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Suburban Bees: How to Keep Bees in Residential Areas

 

By Frank Mortimer
 

Backyard beekeeping is increasing in popularity, leading to more people having honey bees as their next-door neighbors. According to the 2017 American Housing Survey, about 52 percent of people in the United States describe their neighborhood as suburban, while only 27 percent describe their neighborhood as urban, and 21 percent as rural. This means that new beekeepers are likely to live in a suburban neighborhood. Additionally, since a typical Langstroth hive only requires a few square feet, almost every backyard has more than enough space for a hive, so just about anyone with a yard could potentially keep bees. 

To successfully keep bees in suburbia does require more than just the physical space for the hives, as keeping bees in close proximity to people has its own set of guidelines that should be followed. First, before you even purchase bees or equipment, you should check to see if there are any community/city/country/state laws where you live that pertain to keeping bees. The laws may say whether or not you can keep bees, dictate how many hives you are allowed to have, and specify how far away the hives can be placed from property lines. The laws are put into place both to protect the beekeeper and also to protect the public. Familiarizing yourself with the laws makes it easier for you to enjoy your hobby and its sweet rewards.

Photo by Frank Mortimer

Build a good relationship with your neighbors

If you’re going to keep bees in your backyard, being a good neighbor is key. A general rule of thumb is that if you’re on good terms with your neighbors before you get bees, then they’ll be just as excited as you are about your new hobby. But, if you’re on bad terms with your neighbor(s), then getting bees is like pouring gasoline on an open fire. The best thing to do is ask yourself, “What do my neighbors think of me?” If you’re honest with yourself and your answer is not positive, then write down a list of things that you can do to be a better neighbor, otherwise it may be a constant struggle for you and your bees. 

Establish an open line of communication with your neighbors. Give them your phone number and encourage them to call anytime they have any questions, or if any issues arise, such as concerns about stings or if a swarm of bees bivouacs in their yard. Rather than letting them panic, it’s better if they call so that you can be a good bee neighbor and take care of the situation before it gets out of hand. Whenever you’re speaking with your neighbors, always ask about any concerns they might have and address each one to the best of your ability. If you don’t know the answer to any of their questions, you can always get back to them after you’ve found the answer by asking more experienced beekeepers in your area, or by searching trusted sources such as the Cornell Pollinator Network Resources page. Last, remember that it’s always a good idea to utilize the beekeeper’s irresistible “superpower,” by giving jars of honey to each of your neighbors. Once they taste pure, local honey, they may likely become one of your biggest fans and be sweet on having bees—and free honey—close by. 

Educate your neighbors about bees and pollination

Educating people about bees is important, as the non-beekeeping public often thinks that honey bees, yellowjackets, wasps, and hornets are all flying, sting-machines that love to make pincushions out of every human they see. Too often when someone finds out that you keep bees, they’re thinking about the old Bugs Bunny cartoons where all the bees come out of the hive and form a giant mallet to clobber people into the ground. Therefore, it’s a good idea to educate your neighbors about honey bee behavior and explain why they don’t have to worry. Key points that you can mention include the following:

  1. Having bees next door will not increase the number of bees in their yard
    • Honey bees travel great distances to collect food. They routinely visit flowers up to 3 miles from their hive. Bees also tend to cruise at altitudes of 30 feet and higher, well above the space that people occupy.
    • One yard does not have nearly enough flowers to support a honey bee colony. Around two million flowers are needed to make a single pound of honey, and colonies can make upwards of 100 pounds when conditions are good.
    • Flowers have a finite amount of nectar and pollen, so regardless of where a hive is located, bees will only visit someone’s yard when the flowers are inviting them with nectar and pollen.
    • Bees get all of their food from plants. They are not scavengers or hunters like other insects. Yellowjackets, on the other hand, are attracted to sugary sodas and some picnic foods.
       
  2. Honey bees are typically gentle insects.
    • Honey bees only sting when provoked, and most stocks that suburban beekeepers keep have been bred for gentleness. 
    • Honey bees die when they sting, so they only use their stinger when needed. This can happen if they are swatted, stepped on, or if their hive is disturbed. 

