The country is witnessing a trend towards sustainability motivated by yearnings of self-reliance. Alongside comes a desire to produce one’s own food in any given living situation. The urban dweller is presented with the most challenges. Is it possible to produce enough food in an apartment or on a postage stamp, city-bound plot of land? While urban gardening has its own bowl full of challenges, imagine all that comes with beekeeping within the city limits.
What will the neighbors think?
Bees get a bad rap. They are the source of panic, known to drive people into a gyrating dance of flailing limbs to thwart the dreaded stinger. Given that, let’s take a moment for clarification, bees are not hornets (or wasps). Hornets (and wasps) are the aggressive of the yellow and black butt species while bees tend toward the docile side of the spectrum, stinging only in rare circumstances. Remember stinging for a bee equals its own demise unlike a hornet or wasp that can sting repeatedly. So there’s going to be a damned good reason for a bee to sting you. Having said that, the only people who should be overly wary are those who have severe allergic reactions to bee stings.
Technically, you are allowed to raise bees if city or county ordinances permit the practice. Beyond that, permission from your landlord or property manager, or ewww… your homeowner association, may be required. You might also want to let your immediate neighbors know you are going to start beekeeping if for no other reason than to ensure an allergic someone isn’t nearby. Those neighbors may actually benefit just as you will from keeping bees. If they grow their own food those plants will have all the pollinating activity as they need. You might also offer an occasional jar of fresh honey to smooth out (or perhaps sweeten) lingering anxieties.
Now with the legal technicalities and neighbor anxiety smoothing accomplished, what comes next? What’s entailed in the whole beekeeping practice? Are their different species to choose from? What species matter? What’s all included in a hive? How many hives should you start with? Do you need a hive? Yes, yes you do need a hive. That was a silly question but for the beginner wading into the deep end, silly questions are worth asking.
The typical home hive has 4 general components beyond which there are optional pieces and versions of these components that you can choose from and decide what works best for your bees. From bottom to top the basic components are;
1. Bottom board: This is the hive entrance. It protrudes out from the bottom providing a type of landing pad. The entrance usually has some sort of restricted entry usually by way of a screen. This serves to keep out mice and potential predators or honey thieves. This also helps with hive ventilation. A slatted rack is an option that provides for additional ventilation and further protects the brood chamber above from the elements.
2. The Supers: Supers are essentially boxes of different sizes that sit one atop of one another. Their function tends to determine the size. The deep supers are generally used as brood chambers where the queen lays her eggs and the young are reared. Medium or shallow supers are used as honey supers instead of the larger ones due to the weight of the honey and the difficulty of moving a deep super full the stuff. An option associated with these is a queen excluder which sets between the brood chamber and honey super. It allows drones through but keeps the queen out so she can’t lay eggs in the honey.
3. Frames: The frames slide down vertically, evenly spaced into the different types of supers and provide the foundation for wax building and honey production.
4. Top covers: The inner cover is a two-sided wooden piece with a hole in the top and one in the rimmed side. The flat side of the cover is used during Spring to Fall months and flipped over to the rimmed side to better seal the hive for winter. The outer cover, is a weather resistant cover, usually a metal that slips over the inner cover providing a barrier from the elements.
Where does the hive go?
Hive placement is important as particular factors like the amount of sun, protection from the elements and proximity to water will affect the function and success of your new endeavor.
- Sunshine gets the bees going in the morning. Placing hives in an area with good, morning sun exposure will warm the hive and its bees readying them for the start of each day.
- Water is a basic necessity for life including the bees you plan to keep. They also use water for honey production. Maintain a clean source of water near the hive as bees tend to go for the most convenient and if that nearest water is your neighbor’s swimming pool then your dive into urban beekeeping may become marred from the start. Avoid bee related conflicts with neighbors and provide your colony with a decent watering spot.
- Protect your bees’ hives from the elements such as wind, (avoid winds blowing into the hive), snowdrifts building up in the winter and areas with a tendency to flood after heavy rains. The hives also need to be protected from robbers like ants, skunks, raccoons, mice and opossums. Keeping hives up off the ground will help with ants as does diatomaceous earth. Guarding against or planning to combat parasites and disease is another necessity. Consult with other local beekeepers for further advice on keeping hives safe from harm.
How many hives should I start with?
The number of hives to begin with is really up to you. Consider how much time you envision spending on beekeeping, the space available to you and, of course, how much money you want to spend. The general advice to beginners is to start with two hives. Sometimes a colony will fail and if you only have one then you have nothing else to work with. Having more than one hive will allow you to make comparisons between hives to identify what strategies work best.
Picking a Species
While there are several species beekeepers in North America have to choose from there are a few popular ones that stand out.
- Golden Italian Honeybee (Apis mellifera ligustica): These tend to be the beginners’ choice as they have good comb build up, are good foragers, calm with a lower tendency to swarm but they do rob from other hives and drift between them and can be susceptible to disease.
- Carnolian Honeybee (Apis mellifera carnica): This species builds up quickly in the spring, have gentle demeanor making them easy to work with and are less susceptible to some diseases. They forage more in cold, wet weather than do other breeds and they overwinter well. But they do swarm easily when there is not enough room for expansion.
- Caucasian Honeybee (Apis mellifera caucasica): Originally heralding from the Central Caucasus this breed of honeybee produces a large, hearty colony. As with the carnolians, they forage in cooler temperatures and overwinter well. They have a longer tongue (or proboscis) allowing these bees to access more sources of nectar than others. This species is difficult to calm and stings easily once the hive reaches a heightened state of alarm, is susceptible to nosema (a fungal infection that impairs pollen digestion), tend to rob other hives and are slow to start up in the spring.