Beekeeping is a practice with a history that dates back thousands of years. From the ancient cultures of northern Africa to the Egypt of King Tutankhamun, enterprising beekeepers have depended on domesticated bees to produce valuable honey and beeswax. You too can be a modern beekeeper even if you live in an urban area.
This ultimate guide to urban beekeeping will tell you everything you need to know to get you up and running, and then some. It will cover numerous topics, including:
- how to get started
- the equipment you will need
- potential permitting requirements
- sourcing your bees
- harvesting bee products.
I have made a point of being as detailed as I possibly can. The information contained in this guide is a combination of my own experience and all the research I have done over the years. I sincerely hope you find it helpful.
Be encouraged that beekeepers everywhere are behind you. We all started somewhere. We all know what it’s like to have to learn the details and nuances of keeping bees domestically. Collectively we would tell you that it is well worth taking the time to learn.
Now, if you’re ready, let’s begin. It is time for you to learn how to become a successful urban beekeeper.
How to Get Started with Urban Beekeeping
Beekeeping differs from other types of hobbies in the sense that you are dealing with living creatures. And whenever you deal with something living, you are also dealing with a seemingly limitless amount of information. Living creatures are not static. They are not black and white. They have needs that, if not met, will lead to their demise.
Knowing this, getting started as an urban beekeeper is all about education. You have a ton to learn before you ever construct your first hive or buy your first kit. Plan to spend at least several weeks doing research. If you can only put in a few hours per week, plan to take a few months. Do not rush into things.
Here are some topics to research, a few of which will be covered in this guide:
- Regulations – This guide is designed to be useful pretty much anywhere in the world. Just know that there may be beekeeping regulations where you live. Contact the authorities and ask. Here in the States, your local or county government is your best bet.
- Honey Bee Species – There are some 20,000 different bee species among which only seven are honey producing. The European honeybee is the most commonly domesticated bee in Europe and North America. The other six are domesticated in other parts of the world.
- Hive Options – As an urban beekeeper, you will have hives boxes to keep track of. You will need to understand your options in terms of construction, space required, ease of maintenance, etc.
- Social Order – Take the time to research and understand the social order of a beehive. Bees are social creatures, and it will be up to you to make sure that the proper social order is maintained in each of your hives.
- Bee Life Cycle – All living creatures are subject to a life cycle. Bees are no exception. The more you know about the life cycle, the better you will understand what is going on with your bees at any point in time.
- Normal Behavior – People are most afraid of honeybees when they don’t understand their normal behaviors. You cannot afford to be ignorant. You need to know why your bees behave the way they do.
- Pests and Other Dangers – A big part of your first year of urban beekeeping will be dedicated to protecting your hives against pests and other dangers. Be sure to educate yourself about what threatens domesticated beehives.
- Bee Products – Honey is not the only marketable product you can harvest from domesticated bees. There are several others you might find interesting and profitable. Find out what these are because the products you decide to harvest will influence how you keep your bees.
It is impossible to know everything about bees before you begin keeping them. But remember that knowledge is power. The more you can gain ahead of time, the less you will have to learn on the fly. You will be a better beekeeper if you learn as much as you can right from the start.
The Equipment You’ll Need for Urban Beekeeping
Urban beekeeping is not necessarily expensive as compared to some other kinds of husbandry hobbies, but you will have to invest in some equipment to get started. Right off the top you will need at least one hive. You can buy multiple hives if you choose, but most beginners start with one.
A hive is more or less a wooden box that contains a number of frames. The frames slide in and out like drawers. They serve the purpose of giving your bees a place to build their honeycomb structures. Without the honeycomb there is no larva, and without the larva there is no honey or wax.
In addition to your hives, you should plan to invest in:
- Feeders – You will need feeders to provide supplemental food during the off-season.
- Hive Tool – You will need this tool to open your hives and remove the frames.
- Smoker – A smoker makes it easier to work with your bees when they are feeling aggressive.
