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.

2

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.

There are a few things you can with your standard langstroth roofs to help keep the bees comfortable during a heat wave. There are also a few design modifications well worth considering when building your own roofs that may further protect your bees from the intense mid-summer sun.

Can't the bees just fan the hive to keep things cool?

Yes, they will certainly try, but as amazing as they are, even bees have their limits. If it gets too hot they will shut down brood production, and in extreme situations it is possible to lose colonies.

To get a sense of how hard your bees are working to keep cool, it's relatively easy to place a thermometer at your entrance(s) to gauge the temperature of the air being pushed out of the hive.

IMGP1869

Keep in mind brood rearing requires a temperature in the 33-36°C (91 - 97°F) range. If your entrance temperatures are significantly above that, you may wish to take the temperature near the brood nest to see if they are winning the climate control battle.

Even when things are not too extreme, why not take a few simple steps that might save your bees from wasting time and energy?

Creating ventilation

Adding an upper entrance and tilting a telescoping cover back is certainly a simple way to offer some heat relief to a colony.

langstroth upper entrance with lid tilted back

Painting metal roofs white

With the ambient temperature at 33.8°C (92.8°F), a plain metal covered roof was a very hot 46.1°C (115°F), while a metal rooftop with a coat of white latex paint was 38.3°C (101°F):

temperature of painted metal hive roof

Providing shade

In my region, it is generally advised to locate your bees in full sun. For those living further south, the conventional wisdom is to try and provide mid-day shade. If, like me, you have chosen a full sun location, you can provide shade only when the temperatures are unusually hot.

A simple, if temporary, way to add shade is to lay a few tree branches on top of your hive. I chose branches from a tree species known to be invasive in my area.

Using branches to provide the bees a bit of shade

Within a short period of time, this dropped the temperature of my painted roof down 3.4°C to 34.9°C (95°F).

Of course, the leaves will soon dry out and shrivel. If you are experiencing an extended heatwave, you may wish to consider a more durable solution.

Build a double-level roof.

The idea here is that the top-level creates a solar shield that effectively shades the bottom level, while simultaneously creating an air gap through which a breeze can pass, thus minimizing thermal conduction of heat downwards into the hive.

With the ambient temperature at 33.7°C (92.7°F)

Ambient temperature near the beehive

The metal covered, upper-level of the roof was 46.7°C (116°F), while the temperature below was a cool 31.4°C (88.5°F)

Temperture under a 'warre' style beehive roof with solar shield

The inspiration for this style of roof comes from the warré hive.

Build your roofs with corflute under the metal

Corflute is the kind of material election signs are usually printed on. The air pockets in the material help insulate and minimize thermal conductivity.

Using an old printing press sheet and coflute to protect the beehive from rain and heat

Use a Quilt or other form of insulation

A warré style quilt helps keep heat in during the winter, but it also helps keep heat from the sun out of the hive during the summer.

Thermometer

The thermometer I used throughout this post is a regular digital thermometer that one might use in a kitchen.

The main quality you are looking for in this tool is ability to adjust to ambient temperature relatively quickly. You can find one here on Amazon.

Feeding, particularly at the end of season when there could be a lack of natural forage can set off robbing behaviour. For this reason it's best to feed on the top of the hive and just a little before sunset.

This year I added either empty hive boxes or ekes on top of the hives to make space for a plastic food container that is fitted with a wooden raft. The inspiration for which comes from this page which outlines a few different feeder setups.

This is what it looks like in action:

honeybees feeding in a simple top feeder

Apart from robbing behaviour, the other reason for which it is preferred to feed bees at the end of the day is that it makes the hive go absolutely nuts. It seems that once a few bees discover this sudden source of sweetness they go tell their friends. Naturally other bees will want in on the action and set off to look for this great source of forage. It should not be unexpected that they will look for food outside of the hive, that is, after all, where they usually look for nectar sources. Very quickly orientation flights will commence and the bees will scour the immediate area for the food source which is actually inside their hive.

You can see in the above video that they will also be attracted to the smallest gaps around the feeder even if they are not big enough for them to get through.

I personally feel it's best to avoid feeding all together if you can, however if you must feed, then feeding small amounts in the late evening is best. This is a particularly pertinent consideration for urban beekeepers. Though the mass amounts of bees searching the area for non-existent flowers may not act aggressively towards people, it is one of the situations where your neighbours are more likely to come into contact with your bees. In one case, when I returned 24 hours after feeding, they still had some syrup left in the feeder and they were still sending out foragers to find flowers. Upon arrival at the apiary, while I was still 75 meters away and two stories down from the hives, I already had a few bees buzzing around me.

The following video of the hive entrance starts right after the colony had been given feed. Each five second clip shows what the entrance looked like at one minute intervals. So by the end of the video you see what was happening roughly 18 minutes after feeding.