Since a lot of people call any striped insect that flies a “bee,” it is a good idea to teach people the differences between honey bees and wasps, especially since most people get stung by yellowjackets. The more people know about honey bees, the less likely you and your bees will get blamed any time someone gets stung. Explain that the honey bee’s stinger is barbed like a fishhook, causing bees to die when they sting. A yellowjacket’s stinger, on the other hand, is smooth like a doctor’s syringe, allowing yellowjackets to sting repeatedly and often. It’s also good to point out that honey bees never live in a hole in the ground, or in any paper-looking nest, especially a ball-shaped one hanging from a tree. Another easy way to get people to remember the difference between the two is pointing out that honey bees are fuzzy (covered in hair) and brown, while yellowjackets are practically hairless, look smooth and shiny, and are yellow and black in color. 

Additionally, talk with people about all the trees, flowers, fruits, nuts, and vegetables that depend on honey bees for pollination. Explaining to people that having bees around will help their yards to look better and their vegetable gardens grow is the fastest way to get people to welcome your bees to the neighborhood. 

Set up your apiary in a location that minimizes complaints

Once you’re on good terms with your neighbors, the next important aspect to backyard beekeeping is to assess your yard as an apiary. The general suggestions of where to place your hives, such as facing hives south and on dry, flat ground, still apply. But if you have neighbors close by, there are additional best practices you must also follow. First, it’s a good idea to think about how non-beekeepers will be using your yard. While a south-facing hive is best, you also have to think about what will be happening 10-15 feet in front of your hives. One way to visualize the bees’ flight path is to stand where you’re thinking of putting your hives and spraying a hose 10 feet, 15 feet, even 20 feet in front of you. What are the chances of someone, or something, getting wet? What kind of foot traffic does that area of the yard get? It is equally as important to think about how your neighbors use their yard, so it is not a good idea to put a hive directly on a property line. Instead, place your hives ten feet or more from the property line. Make sure there is a fence around your hives or yard to keep any inquisitive neighbors from accidently getting too close to your hives or walking into the bees’ flight path. Another way to keep bees and people out of one another’s way is to use a flight barrier: tall bushes, the side of your garage or shed, or anything else that forces the bees to immediately fly up into the air and away from people.

It’s also important to provide your bees with water on your property so they don’t make a neighbor’s pool, dog bowl, air conditioner, birdbath, koi pond, or other water source their own. Keep a water source within fifteen feet of your hive(s) year-round, so that they orient on the source you have provided for them before any scout bees find water sources in a neighbor’s yard.

Be considerate when expanding

If you are just starting out, most reputable beekeeping sources will recommend starting with two hives. Having two hives for your first few years will help you to learn the art and science of beekeeping, while providing you with the proper amount of experience and resources needed to successfully keep healthy bees. However, after a few years, many beekeepers want to expand and keep more than two hives. In suburbia, your lot size will dictate how many hives you can realistically and safely keep on your property. Generally, the best practice to follow is no more than three colonies on any lot of one-quarter acre or less (not counting nucs). Then, for every additional one-quarter of an acre, add another three hives. So one-half acre could have up to six hives, three-quarters acre could have up to nine hives, and a one acre lot could have up to twelve hives. Additionally, keeping one nuc for every two hives is also acceptable. Regardless of the size of your property, it is much more important to always expand slowly, over time, by adding one or two hives per year. Expanding too quickly in a populated neighborhood could lead to severe, unwanted bee-people interactions, which is one reason why expanding slower is better. Also, if and when you are ready to expand, rather than overloading your backyard with too many hives, another option could be to find other yards close by to keep some of your hives. You may find people in your community that don’t want to care for bees, but for just a share of the honey, would welcome having your hives on their property.

Prevent swarming

Keeping bees in a residential area means that some aspects of beekeeping are of greater concern than if you kept bees in the rural, undeveloped, countryside. For example, while all beekeepers try to prevent swarming, this practice is critical in populated communities. In a typical neighborhood, if your bees swarm, they will likely bivouac in a neighbor’s yard. Unlike most beekeepers’ reaction to seeing a swarm, most non-beekeepers are horrified to see tens of thousands of bees bounce through the sky until they congregate to form a big buzzing ball in someone’s backyard! Therefore, it is the suburban beekeeper’s responsibly to do everything in his/her power to prevent swarms. This includes the following practices: 

  • Provide additional hive bodies and supers in a timely manner as colonies grow or collect honey, giving each colony plenty of room to expand.
  • Split strong hives. 
  • Expand the broodnest by placing alternating frames of empty drawn comb between the existing frames of the brood nest.
  • Requeen often with young queens.

