Someone recently told me that honeybees are the new chickens for urban farmers. I think it would be awesome if urban bees became more popular, because they help pollinate our vegetable gardens and fruit trees and produce amazing honey. If you are considering getting bees next spring, now is a great time to think about where you will keep them and how you will fit them into your garden and your routine.
Things to Consider Before Getting Bees
Keeping bees is so fun, but it is also a big commitment because you are responsible for the health and well being of literally tens of thousands of bees. Here are a few questions to ask yourself before you get a hive.
Is keeping bees legal? Even though New York City recently legalized keeping honeybees, tons of municipalities outlaw bees in city limits. Double check that they are legal in your town and if you live in a neighborhood with a homeowner's association, you might want to look at the bylaws.
Do I have the time? When you keep honeybees you need to check on the hive about once a week in the spring, summer, and fall. You look to see if the queen is in the hive and laying eggs, if the worker bees look healthy, and if you need to add more "supers" (the boxes where bees store honey). I kept bees in my urban backyard for two years. I loved checking on the bees and watching them in my garden, but with my crazy busy and inconsistent schedule, I ultimately decided to give my hive to an experienced beekeeper because I could not keep up with them.
Can I afford it? The start up costs for getting a hive runs about $300. In subsequent years the cost is much lower, but you might want to start saving your pennies now if you want to get bees next spring. Also, consider finding a friend to keep bees with because you can split up the cost and the responsibilities.
Where will I put my hive ? The ideal spot for a hive gets morning sun and afternoon shade. There will be a lot of bee activity around the hive on a sunny day, so you don't want to put it right next to your back door or in the direct path of a sidewalk or driveway.
Is there a local support system? Having a beekeeping mentor is a huge help. Bee Culture, a magazine dedicated to beekeeping, keeps an online state-by-state listing of beekeeping associations. Local beekeeing associations are a great resource because they often have social meet-ups, mentorship programs, beginning and advanced classes and certification program, and they sometimes rent expensive equipment like honey extractors.
You can buy beginner beekeeping kits from apiary supply companies like Dadant. These kits usually contain the following:
A Hive: A basic hive has a bottom board, deep hive body boxes, honey supers, frames and foundation, and a lid. I recommend getting the wax foundation, which is the base that the bees use to build out the wax comb, rather than plastic foundation. This type of hive is called a Langstroth hive and it is the most common set up, but you may want to investigate top bar hives.
Hive tool. This special tool helps you pry open the boxes, clean off excess wax, and separate the frame.
Smoker. A smoker allows you to blow cool smoke on the bees while you are working the hive. This helps keep them calm as you check on them. You can purchase fuel for the smoker but paper and wood shavings work just as well.
Feeder. In spring you often need to feed the bees with a sugary syrup to help them get started.
Veil. This is worn over your head and neck to protect your face from stings.
Optional equipment: Bee suit, sting-resistant gloves, brush (to help guide the bees off the frames so you can check on them), honey extraction supplies.
Last, but certainly not least, you will need bees. Typically you can buy packets of bees which contain several thousand workers and a queen that is ready to start laying.
American Beekeeping Federation: This organization has a good resource page for beginning beekeepers.
Homemade Living: Keeping Bees with Ashely English: All You Need to Know to Tend Hives, Harvest Honey and More by Ashley English. This book is part of English's great Homemade Living series, which includes excellent guides to keeping chickens, canning and preserving, and making your own dairy products like yogurt and cheese. Full of photos, easy-to-follow instructions, and delicious recipes that use honey, it is really the perfect reference for beginners.
Natural Beekeeping: Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture by Ross Conrad. Many beekeeping books advocate using antibiotics and pesticides as a regular practice. This great guide offers natural alternative to keeping your bees healthy. Though the tone is a bit dry and the author assumes you know beekeeping basics, the information is valuable for anyone interested in organic beekeeping.
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Willi Galloway writes The Gardener column. She lives in Portland, Oregon and writes about her kitchen garden on her blog DigginFood. Her first book Grow. Cook. Eat. A Food-Lovers Guide To Vegetable Gardening will be published in January 2012.
(Images: All images by Willi Galloway)