Beekeeping for Everyone
“I’d love to take up beekeeping but don’t have the space”
“Isn’t beekeeping only possible in the countryside?”
“Bees won’t find any flowers around here”
“Oh, all those regulations – there is no way I will be allowed to keep bees”
We’ve heard them all. These are just some of the concerns folks express, along with the suggestion that beekeeping is for more than the country-dweller. In fact, the idea of urban beekeeping is becoming ever more popular and beekeeping in less-than-obvious locations can be more feasible than you may think.
What is Urban Beekeeping?
Urban beekeeping is simply the practice of keeping bees in an urban environment. Seems pretty obvious, right?
Of course, there are shades of gray as to what satisfies the definition of an urban environment. For the purposes of this article we’ll simplify and say….
Urban beekeeping is the practice of keeping bees in a town or city, without access to a large yard or the countryside
Debate that definition if you will, but the bottom line is that, while you may have a few constraints in where and how you keep your bees, an urban environment can be perfectly accommodating to beekeeping.
So, what are the challenges and how can you deal with them??
What Are The Main Challenges?
The most obvious challenge is where to place your beehives. The traditional view of a beehive is in a backyard setting, surrounded with beautiful, colorful flowers and nary a man-made object in sight, apart from the hive. The other common and idyllic view of beekeeping involves a beehive in the middle of a field.
It’s all so romantic!
That’s not necessarily the case for the urban beekeeper, who has less space in which to place his or her hives. In fact, for some it may initially appear there are NO options – but a little creativity can go a long way.
Let’s assume, as an example, that you have a tiny yard in the city or even no yard at all. Are there any options here? Often the answer is yes.
An extreme case is the concrete jungle. If you live in an apartment you may have already given up.
Don’t. Just look up…
A common location for beehives in the city is on a rooftop. The most obvious example would be the apartment-dwelling beekeeper, who has had a gentle word with the landlord. Access to the roof may be available and could open the possibility of the installation of a beehive.
A great example of this is The Fairmont Royal York Hotel of Ottawa and its famous Honey Moon Suite, just for bees. Beyond just helping the environment, each hive creates over 100 lbs. of honey for the restaurant per year. That’s neat!
Access to Flowers
Another common concern expressed by potential urban beekeepers is the lack of flowers in the neighborhood for the bees. If that is your perspective, you’d be surprised at what you might find on further investigation.
Bees have an amazing capacity to discover and benefit from all sorts of floral resources and do so in a wide radius around the hive. It is not uncommon for bees to travel 5 miles or more to locate nectar and pollen. Even the most densely populated of cities have resources well within that area.
Of course, a beekeeper can also help the bees by planting flowers strategically to bloom throughout the year, in whatever space is available. The fact remains that bees are extremely resourceful and the lack of flowers in your line of sight is generally no constraint in itself.
Bees can be a rather frightening proposition to the layman. Tens of thousands of stingers flying around might dominate the thinking of those less informed about how bees live.
That is not to say that concerns from neighbors should be ignored. Far from it. Depending on the setting, the installation of a beehive is likely to be somewhat visible.
Beekeeping need never be an “undercover” operation. It has many benefits that are worth discussing with concerned neighbors but it can be a difficult balance. One highly esteemed beekeeping author, Michael Bush, advocates not telling the neighbors. While we don’t necessarily prescribe to that opinion, it is a fact that a beehive is far easier to argue against before it has been installed than a year later, after the neighbor has received the occasional jar of surprise (and free) honey!
There are certain decisions you can make to help too. For example, a beekeeper should consider the flight path of bees coming to and from the hive. Even in a more rural setting, if the only way for bees to leave and return to the hive is over that swimming pool the neighbors kids use so often – well, that should be reconsidered.
Even in a small space in an urban setting, there is very often a solution. Some beekeepers intentionally place bushes or other obstacles a short distance from the entrance so that bees have to gain altitude as they leave the hive.
Regulations and Inspections
In some situations, there may be local restrictions on beekeeping, though this is not as common as you might imagine. While it is important to check local regulations, many people find there are no major restrictions. In many municipalities there is a requirement to register beehives with a local authority, but these processes are rarely burdensome.
The Things Bees Do
Let’s be honest here. The things we love about bees are that they live their own lives, do wonderful things, help the environment and are rarely predictable. It’s the last part can be cause for concern in the tight confines of a city.
Bees are skilled at finding good resources, wherever they may be. That can sometimes cause issues if these resources are in an inconvenient location, from a human perspective.
In addition, bees sometimes swarm and when they do they don’t just create an issue for the beekeeper. In the wrong place and at the wrong time, they can even be newsworthy!
These are just some of the considerations of note for the urban beekeeper. For many, these are addressable in some way and if you have your heart set on beekeeping we urge you to investigate further and see where the path takes you. Also, check out a local beekeeping club and start the discussion there.
The Urban Beekeeper’s Perspective
With all these things in mind, here are a few things urban beekeepers can do.
- Elevate the “departure and approach zone” with a fence. Installation of a fence or shrubbery can help ensure bees fly above day-to-day life soon after they leave the hive. This is a common practice for many beekeepers, in or outside the city. This also creates a barrier to wind and can help keep the hive away from the gaze of neighbors and passersby.
- Get tactical with water. Bees need water and will go to great lengths to get it. The water source may be somewhere less-than-desirable if the beekeeper does nothing. So, make sure there’s an easy and available source of water near the hive at all times.
- Be swarm aware. Although swarms are usually composed of bees with a full stomach and hence docile and quiet, they can strike fear into the public. It is important that the urban beekeeper be particularly diligent in watching for and avoiding swarms. One can never be assured a swarm won’t happen, but there are steps that can be taken to reduce the chances significantly. And if they do swarm, a tactical positioning of a “bait hive” can offer a better stop for the swarm than the randomness of a neighbor’s backyard.
Keeping It Real
With all that said, we’re not going to simply say that urban beekeeping is available to everyone and brings no challenges.
One More Option – Get Creative
If urban beekeeping just doesn’t seem feasible for you, there’s another option that bypasses many of its challenges but still leaves you as a full-fledged beekeeper!
Travel to your bees.
This need not be a long trek into the countryside. Just because the planets don’t align for you to have a hive right outside your own door, that doesn’t mean someone around the corner or a few blocks away doesn’t have just the right situation. Ask around, particularly at beekeeping clubs. You never know where that discussion might lead.
And here’s the thing… your taking care of a beehive might actually be considered a valuable service. We’ve discussed before how the almond farmers of California rent bees on a massive scale each year. Well, think of a small-scale version of that. There are folks all around that love the benefits of bees and their pollination, but haven’t the time or inclination to manage the beehive themselves.
No problem! Offer to take care of the bees for them, on their land.
You supply and install the beehive, take care of hive inspections and generally do the things beekeepers need to do. But it just happens to be on someone else’s land. The “host” see the benefits of pollination and the occasional jar of honey and you become a beekeeper. This is a reasonably common arrangement and one well worth considering.