Despite appearing to be an impossibility on first observation, it is quite possible to keep bees in residential or even heavily residential areas. Though it is not necessarily the easiest or most successful method of beekeeping, residential beekeeping is by no means an unfeasible act. It is often possible to keep bees in the most crowded suburban areas, within small residential lots or even on the rooftops of mid sized buildings. If enough effort is made, it is usually possible to keep bees in some capacity within an urban environment. For the most success, beekeepers of this ilk must adapt and manage in such a way as to cause the least amount inconvenience for both their bees and their neighbors.
Because of the factors affecting residential beekeepers, they will almost always act as a hobbyist beekeeper, or in some areas rent a hive from a local commercial beekeper. Due to limited amount of space and resources, it is recommended that residential beekeepers start small with just two or three hives, and only expand once a proper feel for the local area has been achieved. However, some residential beekeepers also have other apiaries, in which they can create a small sideline business, but rarely do they go the commercial route.
Before keeping bees in a residential area, be sure to know local laws, requirements and regulations. Some areas don’t allow beekeeping and other areas require a permit to be purchased. If you are on good terms with your neighbors and wish to remain as such, it may be a good idea to speak with them before committing yourself to keeping bees in a populated area.
Hive Placement Factors
When working the urban environment with bees, particular attention must be taken to properly place the hive to eliminate or increase certain behaviors and actions of the bees.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Chances are, a new residential beekeeper’s neighbors will not be as excited about bees as the new neighborhood beekeeper. Keeping this in mind, it is often a good idea to keep any hives out of direct line of sight, or disguise hives that are out in the open. Sometimes all it takes is moving a hive from a front or peripheral yard into the backyard. Keeping hives out of sight may eliminate blame for any sort of insect stings, and in the extreme case vandalism. Most people will not even realize that a neighbor keeps bees if a hive is well placed, which may divert a great deal of stress and controversy. This is not to say that neighbors shouldn’t be allowed to know about beekeepers in the area, but often they must first be appeased and educated before they would be agreeable to this new possibly threatening circumstance.
In general, bees exiting the hive to gather food will fly between three to ten feet from the ground. Having bees fly in people’s path will likely cause a great deal of unnecessary alarm. Planting tall plants or placing a fence a few feet in front of your hives will force the bees to choose a flight pattern that will take them above head level. Some beekeepers may even choose to locate their hives on a rooftop to eliminate conflicting paths.
Preferably, colonies of bees should be kept in a location in which they receive a full day’s sunlight. Shaded and cold bees tend to be more aggressive and ready to sting. Though it may not always be possible, the main hive entrance should be pointed to the southeast to get the best of the early morning sun. A placement of hives near neighbor’s yards is unadviseable, especially if the neighbors have young children who play outdoors. It is also advised that bees be kept away from swimming pools, as they may attempt to make it their primary water source.
One of the most important issues of beekeeping is having the proper resources for the bees.
During most times of the foraging season, bees will be able to find adequate supplies of nectar and pollen for survival. Keep in mind that most bees choose to forage within a two-mile radius but ten is not unheard of. A two mile radius means that the bees will cover over 8,000 acres of land. Within this land, even in residential areas, many people have gardens, fruit trees and decorative gardens. So foraging may be no problem whatsoever to residential beekeepers.
Occasionally, it may be necessary to supplement the diets of residential bees. But the same guidelines may be followed as with any other form of beekeeping.
Depending on location, water may be a scarcity to the bees of a residential beekeeper. Bees require water to regulate hive temperature and for diluting honey for feeding. Water is often collected from the nearest source, though bees seem to prefer shallow pools of warmer standing water. Because of this, it is advisable to supply bees with a source of water so they do not attempt to drink from neighboring pools or birdbaths. Keep in mind that during the hotter parts of the year in some regions of the US, a single healthy colony of bees may use up to a gallon or more of water a day. Some beekeepers have a faucet slowly dripping over a shallow dish or plate. Once bees start using a specific water source, it may be difficult to prevent them from returning. It is often best to provide a non-diminishing supply of water near the hive before the bees begin flying.
Working The Colony
Whenever a beehive is opened or in some way disturbed, a potentially dangerous reaction may occur. To diminish the possibility of negative action, it is advisable to follow a set of guidelines when working the hive.
Be Aware of Nectar Flows
A nectar flow may be the best possible time in which to work a colony. During a good flow, many of the workers will be out of the hive foraging. This diminished population offers the best time to examine the colony. Be aware of the nectar flows in your area, though this may not be possible without good observations for several years. During a time of nectar dearth, bees may be more defensive and more populous in the hive.
When to Open the Hive
Weather and time of day hold a large influence over the temperament of a colony of bees. Opening a hive during non-peak condition, such as early morning, a rainy or windy day, or during cold weather should be avoided whenever possible. To minimize the likelihood of problems, hives should only be worked on ideal warm sunny days. This however, is also the time of day when neighbors tend to be out and about. When possible only work the hive when no one else is around the immediate vicinity.
When working a hive, neighbors, especially children, may become interested in what you are doing. If you don’t mind an audience, be sure to have some extra protective gear on hand so some of your spectators may get a closer look or even help out. If you don’t have any protective gear to share be sure that spectators stay a reasonable distance away so they won’t chance getting harmed. Now would also be a good time to casually educate those around you in the art and science of beekeeping. A beekeeper, can often use a good assistant, some one who repeatedly chooses to watch may be just that person. It may even be a good idea to invite friends and neighbors to learn and enjoy your hobby. Just be prepared to answer many questions.
Honey, nectar or hive parts exposed, or even leaving a colony open for a few minutes may encourage a robbing situation, which will likely lead to many defensive, ready-to-sting bees flying around. Always seal hives and cover attractive hive parts as soon as possible when working to avoid this situation.
Wearing gloves while beekeeping can be a bad idea. Stings on hands are easily removed and the resulting pain quickly subsides. Generally stings on gloves are not felt, but alarm pheromones are released each time and will cause other bees in the hive to attack. Often this will build and the beekeeper will ignore a cycle that the residential beekeeper should avoid. Wearing gloves may cause the beekeeper to miss one of the best identifiers of colony mood. Working barehanded, a beekeeper is less clumsy and will be less likely to allow the bees to get out of control.
- Gentle Bees
- When keeping bees in residential areas it is important to keep gentle bees. Select a race of bees that is known to act non-aggressively. If a colony becomes temperamental, don’t hesitate to re-queen it.
- Consider Your Neighbors
- It is best to keep your neighbors happy, though you may be within your legal right to keep bees on your property, an angry neighbor can cause severe problems for a beekeeper. For more information on this subject, see the Gaining Support of Friends and Neighbors module.
- Avoid Swarming
- Even though a swarm of bees is often no threat, neighbors will not perceive it as such.
- Join Hobbyist Associations
- Often a residential beekeeper does not have the room or the need for some seasonal beekeeping equipment, by joining an association it may be possible to share such equipment an thereby eliminate some cost. If such an association is not available consider paying a small fee to a beekeeper with the proper equipment for rental or usage.
- Hive Design
- Because a residential beekeeper often has differing requirements, you may want to consider alternate hive designs such as a top bar hive, which are known to be easier to work, cheap, and to encourage gentler bees.