Extreme Urban Beekeeping Methods

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A swarm in the city is a chance to be both a teaching opportunity and a hazard. It’s a good time to reaffirm your relationship with neighbors and safety personnel.
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When working your colonies, consider your neighbors and your bees. Midday is always good when most neighbors and most bees aren’t home. Avoid weekends, when the neighbors may be gardening or relaxing on the deck.
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Urban beekeepers may have very small backyards close to busy streets with lots of foot traffic, or they may own farmland where houses are gradually encroaching.
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One of the greatest challenges to suburban or urban beekeeping is having bees near a neighbor’s swimming pool. Fences may minimize contact, but the attraction of all that chlorinated water can be an irresistible force.
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“The Backyard Beekeeper” by Kim Flottum has helped nearly 200,000 people start their beekeeping adventures.

The Backyard Beekeeper (Quarry, 2018) by Kim Flottum extends his expert advice on beekeeping, one of the fastest growing hobbies today. He walks beginners through setting up their colonies, choosing their bees, and the benefits of raising and caring for these buzzing bees. In the following excerpt, he discusses the various methods of urban beekeeping.

Extreme Urban Beekeeping

After three decades of decline during the struggle to cope with Varroa mites, the beekeeping industry has yet to climb out of its chemical fog and adopt industry-wide, reasonable integrated pest-management (IPM) techniques. But bees that have some resistance or tolerance are becoming more available, and progress is beginning to be made.

Also during beekeeping’s dark years, when there were fewer and fewer beekeepers anywhere, it was easy for urban areas—big and small cities and their suburban neighbors—to succumb to the pressures of those who were ignorant of the benefits of honey bees and regulate against them. Because there were fewer beekeepers, there were fewer voices to defend them. So during the decades Varroa mites were destroying beekeeping, they were ably assisted by misguided municipalities and many places became, simply, beekeeperless. There are no managed bees where there are no beekeepers. Varroa killed all of the bees, and governments killed the beekeepers.

But this has changed. Amid a growing awareness of habitat loss for all pollinators, coupled with the media-induced attention to honey bees brought on by the loss of pollinators of all kinds in epic proportions, the world woke up to the fact that the future of food was being threatened by the loss of honey bees and their keepers. The environmental and political action that resulted kindled a renewed empathy for all pollinators, including honey bees. Though we’ve always known it to be true, more people now see that it’s good to be a beekeeper. Small farmers everywhere won a moral and productive victory when the rules in many cities and towns changed to once again allow bees to simply be.

Increased Regulations and Inspections

In most places, however, there are still restrictions on beekeeping. Permits that need renewal and cost money are usually part of the deal. Numbers are too, with a cap on the number of colonies allowed in a given space. Registration, training, permission from neighbors, description of housing, sources of water, and other limitations often exist. Registration of hives with regulatory officials is usually required. Still, when you want to keep bees and you live in a city that now lets you, life is better for you, the bees, and the many plants that will benefit.

Over time, inspections and their requisite fees will probably become standard practice. The inspection programs are prepared to protect the city by making sure you are keeping your bees in a safe and secure manner. Hand in hand with inspections and inspectors is the permission for those inspectors to go onto the property the bees are on. If the property isn’t yours, then you may have one more obstacle to overcome to get bees located. Some locations require complete access to hives whenever the inspector wants it. Others work to make the inspection a teaching moment for the inspector and beekeeper. The logistics of getting an inspector to hives in dense urban areas can be complicated. Just think: Where will that inspector park when he or she wants to get to the apiary on the rooftop of that popular hotel?

Extreme urban beekeeping requires extreme good-neighbor beekeeping practices. The public, ethical, political, and legal landscapes have changed. The door has been opened, and more and more places are willing to allow bees. But you still have to pay attention to details, be on your (and your bees’) best behavior, and remember that the rules for being an ambassador for good beekeeping have not been rescinded.

Urban beekeeping means that the bee–human interactions are more likely to occur than if you and your bees are somewhat isolated. Your goal is to minimize or eliminate these encounters.

What Is Extreme Urban Beekeeping?

Extreme urban beekeeping encompasses unique landscape and environmental factors. You may find: close neighbors, tall fences, garages, older homes, nectar-producing trees, small yards, gates, front porches, back decks, apartment buildings, blocks of brownstones, heat-holding cement and asphalt, garbage, rooftop beehives, pigeon coops, sidewalk flower displays, bumper-to-bumper parking, balconies with barbecues, and kids. Your bees will find empty lots filled with the flotsam and jetsam of city life. If your bees swarm, they can close down businesses, streets, or entire city blocks. And your bees may go who knows where.

