6. How well do you know the neighbourhood?

Whether rural or urban, beekeepers rarely (if ever) have the luxury of controlling the entire forage area of their live stock. The moment your bees fly out from the hive, they are at the mercy of the surrounding community.

bee in flight

Bees are opportunistic; if there is something interesting and abundant close by, they may not travel all that far from the hive. If pickings are slim, however, bees will extend their search. Even at six kilometres away from flowers they will still manage to produce some amount of honey, though ideally they will have many foraging options within one kilometer.

Honey bee on milkweed 

You want to look for an area that has at least an acre's worth per hive of a variety of honey bee friendly flowers blooming throughout the year. At the same time, you want to be cautious of things that may spoil your honey or cause harm to your bees. For example, hives in new york city ended up producing an unusual bright red honey after the bees discovered the maraschino syrup at a cherry factory.

Last summer, after a few months at a new location, I noticed a waste transfer facility near by, and it suddenly dawned on me that proximity to this trash site was probably a significant factor in explaining why I had so many wasps going after my bees.

One of the interesting things about keeping bees is how acutely aware they ask you to be about interconnections in the broader ecosystem surrounding you. It will be impossible to anticipate everything, but familiarity with the community will help guide you to good locations and steer you away from potential problems.

 

7. What makes bees grumpy?

A beekeeper is going to get stung from time to time, but it doesn't need to happen all the time, and ideally, the non-beekeepers around you will never ever catch a sting.

DSC_1016

If you know how to keep your bees happy and peaceful, it will make beekeeping more fun for you and further reduce the risk of problems with the people around you. Some examples of things that may make your bees more irritated are:

  • Vibrations (eg. a colony too close to heavy construction, an HVAC system, rough hive checks)
  • Bee-eating skunks frequently scratching at the hive
  • Weather conditions
  • Genetics
  • Lack of food or water

The source of some problems, like the weather, are completly out of your control, but there is almost always something you can do to at least mitigate an unpleasent situation.

8. Where will the bees get their water?

IMG_8415_1Bees collect water to use for a variety of purposes. The classic problem this presents for city beekeepers is the swimming pool lined with thirsty bees scenario.

Honeybee swimming

Less obvious water sources, like a leaky water faucet in a neighbours yard, may also lead bees to congregate in places where they are unwelcome. You can try to provide a water source of your own, but training them to it from the beginning, and ensuring distance from potentially problematic water sources will make this easier.

 

9. What factors do I need to consider while locating hives on my site?

There's lots of general information out there that describes ideal conditions for beehive placement. Here are a few of the more urban specific considerations to keep in mind:

Rooftop Beehives, Vancouver Convention Centre

You don't want the flight paths of your bees in, out and around the hive to cross people paths. In Vancouver, it's required to use an obstruction like fencing or hedges, if not placements at higher heights to keep bees up and over the heads of neighbours.

hives placed up on a hill

apiary behind glass wall

Personally, I'm a big fan of rooftop beekeeping. Rooftops that are fairly private can provide you with a nice safe space away from other people.

With the frosty winters my bees experience in Canada, a little extra residual heat rising up from a heated building, or off the side of a brick wall is a plus.

. Urban bees

The down sides to rooftop hives are that a) they are more likely to be exposed to wind; b) it can get a little too hot in the summers; and c) if you are going to depend on a ladder for access, harvesting heavy boxes of honey takes a little more thought and a great deal more effort.

getting the hive ready to lift

10. What is my population growth strategy?

When getting started, all the focus is geared towards figuring out how to get going and learning how to keep your bees alive. If you succeed and get a strong colony through the first winter (or simply don't provide a weak colony the right kind of space), you might find yourself struggling to figure out how to handle colonies that want to reproduce. This aspect of bee management can be particularly challenging for beekeepers who may not have the time or space to manage additional hives. Some hobby beekeepers deal with this beekeeping challenge by choosing not to keep the surplus bees at all, simply allowing their swarms to fly into the wild. I see this approach as problematic for two reasons:

Across Grand St: Bees taking over a Chinatown maiblox

  1. The areas surrounding an urban apiary are not particularly wild. There have been a number of stories in the media where bees ended up closing busy streets. It's also common to hear about property damage caused by bees moving into the wall of house.
    Removing a colony of bees living inside a wall
  2. On the continent where I live the honeybee is an introduced species. Increasing the population of feral honeybees decreases the potential for you and other beekeepers in the area to produce a local food product without impacting the wild native pollinators.

Learn as much as you can about the behaviour surrounding colony reproduction so you will be able to:

  • Identify when it is happening and attempt to prevent it.
  • Manage reproduction and plan to keep the additional hives or have other beekeepers lined up who are ready and willing to receive your excess colonies
  • Manage your colonies in such a way that any increases are only temporary.

In this day and age in particular, so long as you are prepared, a case of too many colonies is a wonderful problem to have.

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1. Why do I want to be an urban beekeeper?

City skyline with honey bee on goldenrod.
City bee feasting on goldenrod.

