Keeping Backyard Beehives – Backyard Beekeeping For Beginners
By: Teo Spengler
Keeping bees in the backyard is a natural extension of gardening to many outdoor enthusiasts. Having beehives in your own garden means ready pollination for your flowers and plants and in time, a generous personal honey supply. Read on to learn about backyard beekeeping basics.
It doesn’t take much time or money to begin keeping backyard beehives. Oftentimes, you can purchase a new hive complete with bees for less than $200. You may be able to recoup that amount the following year if you harvest and sell your honey.
You’ll need three kinds of bees for backyard beehives:
- The queen, who lays all the eggs in the hive
- Drones, who fertilize the queen’s eggs
- Worker bees, who perform all the remaining functions– including nectar gathering and care of the eggs.
The bees work as a unit to care for the colony.
In addition to backyard hives, you’ll need to acquire equipment to protect you from bee stings like a smoker, a beekeeper veil, and bee-safe gloves. Beekeeping supply stores may offer these in the package.
Urban Beekeeping Tips
Before you invite bees to share your backyard, check on state and local regulations. You may find you need to obtain licenses or register your backyard hives.
It’s also a good idea for city dwellers to talk to neighbors to be sure nobody close at hand is allergic to bee stings. Unless you have a very big backyard, your bees are likely to forage in neighbors’ flowers as well as yours to produce honey.
Benefits of Backyard Beekeeping
Those who like to garden, help nature, and work outdoors will likely love the craft of beekeeping. Having honeybees on your property is the best way to ensure that your flowers and fruit trees are fertilized.
Assuming you try your hand at backyard honey beekeeping, you should also end up with plenty of home-produced honey to use or to sell. Beeswax is another byproduct of backyard beehives.
To learn how to get the most benefits of backyard beekeeping, take a class at your local junior college or community center. You’ll pick up the best urban beekeeping tips from the locals.
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John's Beekeeping Notebook
Notes on Keeping Bees in Urban and Suburban Neighborhoods
Many beekeepers have bee hives in their back yards. Some bees are even kept on city roof-tops. Bees can travel several miles to collect nectar and pollen, so they do not need flowering plants close by. Most suburbs have plenty of flowers, and bees can make a good crop of local honey.
City beekeepers must take special care so their bees do not become a nuisance to neighbors, or even appear to be a problem. We all want good neighborly relations!
Bee stings are usually neighbors' biggest concern. Usually, beekeepers can care for their bees in ways that allow neighbors to feel safe and comfortable in their yards.
A Fence is important for most backyard beekeepers. A six foot high fence or shrubbery can serve several purposes:
Forces the bees flight path above people's heads. Bees normally travel in a straight path to their hive, and a fence raises their flight path up over everyone's head. A fence reduces the chance that a bee will accidentally collide with someone walking nearby.
Creates an "out of sight - out of mind" situation. Some people may be overly concerned about bees in the neighborhood. A fence hides most evidence that managed bees are in the neighborhood.
Provides wind protection to the hives.
Honey bees need to collect water, particularly in early spring and during the heat of summer. Bees can be fussy about where they collect water. They seem to love small ponds and creeks. The bees may also drink from a dog's drinking bowl, or a neighbor's bird bath or swimming pool. To deter bees from going to a neighbor's yard for a drink, the suburban beekeeper should provide water for their bees.
Two successful ways to provide water are to (1) Start a small water garden in a half-whiskey barrel with floating plants. The bees seem to love it, since they prefer well-aged water! (2) Use a dripping faucet, with the drips falling on to a wooden board. The dripping faucet is harder to manage, since it must be available at all times when bees are flying so they do not develop a habit of going elsewhere. Bees seem to prefer water that is not TOO close to their hive, so I put a water source at least 20 feet away.
There is no practical way to prevent swarming with 100% success. However, swarms are usually very gentle because the bees eat a lot of honey before they swarm.
In the photograph at left, a swarm is scooped up from a neighbor's yard.
Strong colonies with good queens are most likely to swarm. Of course, we want strong colonies. The solution is to keep colonies headed by young queens, less than one year old, because they will swarm less and tend to be strong too. This requires requeening each year with young queens if swarms are likely to be a problem.
