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The rows of fresh honey, in all its splendid natural hues, lined up in cute jars at the farmers market have always tempted me into wanting to start my own little apiary. But the thought of my urban backyard holding multiple beehives was formidable. However, I have recently found out that cultivating beehives in an urban or suburban housing area is not as impossible as I may have made it in my head. Backyard beekeeping is increasing in popularity, with more people having honeybees as their next-door neighbors, and urban rooftops and suburban backyards turning out to be suitable sites for beehives. Since a typical hive requires just a few square feet, almost every backyard can accommodate a hive. So just about anyone with a yard can potentially become a beekeeper.
Small scale beekeeping (i.e. managing 2-10 hives) can be a very gratifying and enthralling hobby. Not to mention you will be doing your much needed part in promoting the growth of bee populations in the area.
If you’re a beginner at beekeeping, you might be overwhelmed with the amount of (mis)information out there. But if you are serious about bees, this beekeeping guide will show you how you can begin-step by step, from ordering the bees to choosing your hive to getting your neighbors accustomed to your new hobby.
To guide us on this journey of understanding the world of small-scale beekeeping, we got together with Apiarist Tara Chapman of Two Hives Honey. Chapman has made a name for herself and her brand throughout Central Texas as an educator and as a producer of superb honey by the jar and comb. In addition to beekeeping classes, honey and related products, and six-month apprenticeships, Two Hives Honey also offers family and adult tours, and pairings with other local food artisans. You can also order a selection of Chapman-designed bee houses through the Two Hives’ website.
Here’s a few things to start on while your excitement grows.
Beekeeping Basics You Should Know
Are You Sure That’s Allowed?
Successfully keeping bees in suburbia requires more than just physical space for the hives, as bees in close proximity to people comes with its own set of guidelines to be followed.
Before you even purchase bees or equipment, check the local community/city/country/state regulations where you live pertaining to honeybees. Laws regarding whether or not you can keep bees, number of hives allowed in one area, and other restrictions have to be followed. Familiarizing yourself with these regulations makes it easier for you to enjoy your hobby and its sweet rewards.
Build A Good Neighborly Bond.
With thousands of buzzing bees in your backyard, being a good neighbor is vital. Create an open line of interaction with your neighbors. Educate your neighbors about bees and other pollinators, as the non-beekeeping folks often misunderstand honeybees and their natures. Let them know that bees usually travel long distances to collect food and they also typically cruise at altitudes of 30 feet and above, well above people.
Additionally, explain how many trees, flowers, fruits, nuts, and vegetables depend on honeybees for pollination. Having bees close can only improve the quality of their vegetable gardens. It’s never a bad idea to share your freshly harvested organic honey with neighbors on both sides. Once they taste that liquid gold, they may likely become one of your biggest supporters.
Encourage them to ask questions, Always ask about any concerns they might have and address each one to the best of your ability.
Set up Apiary in a Location that Lessens Objections
The next important facet to backyard beekeeping is to evaluate your backyard as an apiary.
Think about how non-beekeepers utilize the area. While a south-facing hive is best, keep in mind what happens 10-15 feet in front of your hives. It is equally important to consider how your neighbors use their yard space, so it is not a good idea to place a hive directly over property line.
Apiaries require some unique considerations. Your bees will require water, sunlight, a sturdy hive, and during some parts of the year, they may require food. Grasses, trees, herbs, and flowers, all produce pollen used by bees to feed the hive. Though bees fly a long distance every day to find enough pollen, planting diverse native wildflowers in your home garden will benefit native bees, honey bees and butterflies. Wildflowers provide pollen, nectar, habitat, shelter, and safety from predators throughout the year. These wildflower seeds by Two Hives Honey are native to the Texas-Oklahoma-Louisiana region of the United States.
Feed your bees water on your property so they don’t make a neighbor’s pool their own water source. Keep water within fifteen feet of your hive(s) year-round, so that they orient towards it.
The hives should be close enough to be accessible, but out of the way to reduce the chances of bees coming into contact with animals or people.
Stick to the Standard Hives
In the 1850’s, Reverend Langstroth established a standardized shape and size of hive. This was based on the bees’ natural inclinations for spaces within a hive and allowed a beekeeper to inspect a hive without wrecking it. There are other hive styles available but they require various different approaches and set of skills. So till you are a learner in beekeeping, stick with the Langstroth hives.
We recommend beginning with two to four hives. This will allow you to understand the health of the hives, their personality, growth, and supply. Getting too many to start can be overwhelming In suburban areas, your yard size will dictate how many hives can live safely on your property. Generally, the rule of thumb is no more than three colonies on any lot of one-quarter acre or less (excluding nucs).
Bringing in the Bees
For beginners, getting a nuclear colony from your local apiary or nuc, can be advantageous, as the bees are already producing comb and honey when you buy them. You only have to put on your protective outfit and transfer the frames from the box, into your hive. The colony already have an accepted queen, and there are varying ages of bees in the brood. Another way to get bees is buying a package of bees and a separate queen.
For our first experience, we chose to buy a nuc, and followed the Two Hives Honey Package and Nuc Installation workshop. The workshop contained detailed videos and a thorough explanation of how you can install and set up your very first Bee Package or Nuc. As a complete stranger to urban beekeeping, or any sort of beekeeping honestly, the workshops have been very enlightening and easy to keep track of.