Address issues promptly

There is an old beekeeper’s saying, “the bees never read the beekeeping books,” which is a reminder to expect the unexpected. Even with the best intentions, sometimes things don’t go according to plan, even for the experienced beekeeper. If you’re going to keep bees with neighbors close by, then you should proactively think about what could go wrong and be prepared to deal with it immediately. 

Be prepared to catch swarms

Since swarming is a natural behavior for honey bees, it’s always best to be prepared ahead of time in the event that your bees do swarm. Prepare a box or tote full of swarm catching gear in early spring, and keep it somewhere handy for the entire beekeeping season. Being prepared to catch a swarm will mean that you’re not scrambling to find everything you need. Instead, you’ll be ready to retrieve it at a moment’s notice, long before it creates any problems or ill will. 

Photo by Frank Mortimer

Have a backup beekeeper on call

It’s also good to have a backup beekeeper, perhaps a buddy from your beekeeping club, that you can call on if needed. If you’re planning on going out of town for more than a week or two, ask him or her to check on your hives while you’re gone. Or, if a neighbor contacts you with a problem while you’re away, your buddy can check on your bees and address the issue. Be sure to offer the same kindness when your buddy is out of town.

Deter unwelcome mammals in your neighborhood

Bears can be devastating predators to honey bee colonies, especially in many parts of the northeastern US. If there have been bear sightings in your region within the past ten years, then you should install a bear electric fence the moment you set up your apiary. It is best to do this proactively instead of as a response to a bear attack. Just as you checked to see if there were any laws that pertained to keeping bees, you should first confirm that it’s legal to install a bear fence where you live. Otherwise, you should find another apiary to keep your bees. 

Skunks, raccoons, and voles also like to eat bees and other materials in the hive. To identify these attacks, look for damaged equipment, scratches or muddy footprints at the hive entrances, and chewed bees on the ground in front of the hive. In addition to using electric fences to keep large mammals out, beekeepers can also elevate their hives on stands at least one foot off the ground to deter these animals from entering the hives. 

Reduce the likelihood of stings

It is very important that suburban beekeepers prioritize acquiring only gentle bee stock. It is important to stay away from any stocks that are overly-defensive so that you, your family, and your neighbors can all enjoy being outdoors. If you find your bees are more defensive than you would like, you should requeen your colony as quickly as possible. Buying queens and nucs locally will also help ensure you’re getting bees that will thrive in your geographic area and climate. 

Additionally, it’s important to remember that gentle colonies can become defensive if they are being predated. If any mammals or robbers are using your hive as a snack cabinet, then your bees may become defensive. Similarly, bees can also become overly defensive when a beekeeper is not using adequate smoke during inspections and, as a result, the beekeeper is squishing bees when manipulating equipment. Smoke masks alarm pheromone and keep bees calm. Going into a hive without having a smoker can be irresponsible, as it can cause a colony to become increasingly more defensive. All beekeepers should smoke their bees as needed, and for the suburban beekeeper, the use of a smoker is strongly encouraged. 

Prevent robbing

Issues can arise when bees’ robbing instincts are engaged. Robbing is a detrimental behavior because it can spread parasites and diseases among colonies, can significantly weaken or kill small colonies, and can be an alarming sight to behold for passersby. If all the nectar sources have dried up and a colony is low on food, it is essential that suburban beekeepers take precautions for robbing behavior. In northeastern states like New York, robbing tends to happen most often during dearth periods in mid July, late September, and October. There are many things a suburban beekeeper can do to prevent and manage robbing. First, they could feed sugar syrup only in feeders that are inside a hive. Boardman (entrance) feeders and open containers of syrup can trigger a robbing response, attracting bees to the area and creating a frenzy. Second, they should be careful not to spill any sugar syrup or drip unripened nectar outside of the hive during a dearth. If they do, they should clean it up immediately. Third, they can install entrance reducers or robbing screens on smaller or weaker colonies to help prevent robbers from entering. Forth, honey supers should be removed before the nectar dearth, remain covered until brought inside for extraction, and never left unattended in the apiary. Last, all honey extraction should take place inside, in a bee-tight room. After extraction, wet honey supers should be placed temporarily back on the hives beneath the outer cover for the bees to clean. It is recommended to avoid placing uncovered, wet supers out in the open, as this encourages robbing activity.

