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How to Start Urban Beekeeping – The Importance of Honey Bees

By Michael Lewis

honey beeThe bee has always occupied a special place in man’s psyche. Young children learn the origins of babies with stories of “the birds and the bees,” while their industry is so respected that a person engaged in intense activity is “as busy as a bee.” “Spelling bees” and “quilting bees” are so named because a meeting of people working together resembles the scenes within a beehive. Closely guarded information is “none of your beeswax,” and the flappers of the 1920s popularized the “bee’s knees” to express the coolness of an object or activity.

We have seen girls with “bee-stung lips,” and refer to irritated people as having a “bee in their bonnet.” And who hasn’t made a “beeline” for a special object?

As far as we know, bees have been around for about 125 million years. They are descendants of wasps, most of which are predator carnivores. Bees, however, switched from hunting prey to collecting pollen for food – a nice adaptation, since the food doesn’t fight back. Scientists have since classified nearly 20,000 species of bees, and they are found on every continent except Antarctica. They are the most efficient pollination agents in nature, a critical factor in the appearance of the world as we know it.

The Honey Bee, a European Transplant

While most bees pollinate flowers – the bumblebee, for example, is especially important in the pollination of tomatoes and glasshouse-raised crops – the western honey bee is the bee people are most likely to name when asked the identity of the greatest pollinator. The honey bee originated in Asia, traveled to Europe, and was introduced into North America in the early 1600s. Italian bees were brought to this country from Italy in 1859, and later from Spain, Portugal, and elsewhere. In 1990, a subspecies from Africa came to America.

Western honey bees live in colonies of up to 80,000 bees with one queen bee, a small proportion of drones (male bees) whose sole purpose is to fertilize a new queen, and thousands and thousands of workers bees, most of whom live about three months. On average, about 1% of worker bees die each day so a hive is newly populated every three to four months. Fortunately, queen bees are exceptionally productive, laying as many as 2,000 to 2,500 eggs per day.

Honey bees digest flower nectar and pollen, which is converted into honey by their digestive system and subsequently serves as a food source for the bees during non-growing seasons. As a result of selective breeding over the centuries, honey bees produce much more honey than they consume. The amount of honey produced by a hive varies considerably by region and weather conditions, since bees also consume the honey for food. An average production may be 40 to 100 pounds per hive per year, but there are no guarantees since conditions per hive can vary significantly.

According to the National Honey Board, 147 million pounds of honey were produced in 2012, with a retail value of $286.9 million. Beekeepers in North and South Dakota produce almost 40% of the total volume of commercial honey in the country. On the other hand, Americans consume more than 400 million pounds of honey annually, resulting in a large import volume. Home use and commercial use is about 50/50.

In addition to honey, honey bees also produce several other widely used products:

  • Beeswax:  Used in the manufacture of candles and seals.
  • Propolis: Used by bees as a sealant in the hives, but gathered and sold for wood finishes and other uses.
  • Royal Jelly: Produced by worker bees and fed to bee larvae. It is sometimes marketed as a “health food,” but can cause severe allergies.

honey bees

The Importance of Bees in Life as We Know It

More than 100 agricultural crops are pollinated by bees, ranging from watermelons to apples. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has estimated that 80% of insect pollination is done by the Western honey bee, primarily because they are the only species that can be easily managed and moved around, and can exploit a wide variety of crops. In Arizona alone, honey bees are responsible for almost $7 billion of agricultural crops, according to the University of Arizona’s Africanized Honey Bee Education Project. And the California almond industry, employing 800,000 acres and producing 80% of the world’s production of almonds, is entirely dependent upon honey bees, according to the Western Farm Press.

Every February, about one million hives are trucked into California to supplement the 500,000 hives of Californian beekeepers necessary to pollinate the crop worth about $4 billion each year. The importance of bees in the cycle of life has been noted over the centuries. Notably, Charles Darwin proclaimed, “The life of man would be made extremely difficult if the bee disappeared.” Albert Einstein is often attributed with the quote, “If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live.”

According to Elizabeth Grossman, writing in Yale Environment 360, “One of every three bites of food eaten worldwide depends upon pollinators, especially bees, for a successful harvest.” Maria Boland, writing in a 2010 article for Mother Nature Network, was more succinct: “Essentially, if honey bees disappear, they could take most of our insect pollinated plants with them, potentially reducing mankind to little more than a water diet.” A scary thought if extinction is possible – but is it realistic?

Are Honey Bees Becoming Extinct?

According to the USDA, beekeepers began reporting losses of 30% to 90% of their hives in 2006. While a certain number of hives are lost every year, the scale of recent losses is unusual. Even before the most recent losses, the honey bee population has been in a long-term decline, from an estimated 5 million hives in the 1940s to approximately 2.5 million today. At the same time, the demand for hives by the agricultural industry continues to increase.

