Urban Beekeeping

Honey bee on Geranium.Honey bee on Geranium.


Urban beekeeping has been on the rise, probably for a combination of reasons.  People have ventured into beekeeping because they have heard about bee decline, and wanted to do something about it.  This has, on some occasions, extended to businesses and even churches.  In London, for example, St Paul’s Cathedral and the Museum of London have become home to several colonies of honey bees, with hives installed on the roofs.  On the other hand, some people have an interest in producing honey and others have simply decided to pursue a hobby.

Whatever the reason, due to the fact that so many people live in towns and cities, its urban beekeeping or no beekeeping for many.  However, whilst bees can thrive in towns and cities, urban beekeepers do need to take into account several issues particular to their environment, so if this is something you are contemplating, maybe you would like to think about the following points.

Urban Beekeeping And Considerations For Urban Beekeepers


Temperament of the bees

The temperament of the bees you install in your hive of bee hives, is something you should think about.   It is better to avoid more aggressive bees, and to opt for more passive strains. See types of honey bees.

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Regional authority restrictions

Is urban beekeeping allowed in the area in which you live? 

For example, in some towns in the USA, there are restrictions on beekeeping.  If you have a city allotment, you may have to negotiate with the body in charge of the allotment (and even the other allotment holders).

Floral provision for bees

Honey bee on Solidago.Honey bee on Solidago.


Which leads to the next point:  what kind of provision is there for the bees, in terms of flora?

Are there plenty of private gardens with an abundance of nectar and pollen-rich flowers? Are there sufficient flowering trees and hedgerow?  Parks and public planting schemes can provide opportunities, but caution is advised if the local council uses insecticides such as neonicotinoid treatments.

Quality is important, not merely quantity.  Rows of highly cultivated, brightly coloured annual flowers will be of little benefit.


Traditional single-petal flowers, herbs, and nectar-rich flowering shrubs and trees are better (such as hawthorne, berberis etc).  They’ll need food from early spring to autumn.  Also, don’t forget about your own contribution: if all you have is a balcony, do your bit with hanging baskets, window boxes and planters.

Honey bees on Knapweed.Honey bees on Knapweed.

Wildflowers on brownfield sites and waste areas may also provide food, but if you live in an area of rapid building development, some of these may disappear.

Vandalism

Potentially, vandalism could represent a barrier to urban beekeeping.

Are vandals likely to be a problem in your area?  Unfortunately, if you live in an area with high levels of vandalism, it may be unwise to install hives, although some urban community projects successfully maintain and protect them. 

Close to where I live, I heard of a proposal to install beehives in an area in an attempt to deter vandals from destroying ancient ruins.  The plan was quickly abandoned when the inexperienced (albeit well-meaning) individuals realised there is nothing to stop vandals throwing bricks at hives from a distance, for example. ……Although I understand bee hives with colonies of honey bees are very effective for discouraging elephant crop raids in Africa!  However, irresponsible vandals are a different matter.

Beekeeping support

Is there a local and active beekeeping association in the area?

If you are new to beekeeping, this may be very important for you.  They would also be able to share advice and tips. 

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However, if you are venturing into urban beekeeping as a means to ‘do your bit’ for the bees, then speak with local beekeepers first – and perhaps even your local conservation body. 

In 2010, the Mayor of London, England came under criticism from the local beekeeping organisations, for encouraging more beekeeping (see below):

“John Chapple, chair of the London Beekeepers' Association, which has seen a five-fold increase to 150 members in the past few years, said:

"London is already saturated with beekeepers. We don't need any more, what we need are better beekeepers.….Rather than jumping on the beekeeping bandwagon, Boris [the Mayor] should stop parks from planting double-headed flowers that provide no nectar or pollen, cutting back trees and shrubs that provide vital forage for bees, and spraying with chemicals". 

He added: "Londoners who want to help bees would do better planting bee-friendly trees and flowers and lobbying for a more bee-friendly city, rather than keeping them."

Source:  The Guardian; 16 December 2010. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2010/dec/16/boris-capital-bee-beekeepers-criticise

Your neighbours


What is the attitude of your neighbours?  If they have young children (or even if they don’t), they may be against you keeping bees for fear of being stung. 

