Urban Beekeeping 101
20 years ago, if I had written about beekeeping in the city, it may have been a light-hearted piece of informative fluff. These days, the situation is a bit too dire for that. Honey bee populations around the world are being threatened with extinction by a constellation of old and new environmental stressors and the mysterious disappearance of adult bee populations in hives, which scientists have dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Since 2007, when the disorder was first publicly identified, honey bee populations have seen a dramatic decrease in their numbers. While anyone who’s ever been stung by one of these things might think that was good news, they’d be very wrong. Bee pollination is responsible for at least one third of all of the food produced in the world; they are directly responsible for the pollination of over 100 crops; and without bees, you can say goodbye to many fruits, berries, nuts and flowers.
While explanations for the decline in bee populations are many and varied, most experts agree that the decline is a result of a decrease in the diversity of plant life, unsustainable husbandry practices, and the pesticides which target varroa mites. Over time, these mites have grown stronger in response to pesticides, and it just so happens they have a parasitic relationship with honey bees. Against these mutant supermites, our heroic honeys don’t stand a chance. Without the bees, we will see a broader collapse of our ecosystems, as various forms of plant life that relied on the bees for pollination, and the animals that subsisted on them, begin to falter.
This might sound like slightly apocalyptic news; and it is. But a growing number of city-dwellers and businesses are taking the laws of nature into their own hands, and creating safe havens for bees in backyards, community gardens, and several unlikely rooftops. While at first glance, this small but passionate movement of urban apiculturists may appear to be yelling into a hurricane, a closer look will reveal (to the optimist) that beekeeping is a perfect compliment to recent urban gardening initiatives. This is a promising trend, as it signals a philosophical move away from the more destructive form of large scale farming that is predominant, to a more holistic form of small scale farming, in which produce is grown for subsistence as opposed to profit. The presence of honey bees in even a small urban garden increases the quality of the produce as well as the yield. Not to mention all of the delicious honey!
If you’re considering getting into honey bee husbandry, here are some things you’ll need to know before you get started, as well as a few different methods for making your honey bee haven a reality.
First things first: If you’re planning to hang out with honey bees on a regular basis, you’ll probably want to get some protective gear. For light work on a hot day, a simple hat with an attached veil should suffice. For heavier work, or when the bees are friskier than usual, you’ll need a full bee suit. You’ll also want to get a smoker, which will distract the bees long enough for you to do whatever maintenance you may need to do on your hives.
Even if you want to just get your feet wet and start out with a hive or two, you’ll need a bit of space. You can keep bees in the backyard, on your terrace, or on a rooftop. While a couple of hives won’t take up too much space, you will probably want to seclude your bees at least a little bit, especially if you have curious children or you frequently entertain guests in your backyard, or on your terrace.
While beekeeping on a small scale (1-3 hives) isn’t terribly time consuming in general, you’ll need about an hour of time every week to check your hives for any signs of varroa mites, or other parasites. Make sure to set aside a couple of days a year for the honey harvest, which is a bit more time consuming.
Types of Hives
A natural honeycomb is essentially a multi-layered vessel : The top layer contains most of the honey, the following layer contains pollen, followed by the worker-bee brood, and finally the drone-brood. Man-made hives are typically built with an eye to harvesting the honey. Here are a couple of the most common man-made hives.
Top Bar Hive – This is probably the most common type of man-made hive, globally. It consists of a box or trough which has been raised off of the ground, a row of bars set on the top of the box, which the bees will use as foundation for their honeycombs, and a roof. The top bar hive will not yield quite as much honey as other hives, but they are cheaper and easier to build than conventional hives, and are a less stressful alternative for the bees, as it allows them more freedom in comb construction and more bee space.
Movable Frame Hive (Langstroth Hive)
Hives that utilize a series of frames are the most popular type of hive in the U.S., and are probably the type of hive that you’re most familiar with. These hives come in a variety of dimensions, are highly customizable, and will yield more honey. They are typically raised a bit off the ground and resemble a small filing cabinet (for honey and bees). The novice apiculturist or someone with space considerations will probably want to start with one of the smaller options.
Unless you’re planning to capture a swarm, you’re going to need to purchase some bees. And not all bees are created equal, at least as far as keeping them is concerned.
Bees like the sun! But not too much sun. Dappled sunlight is best. This isn’t always possible, but if you’re keeping your bees on a terrace or rooftop, a couple of large leafy plants can provide a bit of sunny shade. And make sure to provide a shallow water source nearby.
Choose bee stock that is resistant to mites, monitor your bees for parasites, and avoid highly toxic miticides and pesticides. These chemicals will hurt the bees, and end up in your honey. There are a number of natural methods for suppressing parasites, which have proven sustainable in the long term.
Honey bees love flowers. Bees don’t land on flowers for the purpose of pollination (at least as far as they know). They’re collecting food. Your bees will be happy and your flowers will thrive.
Make an appointment with your doctor to make sure you aren’t allergic to bees.
Have fun. Many beekeepers gain so much enjoyment from observing and learning about the bees, that they spend considerably more time inspecting their hives than the recommended minimum.
It might seem a bit strange that the fate of the human race should be intertwined with that of a lowly bee. But actually, it isn’t strange at all. Humans and bees are parts of the same ecosystem. For millennia, humans have had a mutually beneficial relationship with bees. It wasn’t until relatively recently, with the proliferation of synthetic miticides, cellular phones and other forms of progress, that we’ve been in the position to adversely affect bee populations on a large scale. But if we have the power to adversely affect the bee population, that means we have the power to help as well.