In light of all the recent media attention given to mass bee deaths, there has been a dramatic increase in people getting into urban beekeeping with the hope of saving the bees.

Certainly, the value of bees as pollinators is monumentally important for the web of life on this planet, and this is a very worthy cause to take on. What's important to consider is that we most often hear about honeybees in the media due to their importance in modern industrial agriculture. There are, however, 20 000 different types of bees, many of them facing serious challenges, without a fraction of the people looking out for them that the honeybee has.

sweat bee

If your goal is to save the bees, you may wish to devote your energy towards providing habitat for the other types of wild bees rather than honeybees. In fact, researchers from the university of Sussex have suggested that large numbers of new urban beekeepers populating cities with honeybees could be threatening the health of other types of bees as it leads to increased competition for limited resources.

Here's an example of a simple wild bee condo:

Photo by: Joe Thomissen

If you're interest is honey production, the ideal choice in many parts of the world is the honeybee. My understanding is that locally produced honey has about as low an ecological footprint as you can find in a sweetener, so maybe there's room for noble cause cred looking at it from this angle too.

There are, of course, innumerable other reasons to keep bees. Ask yourself what you hope to get out of the experience. This will put you in a better position to find a path into urban beekeeping that best suits your desires.

 

2. How much time does it take to keep bees?

bending comb straight

I always find this question difficult to answer as I am the sort of person who's always trying to spend more time with them. I can say that at minimum, particularly in densely populated urban areas, it's responsible to check your bees for signs of swarming once a week in the spring; a swarm typically waits till some of the new queen larvae they are raising are nine days old before departing. With experience, in the summer and fall it is theoretically possible to get away with a few weeks between checks if your timing is strategic and all is going well with your hives. There are, of course, situations that may arise where a colony needs some attention a few days in a row.

fresh white wax

In my mind, time spent looking in the hive is really the tip of the iceberg. Especially in the beginning, getting yourself prepared for your hive checks, both in terms of knowledge and equipment, can take up more of your time than anything else. Proper preparation allows your checks to be as purposeful and efficient as possible and will save you time in the long run.

stars nuc box with the warré seed frame removed

You will always need to be budgeting a few hours here and there for putting together that extra hive box, sorting out a feeding system you didn't think you would need, figuring out what a weird unexpected behaviour is all about, etc.

Bringing new hive boxes on the back of my bike

If all this sounds daunting, anticipate that one day you will discover a sudden urge to buy flowers for your lovely fuzzy buzzing ladies. At this point you may very well say something to yourself along the lines of: 'one does not count the hours when one is in love'.

Russian sage offering a snack to a honeybee

 

3. What are the regulations around bees in the city?

Laws surrounding beekeeping vary dramatically by municipality or province / state. See the bottom of this page for Canadian info. This Forum thread contains links to regulations for many American states.

Bees at Hayes Valley Farm

Photo by:edibleoffice

In some cities beekeeping may not be permitted at all, while other cities may require such things as: limits to your hive numbers,  meeting specific hive distance or position criteria, taking some form of training, registering your hives, and following certain management practices.

Generally, the intentions behind these regulations fall into one or both of two groups:

a) To protect other beekeepers from the spread of pests and disease.

b) To protect the public from safety risks.

You will likely find it upsetting if you discover that your municipality is less permissive than some other urban areas. The laws in your area may very well be unreasonable, but keep in mind that your fellow neighbours and beekeepers really do deserve some level of real respect. I keep bees in Toronto, where provincial regulations specifying that hives be placed 30 m from property lines make it impossible to keep bees legally in your backyard. Nevertheless, a fairly large contingent of us have been creative in finding suitable, legally compliant sites.

IMGP2582

In my context, I have little interest in breaking the law for bees - I'd worry my beekeepers liability insurance would not be honoured if I kept illegal hives, and I feel it's probably better to give bees some space anyway, so I'm happy to go a little out of my way for the privilege of keeping bees.

 

4. I've never kept bees before, how do I learn?

Beekeeping where there may be only a small buffer zone between other people and an unexpected bee problem means beekeeping with raised stakes. Knowing as much as possible about what you can expect in different situations before setting up your own urban hives will go a long way in reducing your stress levels and reducing the risks involved with keeping bees.

CERES Beekeeping Group 16/09/2012

Photo by: Meg Riordan

There's no substitute for first hand experience. As a beekeeper’s focus and activities can vary a fair bit at different points in the season, courses that bring you into the bee yard at different times of the year are preferable to more intensive workshops that try to cover everything in a single day or weekend.

DSCF3067

Local beekeepers’ associations are fairly common around the world. Attending their meetings is an excellent way to meet other beekeepers who might enjoy some help around their hives and be willing to mentor you.

bee mentor

Do still read as much as you can. Ideas on how to do things vary wildly among beekeepers, and in some cases different resources will outright contradict each other on what would appear to be statements of fact rather than personal preference. As they can't all be right... well, at least not all of the time… familiarizing yourself with some of the different schools of thought may equip you with a broader ability to interpret what is actually happening with your own bees. For this same reason, I recommend seeking out the more in depth resources right from the start, rather than looking at the 'quick starter guide' style of resources.