Get Yourself A Bee Smoker
Smoke keeps the bees calm while you visit and inspect the hives. Beekeepers typically go through their hives twice a month, looking for queen health, signs of disease, and readiness for harvest. A good smoker and a hive tool eliminates most chances of getting stung and also prevents the bees from panicking. We have purchased our bee smoker from here.
Still feeling antsy about operating a smoker tool? This set of 4 videos and a detailed class by Tara of Two Hives Honey makes it surprisingly easy to understand the mechanics of lighting and managing a smoker for your beehives.
In an urban neighborhood, if your bees swarm, they will likely shelter in a neighbor’s backyard. Unlike most beekeepers’ reaction to witnessing a swarm of bees, non-beekeepers can be shocked to see thousands of bees bouncing across the sky until they land up in a humongous ball formation in someone’s backyard! As a suburban beekeeper, it is your responsibility to do everything to prevent swarms. This includes the following practices:
- Provide additional hive bodies in a timely manner as colonies grow
- Split strong hives.
- Expand the brood nest by placing alternating frames of empty drawn comb between the existing frames of the brood nest.
- Requeen with young queens.
Make sure your bees do not spread parasites and diseases to other bees
Varroa mites are the greatest danger to honey bees and controlling them in a populated area is crucial because one colony’s health can affect many others. With backyard beekeeping on this rise, one person’s bees can come in contact with another’s bees. Keeping bees in urban areas means that your honeybee managing decisions influence the wellbeing of your own colonies, as well as that of your other local beekeepers’ around.
If colonies ultimately collapse from Varroa, healthful colonies within a three-mile radius stand a risk of being infected also. Bees from infected hives may also migrate to healthier colonies they find nearby, taking the mites with them. Part of being an accountable beekeeper means ensuring that your bees do not pose a threat to the environment.
Honey is basically liquid gold. The honey harvest is going to be one of the most magical times of your beekeeping journey. Honey is typically harvested on a hot summer day, at about mid 80’s Fahrenheit. Any colder and honey won’t flow out easily, and at higher temperatures, wax loses its integrity, and the frames will fall apart. Few words can describe the pleasure of your first mouthful of freshly harvested honey from your very own hives. A stainless-steel honey extractor may be one of your biggest initial investments but it typically lasts decades and will be one of your beloved tools. Using an extractor to get the honey out allows honeycomb to be re-used by the bees and can also increase annual honey production.
The Beauty of Bee Propolis!
Often called nature’s medicine, bee propolis is basically a resinous material made by bees with the collected resins from trees and their own enzymes and beeswax. Called “bee glue,” it is used by honeybees for a variety of reasons. It is used to fill cracks and crevices in the hive. But for us, bee propolis can be highly beneficial. It acts as an antimicrobial, antiviral, and antifungal for complaints ranging from sore throats, upper respiratory tract infections, mouth ulcers, to treating wound healing, burns, acne, and neurodermatitis. How can you harvest it from your very own hive? Take this propolis video workshop for only $10 that covers everything propolis, on what it is, why it’s good for you, how to harvest it, and more. You can even buy bee propolis extract here from the Two Hives Honey storefront.
Be Prepared for Climate Change
Climate Change is happening, and the effects are here for us to see. Tara says, “The snowstorm of 2021 Uri, taught us precious lessons on how we needed to winterize our beehives.” You don’t want to be caught in another freeze with your bees exposed to the elements. Get this invaluable Snowstorm 2021: Post Mortem + Lessons Learned workshop at only $10 to be prepared for weather extremes and beekeeping.
Involve Your Friends and Family!
Share this remarkable social creature and the importance of them in our food system and our lives. You may decide to start an annual harvest party tradition with your neighbors! Better yet, give the gift of bees to a loved one! If you know that someone who can’t stop raving about bees and honey, this Being with the Bees Gift Certificate will make for the perfect present.
Done your homework? Now it’s time to get your knees dirty! Get hands-on preparation by investing in a beekeeping class or two. Two Hives Honey offers a 4-module program that covers all the basics and more of beekeeping. The Being with the Bees: Starting Your Journey as a Beekeeper will include:
- A fascinating and eye-opening lesson in bee biology and behavior.
- A step-by-step guide to setting up your apiary, including recommended equipment and tools to buy, how and where to buy bees, and how to select and prepare your bee site.
- Best practices for first year success and next steps and resources to help achieve your beekeeping dream.
- A 40+ page guidebook to deepen your understanding of what’s covered on screen. This interactive guidebook is full of checklists and activities you won’t find anywhere else, including a budgeting and mapping tool, a list of questions to ask your bee supplier, and so much more!
What Are You Waiting for?
Backyard beekeeping is an entertaining and satisfying hobby. It’s something the whole family can enjoy together, or something you can do by yourself. There may be a few extra requirements for keeping bees in urban areas, but the golden rule of beekeeping is to respect your neighbors, your environment, and your bees.
Yes, honeybees are incredible! But there’s also A LOT to learn. We recommend finding dependable classes, or veteran mentors like Tara Chapman to guide you through the first couple seasons.