 

5

Thinking of becoming a beekeeper?

Start with our list of the top ten questions you need be think about before getting started.

I also run a hands-on, season long, beekeeping course. More details on the Toronto Honeys site if you are interested in applying.

Why Urban Beekeeping?

As an city-boy the draw to beekeeping was simple. I was generally concerned about the environmental impact of industrial agriculture, and the quality of my food supply. As a result I wanted to become more involved in the production of my own food. While working at a community garden I learned there was a group doing beekeeping.

IMGP2094

At the time the notion of keeping bees seemed like a wild dream. I do love honey so I decided being able to see how it's made was an opportunity I should jump at. Never mind the fact that I had up to this point been afraid of bees and was uncertain if I was allergic to their stings. I was careful my first season as a beekeeper and didn't get stung at all. I've since learned that I'm not allergic and very few people really are.

urban beekeeping

 

Challenges to urban beekeeping in Toronto

The greatest impediment to keeping bees in this city is the Ontario bee act. Though many cities around the world have recently opened up the doors to beekeepers, our provincial law specifies that hives must be kept at a distance of 30m from property lines (or 10m from highways). Though the act isn't enforced unless someone complains about your bees, it makes me reluctant to keep a hive at my own house and drives others to practice beekeeping covertly without the benefit of the provincial inspector.

On the other hand there certainly seems to be wide spread interest in beekeeping, and many different parties are competing for locations. Without the 30m rule, we'd likely need some form of regulations around hive density or we'd see an over abundance of bees in the city similar to what has been reported in New York and London.

So far both the local media and the public have been very receptive to the concept of urban bees. So I can't exactly say public relations is a problem, but it is certainly something I think about a great deal. Many Toronto beekeepers are just jumping in and hoping to figure things out as they go. The problem is, even among those who've been doing this for a while, it's a very small minority that have a reasonable sense of what is involved in managing population growth. This has resulted in some overcrowded apiaries, lots of swarms getting away from beekeepers, and feral colonies setting up homes in places where they are not wanted and need to be removed.

So far not a big deal, but I fear as our cities bee population grows we might see a backlash similar to what New York experienced after a few swarms clustered on busy public streets. With this in mind, I've put in a great deal of effort towards mastering the art of population control and have established relationships with farms where I can bring bees if my city locations exceed capacity.

I'd also say some work still needs to be done increasing the general public's comfort level around bees, showing that these generally docile creatures are not a serious threat and that they differ from wasps.

bees exchanging nectar

 

Why not move to a farm if you want to keep bees?

Well, there is a great deal I enjoy about the urban lifestyle, but I probably would move to a farm if I saw it as a good opportunity for me. It's just very difficult to see myself becoming a full time beekeeper at this time. It's a profession that is facing some monumental challenges and it would make for a very risky career move.

There might be a great deal of concrete here but there is also a great diversity of flowers. In contrast, much of our agricultural land has been transformed into large mono-crop operations that depend on the heavy use of pesticides which consequently makes it uninhabitable for bees.

bee nose

 

Where do city bees find flowers?

The quality of forage varies widely by neighbourhood, a few well planted gardens here, a street lined with a bunch of the right kind of trees there, an empty lot over grown with wild flowers before being developed does add up.

On the other hand, with some locations we've seen our hives consistently under-produce, and have had to accept that there was simply not enough forage in the area for the number of hives that had been set up in the area.

Honey bee on clover at Downsview park Toronto.

 

Beekeeping groups and associations

Resonating Bodies - "A series of art and community projects which focus on pollination ecology, with special attention paid to the intersection of native bees, habitat and coevolution of plants and pollinators of Toronto, Canada and beyond"

Urban Toronto Beekeepers' AssociationThey've been meeting once a month since 2013. Meetings typically feature a speaker presenting a topic. They also have a facebook group.

Toronto Beekeepers Co-op - This group has been operating at different sites in Toronto since the early 2000's. A limited number of new members are accepted every year. Members learn the art of beekeeping along side staff beekeepers through the collective management of the hives.

Toronto District Beekeepers’ Association - Membership is open to all. The groups meets once a month throughout the beekeeping season. The group has been around over 100 years and attracts all sorts of beekeepers. The meetings are held just a little outside of Toronto at the Kortright Centre in Vaughan.

U of T B.E.E.S. - The university of Toronto's student beekeeping club at the st.George campus.

 

Bee supply shops

It's a bit of a niche market, and there's not a whole lot of options out there. If making a long trip it's not a bad idea to call ahead and make sure that they have what you need in stock.

Propolis-etc. (Near Keele and Sheppard) - They also have a few shops around Ontario and Quebec.

A list of equipment suppliers for all of Ontario can be found on the Ontario Beekeepers' Association's site.

You can also have supplies shipped to you from Bee Maid in Manitoba.