The unusual losses, commonly referred to as colony collapse disorder (CCD), have been studied for years without yet being able to identify a single cause. According to a 2006 National Academy of Sciences report, the population of wild bees and other natural pollinators  have also trended downward in recent years, although sufficient data to make absolutely definitive statements is lacking.

Despite efforts to link the population declines to a single cause, most researchers believe it is the result of a combination of five main factors:

  • Pathogens. While no single virus or bacteria has been directly correlated with CCD, higher totals of pathogens have been found in collapsed colonies.
  • Parasites. Varroa mites only reproduce in a honey bee colony and weaken the bee by spreading RNA viruses on the merging pupae. Miticides have been used for control, but approximately 5% of mites develop immunity, eliminating its efficacy on future generations.
  • Management Stressors. Hives of bees are frequently transported across the country to pollinate large food crops and located in close proximity causing overcrowding. This stresses the bees and makes them more vulnerable to disease.
  • Environmental Stressors. Increased urbanization reduces sources of pollen and nectar, and large crops of a single variety limit diversity and provide lower nutritional value. Furthermore, limited access to water or contaminated water contributes to CCD.
  • Pesticides. Neonicotinoid pesticides are thought to be a factor, but there is dispute about whether research supports this.

Many scientists have concluded that a single cause of CCD is unlikely, but is more likely the result of a “perfect storm,” where all of the factors play a part. Some observers believe that cries of extinction are exaggerated, noting their financial value to agriculture in general. They suggest that domesticated honey bees in particular will be saved through genetic modification and greater reliance on human-supplied sugar as a substitute for pollen and nectar to ensure an adequate number of bees for commercial pollination. However, such measures will not save wild bees or unmanaged honey beehives from continued threats to survival.

The Rise of Urban Beekeepers

Urban beekeeping was banned in many cities after World War II, as municipalities sought to distance themselves from their agricultural past. A second wave of restrictions followed the publication of “killer bee invasions” from South America and lurid tales of people and animals being chased and stung to death by merely being close to a hive.

However, as fear began to subside with reality, beekeeping began to appear in cities of all sizes. Beginning in the late 1990s, the popularity of natural foods and a desire to return to simpler, more agrarian times led to the increasing presence of beehives in urban areas. Hives on rooftops, balconies, and gardens in all five boroughs of New York City began to appear in 2010, following the lifting of the ban on beekeeping. According to the founding director of the New York City Beekeepers Association Andrew Coté, quoted on the CNN blog Eatocracy, beekeeping in the city has enjoyed “exponential growth.”

Other major cities already allowing beehives within their limits include Chicago, Denver, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Seattle, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Dallas. Los Angeles and other communities are currently studying laws and deciding whether to allow beekeeping in their communities. According to Kim Flottum, editor of “Bee Culture” magazine, there were an estimated 125,000 amateur apiarists (beekeepers) nationwide in 2011, a population that has substantially grown in recent years.

beekeeper

Getting Started

While many more municipilaties allow beekeeping activity, veteran beekeepers note that in those that have restrictions forbidding beekeeping, the laws are rarely enforced unless a complaint is received. For that reason, they suggest maintaining hives out of site and surrounded by six-foot fences or nearby shrubbery.

Veteran beekeepers are often willing to help novices get started, liberally sharing their time and knowledge through local beekeeping associations. Your first step should be to locate an association near your residence and contact one of the local beekeepers. Many associations run regular classes on beekeeping, and it is a good place to find other enthusiasts.

The time to start new colonies is between January and May, depending upon the season where you live. If you start too early, the bees will not be able to find food and keep warm; if you start too late, they lose the opportunity to make honey and miss the first surge of nectar. You should also keep it simple, following basic beekeeping methods without experimentation. You will have time enough for that when you gain experience and confidence.

Use the following plan to start your first colonies.

1. Identify the Location of Your Hives Before Ordering

A typical hive forages more than 8,000 square yards, depending upon the availability of flowering plants. It is not necessary to locate your hives adjacent to a garden, but a constant supply of clean water is essential. Furthermore, you should avoid locations next to footpaths, or other areas where people are likely to gather or walk. It is generally a good idea to keep the hives out of sight to avoid problems with neighbors.

