You’ve decided to take the leap and become an Urban Beekeeper. I applaud you. It will take a little more time and dedication than you probably imagined, but the rewards will be far beyond your dreams.
You’ve been through the catalogs, ordered your beekeeping equipment, purchased your hives and maybe even signed up to take some classes while waiting for your spring to arrive. It’s an exciting time! You're about to become a beekeeper and you have good reason to be excited because there’s really nothing like it.
Up until now most of your time has likely been spent thinking about what you, the beekeeper, need to be prepared to be successful in the undertaking of this new adventure. Let’s change directions now and turn our attention to some of the things the bees require to be successful.
After all, if you want to be a beekeeper instead of a bee-haver, the bees must be successful before you can be successful.
Traditionally bees were kept ‘out behind the barn’ in a wooded area on a rural farm. Open space and nary a building in site. The location of the hives is very important for both the bees and the beekeeper, so let’s consider some of the things a beekeeper should have in mind when selecting a site to locate their hives.
In an urban setting many cities allow the keeping of a hive or two. A beekeeper should make him or herself aware of the ordinances in their local area and know what restrictions apply to this activity.
Another very viable option is to locate the hives on a friend’s property outside of town. You provide the hives and the necessary management, the land owners fruit trees and garden see improved pollination and when the bees produce excess honey the land owner shares in some of that as well. In my own such arrangements the land owner gets a quart of honey from every hive that produces extra honey.
Unless the hives are in your backyard it’s important that you have good vehicular access to your hives. While this may sound more like a requirement for the beekeeper, and it is, it’s important for the health of the bees as well because if it’s a struggle for the beekeeper to access his/her colonies it becomes easier to neglect them.
Another item to consider is whether there are any commercial beekeeping operations nearby. After commercial beekeepers have removed the honey from their colonies and brought the bees back home in late summer (or sometimes moved them to a temporary location prior to moving them to where they will be wintered) these bees are hungry and there are millions of them. If they find hobbyists colonies, those hives will be robbed out and the colonies lost. And no, I’m not picking on commercial beekeepers here! It’s simply a fact that hobbyists need to consider prior to locating their hives.
Even in town and certainly in the countryside, there are low-lying areas that collect cold, moist air. The wise beekeeper will avoid locating their colonies in the bottom of a drainage area or other low-lying areas with poor air flow. Moisture combined with cold air will make it more difficult for the bees to successfully winter.
Although good ventilation is important, a hive should not be situated where cold winter winds blow directly into the hive entrance. Be sure to take note of the prevailing winds in any location where hives are going to be located. You should face the entrance away from the wind and use local vegetation, fencing or buildings to shelter the hive from the wind.
Your bees will need a home that provides protection from the elements, a place to build comb, raise young and store their food. There are many types of bee hives available and the Langstroth, Warre and Top Bar offer the beekeeper many options allowing the new beekeeper to select the hive that best suits their style.
Note that the hive is, more often than not, about the beekeeper's style, as all hives share the single trait that they are man-made wooden boxes which make up an artificial home for the bees. If placed in the proper environment, any of these hives will provide a proper home for honey bees. A little more about this later.
Bees require water and the further they must fly to obtain it the more energy the colony will expend collecting this resource. The location of nearby streams, ponds and canals are things you will want to consider.
Once bees locate a water source it can be difficult to get them used to using another site, so before they begin using the neighbor’s hot tub or swimming pool, make sure they have a source of water nearby.
If you need to set up a water source for them there are many options available. Just keep in mind that bees drown better than they swim! Also, if the water dries up they will find it somewhere else. I like to provide it with a slow drip from a hose or tank onto a board.
If you must set up a water source you will want to place it more than 10 feet from the colonies. When it’s too close the bees cannot communicate the location of the water to other bees in the colony.
Sunlight streaming onto the entrance opening can get your bees up and going first thing in the morning. A little late afternoon shade can be helpful during the heat of summer to reduce the amount of energy the bees must commit to cooling the hive. It’s also important to locate your hives where they will receive five to six hours of sunlight in the winter to help warm the colony and give your bees every chance to get out for a cleansing flight.
A readily-available food source is of prime importance and an early spring nectar source can be important for colonies that must survive long cold winters.
Most locations will have abundant food sources for a portion of the season, but it’s the times of dearth that will determine the number of colonies that can survive in any given area. For example, some areas may have abundant spring wild flowers that dry up as the summer heat comes on. Colonies in these areas will go through honey stores rapidly if there are no alternative food sources and may require feeding.
A nearby irrigated hay field sporting even a small amount of clover will go a long way in carrying colonies through the dry season.
