urban beekeeping

More thoughts on urban beekeeping

Since I wrote my post on over-inspecting hives and Karen Peteros wrote her rebuttal, I’ve been mulling over the concept of urban beekeeping.

I still think my philosophy is best for the bees, that is, leave them alone as much as possible. On the other hand, I think Karen’s philosophy is best for urban beekeepers and their neighbors. But this begs a question. Should we be keeping bees in urban environments at all? We know it can be done, but should it be?

If we have to manipulate colonies half to death in order to conform to what we see as “neighborly behavior” maybe it’s not the right thing to do. A lot of lip service is paid to the idea that we should “let the bees be bees” and much of this talk originates from urban beekeepers—the very ones who are doing all the manipulating. It appears that urban beekeeping and “letting bees be bees” are antithetical concepts.

I’ve never been against urban beekeeping; in fact, I think it has encouraged people to learn more about their environments, their food sources, and living things in general. It has stimulated a renewed interest in beekeeping and honey, and it has generate a flood of publicity about things like bee diseases, colony collapse, pesticide use, and even the existence of other pollinators. All of these are good things.

On the other hand, many people are afraid of bees, so to bring them into densely populated areas might not be the best thing for either the humans or the bees. Some people must live in the city even if they’d rather not, but many people live in the city because they don’t want to near stinging insects, wild animals, or “earthy” people. These folks have rights, too.

As I see it, the bees are caught in the middle. Urban dwellers should not be hassled by bees, and bees should not be hassled by beekeepers. But beekeepers are constantly hassled by the urban dwellers who don’t want to be hassled by the bees that don’t want to be hassled by the beekeepers. Got that?

I haven’t come to any conclusions about this, I’m just thinking on paper . . . er, keyboard. But I see several contradictions between what we are saying and what we are doing. I find it amusing that, in general, hobby beekeepers are very critical of commercial beekeepers. Although commercial beekeepers use some practices I don’t like, in many ways they “let the bees be bees” more than your typical hands-on (many hands, many ons) urban beekeepers who are caught in a choke-hold between the nature of bees and the nature of urban society.

Of course there are different levels of urban-ness. Some urban areas are concrete and asphalt; others are sprinkled with parks, tree-lined streets, and gardens. Suburbs can be compact or sprawling, uptight or easygoing. Every place is different. But once a jurisdiction allows beekeeping within its borders, it must then accept the things that go along with beekeeping, and one of those things is swarms.



  • This is a good instance of when this would be better as a conversation than as a blog! I have too many ideas and opinions and I get frustrated by typing away my longwindedness.

    One (often overlooked) benefit of urban beekeeping is the diversity of the urban ecosystem – neighbors’ gardens, city trees and flower beds, abandoned lots (and their accompanying weeds!) and community gardens provide a great deal more forage consistently through the year than any bees get in a monoculture/agriculture or even most of today’s “wild” spaces. My bees bring in nectar and pollen nearly -every-single-day- warm enough to fly. I think there is something good to be said for the diversity of these cultivated food sources. It’s not just nice for me to have a hive in my backyard. It appears to be nice for the bees, too. There have been studies done on the diversity of forage from urban bees… just a quick google citation b/c I’m too swamped to dig deep: http://www.worcester.ac.uk/discover/honey-bees-find-richer-diversity-of-pollen-in-urban-areas.html

    I deal with other issues a rural beekeeper might not – neighbors and their pesky kids/pets/water supplies and increased opportunities to interact with pesticides wielded by amateurs. But I don’t deal with bears, cows, or other macro-invertebrate pests.

    So I come back to this idea that inspecting (or hassling) your bees regularly is the only way to prevent swarms. First of all, in my experience and reading, that’s just not true. Inspections mean you know the swarm is coming, but you can’t stop it by the time you know it’s coming. Second of all – there is plenty you can do to prevent swarms without inspecting every 7-10 days. For starters: watch your bees and see what they are bringing home, listen to them, watch the population and traffic. You can tip up boxes to look for swarm cells, or peek in the top to see if the top super is 3/4 full without taking out a single frame.