When bees swarm, they typically form a cluster within 100 feet of their old hive while scout bees search for a new home. "Bait hives" are a good way to discourage swarms from going into a neighbor's yard. A bait hive is simply an attractive home waiting for a swarm to discover. A good bait hive can be made from an old hive body or nuc hive that is at least one cubic foot in volume and an opening size of about 1 or 2 square inches. The ideal place to put a bait hive is in a shady, wind-protected place, between 10 and 30 feet from the hives, and about ten feet off the ground such as under the eve of a house or between branches of a tree. Bees also prefer to live someplace where bees have lived before, so a bait hive will be more attractive to the bees if it has an old frame of honey comb in it or otherwise has a good bee-smell.
Working the Bees
When working inside a hive, it is possible that an angry bee will find an innocent nearby person (other than the beekeeper) to be a suitable target for a sting. Fortunately, there are ways of preventing that from happening!
The defensiveness of bees is greatly influenced by environmental conditions. A beekeeper who works with the bees when conditions are good will have few, if any, angry bees. The same bees that are gentle on one day can become very defensive on another day. The best conditions to work with the bees are when:
- Most of the field bees are out in the field collecting nectar
- When there is a nectar flow from flowering plants
- When the colony is not under stress from predators, such as wasps.
- When colonies are in direct sunlight
- When the temperature is not very hot (95 degrees F or higher)
- When neighbors are not having a lawn party or mowing their yard
Langstroth's first Bee-keeper's Axiom is a good one to remember: "Bees gorged with honey are not inclined to sting." This means that the bees will tend to be gentle when there is a nectar flow, when they swarm and following a light smoking.
Bees that are accustomed to movement around their hive reportedly are also less likely to be defensive, so having bushes, trees, a flag or other objects that move in a mild wind are worth considering.
Angry bees are sometimes attracted to lights at night. Bees normally do not fly at night, but if a predator or something else has disturbed the hive, a few bees may attempt to sting the neighbor's porch light. It is best if nearby neighbor's outdoor lights are not in direct view of the hive.
"Yellow rain" can be a minor problem to neighbors' cars that are parked within about 50 feet of the hives. The yellow specks that bees leave when they take cleansing flights wash off easily, but can be unsightly if there are a lot of hives in the area.
Races of Bees
Most common strains of bees are gentle enough to keep in a city. In the northern U.S., the Carniolan race is most popular. In the southern U.S. and Mexico, the Italian bee is preferred. If a colony is found to be inclined to sting, it should be requeened with gentle stock.
Beekeepers Benefit From The Hive Mind In Community Apiaries
Beekeepers inspect bee frames at the Hudson Gardens community apiary near Littleton, Colo. Modeled after community gardens, community apiaries allow beekeepers to maintain hives in public spaces — and offer each tips and support. Courtesy of Hudson Gardens hide caption
Beekeepers inspect bee frames at the Hudson Gardens community apiary near Littleton, Colo. Modeled after community gardens, community apiaries allow beekeepers to maintain hives in public spaces — and offer each tips and support.
Courtesy of Hudson Gardens
Even though Marca Engman read countless books, watched YouTube videos and took a beekeeping class before installing her first hive in 2012, she knew she'd need help in the field.
"The whole idea of beekeeping was overwhelming," she recalls. "Every year is different and every hive is different."
Rather than working a backyard beehive solo, Engman installed her first hive in the community apiary at Hudson Gardens, a nonprofit garden near Littleton, Colo.
"Beekeeping in a community setting is less threatening, because you have support," Engman says.
Community apiaries like the one at Hudson Gardens are generating a buzz. Modeled after community gardens, the sweet setups allow beekeepers to maintain hives in public spaces. Beekeepers generally pay a small fee to rent the space but own the equipment and manage the hives, keeping all of the harvested honey.
Although there are no official statistics on the number of community apiaries in the U.S., Tim Tucker, a beekeeper and immediate past president of the American Beekeeping Federation, has witnessed a significant uptick in the number of communities making it easier for residents to keep bees at home and in public spaces.
"Community beekeeping is a great idea," he says.
Pittsburgh was home to the first community apiary. Burgh Bees opened the site in 2010, turning a once-neglected vacant lot in an urban neighborhood into an apiary for local beekeepers. It has grown to include 25 beehives and a thriving pollinator garden.