With that in mind, it’s worth taking note of any crops that might be near your hive locations. It pays to know about nearby crops and what chemicals are used. The use of insecticides and fungicides detrimental to honey bees are widespread and vary depending on the type of crop, and are more common in town than one would expect.
The majority of home owners in town would be surprised to learn that many of the yard products they are using contain Neonicotinoids which are quite toxic to bees.
In the hubbub and excitement of acquiring bees, ordering gear and setting up hives, the beginning beekeeper may not give the need for management the attention it deserves. It’s also a topic that has the potential to become controversial. Some won’t want to open the hive at all while others are very intensive in their approach to management.
It’s not my goal in this article, to referee between these two viewpoints. Instead I would like to compare how bees live in the wild, to those bees kept by beekeepers and allow the readers to draw their own conclusions about management of their hives.
What wild bees select for a home
Let us first consider location and what a typical home for bees looks like when a swarm has the freedom to choose its own home, versus being placed in an artificial home by the beekeeper.
In the wild, scout bees demonstrate a preference for the following: entrance size, entrance direction, height above the ground, cavity volume and the presence of comb within the cavity. Thomas Seeley’s studies revealed that the bees prefer a nest entrance that is small (2 to 5 square inches), faces south and is near the bottom of the cavity but high off the ground (around 20 feet).
The size of the hollow varies, but a preference for a cavity of about 40 liters (about the size of a deep Langstroth box) was clearly demonstrated, as was the avoidance of cavities smaller than 10 liters (likely due to not enough room to put away enough winter stores).
As an aside, did you know that a scout bee inspecting a cavity will spend most of her time walking about the inner surfaces? Three dimensional reconstruction of the walking paths by Seeley revealed how the scout bee walks approximately 200 feet inside the potential new home. Seeley’s experiments clearly indicated the scout bees were gauging the size of the cavity before reporting back to the swarm.
Another aspect of wild bee biology is the distance they maintain between colonies. Wild bee colonies are typically located at least one-half mile apart, though this likely varies in each locale depending on the environment and resources available.
Colonies spaced a large distance apart does not overtax the local resources so each colony has enough food to sustain itself while at the same time providing protection against mites and disease. For example, if one colony is overcome by mites, the mites are not as readily transferred to a healthy colony more than half a mile away. This is in contrast to what would occur in a typical urban bee yard where the hives are densely concentrated.
Now let’s make a quick comparison between bees that we keep and bees that are free to choose their own place to live.
A beekeeper normally keeps hives low to the ground and the hives are typically much larger than the normal cavity preferred by bees.
Beekeepers hives are commonly located close together and are highly concentrated in more of a feedlot style than bees in the wild who choose colony locations at least a half mile apart.
In the wild, bees also choose the location for their nest but they don’t have this option when kept by a beekeeper. Therefore it’s important for the beekeeper to know about food and water resources, the direction of the prevailing wind and the potential for outside disturbances such as animals, location of commercial beekeepers and even the potential for vandalism.
What should become obvious to even the casual observer is the tremendous difference in the world we construct for our bees, as compared to the environment the bees would naturally choose for themselves. The beekeeper creates an artificial environment for his/her bees in which to live and in doing so creates the potential for issues that require management.
One of those issues is the size of the hive. The colossal size difference between the typical beekeepers hive and the average cavity size chosen by wild bees commonly results in colonies much larger than would be found in the wild. This often results in a huge mite population (“mite bomb” an unmanaged colony exploding with mites) that can spread to neighboring colonies and result in their destruction. It is the beekeepers responsibility to prevent this from happening.
Wild bees swarm to establish new colonies but in-town swarming can result in nuisance complaints. Nuisance complaints can also result when a beekeepers bees are using the neighbor’s kiddy pool or hot tub as their water source. A community near where I live is already experiencing a high level of nuisance complaints and the city council has discusses outlawing the keeping of bees in one area near downtown.
The point to take from this is that all beekeeping is local. Management options in town are different from those outside of town. Pollen and nectar resources are often very different in the city than is found in a rural setting as are water resources.
Potential risks to the health of the colony vary from location to location. Outside-of-town hives can be spread out more readily, instead of being unnaturally concentrated in a single space. Rural beekeepers may be able to allow hives to swarm without issue whereas urban beekeepers may be putting at risk their very right to keep bees in town.
Beekeeping is much more than obtaining the equipment and filling it with purchased bees. The responsible beekeeper will make themselves aware of their local situation and manage accordingly. Doing so will result in greater success and enjoyment of these amazing little creatures.