Bring a Taste of Honey to the City With 10 Things You Need to Know About Urban Beekeeping

urban beekeeping: person collecting honey

City dwellers often feel the pull of nature and look for ways to connect with plant and animal life through a variety of hobbies. Indoor plants, patio plants, water gardens, aquariums and fishbowls, terrariums, and herb gardens are just some ways people satisfy the urge to nurture growing things. Urban beekeeping is a fascinating activity that shows a special level of commitment to establishing that connection with nature. 

Beekeeping has interested people for thousands of years. Bees can do much of the activity all by themselves, but by providing the right environment and structures, the beekeeper harnesses the work of the bees in a way that leads to the harvesting of honey. Beekeeping is an engrossing hobby that produces honey, beeswax, and honeycomb; helps promote pollination; and encourages the growth of the bee population.

What Is Urban Beekeeping?

Urban beekeeping, much like the words suggest, is beekeeping in a city or town. But it is more than a location; it is a whole style of beekeeping that may look very different from the rural beekeeping operations that dot the countryside. Urban beekeeping can range from a grouping of hives in a corner of a back yard to a hive or two set on the rooftop of an apartment building. Some people place their hives in communal garden settings.

Can You Beekeep in the City?

Yes, of course, you can beekeep in the city. But an equally important question is may you beekeep in your city? The answer to that question usually is yes, but there may be a variety of hoops to go through to get started beekeeping in your city or town. The first step to taking up urban beekeeping is to find out the rules in your area that will regulate your beekeeping activities. In many locales, the only requirement is to provide notice that you have a beekeeping setup. But knowing upfront what the rules are and following them will help you avoid future problems.

urban beekeeping: insect bees flying

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10 Tips for Effective Urban Beekeeping

1. Choose a Location

There is a lot to learn to get started as a beekeeper. If you are serious about doing it and don't live in the country, you need to study the options available to you. The first step is to find out if there are any limitations in your town or city. But even if there are restrictions, your dreams of becoming a beekeeper can still come true. The most convenient location will be right where you live, and if it is legal to keep bees there, that should be your first choice. That way, you will be nearby when the bees need attention and you won't miss the interesting dynamic of life in the beehive.

yellow bee on white flower on selective focus photography

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But maybe you will have to establish your operation in another setting away from where you live. Community gardens are a possibility. Borrowing a small space of land from someone is another. This could be a win-win for you and the landowner, especially once the honey starts flowing and you starting sharing it.

Some flat-roofed commercial buildings, as well as high-rise rooftops, make great places for urban gardens and urban beehives. Some restaurants use their rooftop space to produce their own honey as part of the ambiance of the establishment.

2. Follow the Rules, Get the Permits

You will enjoy peace of mind if you take the time to find out the rules in your area and then follow them. In most places, the rules are not difficult, but there are likely to be some, If you live somewhere that doesn't allow an urban beekeeping operation, you may want to get involved in the process of changing those rules. Education about the value of what beekeepers do and how bees can be managed safely in an urban environment may be what's needed to get permission.

3. Join With Others

Established beekeepers are a wealth of knowledge and information. In some places, there are associations of beekeepers who meet to discuss topics of mutual interest. This kind of organization is an amazing resource for a beginner. People are often generous in sharing their experience. Starting an urban beekeeping venture doesn't need to be a lonely activity. If you don't find an organization, resources such as the county extension agent, the staff of a local farm and ranch store, or the library can be helpful to put you in touch with other beekeepers and beekeeping resources. Your research into getting started in beekeeping will almost surely take you to online resources. These are not a replacement for a human advisor but will be very helpful.

4. Choose a Hive Style

urban beekeeping animal world apiary beehive bees

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There are two main styles of hive used in today's beekeeping — the Langstroth hive and the top bar hive. The Langstroth is by far the most popular. But here is where your local beekeeping network will be important. You will want to choose the style in use where your resources are. Much of the advice and consultation you will need to get started and to go through all the phases of hive management will be related to the style of hive you are using. Experts recommend starting with two hives. This will give you a point of comparison between the two and a way to identify possible problems more quickly. There is a lot to learn and having two hives will give you twice the experience at the same time.

5. Get the Right Gear

Before you set up your hive or hives and move the bees in, you want to have the safety gear and tools you need to be a good hive manager. A jacket, hood, and gloves are essential, as well as a smoker for use in calming and controlling the bees and the tools you need to move frames within the hive. You can anticipate spending around $100 for things you need in addition to hives and bees. Your friendly advisors will know where to get the best deals and may even have some equipment to lend. You want to avoid accepting any supplies or equipment that might introduce any contamination into your operation.

women standing on the grass while holding a bucket

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The bees themselves are an important purchase decision. Here you want no bargains. You want to be sure that the bees come from a good source with a track record of healthy bees. Most of the work of the hive is done by the bees, so you want to start out with a crew who will get the job done.