The community apiary at Hudson Gardens, near Littleton, Colo., was established in 2009. Beekeepers must go through an application process. Instead of a fee, members agree to tend the pollinator garden and participate in at least four outreach programs to educate visitors about honeybees. Courtesy of Hudson Gardens hide caption
The community apiary at Hudson Gardens, near Littleton, Colo., was established in 2009. Beekeepers must go through an application process. Instead of a fee, members agree to tend the pollinator garden and participate in at least four outreach programs to educate visitors about honeybees.
Courtesy of Hudson Gardens
Community apiaries have also popped up in cities like Chicago, Roxbury, N.Y., and Parry Sound, Ontario, Canada.
Hudson Gardens established its community apiary in 2009. To secure a space, beekeepers must go through an application process. Instead of a fee, members agree to tend the pollinator garden and participate in at least four outreach programs to educate visitors about honeybees.
"It's a small commitment for the benefit of working alongside others who share a passion for beekeeping," notes Amanda Accamando, education and volunteer manager at Hudson Gardens.
For beginning beekeepers, community apiaries offer more than just support: Engman credits the beekeepers at Hudson Gardens for helping her identify nosema, a disease that can wipe out a hive.
"I had no idea what it was," recalls Engman of the disease that left brown streaks covering the outside of her hive. "The other beekeepers knew right away and suggested treatments. It's nice to have easy access to all of that knowledge."
Engman credits the community apiary with giving her the confidence and skills to expand her beekeeping business. She currently maintains 11 hives around Littleton, including two at Hudson Gardens.
Beginning beekeepers are not the only ones buzzing about community apiaries. The public bee yards can be the only options for beekeepers who cannot keep hives at home because of restrictions imposed by home owner associations or local beekeeping laws.
Earlier this year, the city council in Yorkville, Ill., approved a community apiary at a local park to allow residents whose properties cannot comply with local beekeeping restrictions to maintain hives within the city limits. For a $25 annual fee, beekeepers can maintain up to three hives per residential address. All hives must be registered with the Illinois Department of Agriculture and beekeepers must retain liability insurance.
As interest grows, so do the number of applications for space in community apiaries. At Hudson Gardens, Accamando anticipates more applications from beekeepers than the apiary can accommodate. She hopes to add an additional community apiary site in the spring.
"Beekeepers often get creative about finding spaces to put their hives, finding space at urban gardens, in cemeteries or on rooftops," she explains. "It's just hard to find space, and that's why community apiaries are so popular. The application process has gotten competitive."
Despite the popularity of community apiaries, Accamando acknowledges that the model has challenges: The proximity of the hives to each other increases the likelihood that a disease affecting one hive will spread to another bees can also "rob" weaker hives, putting the entire colony at risk.
And, when apiaries are located in public spaces, like parks, there can be some alarm about public safety.
After learning a community apiary was approved for a local park in Schaumburg, Ill., in 2013, a neighborhood resident who opposed the apiary told the Chicago Tribune, "My kids and a lot of our neighborhood kids [won't be able to] play in the backyard."
Despite the challenges, Tucker strongly supports establishing community apiaries.
"Anything we can do to promote beekeeping, we must do," he says. "It's going to take community efforts to save the bees."
Jodi Helmer is a North Carolina journalist and beekeeper who frequently writes about food and farming.
6. Buy a beehive
You will need to purchase a home for the bees, i.e. the beehive. Again you can find different types of hive, but the most popular would be the Top Bar Hives and the Langstroth Hives. Each one has its benefits and drawbacks. It can be beneficial to consult a few seasoned beekeepers in the area for guidance.
Purchasing a used hive can be a great option for your first hive. Aside from the fact that used beehives are cheaper and sometimes free, your new bees will easily adapt into an old hive than a new one. You can find used beehives in your local club or on craigslist.
People give them away for free so if you’re looking to save money on a hive, contact you local beehive club and I’m sure there will be somebody willing to give away an old beehive. Our recommendation is wood or styrofoam. A hive made with styrofoam will keep the bees stay warm during the winter and cool during the summer.
One problem that should be considered before purchasing a used hive is that it might be contaminated with diseases or pathogens. You should always make sure that all used beekeeping equipment has been inspected and is free of disease before use.
Here’s a quick hive assembly guide:
- Choose a location where the bee colony will succeed. The best location is where there is a wide variety of flowers and trees, and a rich source of water (preferably running and fresh). It should provide ample sunshine and proper circulation of air.
