puerto Rico § 1953 is nearly verbatim on the subject of the first two German code sections. In addition, searches of American case law turn up a number of 19th-century disputes regarding bee swarm ownership, suggesting that the current German laws are likely just a rarely-enforced holdover from the early days of bee entrepreneurship.

For help separating strange statutes from urban legend, or for assistance navigating research tools for other countries, "bee" sure to Ask a Librarian.