5. Will a backyard hive impact my neighbours?

On an emotional level, the presence of a beehive tends to elicit a strong response. Some will be excited and think you're amazing, while others will be terrified and think you're insane; only rarely will people be completely indifferent.

Boise Bees _MG_0258-2

Photo by: Tim Tuttle

There's somewhat of a divide in opinion as to whether or not to tell your neighbours about your new hobby. Some will argue that you should attempt to be stealthy and subtle lest some mean spirited or overly paranoid neighbour starts making things difficult for you. On the other hand, I would suggest that there might be some advantages to being up front about your plan, as there is a good likelihood that the people around you will, sooner or later, notice the sudden propensity towards white jumps suits and veils in your fashion selections and the 80,000+ bees that are being sheltered a few feet away from their family home.

swarm of bees

Photo by:WoK111

There's been a great deal written about the gentle, docile nature of the honeybee. For the most part I agree, bees are primarily interested in flowers and have little time for picking unnecessary fights with people while away from the hive.

IMGP1916

I'm often able to sit peacefully beside my unopened hives without any protective equipment. At 10-20 feet, without a direct line of vision to a hive, it can be difficult for your average person to even notice that bees are flying around them. This, however, does not mean beekeeping is a risk free activity. There are a few situations that will come up that can change the mood of your bees, as well as increase the potential for a negative encounter between human and bee. Examples of such situations include: a nectar dearth that necessitates that you feed your bees, some methods of honey harvesting, allowing a colony to swarm,  or an accidental dropping of a frame or a box full of bees.

 

Part two of this post can be found here.

Link

Do I need a queen excluder?

The simple answer to the question is no you don't need a queen excluder. In fact, I prefer not to use them most of the time. Why I feel that way is best explained by this video where you can see very clearly that some worker bees are struggling to pass through an excluder.

They may not all be as restrictive as the model in this video, but I believe it illustrates why you will find many references to beekeepers calling it a 'honey excluder'.

But won't I end up with brood in my honey?

Probably not. The queen wants to lay a tight compact brood nest and the bees prefer to store honey above the brood. Even if a prolific queen extends the brood nest into a honey super, the worker bees will likely be eager to fill this space with nectar again once the brood hatches.

It is possible, in some situations, that the bees will create a narrow tower of a brood nest up the middle of many boxes. Circumstances where this is more likely to occur include:

  • During a heavy honey flow, if the brood boxes become honey bound, and the queen is desperate for more laying space
  • When extra boxes are provided early, the bees may choose to expand upwards rather than fully filling out the width of each box

Dearth's can also complicate things. If the bees are eating more honey then they are bringing in, they will start moving the brood nest upwards as they eat through their stores.

Even though I find some of these situations described above inconvenient at times, I also believe the bees behave this way for a reason, and suspect there can be value in allowing them the freedom to make the choices they feel are optimal in a given situation.

There are some uses for them

Some instances where a queen excluder can come in handy include making splits, raising queens, and locating a particularly elusive queen.

I've seen beekeepers use queen excluders without any problems

I've worked bee yards for years where excluders where used by default. The bees still stored honey in the supers and it did guarantee that the queen stayed below. We found it useful to put the excluders on early to give the bees a chance to get used to them before the supers were really needed. We also always provided an unobstructed path to the honey supers via an upper entrance.

Link

Organically Managed Beekeeping Podcast and Forums

Informative podcast produced by Craig in Southern Maryland with a focus on sustainable practices. To date he has already interviewed a number of notable beekeepers such as the backwards beekeeper, Phil Chandler, Ross Conrad and a bunch of others.

In his last episode of 2012 Craig the host revisited different aspects of his approach, his recommendations for beginners and how his ideas have evolved over the years.

Definitely worth going through the whole episode library.

Link

PDF of Abbé Warre's Beekeeping for All

The full 12th edition translated into english by David Heaf (one of the more prominent modern day users of the the warré hive.)

The book covers a bit of beekeeping basics, Warré's analysis of some of the different hives of his time, a few interesting observations of bee behaviour in addition the specifications and rational behind his own hive design. Many interesting things in here even if you are an experienced beekeeper with no interest in using a warré hive.

If you assume it's not possible to put natural comb without frames in an extractor have a look at page 63.

In the 5th edition warré discussed the option of using frames in his style of hive.

There's another video in which David Heaf goes through the different pieces used in this hive and some of his construction methods that is worth watching as well:

Link

PBS Nova Tales From the Hive

Some stunning cinematography in the PBS documentary that follows the life of a hive through the season. It's a great way to pick up some of the basics on bees, but even if you're already familiar with the information coverd the video is of interest for all the stunning close-ups, including scenes of the mating flight of the queen.

There is also an interesting 'making of' article that explains how these images were captured.