- Bee Suit – Protect yourself from stings with a good bee suit.
- Gloves and Boots – Leather gloves and a good pair of work boots will complete your bee suit.
- Extractor – An extractor makes honey harvesting a lot easier.
Your success as an urban beekeeper will ultimately require you to split your hives. As such, there are two more pieces of equipment that, while not necessary to get started, you will eventually have to purchase. The first is a queen catcher. This handy little device makes it easier to catch and separate a queen from the rest of the hive.
The second piece is a queen marker. This little tool is used to mark your queen on her hindquarters with a bright marker. She will be easier to find when it comes time to split your hive. Some brand-new beekeepers buy a queen marker right up front so they can mark their queens immediately.
Potential Permitting Requirements for Urban Beekeeping
Many new beekeepers assume they can set up shop without obtaining a license or permit. Unfortunately, such is not always the case. My advice is that you never just assume. Start by checking with your local authorities to see if there are any permits required to keep bees in an urban environment.
Your local authorities might be able to tell you about regional or national regulations as well. I can use U.S. regulations as an example. For starters, federal law does not prohibit or regulate beekeeping from an interstate commerce’s standpoint. So you could transport bees from Florida to California without needing a federal permit.
The only federal beekeeping permit applies to importing bees and bee products from other countries. Some countries require a permit and others do not. For information on that, you would have to check out the USDA website.
Licensing and permitting regulations at the state level vary. Some states have very little to no requirements. Other states, like Florida for example, require beekeepers to register their hives and to submit to annual inspections. Again, you would have to check with your state authorities to know for sure.
Whatever you do, don’t assume you can begin urban beekeeping without a permit. The last thing you need is to find out that a permit is required AFTER a neighbor has complained about your operation. Beekeeping without a required permit could result in fines, or worse.
Buying and Installing Hives
It is possible to build your own hives to get started. However, it is an awful lot of work and likely not worth it. You can buy professionally made hives brand-new or, if you prefer, from an experienced beekeeper selling them used. There are three types of hives to choose from:
1. Langstroth Hive
The first Langstroth hive was built by Lorenzo Langstroth in the mid-1800s. It is the most commonly used type of hive in North America and many parts of Europe. Professional beekeepers prefer it because it yields the most honey and it is easily stacked and transported. Langstroth hives are characterized by:
- movable frames that hang vertically
- bottom boxes for broods
- bottom boards and entrances
- inner cover boards.
These hives are accessed from the top. They require a moderate amount of effort to maintain as well as the ability to lift up to 80 pounds when full of honey.
2. Top Bar Hive
The top bar hive is believed to be the oldest hive design currently in use, going back centuries. It was made standard by the Peace Corps in the 1970s. Legend has it that the top bar design is based on the ancient model of creating hives with felled trees and sticks. Top bar hives:
- yield the least honey
- involve the least amount of management
- require little heavy lifting
- are easily accessible for educational purposes.
Brand-new urban beekeepers sometimes choose top bar hives because of the ease-of-use. However, you may want to avoid this type of hive if you are intent on harvesting the most honey possible.
3. Warre Hive
Last but not least is the Warre hive. It is the hive to invest in if you are looking for the perfect balance between productivity and ease-of-use. It was designed by a French monk by the name of Abbé Émile Warré. Its most known characteristics are its square, modular shape and vertical racks. Note that Warre hives:
- yield a moderate amount of honey
- require lifting of up to 30 pounds
- mimic the natural colony environment most closely
- require very little routine management.
Urban beekeepers looking to practice natural beekeeping methods prefer this type of hive. Its minimal management needs make it ideal for new beekeepers as well. Still, the Langstroth hive is what you want if raw production is what you are after.
Choose Your Hive Locations
Deciding on the type to purchase is only half the hive equation. You also have to choose a location for it. The most important consideration here is sun exposure. Bees need adequate sunshine to thrive. But too much sun can kill them by causing the hives to overheat.
