THE FOLLOWING HAS BEEN EDITED AND UPDATED SINCE ORIGINALLY POSTED.
Summary: 1) If Walt Whitman was a beekeeper today, I’d want him as my mentor. 2) “Out of sight, out of mind” may be the best approach to backyard urban beekeeping.
Second Thoughts About Everything
I’ve changed my tune about urban beekeeping since one of my colonies swarmed and several bees got stuck in my next door neighbour’s hair and burrowed in until they got down to her scalp — and completely freaked her out. I had to move all my hives out to the country to maintain the peace. Now I only see the bees for a couple hours every couple weeks and it’s just not the same as being around them every day. I’ve lost my connection to them, the peace that comes from hanging with the bees and watching them do their thing. It’s a strange confession, but in the absence of that connection, I’ve lost interest in beekeeping.
Which means most of my beekeeping plans are on hold until I can find a way to re-establish that connection. I need enough land and trees so that no matter what the bees do, they’ll never be able to disturb any of those pesky humans. Or I have to figure out a way to set up a couple hives on my property in the city so they’re out of sight and out of the way of my neighbours. Then I need a plan for dealing with swarms, because no matter what swarm-prevention measures are taken, the bees will swarm some day. I’ve read about urban beekeepers who love swarms, but those beekeepers clearly do not live in my neighbourhood. My first experience with a swarm in my backyard — and my neighbour’s reaction to it — was a nightmare, a nightmare that nearly extinguished all the pleasure I get from beekeeping. I came this close to packing it in.
The events of this past year also made me realize I’m happier keeping things small and simple. Small, as in I doubt I’ll ever have more than ten hives (what a relief that thought is). Simple, as in I don’t want to make beekeeping into a business (I had considered it). I have a lot of respect for business-minded beekeepers because they’re usually pretty damn good beekeepers. I have a lot to learn from them. But I discovered that I don’t get excited thinking about how I can manipulate every aspect of the honey bees’ behaviour to produce the most honey or the best laying queens or the cleanest beeswax for making hand creams. Beekeeping for the purpose of maximizing everything just doesn’t work for me. Some sales to offset the costs are fine, but I’m too aesthetically-minded to think of bees as livestock, even if that’s what they are.
A Careful Approach to Backyard Urban BeekeepingSo what am I going to do then, eh? Well… I’m working on it. I’m not sure what it is yet, but I know it lies somewhere between exploiting the hell out of the bees and just letting the bees be bees. Perhaps something in line with Warré’s approach. But first I need to get back to the bees. I’ve already taken steps to bring a couple hives back into the city. I can’t say when and exactly where it’s going to happen because I need to hide the bees from my neighbours. Out of sight, out of mind is the smartest approach to urban beekeeping in a neighbourhood that isn’t full of bee-friendly people. Here’s the best spin I can put on it:
I’m setting up a couple hives in a friend’s large fenced-in backyard nearby. The hives will be at the very edge of his property at least 20 metres (or 70 feet) from any neighbour’s back door, so if anything ever disturbs the bees, the neighbours aren’t likely the encounter any bees in a bad mood. The hives will be surrounded by large maple trees on one side, so when the bees exit the hive, they hit the trees and go straight up, high into the sky where none of the immediate neighbours will notice them. (A high fence would work too.) The maple trees along with some coniferous trees in the area will also give any swarms a convenient place to hang out while they’re looking for a new home. I’d have to shake the swarm off a branch into a new hive box (and hopefully not catch the attention of too many suspicious neighbours), but it’s better than trying to retrieve a swarm from a neighbour’s empty barbecue or some kid’s swing set. For this reason, nearby trees are essential. One of the trees in my friend’s yard is big enough to hold a swarm trap too. A swarm trap is basically a nuc box with drawn frames that, theoretically, will attract swarming bees. A swarm trap makes it easier to re-hive the bees. So there’s that plan.
Next I will camouflage the hives. They won’t be painted yellow or white or anything bright. Certain backyard tools (think shovels and rakes, etc.) will also be placed leaning up against the hives and on top of them, so that, from a distance, no one will likely notice the hives. They should blend in with everything else in the yard. It doesn’t hurt that the yard isn’t the most well kept. There’s scrap wood and broken pieces of junked up gardening supplies all over place. Perfect. Then as a precaution, my friend will have an EpiPen at his house on the remote chance that someone has an anaphylactic reaction to a bee sting. (With or without an EpiPen, I wouldn’t set up a beehive anywhere near small children.)
So let’s recap: 1) Hives placed at least 20 metres (70 feet) from any neighbour’s back door to reduce the likelihood of the bees getting in their face. 2) Trees or fence close to the hives to make the bees go up when they exit the hives. 3) Trees to give bees a place to hang out when they swarm. 4) Tree big enough to hold swarm trap. 5) A plan that says, “I know exactly what to do when a colony swarms.” 6) Hives hidden and disguised. 8) EpiPen on site for emergencies. 9) No beehives near small children.10) The other trick is to reduce the likelihood of swarming. (By the way, I caught a swarm in the country this past summer and loved it. It was the highlight of any beekeeping I’ve ever done. It really was a wonderful experience because the bees were doing their thing and all I could do was watch and marvel at it. It’s a whole other ballgame — full of tension and stress — when said swarm in the city compels your neighbours to call the fire department on you.) I did some serious swarm management this past year, preventing swarms and dealing with colonies about to swarm. I recommend the articles on swarming at Honey Bee Suite for more info on that.
A change of plans for me next year, though, is not to overfeed the bees. My bees most likely swarmed because I gave them a steady supply of sugar and pollen for most of the winter when they didn’t need it. By the time May rolled around, the hives were so stuffed with bees, they were ready blow. I’d rather hold back on feeding and risk the colony becoming weak than deal with a swarm in the city. I know there are other factors involved in swarming, but not overfeeding the bees is one of the easier preventive measures I can take.
The other change for next year — and this has nothing to do with urban beekeeping — is that I’ll probably move the rest of the hives to the property of a friend who can keep tabs on the bees for me. The way it is now, the bees are located on a farm where they’re not well monitored because nobody on the farm knows anything about bees, and they’re located in a relatively isolated area of the farm. All kinds of things could happen to the bees and I’d never know, or I’d likely find out too late. I’m pretty sure at least one of the colonies swarmed this past summer and was never caught because no one was around to tell me they’d swarmed. Another hive was vandalized and heavy rain poured inside the hive for a few days before I found out about it. The farm is a great place for the bees, but I have a friend who just bought a house in the country with loads of room for beehives. He’s interested in learning about bees, so he’ll be the perfect guy to keep an eye on them for me. Hopefully that arrangement (or a similar arrangement with some relatives of mine), along with the pair of hives I can see everyday in the city, will make for a more enjoyable year of beekeeping. I think it’ll be fun to watch the bees do whatever they want to do out in the country and it’ll feel good to have a pair of hives close to home to satisfy my desire to be with the bees.
P.S. (Nov. 05/12): I mentioned that nearby trees are essential so that swarming bees in the city have a place to hang while they’re looking for a new home. By nearby, I don’t mean just 10 metres (or 30 feet) away. I mean anywhere between 20 and 30 metres (70 and 100 feet), because that’s the average distance a swarm will fly before it settles in a tree in a clump the size of a water melon. Look around your neighbourhood and let that one roll around your brain for a few minutes while you’re thinking about setting up a beehive in your backyard. I don’t want to seem discouraging. All I’m saying is let’s keep it real. No matter what you do, those bees are going to swarm someday and land about 30 metres from the hive. So look around. Where are they going to land?