City Food for City Bees

Reader Contribution by Kim Flottum
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Although the expansion of keeping bees in an urban setting is still going at light speed as new towns, cities and metropolises open their doors to folks who want a hive or two on the roof, the deck or in the backyard. More cities, too, are arranging places where beekeepers can put their hives when home just doesn’t work…like public gardens, public apiaries are springing up in lots of places.

One extremely positive aspect of this is that so far, knocking on wood here, there hasn’t been a major, or even a minor honey bee/people event reported (I know, that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been something, but my extensive urban sources haven’t heard of anything). One of the major point every new urban beekeeper that goes through a training course is how to work and take care of bees to avoid just such a confrontation.

There have been some commerce issues. Aggressive beekeepers looking to corner the honey market, or the bees-for-sale market, or the bee equipment market in a particular locale have caused problems. I know everything costs more in the city, but doubling the price of a starter kit and bees is less than honest.

And there are some of these folks who aren’t new to the game and have moved into a location to take advantage of the new folks, setting up classes, selling equipment, and the greatest sin of all, overloading a small urban, or suburban lot with way more bees than anyone with common sense would consider. This, in turn causes real problems with neighbors, and ultimately all beekeepers suffer because of a single, greedy, ignorant person with bees…I am hesitant to call a person like this a beekeeper.

But fortunately, both of these behaviors have been infrequent, and those that have been injured, as it were, are other beekeepers, not the public. As a result, any negative attention raised has been more or less in-house, and not for public discussion.

But now that cities and towns have had bees for a while some of the original questions that were asked about town bees are being answered, while some are still are still unknowns.

For instance…one of the major issues with all pollinators is finding enough good food all season long. Bees in agricultural country have it especially hard because of the vastness of the monoculture crops squeezing out the diverse forage that was once there on fence rows and pastures. Plus, constant exposure to agricultural pesticides is a stress that never ends. But enough good food all season long can be an issue in the city, too, especially big cities. How much of an issue, though, is still up in the air. Spring nectar flows are pretty common from street trees and early weeds growing on unused land. But later, when those trees are gone, and before the any summer flows start…clovers for instance…what’s there to eat downtown? Lot owners have gardens, lawns and flower patches, but early on there isn’t much bloom there…and too often lawn chemicals take care of that nutritious spread of dandelions in the parks and street lawns. Maybe the trees and what else will be enough, but as colony density increases to…well, to what?

Some big cities, Washington D.C. for instance, have enough blooming from early season to late fall to keep bees happy all season long. I suspect that the further south you go the better the foraging will be all season, but the further north you are the pickings will be slim in the summer into the fall. If I had bees in the city I’d be really careful from mid-summer to frost to avoid even the beginnings of starvation…but I may be way wrong on this…time will tell.

There’s more to explore with bigger and bigger bee populations growing in cities…north compared to south, big cities compared to medium and small burgs, and those with natural resources such as a river running through them. Good advice is to watch and see, and be prepared to be the source of food for your bees.

Nutrition, honey bee wise, is kind of sneaky though. A colony starts going hungry long before you notice if you’re not looking carefully. When nectar quits coming in what honey is stored gets eaten, as it should, and usually pollen, too, becomes scarce. When that happens a protein deficit kicks in, and survival mode takes over for the colony. Drones get put on notice that if this continues their next meal will be on the veranda outside…and they’ll have to find it themselves. The queen’s egg laying slows, and then eventually stops if the dearth lasts long enough, but even then nurse bees begin using stored protein from their own bodies, converting it to brood food so the next generation can go on. But this shortens their already short life and if not remedied the colony begins a slow, downward spiral.

An astute beekeeper will note these changes…meager stores, no incoming food, less and less brood, drones getting kicked out…even in the middle of summer…and take remedial action instantly, supplying the colony with both protein and carbohydrates to keep the colony on an even growth curve rather than shutting down.

If you have bees in the city, check now to see how they are doing. Before they start to decline because of lack of food.

But what to feed? Stay tuned.

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