Growing a successful garden is a huge accomplishment, earned with the toil and sweat of many hot days and long weekends. But for gardeners and homeowners looking for a different kind of challenge, it might be time to consider backyard bees. They can be great for the environment and very rewarding, if you take the time to do things right: Know beekeeping rules and regulations, choose the right location for your hives, and make sure you have the right habitat.
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Getting Ready for Bees
Bees are important pollinators in our environment, and they ensure that a huge range of crops and ornamental flowers successfully fruit and flourish. This means more food for ourselves and wildlife. They’ll also produce honey and beeswax, if you want to harvest those goods. But keeping bees also means that you may have to change how you think about your lawn and garden. Long before you start your first beehive, you may need to consider changes to the landscaping and environment.
“If you like the perfect lawn, beekeeping is not for you,” says Gail Karr, curator of special animal exhibits at the Memphis Zoo in Memphis, Tennessee. “Bees thrive on clover and other weeds which are eliminated if you have your lawn treated. Flowers that are attractive to pollinators are important to put in your landscape. Try to plant natives because they are adapted to the area and the bees and other pollinators will utilize them.”
However, just because your lawn shouldn’t be a field of perfectly manicured green doesn’t mean that you need a huge garden or a big space. Bees are small by comparison to other livestock.
“Beekeeping has a very light footprint, ” says Benjamin Powell, apiculture and pollinator specialist at Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina. “Honeybee colonies can be kept on relatively small properties, even in residential and urban landscapes with proper precautions. The presence of honey bees in the landscape is a net benefit to the community and the environment.”
Check with your city, county or municipality to find out what ordinances or restrictions are in place. Your town may have rules about how many hives you can keep, for example, and some communities prohibit beekeeping entirely. Check with the state to see if you have to register your hives or pay a fee.
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Considerations for Keeping Bees
There’s a lot to think about before you order your first box of bees. Many beekeepers are surprised to learn that bees are considered livestock, and it can take a lot of effort to keep them alive and thriving.
“Keeping bees is not an easy task,” says Eli Barkanov, owner of Eli the Bee Guy, a bee removal service in Ontario, California. “I like to say you are better off keeping five dogs than one beehive. It is recommended to check your beehive at least once or twice a week to make sure they are doing well and to seek out any issues that the bees might have, like starvation or disease. Also making sure your bees have enough water and places to forage helps.”
Another thing to remember is that just because you like bees doesn’t mean your neighbors do. In fact, if your home is located in a homeowner’s association (HOA), you may have to seek special permission from the board to keep bees before you even bother applying for a permit from your municipality.
“While honeybees can be kept without conflict in developments and neighborhoods, many HOAs and municipalities restrict livestock practices within their jurisdictions,” says Powell. “Because of the benefits beekeeping provides a community and the relatively light footprint, many communities are open to allowing the practice with stipulations. Some of the big cities have even passed beekeeping ordinances to allow limited beekeeping in the city.”
Keeping bees requires a financial investment, and the initial cost of beekeeping can be intimidating to new beekeepers. You will need to purchase supplies such as a hive, proper protective clothing, a smoker and hive tool. A single new hive may cost about $150, clothing and gear may cost about $160, and a package of new bees may run $125 to $150, according to the Old Farmer’s Almanac. To keep costs down, look for starter kits with bees, boxes and gear for a better combined price.
Other things to consider: Bees will sting. Depending on your location, overwintering your hive can be a challenge. Diseases, pesticides and parasites are the most common troubles that could threaten your hive.
Getting Ready for Your Queen
Just like planting the right landscaping ahead of your bee colony is important to ensure their long-term success, so is preparing yourself well before they arrive. You should have a network of beekeepers you can turn to for help, some working knowledge of how bees operate and what it looks like if you’re headed for trouble.
“Team up with a local or regional beekeepers association and learn from folks that are already in the beekeeping community,” says James M. Wilson, collegiate assistant professor in the Department of Entomology at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. “Fostering those connections and working with mentors is a great way to start off on the right foot.”
Bees need nectar and pollen. Make sure you have safe, natural sources, including trees and plants that flower at different times and that there is no heavy insecticide use around you. Be prepared to help feed the bees if natural sources are not available.
In addition, you need some place for your bees to live. According to Wilson, you can procure the basics from any decent bee supply company, as well as protective equipment, and books that will help you along your way. All of this is absolutely vital for success, he says.
“We want to make sure that we are setting the bees up for success, so having equipment assembled, painted, and a location prepped will help you to install your new package or nucleus colony of bees and let them get right to work,” says Wilson. “They have a big job to do to get ready for their first winter, so we do not want to slow them down at all.”
Placing Your Hives
Where you put your hive is just as important as having your hive long before your bees. If you place it wrong at the start, you’ll struggle to keep your bees behaving and out of harm’s way.
“Important factors for bees are early morning sun in the spring, windbreaks, good air and water drainage, and nearby forage and water sources,” says Wilson. “Next, think about what having more bees in your area will look like. Will you need to interrupt the flight path of the bees to make sure they don’t forage straight out into a popular public park at ankle height? Will the fact that people can see your hives lead to many blaming any wasp or bee sting on your bees?”
Every property and neighborhood is different, but Powell offers some best management tips for setting up bees where they belong. First, he says, it’s important to establish setbacks for your bees.
“European races of honey bees are generally not defensive beyond 20 feet from the hive unless they are jostled or disturbed. Hives should be placed at least 20 feet from property lines with the entrance facing away from the adjacent property.”
He also believes that keeping multiple colonies is vital to success. For beginning beekeepers, Powell recommends two to three colonies, depending on the available setbacks. Finally, it’s important to control the flight path of your bees if you’ve got neighbors in close proximity.
“When foraging and conducting orientation flights, bees will leave the hive at the elevation where people walk,” says Powell. “Placing dense vegetation of fencing around the hive forces bees to fly up and above pedestrians and neighbors.”
The Rewards of Bee Hives
Getting started with bees that takes a great deal of planning and preparation, but at the end of it all, you’ve got bees, which is a pretty cool thing to have hanging around your own garden and landscaping.
“It is a learning experience,” says Karr. “There will be great years where your bees thrive, and gallons of honey are produced. There will be bad years where hives will be lost and there is nothing to show but an infestation of wax moths in your frames or hive beetle slime ruining your whole hive. It is a challenge with the continual climate change and invasive pests. The reward is seeing bees in your flowers heading back to the hive weighed down with pollen for the baby bees and knowing that you may make a difference in your small corner of the world.”
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What to Know About Keeping Backyard Bees originally appeared on usnews.com