Urban beekeeping on the rise in many parts of the world. It’s surge in popularity seems to stem from concern about honeybees decreasing numbers, it’s connection to the locally sourced food movement and the classic reason: honey! This shift towards backyard beekeeping isn’t a totally new concept, it’s just a return to how things used to be. I’m not talking about the Egyptians or ancient Greece; I often hear stories from older people about how they remember their grandfather’s hives. Which means that just a few generations ago, average people were homesteading and keeping bees on their land. It’s fair to assume that the landscape has changed somewhat since those days. Luckily, it’s still possible to keep bees and live in harmony with a backyard hive! Although, it does take some extra precautions and forethought. Below I have listed out some handy tips and what to consider before getting started as an urban beekeeper!
Location, location, location!
I have over 60 urban beehives in 25 different locations, most of which are in backyards! Over the years I have really developed an eye for hive placement in an urban environment and I find this decision to be key for problem-free backyard beekeeping! If you are in the San Diego area, you can always have me out to your property to help you select the best site for your hive, but for everyone else, here’s what to watch out for.
Face the hive entrance away from activity. Expect there to be lots of bees flying in and out of your hive during the day. It’s like an airport with a runway and flight path. You don’t always know what route your bees will take, but in general they fly in the direction you point the entrance. Look for the least active part of your property. You want a good 10ft radius of space where there is little to no daily activity. This means, don’t face your hive at a neighbors yard or a pool or a compost bin! If you are having trouble finding a good place for your bees because there is just too much activity, consider elevating them. Rooftop hives are almost undetectable from the ground. You will literally be keeping the bees out of your hair.
Give yourself space to work. Do yourself a favor and place your hive in such a way that you have room to move and work comfortably behind and to the side of the hive. You don’t want to have to stand in front of the entrance while you work your hives because this will create chaos in regards to the flight path. Picture thousands of buzzing airplanes circling around with nowhere to land! If your yard is small or heavily used, you might need to give up a corner of it for your bees. This could involve moving a wood pile, relocating shrubs or even taking out a planter box. Expect to clear at a flat, 5X5′ area for you and your bees.
Watch out for neighbor’s lights. The most common problem I encounter with neighbors has to do with security lights. Bees sometimes fly towards bright lights at night. For this reason, I recommend you evaluate the locations you are considering for you hive at night as well as during the day. Check to see if any bright lights will be in the line of sight of your entrance. These lights can draw guard bees out of the hive. They will buzz around the light (much like moths do) until they die from exhaustion. The neighbors then complain about dead bees all over their patio. To me, this always feels like a very trivial grievance, but it’s better to have happy neighbors. I’ve resolved this issue in the past by helping said neighbor switch to a motion sensor light or by positioning the hive so that the light is not visible from the entrance.
Love thy neighbor…
As much as you might not like this, keeping your neighbors happy is a big part of urban beekeeping. On the whole, I have been delightful surprised at how few issues I have had with neighbors, but a lot of this comes down to my preventative measures. It is vital that you anticipate problems and avoid them in the first place. This is especially important with newly placed hives. A bad first impression with a neighbor can be hard to overcome.
Talk to your neighbors… or don’t. When I first started keeping bees, it wasn’t actually legal to do so. I was therefore at the mercy of my neighbors because if any of them had taken issue and reported me, my hives would have had to go! With this knowledge, I set out to keep my bees in secret. I placed them so that they weren’t visible from neighboring yards and I didn’t tell a soul. Unfortunately, my dad did not get this memo and promptly told the woman living across the street from us. She then went on to tell everyone else on the block and soon people would shout at me from 3 houses up, “Hey Hilary! How are your bees?!” Like I said, I’ve been amazed at how many neighbors have not only tolerated my urban hives, but welcomed them! You know your neighbors better than I do though so, if you think they might cause a stink- mum’s the word. If you manage to keep the secret long enough, when a difficult neighbor does finally find out, you will be able to say that they bees have already been living in harmony with them them for X number of months and no incidents. This sometimes works to calm things down.
Give your bees a water source. A neighborly beekeeper should try to head off problems their hive might cause. One of the most common is when your bees are drawn to a neighbor’s water source. You don’t want your bees to to invade your neighbor’d dog bowl or swimming pool! So, you should make the effort to provide a more appealing water source for them in your own yard. This can take some doing because bees can be picky about where they get their water.
Smooth things over with honey. In the event that something does go amiss with your bees and a neighbor’s involved, honey can be an amazing relationship salve! I once had a neighbor come towards me just as I was getting down from on of my rooftop apiaries… I had a cloud of angry bees around me and I told him to stay back, but he didn’t listen and ended up getting stung in the face. His eye swelled so bad, he couldn’t see out of it the following day. After he tasted the honey I brought him, he became a fervent lover of my bees and declared he would gladly take another sting to the face if it meant he could get more honey.
Distribute a pesticide flyer. Your bees will travel up to three miles to forage, but many will stay close to home if foraging is abundant. Bees are all about efficiency after all. Unfortunately, they cannot be contained to just your garden and will definitely be on your neighbor’s flowering plants. This means that your bees face the very real risk of being wiped out by pesticides. All it takes is one careless neighbor to spray a flowering plant and you will find a pile of dead and dying bees in front of your hive. I have had this happen to me several times. Most of the time, I lose the entire colony. It is always devastating. The only way I have found to combat it, is through education. Before placing your hive, I strongly urge you to talk to your neighbors about pesticides. You don’t have to make this about not using any pesticides ever, but you can at least tell them not to treat plants while they are in bloom. I also tell them about neonicotinoids, widely believed to be driving force behind the pollinator collapse despite the spin articles that have been put out by the companies who make billions selling it and the required “paragraph of doubt” the media put at the end of all articles on this subject. Ideally you would talk to as many neighbors in person as possible. I canvass the neighborhood and leave behind an informational flyer for those I don’t get to talk to.
Campaign your neighbors to plant flowers. Once your neighbors find out that you have a hive, everyone will begin to pester you about when they can get some honey from it. At first you’ll gleefully exclaim that they should expect a big jar soon, feeling only a slight sense of hesitancy after having said it. Later, you’ll realize you probably won’t be able to harvest honey in your first year and you’ll reply in a resigned way, “Probably not until next year!”, but you’ll secretly hope you are wrong. Later still, you’ll have forgotten that honey was the reason you got into this venture in the first place because you will be so preoccupied with keeping your bees healthy and alive. Every time someone asks you when you’ll have honey, you have to fight not do sigh and roll your eyes at them thinking, “Is honey ALL you people think about? I have to leave enough for my girls!” Believe me, it will happen to you. Luckily, I have come up with a great response for honey seekers. I tell them, if they want honey, they should plant a bee garden. I inform them that honey production is directly linked to the amount of flowers the bees have available to them and the more they can plant, the more honey we’ll get!
As Rusty over at Honey Bee Suite recently wrote, more urban beekeeping alone will not help save the bees, but the transformation from an unaware person to an engaged one can. I believe the transformative powers of beekeeping can save our bees and much more. When a person becomes a beekeeper it engages them with their environment and their food system. They start to pay attention to weather patterns, bloom times, other pollinators, pesticides, where their food came from, soil health and on and on. This ultimately leads to more sustainable living choices. The best part is, this awareness is contagious. You can spread it to your friends and neighbors. I like to think of it as, “pollinating hearts and minds”. It’s going to take a village to save our bees.