    When you do have an urban swarm – and it is inevitable with some bees, whether you inspect every 7 days or every 7 months – then you can keep low trees near your hives, swarm traps, bait hives, and educate your neighbors.

    One more thing – the “let bees be bees” urban beekeepers (the most famous of which is probably the LA Backwards beekeepers, no?) do not seem to do a lot of inspection on their hives. Some of them have a huge number of hives spread out across all of Southern California and they could never inspect them every week. Others have 2 or 3 in their backyards, but don’t seem to inspect often at all. I have never heard the “let bees be bees” beekeepers say that you should inspect weekly. They seem to appreciate swarms and the chance to catch them, and manage the bees mostly through a combination of external observation, intuition and luck. But I don’t want to speak for them.

  • In London at the moment beekeeping is exploding in popularity. Experienced beekeepers are struggling to teach all the wannabees and beginner beekeepers. We’re getting tons of beginners turning up at my local association apiary each week looking for guidance – sometimes twenty to thirty people. I’m far from an expert, but by being able to show the newbees my hives in the association’s apiary I hope I’m to give them a few tips and take some of the pressure off the older beekeepers.

    I might be totally wrong here, but as far as I can see me opening my hive once a week for ten to twenty minutes during the spring/summer doesn’t bother them too much. I don’t smoke them much except to get them to go down and avoid being squashed when I put the super back on. The government bee inspectors here all recommend inspecting regularly. Not being as experienced as you, there are things I think I would miss if I didn’t look inside.

    • If you re-read my original post you will see I advocate the quick, under-the-lid inspection or lifting-the-box inspection over the detailed frame-by-frame inspection that tears the hive apart: “A lot of routine maintenance can be performed on a hive without pulling out all the frames. You can add feed, pollen patties, or mite treatments by just lifting the lid. You can look for swarm cells by tipping up a brood box and inspecting the bottom. You can assess honey stores by lifting the back end of a box and estimating the weight.” I never said you shouldn’t look inside.

      As for government inspectors? Some of the state inspectors advocate pesticide use for the control of mites. And my federal government has approved systemic pesticides for use on human food. Yum. I’m not one to believe what my government tells me. Remember the Revolutionary War?

      • It sounds like you’re not so fortunate with your bee inspectors. Our government inspectors over here are incredibly knowledgeable and I have a lot of respect for them. They do a lot of good work in helping beekeepers fight disease and care for their bees. No pesticide use recommended!

  • Another interesting post, Rusty. Haven’t made up my mind on how I feel about frequency of inspections, urban beekeeping, etc. in light of all your points.

    The only part that struck me funny is about city people living in the city to avoid nature, and being respectful of this attitude. It is certainly possible that these people exist (I don’t personally know any people like this, but Vancouver may not be representative), but I don’t think anyone has the “right” to live in the exact perfect environment of their choosing. It really just insulates and isolates us more.

    Beekeepers who show no respect for their neighbours, though, are doing a disservice to the beekeeping community, not helping it. I think that was your point, and I do agree with that.

  • Rusty,

    I understand your dilemma, on one hand you have the bees and beekeepers who are interested in these fascinating creatures, and on the other hand you have urbanites (and suburbanites and ruralites for that matter) who are afraid of stinging insects and clump all these insects into being “bees”.

    Unfortunately in these environments there will be stinging insects. Parks provide a place for hornets and wasps to grow and gather, feral bees or previous beekeeping swarms have established colonies in trees, buildings, walls, etc. In the suburban collar areas which are pushing into rural areas, we are finding many urbanites who are leaving the city behind, but look to take the city feel along with them and are complaining about neighbors on 1+ acres of land keeping bees. As you said, in these cases it boils down to who’s rights are more important, the beekeeper or the neighbor with the bees caught in the middle. The challenge then is where does it stop. If a vegetarian is forced to smell burning meat from a neighbor who grills every night on a grill that is 10 feet from the neighbors window, is that infringing on the vegetarian’s rights? Or a dog owner who allows their dog to wander the neighborhood unleashed against the rights of a neighbor who is dog-o-phobic?

