Swarms of newbies are taking up urban beekeeping, but the pursuit can be as labyrinthine as the combs inside the hives. There is, however, a vast field of knowledge available on the subject. SimpleSteps turned to one expert and one initiate for some start-up tips.
Andrew Coté is a lifelong beekeeper and head of the New York City Beekeepers Association. He’s seen interest in beekeeping soar since the city's health department lifted a beekeeping ban on March 12. Now, newbies are scratching their chins, scoping rooftops and wondering how to broach the subject of a beehive with their landlords.
Many hives have been humming within city limits since before the ban lifted, a quiet defiance of a rule that beekeepers thought misguided. And those old-timers are a great source of advice and hard-won knowledge.
Step one: Get information
Beekeeping can be a lifelong learning process. “Once you go down the rabbit hole, there's no knowing how deep it goes,” said Megan Paska, who has kept bees for a year and has a hive on the roof of her apartment building in Brooklyn.
Beginners should take a course, read books, visit online forums and look for a mentor, Coté advises. He offers one-day introductory courses, but warns that one day is not enough time to learn how to keep bees.
“One thing about beekeepers is they love to talk about what they know,” Paska said while pointing her phone's camera at stains on the outside of the hive, possibly a sign of bad health. She planned to post the picture to the forum on beesource.com, where she gives and receives help. Coté, on the other hand, says there are not enough mentors to go around. “We can certainly help people, but this is a journey of self-discovery,” he says.
For urban beekeeping equipment, see the photo gallery of Megan Paska's rooftop hive in "Urban Beekeeping."
Step two: Find the right place
A good site for a hive should have a water source, morning sunlight, dappled afternoon shade, a clear flight path of at least 10 feet from the hive's entrance and permission from both the landowner and—to be polite—the neighbors (you’ll want to know if any have bee allergies before you start).
Rooftops work (but not too high). Paska's rooftop bees collect spring nectar from maple and linden flowers in her neighborhood and drink from planters and spigots that drip into her garden.
Step three: Get a hive
Some are made of plastic, some of wood and wire mesh. Some are good for honey harvests others simply for pollination. Coté recommends the Langstroth design for newcomers, but with the caveat that others might disagree.
The Langstroff may make for easier honey gathering. It's a modular stack of wooden boxes called “deeps,” each hung with 10 vertical trays called “frames,” upon which the bees hang their honeycomb. New Langstroth hives and necessities like a smoker, veil, tools and bees cost about $500.
Step four: Get bees
Bees come in three-pound packages of 10,000 workers with one queen. Queen species should be gentle and suited to the city.
Coté sells bees from Georgia for $90 per package. Inside the package, the queen is imprisoned in a wooden cage plugged with candy. During the first five days in the hive, the workers eat their way through the candy plug, releasing the queen. By that time, her scent has permeated the hive and the bees accept her as part of the family.
Step five: Be good parents
Beekeeping is a commitment to care for a living community Coté says. Hives need regular inspection and bees need sugar water at the start. Urban hives should be inspected about once a week for the first three months to prevent swarms and once every other week thereafter.
To harvest honey the year you start your hive, the best time to start the hive is early April. By July, a healthy hive will grow to 75,000 and that's when it's time to harvest the honey. Hives may die out over the winter, or they can hang on with regular feeding and protection from the harsher elements. If you are starting a little later in the year and would like a chance to get honey, Coté suggest using a "nuc," which is a small nucleus colony that already has stores of pollen and eggs. The Beekeeper's Association doesn't sell nucleus colonies, but it can help people find them.
So, why become a beekeeper?
“Why do I do it? I get great joy and serenity from working with the honey bees,” Coté says. “And it also makes me feel close to my father, who taught me to be a beekeeper. It makes me feel closer to God and closer to nature. A beautiful, humming hive has a smell and essence that can't be replicated. There's something meditative about being with the bees. While I'm in that hive I can't be anywhere else.”