- Put the bottom board of the hive with a landing strip. The brood chamber must be on top of the bottom board. The chamber is where the queen bee will mate and produce eggs.
- Put a metal frame structure to prevent the queen bee from moving upward. All upper levels of the hive are exclusive for honey storage only.
- Put your foundation frames in a brood frame or box. It should be richly covered in beeswax, and in it are hexagonal cell shapes, this is where the bees will store the honey.
- Put an inner hive cover at the topmost level. This area will allow proper air circulation within the hive.
- Install a feeder tray for a faster process of feeding the sugar syrup to the bee colony without the need to open the beehive.
- Secure the beekeeping hive with a cover on top. It should be made of metal for maximum protection of the colony against winds and rains.
- Put the hive cover on top of your created hive complex. Many beehive covers available consist of metal with telescoping sides. The cover is essential for the protection of the hive from the elements, particularly wind and rain.
7. Don’t invest in a honey extractor just yet!
Most new beekeepers just go out and buy all the equipment on their list including an extractor. But as a newbie keeper, it is advisable that you don’t invest in a honey extractor just yet. You want to see how well you do the first time around and besides, the local beekeeping club always has a honey extractor available for members to use. After the first time, you would have gotten a hang of things and will know the type of extractor that will suit you for the next harvest.
8. Buy safety clothing
This is one of the necessities that you shouldn’t skimp on when buying your beekeeping equipment. Safety clothing is one of the first things you need to purchase. Sometimes, beekeepers get frightened when attending to their bees and guess what? the bees can sense it.
Expert beekeepers most times don’t wear safety clothing because they know what they’re doing. As a new beekeeper, it is recommended that you get a veil, hat, gloves, and boots. Until you get to know your bees and how to work effectively, you need to stay safe from the stings.
9. Consult your neighbors before starting
Bee stings can be lethal to some people. It’s not just a simple sting for them and can actually cause death. So you want to speak to your neighbors and get their approval before setting up your hive.
Most people will be fine with you raising bees in your backyard, but you still need to let them know that there is a risk that they might get stung. Remember to give them some honey after your first harvest, after all, that’s what neighbors do.
10. Don’t expect to make a lot of money selling honey
Beekeeping will not make you a millionaire overnight so don’t expect to make a lot of money selling honey from your beehive. The profit isn’t that much after the cost of equipment and initial setup is deducted you’ll have very little left over. However, with time your profits will increase as you would have covered the original cost of starting up the hive. Look at it as a hobby and all extras as a bonus.
11. Check on your hive regularly
Raising bees does not require a lot of effort unlike other farm activities. However, you can’t just ignore that your bees exist. You have to check on the hive regularly to ensure that they are healthy and thriving. Some farmers do it once or twice a week. One of the most important things to check is that the queen is in the hive and the bees are laying eggs. This is an indication that the colony is prospering and increasing in number.
8 Tips for Beekeeping Safety
When my husband told me he wanted to keep bees I was NOT on board with the idea. When I was 11 years old my dad was stung by a bald face hornet, had a terrible reaction, and went into cardiac arrest. He made it through, but it was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. He had years of allergy shots and had to carry an EpiPen for the rest of his life. Since then, I had never been a big fan of anything that stings.
But my husband’s enthusiasm couldn’t be squelched. He reassured me over and over that honeybees were different than hornets. At the time, I wasn’t super interested to learn about the “gentleness” of bees or how honeybees can be docile. In my head, they had a stinger and that’s all I needed to know.
Despite my reservations, I supported my husband’s decision but told him that I wouldn’t be participating in any aspect of the beekeeping process. I also made it clear that I wasn’t super excited about him “playing around” with a bunch of bees either. I was scared to death that he would have a similar reaction that my father did.
Over the years, I inched my way into beekeeping. My curiosity slowly got the best of my fear and eventually I was side-by-side with my husband in the hives.
It has been seven years and “knock on wood,” I’ve never been stung. I’m sure it will happen one day, but with patience, proper equipment, a knowledge of bee behavior, you can keep stings to a minimum.
Selling Honey Online and Offline
The practice of urban beekeeping is growing rapidly. People like Martin are true ambassadors in promoting the benefits of bees in cities. E-commerce can play a role in what they do. Online shopping has reshaped our buying habits, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic. E-commerce gives us the ability to sell products at a low cost with less effort than ever. At RakeAround, we are working on developing an e-commerce marketplace that facilitates connection between urban food producers and buyers living in the same city (more info to come).