    We are also seeing suburbs who are embracing beekeeping to help the environment and improve the “greeness” of their community.

    Personally I believe beekeeping can co-exist in an urban environment. Several years ago Evanston IL allowed beekeeping in this upscale Chicago suburb, and since that date, I understand no records of complaints have been lodged about beekeeping or bees.

    I believe the hive should be inspected once every week or two in urban environments, with a visual & aural check of the external hive every day or two for unusual activity, verify the water source is filled and identify a shortage in the pollen/nectar gathering. Inspection of the hive does not necessarily mean taking down the hive and doing a frame by frame inspection.

    Thanks for the informative and thought provoking posts, I am really enjoying the site.

    Have a great day.

    • Thanks, Gary, for an excellent analysis. Your examples of dog lovers, meat eaters, etc. is a good one. Having lived in all sorts of environments, I have found the urban and suburbanites seem to be more intolerant of their neighbor’s practices than rural dwellers. Out in the country some folks keep cows, some shoot guns in their backyards, some run heavy equipment at all hours, some keep bees. On the other hand, I have found rural dwellers to be more conscious of property boundaries, as in, “I don’t care if you keep llamas or not but you better damn-well keep them off my property!”

      Part of that may be a certain bravado that goes along with rural life. That is, most rural dwellers I know wouldn’t admit to being afraid of any beast, even if they are secretly scared to death. So instead of attacking the owners’ choice of livestock, you defend your boundary. Anyway, that’s just my impression and I’m probably nuts.

      Thanks for writing.

  • Hi Rusty,

    I’ve read your points about over inspecting with great interest. What you have written about not doing frame-by-frame inspections without a good reason, while at the same time pointing out that you do NOT mean that one should never open the hive, is in my opinion good advice for people who have some extensive experience with beekeeping.

    On the other hand, as someone who has read Gorge Imirie’s PINK PAGES over and over again, I think it is important to point out that there is an important difference between being a Bee HAVER and being a Bee KEEPER. I tried twice to keep bees in Brooklyn back in the days before it was permitted. Because I was trying to keep a low profile, I had no contact with other beekeepers. I was more of a bee “haver” than a beeKeeper. Both times my bee hive died during the second winter.

    This time around the situation in New York City is different:
    Beekeeping is legal AND there is a very good local organization called NYC BEEKEEPING. This group gives FREE weekly classes to beginning beekeepers all winter long. The instructor of the classes, James Fischer, also gives regular hive inspections during the warmer months. Local beekeepers, of various levels of experience, are welcome to attend these hive inspections, also for free.

    The advantage of these group inspections is that while a single hive is opened, a number of people can gain the experience of being up close to the bees while an experienced beekeeper calmly points out what to look for on each of the frames examined.

    Sometimes these inspections are carried on while Jim is inside a 3-sided screened tent erected around the hive, while people dressed in street cloths gather around and watch without having to wear hot protective gear. Other inspections are for new beekeepers who have protective gear. During these group inspections people get direct hands on beekeeping experience.

    I found that these group hive exams have made me feel more comfortable working with my bees and are helping me move from being a stand back, hands-off Bee HAVER to moving closer to being a better bee Keeper.

    In my opinion, for people who do not have a lot of experience caring for bees, regular weekly or bi-weekly hive inspections, either of your own hive or two, or together with a group doing a guided hive inspection, can help make use more confident and better bee keepers.

    For beginners, frequent hive inspections are a good way to get comfortable with and learn to care for your bees.

