Backyard Beekeeping: Is It For You?

Backyard Beekeeping

With the recent emphasis on sustainable practices, it’s no wonder that there’s been a surge in “backyard” practices such as urban chicken farming and beekeeping. In San Diego, backyard beekeeping is also gaining in popularity, especially since the San Diego City Council eased its restrictions on urban beekeeping in 2012. Many other states have lifted the ban on the practice as well, as the benefits of keeping bees far outweigh the risks.

Why Keep Bees?

Harvesting your own honey – up to three or four gallons a year per hive – and beeswax for candles is one excellent reason to backyard beekeep, not to mention the benefit to your garden from increased pollination. However, one of the most altruistic reasons for backyard beekeeping is to nurture bee colonies, which have decreased by 50 percent in the last 75 years. Considering that bee pollination is responsible for 30 percent of all food produced worldwide, including apples, blueberries, and avocados, this is a noble calling indeed.

The reasons for the disappearance of bee colonies is largely attributed to a phenomenon named colony collapse disorder, or CCD, which leads to the death of entire hives, particularly commercial ones. No one really knows why CCD is so prevalent, but theories range from pesticide use to parasites to even cell phone tower waves. Whatever the reason, backyard beekeeping helps buffer the losses and sustain healthy bee colonies.

urban beekeeping 

Beekeeping Considerations

If you’re thinking of backyard beekeeping, your neighbors will probably spring to mind first. Because bees can fly several miles for nectar, chances are your neighbors will come in contact with your backyard bees over time. Bee stings all most likely be your neighbors’ biggest concern, so caring for your bees properly will help your neighbors feel safe.

Here’s what to keep in mind:

Your Space –

  • Make sure there are no laws prohibiting beekeeping first, then check your HOA rules if that applies to where you live. 

  •  Take a look at the proximity of your neighbors, and be sure to ask if anyone around your home is allergic to bee venom.

  • Assess where you’ll keep the hives. You’ll want a mostly sunny spot with some shade and a close water source, which can be supplied by a nearby pond or creek or homemade watering system. Bird baths and even a dog’s water bowl can work, too. A water source is important especially in the spring and in the heat of the summer, and it’s best to keep the water at least 20 feet away from the hive according to several beekeeping sources. 

  • Also, place your hives in a sheltered area. Be sure that your hive location isn’t prone to flooding issues.

  • Nearby flowers for pollination is ideal, but because bees will travel to pollinate, it’s not a deal breaker. Good plants to have nearby are citrus trees, white clover and even dandelion.

  • Pesticides on flowers are a major cause of death for honeybees so be sure that areas around your hive will not be treated with commercial insecticides. Worker bees can bring poison back to the hive, killing the other bees and even the queen, leading to CCD.

  • If you don’t have a fence, it’s advised to install one that’s at least six feet high (although tall shrubs will work too) to keep the bees’ flight patterns above where people walk and to provide wind protection for the hive.

backyard bees

What You’ll Need –

  • The American Golden Italian Honeybee is the most common backyard bee species and they are normally sold in a nucleus of three pounds of bees with a queen. This variety of honeybee tends to be the most gentle, has strong disease resistance, and isn’t as likely to swarm.

  • You’ll also usually need to buy a covered beehive structure with a bottom board, honey board, and frames as well as a beeswax foundation. According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac beekeeping guide, the most common parts of a hive include:

    • An outer/telescoping cover similar to a roof that keeps rain out of the hive.

    • A honey super, which is were the honey is stored.

    • An inner cover with a bee escape, which is important when collecting honey. This board is installed below the honey super, and stops the worker bees from moving back up toward the beekeeper.

    • A queen excluder, which keeps the queen and drones away from the honey.

    • Frames, which are where honeycomb is created and honey is collected.

    • A foundation, which is an artificial comb that encourages bees to make more honeycomb.

    • A brood chamber, which is where the queen and drones birth new bees.

    • An entrance cleat, which is what the bees use get into the hive.

    • A bottom board where the hive is placed.

    • A hive stand to keep everything off the ground.

  • A bee smoker will help calm the bees when you need to get near the hive to collect honey and you’ll also want a bee veil, bee gloves and usually some type of bee suit for protection.

  • A hive tool will help you loosen the pieces of your hive when it’s time to open it.

 urban beekeeper

Factors For Successful Beekeeping

  • Many home beekeepers will have the queen marked with a dot of paint on her back. The color used indicates the year the queen was introduced into the colony. Queen bees live for up to five years and lays up to 2,000 eggs a day.

  • When your bees arrive, the queen will be in her own cage. Open the top of your hive and allow the bees (without the queen) to climb into the hive. To get all the bees into the hive, shake the package into the hive and then hang the queen cage between the two frames in your hive. 

  • Work with the bees or visit the hive after the bees are well fed on honey as they tend to be gentler when full on nectar.

  • Bees will swarm when they look for a new hive, so it’s a good idea to have a “bait hive” close by so the bees won’t swarm into your neighbors’ yards. Situate the hive about 30 feet from the home hive and keep an old honeycomb frame in it to make it “welcoming.”

Threats to Successful Beekeeping

  • Mites and disease are the biggest threats to healthy hives. Varroa mites are parasites that pose a big threat to honeybees. Signs of a varroa mite infestation include the appearance of missing legs or wings from your bees. These mites prefer to pick on drones, so check them first. Disinfectant medicines can help prevent mites, but proceed cautiously if you plan to harvest honey for eating.

  • American Foulbrood is caused by bacillus larvae. To prevent foulbrood, spray a disinfectant medicine in the spring and fall. Medicine should not be used during honey flow or if you plan on eating the honey.

  • Proper medication and hive management can treat many diseases and parasites.

Beekeeping Timeline

  • The honeybee hive lasts year round, but it’s inactive during the winter.

  • Around April, the bees begin to bring pollen into the hive.

  • May is when the queen lays the most eggs and the hive becomes busy. This month usually starts the urban beekeeper’s “busy” season.

  • The first significant honey flow happens around June.

  • In August, the colony’s growth begins to slow, and continues to do so into September. In September, it’s recommended to leave the colony with plenty of honey to last the hive through the winter.

  • October and November will see little hive activity, as the bees settle down for the winter.

Resources

Your Turn…

Urban beekeeping is catching the attention and fancy of many homeowners across Southern California, and while it’s wonderful to do your part for the environment, be sure to do your research before embarking upon beekeeping of your own. Learn the ins and outs of beekeeping, and soon you can be collecting your own delicious honey while also contributing to the livelihood of these necessary creatures. Are you a backyard beekeeper? 

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