Urban beekeeping sounds… counter-intuitive compared to becoming a beekeeper on a homestead.
And yet, what we consider to be concrete flowerless jungles often make one of the best spots for our flying friends. Urban or backyard beekeeping is a growing trend in cities across Europe and the United States. Considering the delicious production bees make, that comes as no surprise.
If you think that bees can’t be kept in cities, remember that ancient Rome had a thriving urban beekeeping population.
If you want to learn how to raise bees in your backyard, the only true weapon you need to do is having the knowledge of how it is done.
There are plenty of urban beekeeping kits out there, and it doesn’t take that much upfront costs to get going. The beauty is that once you have an indoor (or well-placed) hive, most of your costs go dramatically down. Bees will usually reproduce quick enough that theoretically you could create new hives every year and turn your urban beekeeping hobby into quite a lucrative side hustle.
Or even a full-time hustle if indoor beekeeping is your thing.
9 Urban Backyard Beekeeping Tips for Beginners
You might love this idea of producing your own honey, helping out the environment and just to have something cool to talk about at your next cocktail party. However, you might also be thinking how the hell is it possible for you to start raising and keeping bees in the busy city?
1 – Make Sure It’s Legal
Before you dive deep into the logistics and invest in the equipment, check your city ordinances to make sure it is legal to do urban beekeeping. Many cities have legalized it, so you’ll likely be fine. Yet, it is better to know the letter of the law upfront just in case. After all, you don’t want to get fined for making honey.
2 – Avoid Swarming
We’ll get into this a bit later, but suffice to say you’ll want to avoid your hive from swarming if at all possible. Nothing scares the neighbors then seeing a wild horde of yellow flying stingers dashing across the neighborhood.
3 – Take a beekeeping course
You could join a beekeeping society in your local neighborhood or just take an online beekeeping course. There’s plenty out there to get you started. A good beekeeping course will give you all the knowledge you need to really get started.
4 – Buy the Proper Equipment:
While you can theoretically make your own equipment, I would recommend against it. This is especially true if you’re just starting out in the beekeeping world. Why risk a colony or a bee sting? Besides, most beekeeping equipment is not overly expensive and rarely needs to be replaced.
5 – Make Sure There is a Good Source of Water
Bees need water like the rest of us living things. You will want to make sure there is a good source near the hive. Typically, bees tend to prefer “aged” water like what you might find in a pond. You can set up a barrel of water to solve the potential problem of the bees going after your neighbor’s dog bowl.
Bees also don’t like water that is super close to their hive. You should place your water source about twenty feet away from where the hive will live, if possible.
6 – Put a Nice Big Flag in Front of the Hive
Putting a flag in front of your hive’s entrance serves a dual purpose here.
For one, bees are less likely to get angry with people moving around them if they are used to things moving around the hive. This is why many beekeepers will place their hives near bushes where the wind will move the branches and the leaves.
In the city, you probably won’t have an opportune bush sitting on the rooftop of an apartment complex. However, a flag can easily serve this purpose to add a flapping movement around the hive and make your bees calm.
The other purpose this flag will serve is that it forces the bees to rise higher into the air when they go out to pollinate. This means it is less likely the bees will bother any of your neighbors or freak them out when they fly into the sky.
But, that does bring me to my next point…
7 – Consider Telling Your Neighbors (And Definitely the Landlord)
You should be a good neighbor and let them know you’re planning on starting a hive. While some neighbors might be a bit uneasy about the concept, most will lighten up at the fact that you’ll likely be bringing them free jars of delicious honey if your endeavor proves successful.
In addition to the neighbors, you should absolutely tell your landlord. If you explain all the research you’ve done, all the equipment you’re looking to purchase and educate the landlord on the fact that bees don’t actually sting people very often, then they’ll likely be open to you doing it.
Some landlords are so open to the concept that they’ll even let you plant your hive on the roof of the apartment complex!
8 – Placing Your Urban Beehive (Indoor or Outdoor?)