Urban beekeeping could also mean new developments moving in next door—maybe that field of soybeans is suddenly filled with hundreds of people, golf courses, and swimming pools. It’s different than dense city dwelling, but it’s still a challenge.

An absolute must in this setting is working with a local association. If there isn’t one, start one. Working with these groups gives members of the community and law enforcement a place to go if there are problems and gives you a heads up on any issues that may arise. Most of all, it opens doors for educating your neighbors.

Associations with a face, a name, and a web page stand a much better chance of working with organizations that have locations where bees could go, learning apiaries could be set up, and club meetings could be held.

When acting alone, you will miss these opportunities, and you will not be prepared when threats head your way.

Colony Growth

Here’s where the beekeeping scene has changed dramatically because of the explosion of urban beekeepers that has occurred in just the last several years. It used to be, back when city bees were rare or even nonexistent (legally) that honey bee colonies in densely populated urban settings routinely had fewer problems with pests and diseases than today. This was because the number of colonies in one location was generally small and there were fewer beekeepers in the area. Thus, they were somewhat isolated from the problems of other bees and beekeepers, not unlike feral bees in forests.

That situation has changed significantly now, and beekeeper and honey bee colony populations in urban areas have increased dramatically. The result is that isolation has decreased just as dramatically, and beehives are much closer together now than before the influx. This clustering has turned many large urban settings into what is, essentially, a very large beeyard, and with it came all the issues of Varroa-infested colonies disintegrating, bees leaving for better parts, and finding them in nearby colonies, sharing their wealth of Varroa and the viruses.

Add to this that every beekeeper has a different Varroa-control strategy—from absolutely none to extreme chemical use—and you can begin to imagine the problem. Chaos can be the result and the only remedy is to be on constant vigilance for Varroa population buildup, viral symptoms showing up, and practicing defensive controls all season long.

Swarms in the City

Swarm prevention becomes an even more important management tool in the city, for reasons other than having productive colonies. Know, however, that swarms very seldom are produced during the first year when establishing a package of bees. They just don’t get big enough. However, if you have purchased a nucleus colony that will be larger, and may have an older queen, a swarm is possible the first season.

Entire books have been written about swarming, so realize this is just a brief introductory overview. A swarm is a colony’s means of reproduction. To increase the honey bee population, a colony actually has to divide into two (and sometimes more) units, each with a queen and lots of bees so each can expand and multiply. A honey bee colony will swarm when several environmental events have occurred. The bees are healthy, there is most likely a one year or older queen that is laying an incredible number of eggs daily, the weather is outstanding and it’s mid to late spring where the bees are, there is lots of food coming in and lots stored, and the colony is becoming crowded. Not enough room to expand is the usual reason people suspect a colony swarms, and this is partially true, but it’s really more than that. The one factor that binds a colony together is the presence of queen pheromone—that substance given off by a healthy queen that every bee recognizes that tells them they have a queen, she is healthy, and all is well in the world. But she’s only one bee, capable of producing only so much pheromone. When there are so many bees in the hive that the amount each receives falls below a perceptible level, that feeling of well-being tapers off, and a colony’s attitude is that, no, all is not well here. Let’s raise a new queen and take off.

The bees begin cutting the food they feed to the existing queen so she is trim for flying. They begin raising new queens so when the existing queen leaves with about half the bees to begin this new colony, a new queen remains with the existing colony. When the time is just right, about half of the bees in the colony begin gathering outside the front door for a bit, then poof! They’re gone. But they don’t go far. Usually a few yards or even feet (meters) from their home. Then they gather on . . . something—a tree limb, the fender of a car, a business sign, a traffic light, a school yard swing set—and get their bearings and decide where to go to set up housekeeping.

This is when most people first encounter honey bees. And often it is a scary situation . . . suddenly there are thousands of bees, right there! But most swarms will not garner much media attention unless their temporary resting stop is famous, dangerous, or photogenic. They may, however, attract unwanted attention from local authorities. Practicing swarm prevention is paramount in an urban setting, and there is more on the biology and preventive management in the section on the Queen, and the section on Early Spring Inspection.

This is the perfect opportunity to work with community officials, foster good will, have an educational opportunity, and potentially save someone a lot of grief. A beekeepers association/police open line of communication here goes a long way in keeping life simple for beekeepers. A swarm call comes in to the police station and they immediately have one, two, five people they can call on a moment’s notice to respond. Often, the police, or a street tree department official can also respond, bringing needed equipment for high up swarms, temporary street or sidewalk control, and even possible transportation with a truck rather than a car.

Swarm control is extremely important, but if the swarm is from a feral colony, all the good management in the world won’t stop that, and residents, businesses and other officials will simply look at the local beekeepers as those responsible. It can’t be stressed enough about working with your local association and with your local officials to keep everyone safe and happy.