If you live in an area with a temperate or continental climate, it is best to place your hives where they will get the most sunshine early in the morning. Early morning sunshine warms the hives, gets the bees going, and encourages them to get out and start foraging. It’s okay for your hives to not be under shade in these types of climates because temperatures don’t get too hot.
If you live in an area with a dry or tropical climate, sunshine is a bigger problem. You still want your hives exposed to sunshine early in the morning but not throughout the day. For example, an urban beekeeper in the Southeast U.S. would do well to place hives under some sort of shade with open exposure to the northeast.
Other things to consider when choosing hive locations include:
- Wind – Don’t expose your hives to direct impact from wind. Be sure there is something to break the wind, like a fence or some sort of vegetation.
- Water – It helps to locate hives somewhere near a water source. An urban environment might dictate that you supplement with a birdbath or water dish.
- Foot Traffic – Keep in mind the flow of foot traffic on your property. Do not place hives so that their entrances are close to where people normally walk.
- Elevation – Keeping your hives off the ground will prevent unwanted ground moisture from seeping in. It will also help in the fight against beetles.
- Neighbors – Neighbors can be a problem in urban settings. Avoid locating hives close enough to your property line to cause your neighbors to fear.
- Work Space – If you are installing more than one hive, make sure there is enough space between each one to work comfortably. Trying to work in confined spaces will just make things tougher.
You may find that the original location you choose doesn’t work well. Not to worry. You can always change locations within reason. Just make sure you do not change too often, or you might chase the bees away.
Sourcing Your Bees
You will have several different choices when you are finally ready to source your bees. The first choice is to buy a bee kit, otherwise known as a ‘nucleus,’ or ‘nuc’ for short. A basic kit includes a queen, a couple of attendants she is familiar with, and enough workers to get the hive going.
In most cases, the queen is separate from the rest of the bees while packaged. This is because the workers are probably not from the same colony, and it will take time for them to get used to her. In the meantime, she is kept separate so that the workers do not attack.
Your second option is to purchase an existing hive that has been split off from another. Commercial beekeepers split hives as a way to supplement the income they earn from pollination contracts and honey harvesting. Split hives obviously cost more than kits.
Your third option is to trap a natural swarm. Believe it or not, this isn’t as dangerous as Hollywood would make you believe. Honeybee swarms are not out hunting for humans they can attack and kill. They swarm because they are out searching for a new home and need some rest.
Catching a Swarm
Catching a swarm to create your first hive isn’t too hard. You will need to take a container large enough to contain the number of bees you want to keep. Some urban beekeepers just take a brood box with them. You could use a bucket or any other suitable container.
Assuming you bring a brood box with empty frames, the process is pretty simple. Cut down the branch on which you observe the swarm and gently lower it to the brood box. Put the swarm right up against the frames and the bees should naturally migrate. If not, you can shake the branch.
You might find that the bees are swarming on a structure that you cannot cut. In this case, shake the structure vigorously enough so that bees start dropping into your box. Once a few start going, the rest should follow.
Finally, you can scoop the bees by hand if necessary. Just make sure to wear your leather gloves and bee suit before you do. You should only need to scoop once or twice. After that, the rest of the bees will follow the swarm into your box.
No matter what method you use, look for some of the bees to begin fanning out and guarding the opening of your box. This behavior signifies that you have captured the queen. In the absence of such behavior, continue scanning the rest of the swarm until you find her. Without the queen, your efforts to establish a successful hive will likely fail.
Looking after Your Hives
The wooden boxes that make up your hives need routine maintenance – just like your house. Neglect your hives and they will fall apart over time. You wouldn’t neglect your own house, so don’t neglect the house you have built for your bees.
Inspect your hives on a regular basis, looking for damaged or worn out parts. You are looking for rotting wood, cracks, pieces that don’t fit right because they are warped, and so forth. Any sign of damage or wear should be addressed right away.