One of the most important considerations is where you are going to place your beehive. It can be indoors or outdoors, but if you opt for an indoor beehive then you’ll need to make sure the bees have unfettered access to the great outdoors.
If you’re right in the middle of the city and you think the beehive can’t work because there are no flowers around, think again.
Bees are an incredibly resourceful critter. These flying flower hunters have been known to go over 5-miles to pollinate plants and bring back the sweet nectar to the hive. If there are no flowers in eyesight for you, there is probably more than enough forage for the bees to find.
Some common places people place hives in city settings is on the roof. It is especially helpful if the roof is white or light-colored since this deflects heat. Avoid placing the hive on tar-black rooftops, since this will trap heat and ultimately make your bees uncomfortable with the warmth.
Ideally, the hive should be in a shaded spot that at times get direct sunlight, and in a spot that shields them from the wind. This is the kind of spot bees would naturally choose for their hives in the wild, so it is best to mimic this as much as possible for the best results.
9 – Use a Queen Excluder Starting Off
A queen excluder is simply a place where you put the queen of your hive. It is a mesh container that separates the queen from the rest of the hive, making her easier to find when you need to check on her health.
Some beekeepers swear by the queen excluder since it makes finding the queen so much easier, other beekeepers don’t like it though due to it being unnatural for the bees.
A queen excluder will help you start out though, so it’s worth the price for your urban hive. It has a mesh wiring that still allows worker bees to deliver their nectar to the queen. That same mesh wiring is too small however for the queen to fly through or for the drones to get in (drones the only purpose is to mate with virgin queens, so no need for them to get in).
If you opt to have one, you’ll also have an easier job in preventing the hive from swarming (more on that below).
How to Avoid Swarming with Backyard Beekeeping
Swarming is the great enemy of any urban beekeeper.
The good news is that swarming is far less scary than it looks.
Swarming is when your bees rush out of the hive (with the queen flying in tow) and wander off to find a new hive. If this is your first year beekeeping, then it is pretty unlikely the bees will do this. Bees swarm when there are too many bees for the small hive to support. So a portion of the hive will fly off with your queen in search of a new home, while a new queen is birthed for the colony.
Your neighbors might get freaked out if they see this huge swarm of bees drifting slowly into the sky. The good news is that swarming bees are extremely unlikely to sting anyone. Before bees take off into a swarm, they gorge themselves on honey to be well fed as they go off to create their new home. These full bellies make them sluggish and docile.
However, it is still a nightmare for you as a beekeeper if you have nothing set up in advance to handle the swarming. The last thing you want is to lose half of your hive you worked so hard on maintaining to the wilds beyond your reach.
There are a few things you can do to help prevent swarming, or minimize the damage:
- Clip the queen’s wings: If all the bees get up to leave and notice that their queen isn’t in the sky with them, they’ll return to the hive and refuse to leave. Bees are VERY loyal to their queen.
- Expand the hives: If you started off with a single hive, you might want to expand your operations. You can install another hive right next to the one you have and grow the operations. While a single large hive is going to produce more honey than two smaller hives, it is a way to prevent losing your bees to the swarm. Many beekeepers view this as a way to naturally double their honey production ability. While the extra equipment needed for the next hive will cost you some money, all the new bees are totally free.
- Re-queen once per year: Maybe expansion is not your thing. If you decide not to add an extra hive to the operation, then consider replacing the queen with a new queen every year. Young queens will have no inclination to swarm to a new home since they’re just getting started out. If you used a queen excluder, this is a pretty easy process as you just take out the old queen and place it in the new one. You might need to take some extra precautions though until the bees get used to the new queen in charge.
The Ultimate Urban Beekeeping Kit: Tools of the Trade
Whether you’re in the midst of a city or in a rural area full of nature, the toolsets of the would-be beekeeper don’t really change.
The same equipment that works in rural Missouri is going to do the same job in urban Chicago.
I’ve mentioned before that you can create most of the tools you need for beekeeping. However, since you’re just starting off, I really recommend just skipping that tedious process and buying the equipment brand new.