You may be able to allay their fears, and take measures to discourage the bees from swarming, and you may be able to erect a tall screen to encourage the bees to ‘fly high’. 

Honey bee on Oregano (Marjoram).Honey bee on Oregano (Marjoram).

 

However, if you are not able to come to some agreement with your neighbours, it may be better to find an alternative location for your hive – perhaps at an allotment (if you are permitted) or the garden of a friend with neighbours who are amenable to the idea of living next door to a honey bee colony.  Note that some people do have very legitimate reasons for concern – allergy to bee stings is not common but can be fatal!  It is also the case that some neighbours can merely be awkward, mean or jealous.

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Depending on where you live, it may be worth you checking what your rights and responsibilities are before investing your time, money and energy into keeping bees.  This is another reason why linking up with other beekeepers in the area who are both knowledgeable and experienced, is so helpful.

Pollution

Pollution is another important issue to consider in urban beekeeping.  If chemicals are used in the local park next door (sprays, lawn treatments, and even insecticides applied to the soil), it may put your bees at risk. 

Also, think again about urban beekeeping if all you can provide is a tiny front yard facing a very busy road with the bees on the same level as all the petrol and diesel fumes, or next door to a factory churning out noxious fumes. In such a circumstance, again, you may be better off finding an alternative location to keep your bees. 

A study by researchers from Pennsylvania State University found that air pollutants alter floral scent molecules (1).

Pollutants such as ozone, nitrate radical and hydroxyl radical are responsible for "the degradation and the chemical modification of scent plumes."  Bees pick up scent molecules from flowers at distance, thus enabling them to locate sources of food, and thus pollinate flowers.  Unfortunately, researchers found that the pollutants have the effect of reducing the distance scent molecules can spread.  This means it becomes harder for bees to locate flowers, with the knock on effect that foraging times are increased.   


Furthermore, the study showed that even a moderate level of air pollutant at 60 parts per billion of ozone, can make it harder for bees to locate flowers. This alteration could have a dramatic effect on bees' foraging habits and food supplies that could create "severe cascading and pernicious impacts on the fitness of foraging insects by reducing the time devoted to other necessary tasks," the study's abstract suggests.

But what levels of pollution are we talking about here?  Actually, even 'moderate' levels have this effect - 60 parts per billion and upwards.  With increasing levels of pollution, there potentially more danger to bees.

The researchers state in the abstract of their study:

"As a result, insect success rates of locating plumes of floral scents were reduced and foraging times increased in polluted air masses due to considerable degradation and changes in the composition of floral scents. Results also indicate that plant-pollinator interactions could be sensitive to changes in floral scent composition, especially if insects are unable to adapt to the modified scentscape. The increase in foraging time could have severe cascading and pernicious impacts on the fitness of foraging insects by reducing the time devoted to other necessary tasks."

Swarming bees

Are you comfortable and competent handling swarms, for instance if you are asked to remove a swarm from a tricky spot on your neighbour's property?  


Storage

Urban properties are sometimes lacking in secure storage space.   Do you have enough space for storing any beekeeping equipment you may need?


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Are roof top bees the answer?

A roof top can be an ideal place to put a hive, but remember the hive will need protection from wind, and you will need good, safe access to the hive.  The hive will need to be stable, whatever the whether, and you'll need good access. 

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Conclusion


In summary, take a good look around first, consider your skills, the assistance available to you from other beekeepers, and any risks.  Urban beekeeping may be rewarding, but is not something to rush into. 

There are many beekeepers who keep bees successfully in urban environments, and indeed, urban beekeeping can be rewarding, however, if you are wanting to help bees but find that for various reasons, you are unable to become a beekeeper, there are other positive actions you can take: create a bee garden, lobby your council to help the bees, and get involved with other local movements.



References:

(1)Air pollutants degrade floral scents and increase insect foraging times;
Jose D. Fuentesa; Marcelo Chameckib; T’ai Roulstonc; Bicheng Chena; Kenneth R.Pratt; Atmospheric Environment
Volume 141, September 2016, Pages 361-374






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