There are potentially other scenarios that could possibly arise that would also require you to respond. Your primary responsibility as a suburban beekeeper will be to always act quickly and resolve any issue before it becomes a major concern. 

A fence forces bees to fly upward upon exiting the hive. Photo by Frank Mortimer.

Ensure your bees do not spread parasites and diseases to other honey bees and wild bees

Today, Varroa mites are the single greatest threat to honey bee colonies throughout the world, and controlling mites in a densely populated area is even a greater necessity because one colony’s health can impact so many others. With suburban America’s rise of backyard beekeeping, one person’s bees are likely to come in contact with another beekeeper’s bees. Bees routinely travel up to three miles from their hive, and if you plotted all the suburban beekeepers on a map and drew three-mile radius around each of their hives, it would be easy to see the overlap of everyone’s bees. Keeping bees in suburbia means that your honey bee management decisions impact the health of your own colonies, as well as that of your fellow beekeepers’. 

Apivar strip in a hive to control Varroa. Photo by Frank Mortimer

If you live in a suburban neighborhood, it is critical to maintain low levels of mites throughout the entire year. If you are new to monitoring and treating Varroa, a great resource is Cornell University’s IPM Guide for Varroa Control. If colonies are left unmanaged and ultimately collapse from Varroa, healthy colonies within a three-mile radius may rob the collapsing colonies and bring mites back to their hives. Researchers are also beginning to learn that bees from collapsing colonies will actively leave their hive and will drift into nearby, healthy colonies, bringing their mites with them. In areas with many colonies, these “mite bombs” can pose a big threat to healthy colonies. A spike in mite populations from “mite bombs” will most likely happen after fall treatments end (typically September, October, and November in the northeast), so many times the beekeepers who thought their colonies were mite-free and ready for winter actually end up with an after-treatment surge of mites. Just like it is important that every person gets vaccinated to keep the entire population safe, in residential areas, it is equally important for every beekeeper to manage their mite populations and use USDA-approved treatments to keep mite counts low in their colonies.

Honey bees infected with certain viruses and Nosema ceranae can also pass these pathogens to wild bees that visit the same flowers. If your honey bees are sick, you may inadvertently put wild pollinator communities at risk. Part of being a responsible beekeeper means making sure your bees do not pose a threat to the environment.

Properly dispose of waste

It is important for suburban beekeepers to keep their yards clean and properly dispose of all beekeeping waste and hive by-products. Burr comb, broken equipment, and old wax should be sealed in garbage bags (to prevent robbing) and placed in garbage bins. Hive feeders and syrup containers should be rinsed out so any sugar residue is washed away. It is important that your apiary is not attracting any pests like wasps, rodents, or skunks. By keeping your bee area clean, you will ensure that no unwanted critters move in.

Join a local beekeeping club

The best thing you can do to ensure that you’re being a good beekeeper is to join your local beekeeping club. A club will connect you with experienced beekeepers that can help you become a better beekeeper and offer advice on keeping bees in your community. By joining a club, you will also be able to find a beekeeping friend who could help you when you need it, and perhaps look after your colonies while you’re out of town. Regardless of how much you know, there is always so much to learn about bees and beekeeping, which is why having a network of other beekeepers in your area is so important. Beekeeping clubs can keep you up-to-date on the latest research, the best USDA-approved mite treatments to use in your area, and provide you with a community that is always willing to talk about bees. 

Backyard beekeeping is an enjoyable and rewarding pastime. It’s something the whole family can do together, or something you can do by yourself for a few moments of solitude. Having bees in your backyard means that you can grab a cup of coffee and head outside to hang with your colonies and watch your bees busy at work. There are a few extra requirements for keeping bees in suburbia, but the underlying theme and golden rule of suburban beekeeping is to respect your neighbors, your bees, and your environment.

The author discussing equipment with his bee club members. Photo by Frank Mortimer