How to Start a Backyard Beehive
Bees are essential to food security, sustainable farming, biodiversity, and environmental protection. According to World Bee Day project, monitoring bee populations and activity allows us to assess the state of the environment and take action to protect it. Pollinators, including bees, pollinate about 75% of the plants that produce the majority of food around the world. This essential service provided by bees also allows animals and plants to thrive, which promotes biodiversity and helps maintain ecosystems. Bees also directly provide food sources and healthcare products, such as honey, beeswax, propolis, and royal jelly.
You can support bee populations, increase the number of pollinators in your garden, and enjoy fresh honey by keeping backyard bees. If you are interested in establishing a backyard beehive, read on for some basic information and resources to help you learn all you need to know to become a beekeeper.
Backyard Beekeeping Rules
Backyard beehive ordinances vary by state, county, and city, so you will need to look up the rules around keeping backyard bees in your area. You can start here to see beekeeping laws by state. You can also look on your county’s website or call your city or county to get information before you get started.
If you live in San Diego County, chapter nine of ordinance 10393 provides the guidance you need to start keeping bees in an urban or suburban setting. You will want to read the full ordinance to learn all you need to know, but here are some of the basics.
Tier A apiaries, which include one to two colonies per location, must be 25 feet from roads, 35 feet from neighboring dwellings, and 25 feet from property lines. If you live near sensitive sites, such as playgrounds, schools, senior care facilities, kennels, medical facilities, or sports facilities, your hives will need to be 150 feet from these sites. You must also have a six-foot vertical flyover barrier if your hives are within 300 feet of a neighboring dwelling.
Even if you have just one colony, you must register your apiary with the County of San Diego within 30 days of establishing it and on January 1 of each year thereafter.
Find city-specific ordinances on the University of California Cooperative Extension Beekeeping in San Diego County website.
Tips for Maintaining a Backyard Beehive
To be a successful and responsible beekeeper, you must commit to inspecting your hive regularly, learning how to care for bees, and learning about pests and diseases that could harm your colonies. There is the financial commitment of adding hives as your colony expands and requeening your hive once a year or, possibly, more often. There is also the responsibility of being a good neighbor and following local ordinances. We have provided some basic tips for backyard beekeeping, but you should also join your local beekeeping club to connect with local beekeepers and learn about keeping backyard beehives in your area.
Provide Food and Water
Providing adequate food and water for your bees is essential to the health of your colony and helps keep them from being a nuisance to your neighbors. For example, each colony needs a minimum of one quart of water per day. If you set up the water sources in your yard before you establish your colony, this will help your bees settle in and become accustomed to those water sources, which will help keep them from visiting your neighbors’ swimming pools or fountains.
Bees need nectar for carbohydrates and pollen for vitamins, minerals, fats, and proteins. To obtain these nutrients, bees need access to a wide variety of flowers. You can help provide this food for them by filling your garden with an array of bee-friendly, blooming plants, such as strawberries, bee balm, lavender, roses, and honeysuckle.
However, your garden will not provide enough forage for your bees; therefore, if you live in an area that does not have an abundance of other blooming food sources, you may need to provide supplemental food for your colony.
Prevent Unwanted Critters
Rodents, skunks, ants, and wasps are all attracted to the byproducts and waste associated with beekeeping. For example, anything with a sugary residue, such as syrup containers or feeders, can attract unwanted critters to your yard. Keep your tools and equipment clean, and dispose of hive waste in sealed bags to avoid attracting unwanted animals and insects to your yard.
Swarming falls under undesirable honey bee behavior, which could get your apiary reported, so it is in your best interest – and the best interest of your neighbors – to do anything you can to prevent swarming. Practices you can employ to reduce the risk of your backyard bees swarming include frequent requeening with young queens, dividing strong hives into smaller colonies, and making sure your colony has plenty of room to comfortably expand by providing extra hives.
Even with your best efforts, your bees still may swarm, so make sure you have your swarm-catching supplies readily available so that you are prepared if a swarm occurs.
Honey bees are usually gentle and will not sting unless they have no other choice. After all, they die after stinging a person or animal, so they are not going to sting someone unless they believe they have to.
Reduce the likelihood of you, your family, your pets, or your neighbors being stung by keeping your bees from getting defensive. One way to do this is to always use a smoker and plenty of smoke to keep the bees calm while working in the hive. Another way to keep bees from becoming defensive is to protect the hive from predators, such as raccoons, skunks, and bears.
If you find that your hive is becoming defensive, replace your queen to help settle things back down.
You can learn more about bee safety and what to do if you are stung here.
Be a Good Beekeeping Neighbor
If you plan on establishing a backyard beehive in a residential neighborhood, it is important that you are on good terms with your neighbors and that you keep an open line of communication with them. You might consider passing out flyers that explain the importance of bees and why your backyard bees are not going to be an issue for them. Folks who are not familiar with beekeeping often automatically conclude that nearby apiaries mean more bees in their yard, possible swarms, and inevitable stings for them, their family, or their pets.
Make sure your neighbors know that you have a flyover barrier, that you employ swarming-prevention practices, and that you are happy to share your honey once your hive starts producing. You might also want to give your neighbors your phone number so that they can contact you if unruly honey bees are hanging out on their property. It is far better for them to call you and for you to work out any issues than for them to report unwanted hive behavior to the County.
Backyard Beekeeping Resources
- Best Practices for Urban Beekeepers (publication)
- California State Beekeepers Association
- Beekeepers Association of Southern California (B.A.S.C.)
- University of California Cooperative Extension Beekeeping in San Diego County (county and city ordinances, plus additional tips)
Is Beekeeping Right for You?
If reading up on beekeeping through this guide and the included resources has you questioning if establishing a colony is the right choice for you, you can also simply attract more bees to your yard by providing them with food, water, and shelter. For example, you can hang bee houses in trees or on fences near your garden, plant bee-friendly plants, and provide shallow water sources that will attract bees.