By Zan Asha
As a third-generation beekeeper, I can attest to the many fun and rewarding aspects of beekeeping. As an urban New Yorker, I also can tell you that you can keep bees, even in the city. Just follow these steps, and you’ll be well on your way to beekeeping bliss!
1) Make sure it’s legal to keep bees in your area. Although places like Detroit, Chicago and New York City allow for bees, not all urban areas are bee friendly. Double-check your city ordinances to make sure you are cleared to keep bees. Otherwise, you can be heavily fined. And, yes, it does happen – we know of one Brooklyn woman who was fined $2,000 for having two hives on her roof before it became legal to have bees! If you don’t own your own property, make sure you have the landlord’s permission to keep bees. Our bees are our landlady’s project for urban honey production, so we lucked out.
2) Research your new hobby. While bees don’t need as much of your time as a pet might, they still benefit greatly from your attention, and it’s probably good to have some idea of their basic care before you jump in as a keeper. While this sounds obvious, I’ve heard of novice keepers getting bees because they are the new, trendy, green thing, with no idea how to actually care for them. I’ve been lucky to have my mother’s beekeeping advice, but I also have turned to other sources, and there are plenty of books, beekeeping classes, and even YouTube videos to show you everything from bee behavior to harvesting honey.
3) Make sure you have the proper space for your bees. Once we had permission to start keeping bees, it was time to find the proper spot to place the hives. Like their country cousins, urban hives should be situated near a water source (or be in a spot where a source can be provided), ideally underneath a shady area and with a windbreak.
In our case, because we had so little backyard space, we decided to put our hives on the roof. We were lucky that our landlady is a green activist, and we had a green roof installed. Green roofs and light-colored roofs deflect heat, which create a far better environment for your bees. Tar applications on most city roofs and black-topped roofs, conversely, can reach temperatures of up to 120 degrees F, which is uncomfortable for the bees.
4) Be a good neighbor. Once we figured out where we wanted our bees, we told our most immediate neighbors of our plans. Unfortunately, most people only associate bees with stings, so it’s up to you to let your immediate neighbors know about your new insect project. If you are so inclined, you can leave pamphlets for them, or politely let them know about your project. Some people promise gifts of honey and candles at the end of harvest season to (literally) sweeten the deal.
5) Order what you need before you get your bees. Once we got our logistics together, it was time to order equipment and hives. Like so much in life, beekeeping works better when you’re prepared. You’ll want to have your hive in place and the equipment to work your bees in your possession before the bees actually arrive, so you can easily introduce them to their home. Go online, read up and check out catalogs that specialize in beekeeping.
6) Order your bees. What could be so hard about that? Plenty. Since beekeeping has become so popular recently, most apiaries that specialize in selling bees often sell out early in the year. The best time to order from apiaries is January or February. Any later than that and – believe it or not – you may not be able to get bees, or you’ll get them so late in the year they won’t have time to properly harvest enough pollen and nectar for their winter honey supply. This actually happened to us. We ended up getting our two hives of bees late, which meant we did not get to harvest honey that first year, as we left the bees’ honey for them to survive on during the winter.
7) Decide if you want to go solo or if you want help. The beauty of the city is you can cooperatively work your bees. In fact, if you have space to keep bees, you will find many hopefuls to help, in order to learn keeping, since they may not be allowed to keep bees in their buildings. I was lucky that a neighbor became my partner, and this helps in case something happens with your bees while you are out and about in the city.
Also, cooperative help comes in handy for events such as harvesting your honey. The equipment to harvest can be expensive, but often cities have cooperative “honey houses,” so you might want to research your options. We were lucky; we had an urban farm friend who allowed us to use her equipment during our harvest season.
8) Get your bees and start caring for them. How you care for your bees is up to you. I tend to find each beekeeper has her own methods for bee care. You will need to figure out how often you want to inspect your bees for health, progress and signs of disease. You also will need to determine if you want to care for your bees naturally, or if you want to apply chemical medications. In any case, it is imperative that your bees have immediate water sources, or they will wander to your neighbors to look for it. (This happened during the hottest part of summer last year, and it was not fun for our next-door neighbor to find several bees at his hose spigot!)
Our philosophy ran off my grandfather’s natural beekeeping approach. For the most part, we inspected once a month, and used organic and minimal medical applications. Here, we felt that bothering the bees less made for more productivity on their end.
9) Be prepared for “busy season.” By this I mean there are a few times a year when you will be hopping with your bees. Primarily, this is swarm season and honey harvesting. The first year of hiving, bees tend not to swarm, but during and after their second season, bees usually swarm in the spring. Swarming is actually a natural act that happens when there are too many bees produced in the hive, and a portion of them leave with the original queen in search of a new home. What this means for you, though, is that you may have to deal with several fearful residents, in case your bees decide to swarm in a low-lying area in the neighborhood. We spent much of last summer wowing our neighbors by collecting bees off trees, wearing our white suits, and carrying around smokers and cardboard boxes.
The next “busy season” falls later in summer, when you will spend a few hours collecting frames of honey and then sending it for harvesting. Set aside time during each season to deal with each issue as it happens.
10) Enjoy your bees! Bees are fascinating creatures that can teach you a lot about caring for them through their specific social structures and behaviors. The old adage is true: “Remember, you don’t keep the bees, the bees keep YOU.”