How To Get Started With Urban Beekeeping
Let me just start by saying this: urban beekeeping is a challenge.
That’s us, in our backyard with our hive. The hive is in its second location, and we are on our third hive of bees – and we only started a year ago.
Beekeeping is not an easy task, regardless of where you are. Even if you’re keeping hives in a rural location, or you have a hobby farm, or a large farm, bees are challenging. And if you’re trying to do urban beekeeping – that is, keeping bees in a yard where houses are close together – you’ve got a whole other set of challenges facing you.
Neighbors who might not be huge fans of a beehive next door. Water sources. Sunlight. Possible swarming. Other hives that might be nearby. Or, in our case, failed hives for reasons unknown.
Our first hive was purchased through the local beekeeper’s association. Within 3 months, they had all left. We don’t know where they went or why, but one day they were just gone.
Our second hive was a cutout. It was a HUGE amount of bees. Within a matter of weeks, they were all dead. No known reason, just all dead. And let me tell you about the smell inside an entire hive of dead bees – it is not a pleasant one.
Our third hive was also a cutout. Brandan likes to work with one of the other members of the local beekeeper’s association on the cutouts, and its a win-win because we get the bees from the cutout. This hive came to us last summer. The only catch with a cutout is that you don’t know if you got the queen or not. So, we purchased another queen (not cheap, she was like $30!) and added her in. We’re glad we did, though, because this hive has stuck around and has survived.
We took them down to a single box for the winter, kept them fed, and in all honesty, largely neglected them towards the end of my pregnancy and for the first 3 months of Slater’s life. We just didn’t have the time to check on them. Irresponsible? Probably. Unavoidable? Yes. (For those of you thinking to yourselves, “couldn’t you just have taken 5 minutes to check on them? The answer is no. Have a newborn and then you’ll understand! Also, a hive check does NOT take 5 minutes.)
Here’s the good news – we went into the hive about a week ago, and they were THRIVING. Capped brood, honey, tons of happy and active bees. Bee success!
A couple of the frames were glued together with honeycomb – they had bridged the spacing between the frames, so when we pulled it out, as carefully as possible, it still pulled it open. We took the frame out to inspect it, then gently put it back so they could get to work fixing it. The bottom box isn’t one you harvest honey from anyway; this is the “brood box” and any honey in it is there for them to eat.
They were at max capacity in the bottom brood box, so we added another on top. This is still not a box you would take honey from; it’s to allow them space to expand their brood and honey production for themselves. Once they fill that one, we will add a queen excluder and a third box, and THAT is the box we can start to harvest honey from.
The queen excluder keeps her down below – she’s too big to fit through, and the other bees can get through to build out comb, while she stays down below and continues to lay eggs.
Here’s the moral of the story – beekeeping in general, and urban beekeeping in particular, is a challenging task. It might take you a few tries before you get it right, and that’s ok. Bees need us to make as much effort as possible to save them.
If you’re interested in beekeeping, don’t let living in a residential area deter you. We live in downtown Charleston, right in the middle of the city. Houses are right next to each other. I’m not sure most of our neighbors even know we have a beehive. However, here are 5 things that are helpful to keep in mind when getting started with urban beekeeping:
1. Water Source
Bees need a water source. If you don’t have one nearby, they will go and find one. We happen to have a fountain in the middle of our yard, which is handy for them. However, if you don’t have an existing water source, you’ll need to provide one for them. This can be anything, from a bird bath to a bucket. Try to provide them with an edge or a place to land, as they like to have a safe place without risk of drowning. If you don’t provide them with a water source, they may find a favorite location (such as a neighbor’s yard) that can be hard to break them from. Oops. Sorry neighbor!
As important as water is the placement of your hive. We started out with ours in one corner of the yard, but it wasn’t getting enough sunlight. The sunlight it was getting was afternoon sun. Bees thrive on morning sunlight to get their day started early and generate that warmth early. Find a spot that allows you to have a couple of feet at the back of the hive to do inspections, as well as getting them plenty of sun first thing in the morning. You can find some other great hive placement tips here.
Remember in #1 when your honeybees found a water source at your neighbor’s house, and now that’s the only place they’ll go? If you’re living in close quarters with people, which is common with urban beekeeping, you may want to let your neighbors know of your plans to start a hive. Some people might be skeptical about it, or even unhappy about it. Make sure you check your city’s guidelines for proximity if they have any rules regarding spacing of the hive or distance from neighbors’ houses. We still haven’t gotten to the point of being able to harvest honey, but we hear that urban beekeeping neighbors are much more amenable to you keeping bees when there are jars of honey to be shared at the end of the season!
Make sure you have the right equipment to start a hive, both for your bees and your own protection. You need a hive, hive stand, enough boxes and frames for them to expand, and a few simple parts – queen excluder, bottom board, inner cover, outer cover, feeder, entrance reducer. We made our entrance reducer ourselves out of a small piece of wood. We bought all our other hive parts used from someone in town, then boiled, scrubbed, and cleaned everything. We painted the exterior to match the house color, but you can paint it any way you want – just don’t paint the inside – exterior only. Equipment for inspections & safety also doesn’t need to be an expansive collection. We use a hive tool, a bee brush, a smoker, and wear these jackets and hoods. We opted to not go for full suits; we felt like simply wearing long pants and close toed shoes would be enough (says the girl pictured doing a hive inspection in flip flops!) As you spend more time with your bees and get more comfortable handling them, you’ll feel less like you need to gear up every time you go near them. That being said, we do put on our jackets and hoods each time we do an inspection, because nobody likes a bee in the eye.
5. Patience & Persistence
Most importantly, if you want to start urban beekeeping, you’re going to need these two things in abundance. When you’re dealing with all the above challenges in terms of location, sunlight, water sources, neighbors, wind protection, and more, it’s going to take some time to get it right. Don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t work for you on your first, second, or even third try. Keep at it. You’ll get to understand bees better, know what to look for in the hive, and become more and more comfortable as time goes on.Be patient, both with yourself and your bees. Be persistent in your beekeeping endeavor – it’s challenging, but rewarding. Honeybees are incredibly smart and incredibly important when it comes to pollinating our crops, and they need your help.