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PHOTO: Guru Hedge/Flickr
With all the hype about sustainable living and saving bees, many urban farmers are ready and willing to take the plunge into hands-on beekeeping. But is urban beekeeping right for you and your city? Here are a few questions to ask yourself before embarking on this buzz-worthy journey.
1. Allergies, Anyone?
If this seems like a common sense question to ask yourself before getting bees, that’s because it is. Many people, myself included, have never actually been stung by a Honey bee—yellow jackets, wasps, hornets and other stinging creatures are more often the culprit of stings, but Honey bees tend to take the blame. What’s more, Honey-bee venom is unlike that of other stinging insects, so just because you’ve been stung by a wasp without a negative reaction doesn’t mean you’re immune to Honey-bee stings.
To be safe, visit your doctor and allergist for more information. True allergies are very dangerous and result in anaphylaxis. If this is you, pass on the hands-on part of beekeeping and support beekeepers and Honey bees in other ways. If you know you have hypersensitivity to bee stings (major swelling and redness at the sting area or nearby), keep a few boxes of Benadryl on hand and load up on protective beekeeping clothing.
2. Is It Legal?
This is another common-sense question. As the back-to-the-land movement picks up speed, many municipalities are overturning bans on urban livestock, such as chickens and goats. Often, honeybee hives are included in these categories.
Start by contacting your city’s health and zoning boards to see if bees are legal in your city. If you’re lucky, your town might have municipal codes posted online to sift through. (Be warned: It’s dry reading.) Look under headings labeled “animals” and “zoning,” and use your browser’s search function to look for keywords, such as “livestock,” “hive,” and, of course, “bee.”
3. What Do Your Neighbors Think?
In urban settings where you live close to others, what your neighbors think of your choices can really affect the level of peace you experience while enjoying those hobbies, even on your own property. Talk to your neighbors casually about bees to gauge interest. Learn if there are any neighbors in your immediate area that are (truly) allergic to bees.
If you plan on keeping bees in your backyard, it’s wise to garner support from the neighbors on either side of you. If a rooftop apiary is your vision, the bees’ flight paths will be so high that they are unlikely to bother you or your neighbors and will probably go completely unnoticed.
4. What Will the Bees Eat?
Pretty early on, you’ll have to determine whether your area can provide sufficient forage for your bees year-round, or if they will be dependent on you for constant supplementation. In other words, are you keeping bees in your city for your benefit or for the bees’ benefit?
Honey bees require access to regularly blooming flowering plants throughout the growing season—roughly March to September in most regions—and during dearths, when nothing is flowering, blooming and producing nectar, they might need a little supplemental honey (honey that you give back to them) or a homemade sugar syrup. The latter, of course, is not nearly nutritious as natural nectar sources or even raw, organic honey that you buy to feed them.
5. Can You Commit?
My beekeeping mentor always told me, “Be a beekeeper, not a bee-haver.” What he meant, of course, is that beekeeping requires hands-on attention and care in order to be successful and for your bees to have the best chance at survival, year after year. Some seasoned beekeepers prefer to let a few of their hives “do their thing,” which is fine when you have years of beekeeping under your belt. For newcomers to the hobby, it’s important to be hands-on and know what’s happening in your hive(s).
In the spring, this means paying attention to swarming activity and providing them with ample space to grow. Plan on about an hour per week per hive for inspections and any manipulation needed, such as adding supers, rearranging boxes, making splits (or new hives), and buying and assembling new equipment. In the summer, be prepared to give each hive a thorough inspection, about once every two weeks, which can take 30 to 60 minutes.
Don’t expect to harvest honey the first year, but if you keep at it, you’ll eventually harvest some honey in future years. Plan on setting aside an entire weekend at the end of summer for a honey harvest. Throughout the growing season, you’ll need to devote time to knowing what is flowering, blooming and producing nectar in your area so you know if and when you need to feed.
Beekeeping doesn’t require much in the way of a time commitment, especially once your apiary is established. However, the timing of certain activities, such as when to add new supers (boxes) and when to harvest honey to make more space in a hive, is critical. You’ll need to be available and ready to work when the bees need you, which can vary year to year. Bees don’t work by a calendar: You’ll have to watch them, take notes during inspections, and make educated decisions regarding hive management based on what you see any given year. With many seasons of beekeeping under your belt, you’ll get to know the rhythm of your region’s growing year, but weather patterns, not days on a calendar, ultimately determine your beekeeping schedule.
Not For You? That’s OK
If you answered “no” to one or more of these questions, don’t lose hope. There are so many ways to support Honey bees without keeping your own hive. Join a local bee club and volunteer your time working with local beekeepers. See if one will take you on as a mentee until you are able to keep your own hives. Of course, the best way to support bees is to put down the pesticides and stop spraying your yard or garden. Instead, plant a variety of beneficial flowers and flowering edibles—herbs are a Honey bee favorite!—to support native bee and Honey bee habitats.