    And as we become better beekeepers, we can be better advocates for bees with our urban neighbors.

    Dennis Law
    Brooklyn South Community Emergency Response Team
    Logistics Section

  • “The advantage of these group inspections is that while a single hive is opened, a number of people can gain the experience of being up close to the bees while an experienced beekeeper calmly points out what to look for on each of the frames examined.”

    I think that’s great. I would love to be a part of that kind of organization. Beekeeping is just starting to catch on where I live in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and “catch on” may be a little optimistic. A beekeeping association comparable to NYC Beekeeping is years away from getting off the ground. If I had the experience of a veteran beekeeper to rely on, one who actually had the time to help me inspect my hives on a regular basis, or a beekeeper I could watch closely and learn from their example, I would probably be a much better beekeeper than I am today. I know I would. I need a mentor in a bad way.

    Urban beekeeping may not be perfect, but urban beekeeping associations provide opportunities that aren’t available to beekeepers in who live in certain rural or isolated areas. (I live on an island in the middle of the North Atlantic. It’s isolated.) I have no doubt that I would be way ahead of the game if I had access to an organization such as NYC Beekeeping. It’s a huge opportunity. I would love it.

  • I’ve been dreaming about having a beehive in my backyard but I live in a big city. Although my backyard is fairly large it’s not a nice wild area that can sustain lots of bees. And the neighbors are my biggest concern. Especially the dogs next door who bark at anything that moves. I can just see my neighbor’s reaction to their dogs getting stung. It is pretty hard to have a big hive in the cities, I don’t know of anyone who does.

    • “Although my backyard is fairly large it’s not a nice wild area that can sustain lots of bees.”

      I don’t think anybody’s back yard could sustain many bees. As for urban areas sustaining honey bee hives, if they can do it in Hong Kong…


      …you can probably do it where you live too.

      “I can just see my neighbor’s reaction to their dogs getting stung.”

      I wouldn’t worry if your yard is fenced in. And even if a dog got stung, they learn fast. My two cats got stung, learned their lesson and now live in harmony with the bees — usually by keeping a safe distance.

      “It is pretty hard to have a big hive in the cities, I don’t know of anyone who does.”

      Check out these folks in Chicago:


      I’d still be cautious about getting a hive anywhere in an urban area, and I would discuss it with neighbours first, but from my own limited experience and what I’ve seen other urban beekeepers do, it’s certainly possible to do it and do it safely.

  • Or a dog owner who allows their dog to wander the neighborhood unleashed against the rights of a neighbor who is dog-o-phobic?

    Gary, the main problem with this analogy is that bee-poo does not attract much attention from the neighbors. I’ve never had to reach for a second plastic baggie while curbing my bees. And from what I’ve seen of the other dog owners in my neighborhood, I have a right to infringe on their rights, for a change. They’ve got it coming, believe you me.

  • …And wait until my neighbor sees his mulberry tree next spring. There is a balance to all things, even in the city.

  • Ha, Ha. People talk about bees stinging. . . . With our two hives, I have been stung a grand total of twice this year (so far – Sept. 4). Stepped on a yellow jacket hive this morning and got stung 26 times!!! (best count). I will take honey bees every time! Bees are babies.

    This has been the greatest year ever here for bumble bees. They have been everywhere all year. Nice. Also, lots of butterflies. We planted for bees and have exceeded our expectations. Right now, the bees are working mint.

  • I just stumbled across your blog while searching information on urban beekeeping. I loved the question and while I’m joining the conversation quite late, I’d love to put my thoughts out there on this.

    I do native bee research (the most beloved bumble bees). I have been painfully aware of the increase in publicity and ultimately, popularity, of urban beekeeping in our community (Calgary, Alberta) as well as everywhere else, and have to say I think it’s not an ecologically sound idea. I don’t think anyone is considering the impact these actions have on native pollinators. With huge agricultural changes in natural habitats, native flowers are increasingly limited to untreated ditches and remnant patches of land. Urban settings are increasingly important for [native pollinators].