Up High on the Roof

“Out of sight, out of mind” is one of the reasons keeping bees on a rooftop is popular. People below never know there is a colony of honey bees up there. But rooftop beekeeping has its own set of rules and guidelines not encountered by earthbound beekeepers.

Strong or constant wind, especially on buildings often ten or more stories tall that aren’t in a wind tunnel location can reduce bees’ flight time or keep them at home. Check out the wind before you decide to put bees on a very tall roof. On shorter or less windy rooftops, installing a windbreak against the prevailing wind or a two-sided screen will help the bees maneuver when leaving or returning to the hive. And be careful that the hive stand legs do not poke through protective membranes on the roof.

Beekeeping Tip: Colony Load and Bee Density

Bees are remarkably resilient to wind, sun, heat, cold, and other environmental stresses if they are provided with adequate housing, food, and protection. Controlling the number of colonies you have in any location (the bee density) in the city or country is another limiting factor. How many colonies can your area support? There’s generally a wide variety of street trees planted in varietal clumps throughout the city. Most trees bloom in spring and early summer and are gone by midseason. What then? Parks and city plantings hold lots of flowers, and flower shops can supplement. (One flower shop with several varieties of sunflowers in cans on the sidewalk can feed more than 100 honey bees at a time, usually at the owner’s dismay because customers are wary of handling those flowers.)

Take a look at online map services (such as Google Street View), walk the neighborhood, and examine vacant lots, which may have wildflowers blooming in late summer. Ultimately, an urban rooftop, balcony, or backyard may easily support two or three colonies, but ten may be a stretch. As anywhere, if the area is overpopulated with bees, the bees will not thrive. Another factor to consider is natural wild places within a city. Cities with rivers or lakes most often have a significant amount of undeveloped space unusable by people, but populated with flowering weeds all season long. Placing your bees close to these areas is definitely a plus.

This, too, is when belonging to the local beekeeper’s association will pay off. You may be able to find out just how many hives are in your general area, who owns them, and how they are managed. All of these are definitely a plus when you need to make management decisions.

Moving Your Equipment

Before installing hives on a rooftop, you must evaluate accessibility. You will need to get everything up on the roof and then down. Before you order your equipment, measure all doors, windows, or other openings to be sure assembled equipment can pass through them. Even with adequate openings, getting a full-size colony off a roof can be a challenge. Outside ladders or fire escapes can be steep and narrow—which is less of an issue when moving empty, lightweight equipment but is potentially dangerous when removing equipment that is heavy, bulky, and full of bees or honey. Also consider if your roof is accessible only through the building’s hallways, elevators, and lobbies. Removing a colony through communal spaces may pose problems such as errant bees, dripping honey, and cart maneuverability.

Bees on the roof need the same things as bees anywhere and water may be the most difficult to supply on a steady basis. Bees on a hot roof need at least a half gallon (2 L), and as much as a gallon (4 L) or even more a day in the summer to drink and to cool the interior of the hive. Your job is to make sure that there is always water available. Some urban areas actually require this as part of the permit to keep bees, and penalties for not doing so can be extreme. Be sure to check before you put bees up there.

Ground-Level Beekeeping

There are many other safe locations in a city where bees can be kept besides the roof—backyards, empty lots, alleys, decks, balconies, and porches. Any of these locations can attract attention if you don’t take precautions. Commonsense rules apply.

Watch flight patterns. When bees leave home, there’s little incentive for them to fly higher than about 6 feet(1.8 meters) unless there’s a barrier in the way. If nothing is in the way, they may run into people. Install a barrier or screen close enough that the bees are required to fly higher than 8 feet (2.4 meters) almost immediately. This will minimize unwanted human contact with your bees.

Stay out of sight. Even though the city says “Yes, you can have bees in this city as long as you follow these rules,” safety and common sense should rule the day. The population density of a city increases the likelihood that people may interfere, accidentally, mischievously, or maliciously.

Anywhere the colonies are should be out of sight. Neutral-colored hives work well, certainly better than white boxes, and living screens are effective for ground- or near-ground-level colonies. But remember, honey bee colonies do better in the sun. It keeps the bees warmer and drier, and makes it easier to dehydrate honey, plus neither Varroa mites nor small hive beetles do as well in a less humid environment. It’s a trade-off. If the screens, fences, and gates are high enough to keep busy eyes away, they are probably high enough to keep sunlight off the bees for some part of the day. Try to locate your ground-resting colonies such that you need only two or three sides screened and some sun gets to the bees in the morning and early afternoon. They’ll be happier, and so will you.

 More from: The Backyard Beekeeper

• Harvesting Your Colony’s Beeswax

Reprinted with permission fromThe Backyard Beekeeperby Kim Flottum and published by Quarry, 2018.


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