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The Urban Bee: Keeping Bees in the City

written by: •edited by: Carly Stockwell•updated: 6/20/2018

You’ve romanticized about having your own honeybee hive apiary; have thought about helping save the bees from disease, nutrition and pesticides; or contemplated how great it would be to have bees populate your garden. It’s doable, but will take some time and effort.

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    The Urban Bee Once you have your knowledge and setup, you can choose to act as a hands-off beekeeper by not relying on using any chemicals and not messing with them too much, but letting the queen do what she must. If you overanalyze, every time you crack open the hive, you stress them. The only time to intervene is when there are obvious signs of disease. Other than that, keep to a seasonal schedule, which you will acquire over time, and nature will do its thing.

    Once you have your knowledge and setup, you can choose to act as a hands-off beekeeper by not relying on using any chemicals and not messing with them too much, but letting the queen do what she must. If you overanalyze, every time you crack open the hive, you stress them. The only time to intervene is when there are obvious signs of disease. Other than that, keep to a seasonal schedule, which you will acquire over time, and nature will do its thing.

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    The Hive Members

    Drone There is the drone, a male honeybee, whose main purpose in life is to mate with the queen. They fly out periodically, searching for a mid-air rendezvous with an eligible queen. They may leave a spoiled honeycomb for their other little sisters to clean up and are often fed and cared for by others—perhaps a hundred others per drone.

    If it sounds like heaven, you might be surprised to learn they lack stingers and cannot defend themselves, or even feed themselves or seek out food. At summer’s end if the stores of honey are low and they have failed to get a mate, they may get kicked out of the hive. Oh, and their embrace with a virgin queen, not good. Their genitals remain attached to her and they fall from the sky and die.

    They are easy to spot too. With longer bodies than those of the workers, they have fat rounded bottoms with no stingers, no pollen baskets or wax glands—just large compound eyes.

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    The Worker Bees

    Worker Bee A worker bee is a character who reproduces and then takes on every other task within the hive such as attending the queen, cleaning honeycomb cells and other bees, building wax, taking pollen from others, fanning the cells and repairing cracks. A worker bee has a lot of roles in a short life span. As it ages, sting and wax glands develop and that allows it to be physically capable of performing all jobs. It may work from home or head out into the world at various times in its life.

    A foraging bee going on an expedition is more senior and expected to collect pollen. Unfortunately, if they are born in summer, they work themselves to death in about six weeks. The winter counterpart has less work and may be needed to provide warmth and do necessary functions for wintertime survival. Easy to spot, workers are smaller than the queen or drones and have brood food glands, scent glands, wax glands and pollen baskets—all tools for hardworking bees.

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    The Queen’s Life

    The queen bee rules over the hive hierarchy. That means she may not be a ruler as such that we know, but she does regulate what goes on in a hive. She literally ensures the survival of the species. This is a highly orchestrated environment where each bee inside has a distinct role and not only contributes to the hive’s success but ensures their survival. The roles that are played out are determined before birth and there is no decision to become something else, or their continued residency may be ended, and the recalcitrant occupant is forcibly removed or killed.

    The queen is an egg-laying phenom who can lay upwards of 2,000 eggs per day by positioning her rear over honeycomb cells and depositing eggs. She will leave the hive only once in her lifetime to meet an airborne drone who is driven on by her pheromones. Speaking of pheromones, the scent she releases keep forager bees primed to gather nectar and pollen.

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    Their Home

    Beekeeper Author and bee enthusiast Luke Dixon says, “If you have room for a composter or a water barrel you have room for a beehive."

    Bees have been found in chimneys, wall cavities, attics and church spires. Believe it or not, cities often offer more varieties of forage for bees than the countryside because of their extensive park systems, private and public gardens and areas set aside for flowering displays.

    Before you begin, check with city ordinances because not all urban areas are bee friendly. And you should probably canvas your neighbors to see how they feel and if your landlord is conducive to the idea. Many people are fearful of bees as you can well imagine. Cats and dogs are generally good around bees keeping their distance, whereas horses are not.

    Hives are okay on rooftops although you should have shade, a water source and a windbreak for their comfort. Black asphalt or tarred roofs create tremendous heat in the summer and that is uncomfortable for you and your bees.

    Bees are typically kept in boxes with unique dividers and areas that allow the bees to work, reproduce and come and go. They often resemble a box of drawers with covers at the top and bottom. Find a beekeeper mentor, read and digest bee how-to books or take a class at a co-op, college or city learning center to get the low-down on how to equip your bees’ environment.

    It will be pricey in the beginning to outfit yourself and your hives. There are lots of sites online, so you can compare prices and check for beginning beekeeper kits. It may help to have a partner to do the research and to aid in the setup of the proper foundation.

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    Their Job

    One-third of all the food we eat and drink is the direct result of pollination. Without bees, our diet would be much poorer. They communicate by complex pheromones and seek out the pollen in flowers in a type of symbiotic relationship to create their magic: honey. In doing so, bees are gardeners, farmers and plant friends themselves.

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    Tools and Equipment

    You will require special, light-colored or breathable clothing or a freshly laundered bee suit. A hat and veil are necessary protective gear and other pieces may include gloves, elastics for sleeves and pant legs, etc. You will also need to learn how to use a smoker and have fodder for burning in your smoker; plus, get a proper hive tool, bee brush, lidded jars and you will gather other things as you learn and go on.

    Observe other beekeepers –perhaps in a bee club– as they go through a bee “swarm" season and honey “harvesting" and you will be more confident and know exactly what tools and tricks will suit your endeavor best.

References

  • Grit: 10 Urban Beekeeping Tips
  • Dixon, Luke. Keeping Bees in Towns & Cities. Portland, OR: Timber Press, Inc., 2012. Book.
  • Forbes: The Plight of the Honeybee: Fact and Fiction
  • English, Ashley. Keeping Bees: All You Need to Know to Tend Hives, Harvest Honey & More. New York, NY: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 2011. Book.
  • Paska, Megan. The Rooftop Beekeeper: A Scrappy Guide to Keeping Urban Honeybees. San Francisco: Chronicle Books LLC, 2014. Book.