    Increased popularity of urban beekeeping has increased hives but not flowers. Certainly not enough. When you flood a system with hives of honey bees they undoubtedly displace native bees and there is competition for food resources. There are now studies being published that show the impacts of such activities on bumble bees and other pollinators and it makes no sense to me from an ecological standpoint, if you truly love and respect bees, to exacerbate an already taxed system.

    There is also evidence of spill-over of honey bee viruses into native bee populations. The very practise of honey beekeeping, mass reproduction of commercially reared bees being moved around from monoculture to monoculture itself is linked to the stress associated with Colony Collapse Disorder, and increased susceptibility to pesticides and Israeli virus . . .

    I LOVE all bees!! I have a huge affinity for bumble bees of course, but I make frequent trips to my local honey farm and spend countless hours watching the honey bees! I welcome them when they arrive in my apple trees every year, but I prefer to find them in the fields and pastures where they were meant to roam since we introduced them so many years ago. I view my urban landscape (which I’m turning into a completely bee-flower landscape cutting away every last blade of grass when my husband goes to work! (haha), as a sanctuary for the native bees. The ones that don’t roam canola fields and such. People with acreages, large land, with TONS of native flowers, could benefit native bees as well. I put bee boxes on my property and wait for bumble bees to move in. I have one attached to my dining room window and we watch them eat while we have our dinner!

    So I say give the honey bees a break! Let them recover. Get farmers to start planting hedgerows of native flowers, native flowers in all ditches, native flowers everywhere that they don’t have crops. People in urban settings that love bees can visit their local honey farms, and if they love bees, plant bee flowers and watch the bumbles come and go . . . This is a good balance! : )

    • Very interesting and controversial topic. First,my personal opinion is that urbanization in any form is damage to the nature. Here in Los Angeles, during 50es and 60es nearly all native species have been disappeared. In this sense, everything we have in LA now is artificial and unnatural including eucalyptus trees (Australia), famous palms (mostly from Indonesia), orange trees (imported from Brazil) etc. Now the question: what “native” insects (or birds) could do with all these foreign species? I really do not think that urban area is good place to start restoration process for native species including native bees etc. Concrete is not good material to create a nest. Now, about our domestic partners – it might be cats, dogs, bees, birds, horses… it is in human nature to domesticate wild animals. It is happening in the villages, in the cities, everywhere. Is it good or not – it is just too late to discuss because we have 10000 years of history of domestication. In my opinion, domestication is a bad thing; it enslave animals and keep them in “cages” of any kind including mansions etc. Dogs, they need to run, instead, they are locked in the houses and their fate is to bark waiting for the “master”. Horses, in LA – yes, bunch of horses… Parrots – my neighbor has one and it is most annoying creature I ever heard; it makes weird noises 24/7. Any domesticated animal could annoy somebody in the neighborhood – cat could eat somebody’s pet-mouse; dog – pup in front of your garage… Bees are no difference – they could annoy somebody. Even people could annoy each other – it is just price for living in densely populated area. If follow the logic of the author of the previous post – we just need to reestablish a population of wolfs and mountain lions in LA, which, honestly, is not bad idea… out of all domestic animals, bees are most useful – they pollinate our gardens and orange trees and give us honey as a gift. Interestingly,I noticed that my bees are not interested in native California plants – they are foraging on eucalyptus and citrus trees leaving native plants to native bees, so there is some balance possible even in urban areas.

  • Urban Beekeeping is fast becoming a new hobby in India. The first Urban Beekeeping team was formed in Mumbai, India last year and the team has successfully learnt the art of beekeeping, the natural way without use of smoke, pesticides to kill mites or tearing apart hives every week. I firmly believe that we should donate 30mins of our time every week to these fascinating creatures, to help them live comfortably. I rarely find that they are disturbed or feel threatened.

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