2. Limit Initial Purchases

Start simply and learn the basics with the following essentials, all of which are available from numerous suppliers over the Internet:

  • Hives. Commercially made beehives replicate the conditions found in natural beehives, but facilitate management of the bees and honey harvesting. There are a number of configurations ($80 to $160) available depending upon the number of frames and construction materials, but all consist of at least a landing strip/board for bees to land and enter the hive, a bottom board, a brood box for the queen to lay eggs, boxes where honey is stored (called “supers”), frames for honeycomb, and an outer cover. Many beekeepers recommend placing the hives on support above ground to minimize moisture (which causes rot) and invasion by mice.
  • Bees. Most experts recommend Italian bees for beginners, although some suggest Russians or Carniolans. All three varieties are known for their gentleness, production, and ease of management. Bees can be purchased online or from local bee farms. Some suppliers require that you pick up bees, rather than having them shipped, so you need to check with potential sellers about their restrictions. While bees can be purchased in packages of 9,000 to 20,000 bees with the Queen bee in its own package ($110 to $140) , beginning beekeepers should purchase a starter hive called a “nuc hive” ($180 to $210) that consists of four or five frames of bees and a queen. Buying a nuc ensures that the bees are related to the queen and already working as a hive.
  • Smoker. Bees are evolutionary trained to anticipate a wildfire and the destruction of the hive whenever they smell smoke. Anticipating escape, they instinctively enter the hive and begin consuming as much honey as possible for the energy to flee and find a new nest. Smoke also interferes with the natural chemical communication between bees, causing confusion and slowed reactions. When a smoker ($30 to $45)  - a simple cylinder with bellows attached – is directed into the hive, the bees become occupied, leaving you pretty much alone to do any necessary work, such as cleaning the hive or harvesting honey.
  • Protective Gear. For most beekeeping activities, a simple veil and hat ($35 to $45)  is what most keepers use to keep bees out of their hair. Some use a light jacket with a veil ($54 to $60). Beginning beekeepers often use a full bee suit ($75 to $90) and gloves ($18 to $25) until they become accustomed to working with bees, especially if the weather is not right or the bees are feeling feisty. You should wear whatever makes you comfortable so that you enjoy working with the bees. Usually, as you gain experience, you will begin to wear less protective gear.

Some companies offer a complete beginner’s kit, complete with a hive, protective gear, smoker, tools, and a beginner’s DVD with instruction book at prices starting around $220. Bought separately, these items would cost approximately $300 to $400.

3. Consider Two Colonies, But No More in the Beginning

Many beekeepers recommend starting with two colonies, rather than one, since you can compare one to the other and assist the weaker one by transferring bees and brood from the healthier hive if necessary. As time goes by, many fledgling beekeepers add multiple hives, often expanding throughout the neighborhood to plant new colonies.

4. Plan on Spending at Least a Half Hour Per Week Beekeeping

This enables you to keep up the health of the hive and correct any problems. Bees generally take care of themselves, so you will probably spend no more than 30 to 40 hours per year looking out for them if you have done a good job locating the hives.

honey

Africanized Bees

Africanized bees have invaded the lower parts of the United States in recent years. While smaller than the western honey bee, they are much more aggressive and may pursue a perceived attacker for a quarter-mile or more. They nest frequently in the ground and tend to swarm more frequently than the honey bee. Also, they are not as efficient honey makers as the western honey bee.

Beekeepers should particularly note when a hive becomes unusually defensive, replacing the queen with a known European variety as soon as possible. There are additional steps to take if your hive seems to be overcome with an aggressive strain of the African variety:

  • Use plastic-coated cloves instead of leather. Bees stick to leather, and embedded stingers emit alarm chemicals that further agitates bees.
  • Wear white veils and clothing instead of dark colors, as Africanized bees are attracted to the dark.
  • Smoke hives more heavily than usual to keep bees calm.

Many communities banned commercial beekeeping in their fear of the Africanized bees. However, high densities of western honey bees are the best defense against invasion, and beekeepers are the only ones with the knowledge and experience to handle and dilute Africanized bees.

Final Word

The popularity of the honey bee is undeniable – 17 states have designated the bee as their official insect. In many ways, honey is the perfect food. Whether you decide to become an urban beekeeper or not, remember the next time you see that little yellow insect buzzing around your flower bed or sitting on your soda can, our world would not be the same without them.

Do you have any additional tips for people who wish to become beekeepers?

Michael Lewis
Michael R. Lewis is a retired corporate executive and entrepreneur. During his 40+ year career, Lewis created and sold ten different companies ranging from oil exploration to healthcare software. He has also been a Registered Investment Adviser with the SEC, a Principal of one of the larger management consulting firms in the country, and a Senior Vice President of the largest not-for-profit health insurer in the United States. Mike's articles on personal investments, business management, and the economy are available on several online publications. He's a father and grandfather, who also writes non-fiction and biographical pieces about growing up in the plains of West Texas - including The Storm.

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  • David S.

    As a beekeeper I would mention that you will get stung (rarely but you will get at least once), no matter what protective clothing you are wearing. So if you have allergies make sure you have your epi-pen on you.
    Also go to your local beekeepers association meetings. They’ll inform you on what to expect in your neighborhood which is very important as conditions vary from city to city.
    Finally be prepared to never enjoy store bought honey again. :)

    • Michael Lewis

      David,
      Thanks for writing and thanks for doing your part to help the bees.

  • Jimbo Jones

    it is a nice hobby.

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