Meanwhile, if you are curious about starting your own beekeeping project, here are Martin’s top 3 resources to get answers to your questions:
- Honey Bee Suite: Great website for beginners, where you can get tips and loads of useful information provided by experienced beekeepers
- Beekeepers of Eastern Ontario & Western Québec: A Facebook group to learn, share and discuss beekeeping matters
- Apicentris Beekeeping Collective: It is an urban beekeeping key player in the Ottawa-Gatineau region. It offers courses and workshops (which have already attracted some 125 attendees), organizes various activities in the City of Gatineau, such as The Bee Day at the end of May, and the popular Apéro Apicoles, allowing local and regional beekeepers to meet and exchange. In addition of running an apiary school and a community apiary, it administers the City of Gatineau’s urban beekeeping program as part of a unique Memorandum of Understanding with the City. This Collective has succeeded in February 2017 in lifting the ban on urban beekeeping.
Do you have an inspiring urban agriculture story to tell or share? Contact us or leave a comment below!
How Much Space Does a Beehive Need?
I often get this question from bee-curious people. It is the first hurdle of becoming a beekeeper: Can it work in my backyard? There are many things to consider before getting started with bees, but preparing the physical space your bees are to inhabit is an important one! Let’s delve into what you need to know.
A typical Langstroth hive grows vertically, a 16 by 22 inch tower! Top Bar Hives usually measures 40 by 20 inches with no means of expanding beyond that. So, the physical space a hive would occupy is not much, but once you add bees it’s a different story. During daylight hours, a hive’s entrance will have constant bee traffic. At any given moment, hundreds of bees are entering and exiting their front door and flying off in all different directions. This flurry of bees should be expected to surround the hive for at least a 5ft radius with a higher concentration at the front of the hive. For this reason, extra care should be given to the direction you point your hive’s entrance. I recommend you allow for 10ft of breadth around your apiary. I often see new beekeepers ignore this advice for the sake of aesthetics, lining their hives up in a circle around their garden. While it does look beautiful, it’s often not practical. Imagine trying to pull weeds with honey bees accidentally crashing into your face or worse, guard bees chasing you about while you try to pluck tomatoes from the vine!
Check Local Laws
In my city (San Diego, California), there are different variations of the urban beekeeping ordinance depending on your location and the size of your yard. The city requires apiaries to be 15ft from the property lines, while the county uses a tiered system based on your lot size. I often help new beekeepers place their hives and while it is important to know your local restrictions, it’s probably more important to speak with your neighbors. After all, these rules are really in place to protect and reassure them. If you suspect your neighbors will be uncomfortable with a hive, make an effort to place it further from their property line. Sometimes neighbors are delighted with the prospect of bees next door and are even willing to let you place them closer to their property than the local ordinance allows.
Preparing the Site
It’s much easier to prep your apiary site before installing bees in your hive! So, take the time to level the ground and really clear a space for you and your bees. Remember, you will need a clear, flat space to stand while you work. Be sure to allow yourself plenty of room to move behind the hive(s), you do not want to have to stand in front of the hive while inspecting because this will block traffic. If you have a potential for ant problems, you should also make sure your hive is on a stand with legs and that the area around your hive is free of growth. Once you have fortified the legs from any invasions, any plants growing nearby are potential ant bridges should they grow enough to touch your hive(s).
Overcoming Small Space Challenges
If you have a small yard, finding the space to keep bees can be tough, but there are a few tricks that could make it possible. The first option is to screen your hives. This is done by building or growing a 6ft tall barrier around your hive(s) to direct bee traffic upwards. It can dramatically reduce the presence of bees in your yard because it elevates their flight pattern. Now the bees will be flying above your head! The second option is to place your hives on the roof or on a balcony. This strategy will really keep the bees out of your hair, literally. I have rooftop hives in several residential locations and have found that it dramatically reduces stinging incidents. The bees are so high up, you wouldn’t even know they were there. The only complication is that you now have to carry your equipment up and down a ladder. It is definitely not fun getting a super full of honey off a roof! To learn more tips and tricks check out my blog: Beekeeping Like A Girl or take my online beekeeping class to learn everything you need to know to get started with bees!
Photos by Cam Buker & Tiim O’Neil