6. Buy Your First Hives

It is possible to build your own hive, and if you are a serious do-it-yourselfer, you may be committed to doing everything on your own. But experienced beekeepers recommend waiting to tackle this kind of carpentry project until you know what you are looking for in a hive. It is also the kind of step that can hold up the whole process of getting started. Once you have a hive or hives and the bees, adding hives can be done on a leisurely basis that gives you plenty of time to tackle the project. Well-meaning advisors may offer you hives they are no longer using. It is a good idea to avoid using hand-me-down hives as your first venture into beekeeping. They may carry some disease or contaminant. Starting with new hives will give you the assurance that you are starting out with a sanitary home for the bees.

7. Control the Environment

The space available to you for urban beekeeping is likely to be somewhat limited compared to that available to your rural beekeeping friends. If you have a yard, creating space for a hive should not be difficult. You will want it to offer some relief from the sun at the hottest time of the year. You can direct the pattern of activity into and out of the hive by positioning shrubs and fencing in such a way that the bees automatically fly over them. This is a way to train the bees to fly in a pattern where they may be less likely to encounter people in the area. In a yard where there are children playing, you will want to place the bees where they are unlikely to be disturbed and where the kids won't be bothered by the bees. Plantings are one way to set boundaries for the hives.

If you are placing your hive on a rooftop, you need to secure the hive so it won't be blown down or even off the roof in strong winds. In some cities, rooftop gardens have become popular. Herbs and produce are sometimes grown either by residents of the building or by a restaurant in the building. Rooftop beehives are sometimes used to produce the honey for a restaurant located many floors below.

Bees need flowers to make pollen. You can provide a floral environment that might keep your bees at home or you can count on your bees' natural ability to find the flowers they need. Bees can travel up to five miles to gather the pollen they need, so a new beekeeper should not worry too much about providing a source for pollen. The bees will find what they need.

8. Anticipate Problems

Once everything is set up in a beekeeping operation, the bees tend to business and, at least for a while, everything seems to go smoothly. There might not be much for the beekeeper to do. But bees and beehives are complex. Many things can go wrong. Predatory insects may invade a hive. Humid weather can create the right conditions for mold formation. Bees can swarm. All of these possibilities require awareness and preparation. You don't want to be taken by surprise by a setback that could have been anticipated.

It is your responsibility not only to take care of the bees but also to handle your bees in a way that presents no danger to your family and neighbors. In a setting where you live in close proximity to other people, you should recognize that people can be very ignorant about bees. You should not assume that your neighbors are as excited about your beekeeping as you are. Bees can and do sting, although not nearly as often as people might think. Letting your neighbors know what you are doing and how you are handling your bees can go a long way toward creating a positive attitude in the neighborhood.

A swarm can be a frightening experience and yet it is a possible event that you need to be ready for. Beekeeping guidebooks are a good help here as well as the advice of experienced beekeepers. Having conversations with them will help you have a plan for how you will handle problems.

9. Enjoy the Harvest

Once your urban beekeeping operation is established, you need to be ready to handle the harvest. Gathering the honey from the hives is an exciting process. Your space in an urban setting may be somewhat limited. You will need to find or create a clean spot, perhaps in a basement or garage, where you can extract the honey away from the bees. You will learn quickly just how sticky honey is and how easily it can get on everything in sight. You might not want the neighborhood gathered to watch your first harvest.

This will be a time of discovery, of seeing all that the bees have produced in the hive you provided. You need to be prepared for the quantity of honey that will be produced by your hive or hives. Depending on the size of the hive box, the yield may be between 25 and 40 pounds or between two and four gallons per hive. You will need containers to handle those volumes.

honey jars harvest bees frame

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This is a process where some extra, experienced hands could be most welcome. There are a lot of little things about this phase, about how much honey might still be held in the caps, how to get it all out, what to do with the beeswax, and how to get everything back into the hives once the harvesting is done. Simple steps will help you to filter the honey and get it ready for bottling.

10. Share the Wealth

Once in the jar or bottle, the honey is pure liquid gold. You now have the perfect tool for allaying any anxieties your family or neighbors may have expressed about having bees in the neighborhood.

Conclusion

Is urban beekeeping a good idea? The answer is a resounding yes. Some studies even suggest that bees may be healthier in an urban setting. Bees do not seem to be bothered by urban noise or pollution. A beekeeping operation can be set up in a very small space. It is possible to increase the number of hive boxes by expanding upward on the original footprint. 

This is not a casual hobby that someone tries and abandons. The person who wants to keep bees in the city is likely to be serious about doing it right. Urban beekeeping produces many pluses. It is a fascinating activity to study and observe. Providing habitat for bees can help the population of bees increase. Bee populations have been dwindling. Your hobby can help assure that needed pollination occurs. And, best of all, it produces the delicious, healthy product of honey.

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