By Contributing writer, Lori Fuqua Gregory
About year ago we added honeybees to our backyard menagerie. After numerous stings, my respect and appreciation for Apis mellifera continues to grow. Urban beekeeping has profound and far-reaching benefits, well beyond the confines of my small plot of land and the copious rewards of homegrown honey. We need bees. Most fruit trees and vegetable crops rely on their fastidious ministration as nature’s arch pollinators. Albert Einstein once predicted that people would last only four years without bees, so great is their role in food production.
We purchased two colonies and hives from a local beekeeper we knew. If I could offer one piece of advice to any prospective beekeeper it would be don’t fly solo. Find a mentor, join a club and subscribe to an online forum and do your research before you purchase your hives. Local bee keeping groups can be found through your local city-run community gardens or Botanic Garden. Club members can teach you how to spot diseases and assist with mandatory hive inspections. They can offer insight into different perspectives and philosophies of beekeeping. Since bees have varying needs according to where they live, club members will have local experience and expertise.
Keep it Legal
Cities all over the world are lifting bans on beekeeping and making it easier for people to have their own honey beehives. Relatively few communities in the U.S. outlaw beekeeping. Some communities have laws that put practical constraints on beekeeping, such as limits on numbers of hives and a requirement that the beekeeper provide water for the bees. Prospective beekeepers should learn about their local restrictions before keeping bees. Regardless of the law, a good beekeeper does not allow his bees to annoy neighbors. Sharing a jar or two of honey helps too!
The Painful Truth
If you keep bees you’re going to get stung sooner or later. I discovered this within a few days of setting up our hive. However, stinging results in the death of the assailant, so it’s usually a last resort when they feel threatened or believe that the hive is in danger. Every time I have been stung, it has happened because I wasn’t being careful enough.
Listen to Your Bees
I’ve come to understand the moods of my hive. I can tell when the girls are losing their patience with my meddling, or when they aren’t up to entertaining at all. The best way to avoid being chased around your garden by a posse of pissed-off bees is to listen to them. Bees always say what they mean and mean what they say.
While any old hive of honeybees will produce honey, not any old hive should be kept in an urban environment – not if you want to spend time in your garden or stay onside with your neighbors. Like dog breeds, the bee-world is teeming with variety. There are aggressive pit bull-like breeds of honeybees and mellow, dopey, Labrador types too. It’s important to find out as much as you can about the parentage of the bees you are acquiring. An angry, sting-happy hive of grumpy bees will make you very unpopular with your neighbors.
Swarming was one of my biggest fears as a prospective beekeeper. I knew it was inevitable but hoped I could avoid it for a year or two. Alas. Thanks to the rich pickings of the urban landscape, with tasty bee-treats in almost every backyard, an unusually warm start to the season and my general inexperience, things got out of hand. So on a warm clear morning, many thousands of bees roared out of the hive, and swirled over my garden like a living storm cloud. I’d been told that if you’re lucky, a swarm will settle in an accessible spot where you can collect them to start a new hive. Unfortunately, my swarm chose to settle 20 feet up a very spindly tree before leaving en masse for places unknown. Swarming is a natural function of a hive, but it’s a nuisance to beekeepers as it seriously depletes the work force. Although it’s an alarming sight – and sound – swarming bees are very rarely aggressive.
Tools and Tips
Apart from the hive and bees there are a few tools for small-scale beekeepers, I couldn’t do without:
• Smoker. In my experience, if you want to open your hive without incurring the wrath of a lot of irate bees, a smoker is necessary.
• Bee Suit. Until you are completely comfortable around your bees, a protective bee suit is a good idea. I no longer use my suit most of the time, but it’s reassuring to know it’s there.
• Queen excluder. The queen excluder is a wire grid that keeps the queen separate from the honey boxes.
Ready to get started? For additional information on beginning beekeeping, watch Urban Conversion’s “Burbs & the Bees’s” episode on PBS & the Create TV channel. For upcoming workshops promoting less invasive beekeeping, contact your local experts or contact the Urban Conversion bee expert, Corwin Bell at backyardhive.com