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“The hum of bees is the voice of the garden.”
–Elizabeth Lawrence, Through the Garden Gate
If you’ve been following the news at all within the past couple years, there is a good chance you have read something about honeybees and a phenomenon known as “colony collapse disorder” (CCD). If you haven’t, this mysterious epidemic is essentially when a colony of worker bees simply disappears without a trace, abandoning the queen and her young and ultimately causing the death of the hive. And this doesn’t just happen to one or two hives. In fact, some commercial operations have reported losing upwards of 90% of their active hives, all at once, in just a few short months. Unfortunately, the cause of CCD is still unknown, but the fact remains that the population of honeybees has been declining over the years, and this is not just sad, it’s terrifying.
This is because, as most of us know, bees aren’t only responsible for pollinating pretty flowers. In fact, as of January of this year, the FDA estimated that bees are responsible for upwards of 15 billion dollars worth of commercial crop production in the U.S. 15 billion dollars. That’s no small portion of our food supply. And as the honeybee population continues to suffer high losses, the global population—and our need for food—continues to grow exponentially, creating a recipe for disaster.
But what can be done? As you may have gathered at this point, we at CC Grow don’t believe that the food system should lie in the hands of large industry anyhow, and that includes protecting and encouraging the health of the honeybees. Starting a hive in an urban setting may seem like it would be something that should only be taken on by die-hard apiarists, but this is simply not the case! If you believe in creating community-based gardens of Eden, supporting local agriculture, or are just looking for a new hobby, read on! And let us provide you with some information, tips, and inspiration on how you can spread the honey bee love in your own community.
Step 1: The most important thing to consider before installing an urban beehive is, is this allowed?
Different cities will have different rules for keeping hives in urban areas, so be sure you are aware of your local rules and regulations. Here in Denver, for example, households can have up to two hives as long as they are kept in the rear 1/3 of the property and are behind a barrier of at least 6 feet (for more information on beekeeping in the Denver area, click here).
Knowing these types of details regarding fencing, distance from neighbors, etc. can be the difference between being a happy hive-owner and having to pay a hefty fine, so make sure you familiarize yourself with your local laws before you do anything else.
Step 2: The next question you should ask yourself is, do I have the necessary space available?
Many types of honeybees are extremely gentle, but can still deliver a painful sting if irritated. To avoid collisions between stingers and skin, hives should be placed in locations that are easy to access but are out of the way of areas with a lot of foot traffic. If you are lucky enough to have a yard for your hive, consider installing a fence or planting a tall shrubbery as this will force your bees to fly higher on their way to and from the hive.
Finding a spot with adequate protection from the elements and access to water can also make a big difference in raising a healthy hive. If you don’t live near a creek or pond, a birdbath or small tub of water placed about 20 feet from the hive should provide bees with adequate amounts of liquid. If placing your hive in an area with little protection from the elements, plants or even a piece of fabric on the sides and/or above your hive can protect it from high winds and extreme heat. Hives do need some access to sun, however, so don’t keep your bees completely in the dark!
Finally, it is a good idea to consider with whom you are sharing your space before installing a hive. Speaking to roommates, landlords, and/or neighbors can help you avoid future confrontation and difficulties if any of your co-habitators happen to not be down with these backyard fuzzy buzzers.
Step 3: You’ve checked in with your neighbors, know the local regulations, and are having some serious honey cravings. So now what?
Now we finally get to the good stuff and you get to start setting up your bees!
Picking a Hive
Before ordering your bees, make sure you have an adequate home for them. Hives can either be built or bought depending on your time availability and budget. If you are looking to harvest honey and are fairly new to beekeeping, we suggest the tried and true langstroth hive (see image below) or a top bar hive.
Keep in mind that hives come in all shapes and sizes however, so if you are unsure of what hive you need to suit your needs, check out this great resource from beethinking.com to help you find the hive that is best for you.
Next up is selecting what kind of bees you want to keep. While there are many options for beginner beekeepers, Russian and Italian bees are a great place to start as they tend to be more docile breeds. Russian bees in particular are a good option as, in addition to being calmer than other varieties, they are also resistant to many common pests. Depending on where you live, however, some bees may be better suited than others, so don’t be shy about asking around for suggestions.
Receiving Your Bees
The two options for purchasing your bees are to either buy a nucleus (nuc) colony or purchase your bees as a package. Nuc colonies are those which have already started their community (the queen has been accepted and is laying eggs) and come on a frame, or frames, that can be simply slipped into your langstroth hive.
Package colonies, on the other hand, are just that: a package of bees that haven’t quite started building their colony yet. These bees will come in a cage or box rather than on a frame and are poured into the new hive. The queen will need to be kept in her box within the hive while the colony gets adjusted and settles in, but after a few days, the queen can be released from her box to resume laying eggs.
If a local supplier in your hood sells bees, we recommend this option as picking your hive up in person means less stress on the bees and an added bonus of saving you shipping and handling. If this is not a possibility, however, never fear! The U.S. postal service will actually ship your brood for you and call you when it’s time to pick them up.
So that’s it! You did it! Unfortunately, you will probably not get very much honey from your colony in the first year. In the meantime, enjoy getting to know your fuzzy little buzzers until next season and take pride in the fact that you are helping your community’s ecosystem thrive.