This makes sure you have high-quality gear and that you’re more prepared to handle your bees.
Let’s look at some of the tools that should be in your urban beekeeping kit:
Beekeeping Veils, Ventilated Suits and Gloves
Veils are meshed masks that help protect your face from the honey swarm. The last thing you want is some love stings on your cheeks. The ventilated beekeeper suit goes after the same concept in protecting the rest of your body. Also, the beekeeper suit is usually a bright white as this kind of bright color soothes bees more than darker colors do.
Most natural predators (like bears) are dark in color. This means bees are predisposed to be untrustworthy to anything that is a darker color. If you want to avoid being stung, dress in bright colors.
Finally, there are gloves typically made of out drill cloth or another material that slides past your hands up to your elbows. These are optional as if you use items like smokers, you typically don’t need to worry about your hands.
But again, since you’re just starting out, I would recommend getting a good pair of beekeeping gloves for your first go around.
Smokers are cheap and effective ways to check in on your hives or to harvest the honey. Basically, you light these up using some wood chips and they begin producing wisps of smoke. You place the smoker gently into the hive and your bees will think there is something awful happening.
This makes the bees gorge as much as possible on the honey they have, thinking they need to skip town quick, but ultimately just makes them fat and sluggish. Since their bellies are full, you can now open up the hive to check in on them to make sure they’re healthy or to start the honey collection process.
This is a pretty obvious thing you’ll need if you want to practice backyard beekeeping. There are plenty of different models out there to choose from and most are inexpensive.
Hives are usually a few feet tall and they’ll have several different frames that you install. These frames are where bees will create their supers and combs and will be eventually what you take out to harvest the honey.
Buy American Golden Italian Honeybees
These honeybees are better for people just starting out. They tend to be hardier in cold climates, thus making your bees survive the winter a much easier task.
They also tend to not swarm nearly as often as other honeybees, limiting a potentially hectic problem down the road for you. You can buy a pack of American Golden Italian Honeybees from several different places.
However, you will want to make sure you are buying them just before the start of summer. This way they’ll get to you in time and have enough time to populate the hive with plenty of honey for you to harvest at summer’s end.
We already talked about using a queen excluder, but just a friendly reminder… do yourself a favor and get one.
This will be incredibly helpful for you when you’re starting out. Later on when you’ve developed beekeeping skills, you can always choose to forego the queen excluder in favor of another method.
This is a small device used to help open up your hives. You can use a screwdriver too, but a hive tool only costs a few dollars and you reuse it over and over again for a multitude of hives.
I highly recommend adding this little item to your tool kit.
Honey extractors are my must-have items for beekeeping, whether in a city or rural area. At the end of the day, while I find the hobby of beekeeping to be a peaceful and meditative hobby… I still want the honey.
Honey extractors do exactly what their name suggests. You throw in the supers from the hive frames and the extractors will start the process of turning the honey into an edible form.
Make sure you have some mason jars to store all the honey you’ll be swimming in by summer’s end.
And… That’s It! Now Go Help the Environment and Feast on Honey!
You now know more than about 90% of the world when it comes to urban beekeeping… or really beekeeping in general.
It is an awesome hobby, whether you’re on a homestead or in a city. If you’re in a homestead scenario where you have a plot of land, you could turn a good beekeeping operation into a nice lucrative side hustle too.
There are so many products you can make using both honey, beeswax, and comb that you can create an entire business from it (and many have!)
Even if your space is limited in the city, consider making it into a side hustle. There is likely plenty of people that would be willing to buy your premium homemade honey.
After all, honey produced by urban bees is often purer than honey produced on farms and homesteads. This is because urban beekeeping is free of the pesticides and chemicals that often change the taste and flavor of the honey.
Ironically, your urban beekeeping efforts create the most organic kind of honey there is!
Now, go use your newfound backdoor beekeeping powers to help the environment with a thriving hive and enjoy all the honey you could ever desire! And don’t worry about your honey going bad. As long as you properly store the liquid gold, then honey can last forever.