You will also need to have entrance blocks on hand for colder weather. An entrance block is some sort of obstacle – usually a block of wood – that reduces the size of the hive entrance. Blocks are installed to help preserve heat generated inside the hive.
Other maintenance considerations include:
- Queen Exclusion – If raw honey production is most important to you, think about installing what is known as a queen excluder. This is a metal screen that prevents your queen from descending to the bottom of the brood box and laying eggs in the honeycomb.
- Supers – Supers give your bees additional area in which to store honey. They are generally installed during the summer as honeycombs fill up.
- Beeswax – Beeswax is important to bees. They use it to build honeycombs and to seal the hive. Be careful when you are harvesting or maintaining your hives to not disturb it.
- Sun and Rain – Depending on where and how your hives are positioned, you might need to install additional protection from the sun and rain. This could be as simple as a tarp strung between trees.
- Pest Protection – Perhaps the most important part of beehive maintenance is checking for pests. Be on the lookout for wood lice, termites, and beetles. If you live in an area where bears, raccoons and skunks hang out, you might want to build a fence around your hives.
Maintenance is all about making sure your hives stay in top shape. Well-maintained hives are happy hives that produce more honey, beeswax, etc.
Harvesting Bee Products
A healthy and well-maintained hive produces products you can harvest for personal use or for sale. The two most common are honey and beeswax. A typical hive will offer two harvests annually. However, a lot has to do with your geographic location and your climate.
Regardless of where you live, there are telltale signs that a hive is ready for harvest. What you are looking for are signs that a hive is reaching capacity. Those signs include:
- cessation of brood rearing
- bees that seem lazy
- more aggressive guarding of hive entrances
- bees congregating at the entrance rather than entering the hive.
All of these signs suggest your bees are running out of space. Honeycombs are capped and the actual population of the bees has outgrown the size of their hive. It is time to harvest honey before a natural split occurs.
Harvesting is as easy as pulling out each frame and running it through an extractor (more on that in a minute). Just be sure that you shake any bees back into the hive before you take the rack away. If you have an empty super, you can place racks in the super and then transport the whole thing to another location away from the hive before opening the honeycombs. This method makes it easier to harvest without having to worry about aggression.
Some beekeepers use a smoker to settle the bees down before harvesting begins. Doing so is not necessary, but it might make for a more comfortable experience for both of you.
Opening the Honeycombs
Once you have the honeycombs, you have to open them. You will need an uncapping knife or your hive tool. Any capped combs must be uncapped before you place the honeycomb in your extractor. The extractor essentially either compresses or spins the racks to extract honey.
What you do with collected honey is up to you. If you are going to sell it, you will have to bottle it in clean, sanitized bottles. You can do with it what you want if it is only going to be for personal use.
Your biggest source of beeswax is the caps you take off the honeycombs. A typical scenario yields about 2 pounds of wax for every 100 pounds of honey. If you are using a top bar hive, remember that honey yields will be minimal. On the other hand, you will get the most beeswax from this sort of hive.
The beeswax will be coated in honey when you first open the honeycombs. So place it on some sort of metal grate or strainer and allow it to drain for a few days. Then place the wax in a container with warm water to rinse off any remaining honey. Drain the wax a second time.
You may have to rinse again if some honey residue still remains. Rinsing will not hurt the wax, so do it as many times as necessary to remove all of the excess honey. Once that process is complete, you can use a double boiler to melt the beeswax before running it through cheese cloth to strain out debris. Finally, the pure beeswax can be poured into a cardboard or wooden mold to create a block.
This concludes my ultimate guide to successful urban beekeeping. There is a lot to the hobby that I have not mentioned due to the fact that there is so much to know. Once you get started, continue educating yourself. Learn about things like producing new queens and spotting signs of an unhealthy hive. Remember that the more you know, the more successful you will be.
Before you go, here is an interesting video that discusses urban beekeeping. Enjoy.